x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Setting sail in style: super yachts in the UAE

Despite being the preserve of oligarchs and billionaires, the luxury-yacht industry wasn’t immune from the global financial downturn. But, as Nick Leech finds, things are certainly looking up for the none-more-glamorous sector in 2014, as the UAE, which is now one of the world’s top super-yacht-building nations, prepares for next month’s Dubai International Boat Show.

Showboating: More than 840 international brands from 50 countries came together at last year’s Dubai International Boat Show. Pawan Singh / The National
Showboating: More than 840 international brands from 50 countries came together at last year’s Dubai International Boat Show. Pawan Singh / The National

Next month, Middle Eastern royalty will gather alongside the rich, the aspirational and the plain inquisitive at the Dubai International Marine Club for the 22nd edition of the Dubai International Boat Show (DIBS), the largest, oldest and best-attended event in the region’s maritime calendar. Last year, DIBS hosted more than 840 international brands from 50 countries, showcased 30 premier launches and welcomed more than 26,000 visitors, including 5,000 VIPs – and there’s plenty more to celebrate this year. Not only does the yacht market finally appear to be recovering after its recent buffeting by the global financial crisis, but, for the first time, the UAE now features at number nine on a list of the world’s top 10 super-yacht-building nations, according to the recently released 2014 Global Order Book, an annual report by the Boat International group.

Remarkably, the UAE has a single yard to thank for its appearance on the chart. Gulf Craft is an Ajman-based company that currently has 15 yachts under construction, measuring 515 metres in overall length – an order book that also makes the company the 10th-busiest super-yacht manufacturer in the world. It’s an achievement of which Erwin Bamps, Gulf Crafts’ chief operating officer, is justifiably proud.

“The biggest challenges we have had to overcome is the prejudice associated with ‘made in the Middle East’. The idea of the UAE as a super-yacht-manufacturing country is still new to most people,” the Belgian explains.

“We want to create a legacy, to show the world the practical entrepreneurship and engineering that’s prevalent in the Middle East, and to show the world that we can build a home-grown brand and sell it to one of the most demanding client bases in the world.”

Gulf Craft manufactures semi-custom boats at its four yards that range in price from Dh100,000 to Dh90 million. To achieve this, it has 1,700 employees, all of whom work in-house. Gulf Crafts is a vertically integrated operation, something that provides the company with its competitive edge, but which is not without its attendant issues.

“When you are a semi-custom builder, you have to sell the project first and then build to order from scratch. That’s not a production-line model. We’re more like a construction company than a manufacturing company,” Bamps explains. “First we appear as a consultancy company. Then we become a construction company and then, when we deliver our yachts, we become a hospitality company. That makes this one of the most complex businesses to be in, because even though you may think of yourself as a construction company, the client sees you as the manager of a five-star hotel.”

The similarities with five-star hotels don’t end once the yacht is delivered, however, and as any hotel manager or ship’s captain will tell you, a yacht (or hotel), regardless of its size or spec, is only ever as “super” as its crew. In the case of the very largest super yachts, a captain may eventually be in charge of a €100m (Dh500.9m) business with anything up to 60 members of crew. Maintaining such an investment is a responsibility that many yacht owners, quite understandably, are keen to outsource.

“Captains and crew are becoming business managers; they are in the entertainment industry,” explains Gregor Stinner, the chief executive of Dubai’s Art Marine. “It’s all very well for us to sell our clients a yacht, but if the yacht isn’t used in the right way, then there’s no pleasure in it for the client.”

Not only does Art Marine sell yachts, representing companies such as Riva, Itama and CRN, but it also provides operational training for yacht crews and a yacht valet service that includes everything from arranging fresh flowers to emptying the bilges and cleaning the engine room. Thanks to its extensive marina management business, Art Marine also provides yacht owners with somewhere to moor their objects of desire, the most exclusive of which is the Emirates Palace Marina in Abu Dhabi.

Back in Dubai, the organisers of DIBS hope that this year’s event will eclipse 2013’s success, as does Rory Trahair, the head of marketing at Edmiston, a market leader in the world of super-yacht sales, marketing, management and chartering. Trahair will be at the boat show to find a buyer for what is likely to be one of the event’s star exhibits, the 75.5-metre, €125m (Dh621.5m) motor yacht Anastasia. It’s a mission that he’s determined to accomplish.

