One thing is certain: Trends in yacht design come and go, and the most innovative don’t always survive.
What will the next 20 years bring?
Everyone likes to speculate about the future, so we asked ourselves, “What lies ahead for boat design?”
Boats of all sizes challenge naval architects and stylists to adapt whatever accommodations buyers want to the impossibly restrictive shapes of a hydrodynamically sound hull. The larger the boat, the easier the process, especially if the design team wants the aesthetics to attract a large number of buyers. In spite of the growing number of experiments in styling and the shape of the water plane, we may safely assume that the boldest adventures in design will remain on the fringe.
Although highly individualistic designs attract a great deal of attention, fueled in part by the yachting press, one person’s ideal is another’s anathema. A perfect example of this theory is the 112-foot QED, designed in 1937 by Dutch aircraft magnate Anthony Fokker and naval architect William Atkin. Launched in 1938, her exterior styling presaged the elliptically shaped superstructures that have gained so much popularity during the past 20-odd years. She displaced 70 tons, and her propulsion package totaling 2,000 horsepower, divided among a centrally located diesel flanked by two air-cooled aircraft engines, gave her a top speed of 26 knots.
At her launching, Fokker said, “I wish to prove that my ship, by introducing new principles, will revolutionize and give new impetus to the shipbuilding industry … I hope it will be obsolete within two years. That is the way we build airplanes. No sooner do we complete them than they are obsolete. That is good. That is progress. Today there are too many yachts that outlive their owners … .” Remember, he said this in 1938.
Like it or not, periodic obsolescence is a business strategy employed by many boatbuilders. It’s the best way to sell new boats and to reduce the competition from used boats of the same brand. A bold design also is a good way to establish a niche in the market.
Luca Bassani, founder of Wally Yachts, certainly didn’t set out to join the throng. The WallyPower 118, launched in 2002, set tongues wagging and building her took a great deal of courage and confidence.
“Wally was a late player coming into the powerboat market,” Bassani said, “and I thought we needed to give a strong signal to show our presence. That’s why the WallyPower was born.” Bassani and his design team had already established a new look for sailing yachts—flush and uncluttered deck, plumb stem, and the popular afterdeck called a “terrace on the sea.” This styling set a fire under the industry and spawned a lot of imitators. The WallyPower 118’s aesthetic impact created a handful of offspring. Will the style set a trend?
“We already did,” Bassani said. “Few examples: all the players of this market are claiming their paternity on the vertical bow, on the cockpit, on the foredeck, on the aft platforms as terrace on the sea, on the clean and uncluttered style of their interiors and exteriors ... But all these and many more innovations were introduced by Wally and now copied by all the naval designers and shipyards.”
In spite of the imitators, Wally’s sharp-edge minimalist styling and high performance probably won’t become the norm, but I like the stir these designs have caused. Another decade of production ought to reveal this style’s resilience, but I’ll wager that the majority of yachtsmen will eventually continue to embrace the touchy-feely appeal of less intense designs.
“My test of a good design,” Michael Peters, of Michael Peters Yacht Design, said, “is if someone finds a run-down old boat and spends time and money to restore it.” And use it, of course. Peters proved his point by revealing that he’s restored a Bertram 20 and a 25 for him and his family to use. (See Sightlines, November 2014.)
Experimental designs have the best chance of propagating in the rarified world of superyachts. This segment of the market pays far less attention to the ease of construction, cost to the owner, and need to appeal to the masses. It focuses, instead, on a yachtsman’s wish to have a showpiece—make a statement. Peters refers to this as “flamboyant expression,” and said the need to have something that differs from the competition has now filtered down to production boats.
In fact, establishing a brand identity via bold statements is most important for builders of production boats, because their market is so crowded, compared with that for series-produced superyachts and one-off designs. During the past 25 years or so, boatbuilders and their design teams have leaned heavily on automotive themes, especially in the superstructure. As styling trends go, this one has caught on and produced a wide variety of treatments, most of which mimic the severely sweptback windshield and elliptical roofline that we see on Jaguar, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Audi, Corvette, and Bentley coupes at the high end, and nowadays on nearly every compact sedan from Honda, Ford, Kia, Hyundai, Chevrolet, and the rest. These shapes improve aerodynamic efficiency—the main goal—but they also add to the car’s aesthetic appeal.
