I am walking down the quay at the megayacht marina in Genoa, Italy. I see a big, white trideck. And a big, white trideck. And a big, white trideck.
And a big... gold... performance cruiser?
A 150-footer, to be exact, painted "champagne" with black accents--even the liferaft canisters and radar domes. She’s a sexy beast that seems shockingly vibrant docked alongside the traditional motoryachts and makes me stop and stammer the way I might upon encountering a Lamborghini in a parking lot full of Cadillacs.
And here’s the kicker: She’s an American build. Standing out like a supermodel in the European crowd.
You go, girl, I think as I step onboard.
That’s exactly what Mike Kelsey, Jr., sitting in his office halfway across the world, has wanted me to think since he started building boats like this a few years ago in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.
Palmer Johnson is a name that has been associated with boating since 1918 and specifically with yacht building since 1928. For a long time it built the type of motoryachts that most other American yards build: classic white tridecks. But a few years ago, amid an ownership shakeup, Kelsey, the company’s president, decided to take a different tack. Palmer Johnson launched the 120-foot express cruiser Cover Drive in 2004, inaugurating an era in which the builder would become as well-known for sexy speedsters as Oscar de la Renta is for style.
It’s a decision that has paid off in sales, both when the dollar was strong and now that it is weak against the euro (in which Palmer Johnson’s main competitors deal). "We made a very conscious decision to not build the same yacht that we and every other builder in America were building at the time," Kelsey says, "and by doing that, in one day, we eliminated the competition that we had in America. We went from competing with at least nine yards to competing with only a handful of European yards, primarily Codecasa, Heesen, Baglietto, and Mangusta. From a business standpoint, that was a key decision, not to have to be the low bidder in a group of umpteen shipyards just to get the work." The proof, as they say, is in the numbers: Hull No. 7 in the 120 line will launch before the end of this year, soon to be followed by Hull No. 4 of the 135 model. After them will come Hull Nos. 5 and 6 of the 150 series, which includes the eye candy I found in Europe, called Hokulani. She’s the second in that line and the first to be offered for charter--having entered the market fully booked for primetime July and August 2008 vacations in the Western Mediterranean at A 175,000 per week, or nearly $300,000, given the exchange rate at this writing. And that was before anyone had even seen her outside the United States, where her charter-management company, International Yacht Collection, is based.
"This hasn’t been offered before, but the 120s that are in charter have done excellent," Kelsey told me, adding that the clientele has been just as varied as the people purchasing these boats. "We thought we knew, when we started building the sport yacht, what our demographic was. We were happily proven completely dead wrong. We have had owners who are 70 years old. Multiple female owners. Young and old, from all walks of life. When you see an exotic sports car coming at you, it’s not always a 35-year-old with the right sunglasses driving it. More often than not, it’s white hair blowing in the wind." Hokulani was not originally intended to go into charter, Capt. Egon Viljoen told me as we sat in the pilothouse. Because of that, the crew quarters are tight, the dining tables don’t all seat 12 guests (which the yacht sleeps if you include Pullman berths), and there’s no hot tub, which is a feature nearly always demanded onboard charter yachts this size. There are also more stairs to be traversed than on tridecks the same size, including a ten-tread passageway that leads down to Hokulani’s day head.
Even still, Viljoen knew his command would be a standout before the charter brokers in Italy, so much so that he had a pirate flag flying proudly from Hokulani’s bow during the industry-only Genoa charter show, which he said he and his crew had "come to steal." "We know we’re part of an epoch-making boat," he explains. "People will always remember this boat as helping to set a new standard. Charterers are getting more sophisticated. They know that on a boat like ours, they can be at anchor well before the crowd and be gone while the big boats are still beating along."
That’s thanks to Hokulani’s 18- to 24-knot cruising speed, which her progressive semidisplacement hull handles beautifully, according to every crewmember I asked. She has stabilizers, but not today’s popular zero-speeds in this size range--and she reportedly doesn’t need them, based on the seakeeping ability the captain and crew have experienced thus far.
This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.