Sightlines - April 2013
Superyacht owners spawn the creation of special little boats.
Every once in a while we get a call from some dreamer wanting to build a small custom boat. I personally love small boats and jump at any chance I can get to create a work of art that is unique to the genre. Design is at its very best when applied to something small, narrowly defined, and appealing to an audience of one. Although there are many true boat lovers who dream of building custom boats, few can imagine the real costs, let alone afford them. The fact is design fees alone will likely exceed the cost of just buying a production boat. After gawking at the spectacular 31-foot Van Dam Alpha Z at boat shows in the late 1990s, admirers would guess at her obviously astonishing price, “I’ll bet that beauty cost $100,000!” Well guess again. We once informed a serious inquirer that it would cost more than $1.5 million to replicate her. He very quietly hung up the phone without uttering a word. I think he was afraid we were already accessing his bank account. Custom boats are not for the faint-hearted.
The only people we have ever found who can afford a small custom boat are those who can also afford a big one. Clients looking to spend big money on a small boat have been few and far between historically, and in more than 30 years our office has had only five clients for custom boats under 80 feet. But recently we have seen a new category of client emerging. Instead of the usual dreamers, we now get calls from captains and project managers representing super-wealthy clients looking for something special, but small, to keep aboard their megayachts. While many large yachts house Novurania RIBs, Chris-Craft launches, or Riva runabouts, these production boats seem quite pedestrian and don’t quite cut it for the bespoke crowd. The small craft they seek are not just for utility, but are also for showing off and that demands that they be special. While the megayacht may be spectacular, it is also quite untouchable, and sometimes so big it must be berthed in a commercial port. But the tenders arrive quayside and are the yacht’s emissary to the public’s eyes. So it is not enough that these boats fit precisely within the hull side and support the needs of the owner and crew, they must also match the quality, attention to detail, and even styling of the host yacht.
While the rest of the small-boat world continues to struggle, these one-of-a-kind little boats are enjoying a resurgence thanks to these clients. These guys are not so easily spooked by $1.5 million-plus prices. With budgets that often exceed $100 to $200 million for the overall yacht project, the custom tenders are simply seen as rounding errors by comparison. It is no longer enough to just have the biggest yacht, now they must compete to outdo each other with a flotilla of custom tenders and launches.
Within the last two years our office has designed three custom tenders for Hodgdon Yachts, including both a 10.5M limousine tender and a 9.5M open sportboat for the 86-meter Oceanco Seven Seas. At the 2011 Monaco Boat Show, Tim Hodgdon and I enjoyed a short ride around the harbor in a limo tender feeling like we were in a Rolls-Royce, replete with leather seating, perfect mahogany detailing, and a telescoping roof. Last year we designed a beautiful 8M Van Dam mahogany runabout for the 62-meter motoryacht Faith. The boat was designed, built, and delivered to the yacht 12 months after an initial call from the owner’s agent. For a new-construction, 150-meter yacht that requires four large tenders overall, we are currently designing two more tenders for Hodgdon, including a 12.5M limousine with a retractable hardtop. Stacked aboard megayachts like Russian dolls, small bespoke boats are suddenly in demand by these owners.
For the superbly skilled builders like Van Dam and Hodgdon, as well as designers like myself, it’s great to have clients that can afford these things and keep the art of small boats alive. And for all of us who dream of a custom mahogany runabout someday, just keep in mind that the current replacement cost of an Alpha Z is around $2 million. So just keep on dreaming.
This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.