“Auto styling is accessible,” Peter Buescher said. He’s a design engineer at Donald L. Blount and Associates Inc., naval architects and marine engineers, and he worked on the stunning 125-foot sport-yacht design concept shown above left. By the term accessible, he means that the public understands automotive styling cues because they are a part of everyday life. Although these elements work best on boats of 50 feet to more than 100 feet of LOA, designers have successfully adapted them to shorter boats—but with an important caveat.
“We have to design everything to be easy to build,” Bill Prince said. His Bill Prince Yacht Design draws custom and production boats, so he knows that, in addition to the prospective customers’ taste, the ease of construction limits how radical a boat can be. Any design that’s difficult and time-consuming to build in large numbers can’t be priced low enough to compete in its market segment and still earn a profit for the manufacturer. Compound glazing (complexly curved glass) and big windows in the topsides are two ways designers add a dramatic contemporary aesthetic without unduly increasing the cost of production. “There’s a greater proportion of glass to fiberglass [gelcoat],” Prince said. Even a casual turn around the boat show will reinforce his statement.
Prince also pointed out the polarization between traditional and contemporary design in production boats. The conservative New England style—in most cases loosely based on working Maine lobster boats—has influenced quite a large number of new boats during the past 70-odd years. Prince agreed that this style won’t ever go away, because it’s grounded in stories of superb seakeeping ability and honest, worthy use. Peters and Buescher agreed.
Many other factors, though, influence styling. One of the most important ones has been customer’s demand for a single-level main deck, from the transom through the saloon to the inside helm. This arrangement reduces the danger of moving around the boat while it’s under way. It also immeasurably improves socializing among guests and owners. When a designer draws a single-level main deck, he often has to increase the hull’s freeboard to make adequate headroom on the lower deck and raise the superstructure’s profile to get good headroom in the saloon. Carelessly handled, these compromises may create a mediocre look.
On rare occasions, the shape of the water plane determines the styling above the waterline. In the middle 1990s, Dave Gerr, of Gerr Marine, designed a planing 44-foot express yacht on a relatively narrow V-shape bottom. She was fast, economical, seakindly, and handsome, but prospective customers objected to the lack of interior volume. Bill Prince, too, thinks that narrow is good. He told me that one way to make a narrow hull acceptable to the buyer is to extend the boat’s LOA. If the goal is to provide the interior volume of a comfortable 38-footer, draw an efficient 45-footer.
At the extreme end of this thinking is John Shuttleworth’s 42.5-meter trimaran Adastra. His goal of designing an easily driven yacht that’s reasonably fast and outrageously economical turned into an aesthetic delight. For my money, Adastra is beyond beautiful. Shuttleworth has described her as his “design Everest.” It is the yacht he would have designed for himself. At a cruising speed of 12 knots, she uses a seventh of the fuel that a semi-displacement monohull of comparable length and displacement uses. She’s able to travel halfway around the world without refueling but still has a top speed of 23.5 knots.
“If this boat could change attitudes,” Shuttleworth has said, “that would be great.”
This is one of the insurmountable problems that discourage radical changes in yacht design. Getting the public to accept the restraints on interior volume and the yacht’s appetite for heavyweight equipment is, indeed, an Everest. Even Prince’s and Gerr’s modest proposals are difficult to sell.
Peters said that the last major breakthrough in powerboat naval architecture was Ray Hunt’s deep-V. Drawn in the 1960s and continually modified to suit specific performance criteria, this waterplane has formed the basis for about 90 percent of the boats currently on the market, and Peters doesn’t see any reason this should end. “The deep-V,” he said, “is the best all-around hull form.”
Although Peters thinks that yacht designers no longer have any new real problems to solve, primarily because the function of a yacht hasn’t changed, the quest for speed, fuel efficiency, and comfortable motion, as Shuttleworth sees it, simply requires a massive social upheaval.
The answer to the question of what lies ahead for yacht design? Maybe many of us won’t see those trends and in the end, it’s really up to you.
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.