“It’s fair to say that the last three years have been trying, to say the least,” the Monaco resident explains. “The perception that our market was immune to the recession was not true at all. The first things people stop purchasing are luxury items, and a yacht has to be at the highest end of that. You have to be confident. It’s more likely to sell here than the Maldives and, quite frankly, the Med. It’s a good time and place to have it.”

Luckily, Anastasia was built to turn heads. Designed by Australia’s Sam Sorgiovanni Designs and constructed at the Oceanco shipyard near Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the super yacht has seven decks, six state rooms and can accommodate 12 guests. As well as boasting four tenders, four jet skis and a Jacuzzi, it’s also equipped with a full gym, aquarium and disco lounge. It was launched in 2008.

If the Anastasia sounds like the stuff of fantasy, that’s essentially because it is. Super yachts are built, first and foremost, to deliver a certain lifestyle to their owners, and the job of their designers is to realise and exceed their clients’ wildest dreams. It’s a skill that the yacht designer Andrew Winch has spent almost 30 years perfecting.

“Andrew Winch Designs is a dream and pleasure factory, and building a yacht is great fun. It’s like custom-car building, but on the scale of a house with, in some cases, 40 to 50 crew on-board and somewhere between 12 and 36 guests,” the Englishman explains.

“If the client isn’t going to enjoy the experience of being with us, spending time together and exploring the most exciting thing you can probably build in your life, then we’re not doing the job well enough.”

Since establishing Andrew Winch Designs with his wife, Jane, in 1986, Winch has designed almost 200 boats and currently has seven projects on the drawing board. “It’s a magical world on the other side of the looking glass,” he says. “Owning a yacht shouldn’t be normal and it shouldn’t be dull. It should be an incredible moment in a client’s life when they get their yacht, whether it’s 30 feet or 300 feet. It should be something that really makes them happy.”

Winch insists that it’s his ability to listen to clients and to interpret their desires that has made his business a success. His 55-strong team, which operates from a Thameside studio in one of the leafier parts of London, not only specialises in the design of motor and sailing yachts, but in bespoke planes, vehicles and property, as well. While admitting that super yachts are status symbols that are inextricably linked with “kudos, ego and passion”, Winch believes that a yacht should be something that its owner loves so much that it ceases to become a luxury and becomes a necessity instead.

It’s a perspective that he has borrowed from the legendary yacht designer Jon Bannenberg, the man who gave Winch his first job as an apprentice designer. “He hated the idea that a yacht was a luxury,” Winch says. “He said: ‘A pair of shoes is a luxury to someone who hasn’t got one; for someone who’s thirsty, it’s a luxury to have a glass of water’. The yacht was a home that you fell in love with and couldn’t do without. It was somewhere to treasure – but it shouldn’t be just a trophy. And I agree with that: you have to love it. I don’t want to design yachts that are tied up on the dock all the time. I’m proud that a lot of our yacht projects have been built because of the client’s passion to be afloat.”

Winch traces the mystique surrounding modern yachts back to vessels such as the Christina O, the private yacht created by the Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis in 1954. Thanks to his fabulous wealth, glamorous parties and romantic connections, the boat became inextricably associated with Onassis’s guests, who included Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In 1956, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier held their wedding reception on the yacht and Onassis’s love affair with the opera singer Maria Callas was also played out on-board. In 1968, Onassis ended the affair abruptly when he courted President Kennedy’s widow, Jackie, whom he eventually married. They were often photographed together on-board.

If the Christina O helped to establish the private yacht as the ultimate pleasure palace, Winch also draws a direct link between the 85-metre Nabila, the yacht that his mentor Bannenberg designed for the Saudi millionaire Adnan Khashoggi, and contemporary super yachts such as the Eclipse, owned by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.

“Khashoggi made a statement with that yacht,” Winch explains. “At the time, it was the largest yacht that had ever been built in Italy and ended up being used by the baddy in a Bond movie [Never Say Never Again]. Any yacht is probably suitable for that. It’s an extremely sexy and fantastic sort of folly.”

Nabila, which cost US$100m (Dh367.3m) when it was delivered in 1980, was later sold to the Sultan of Brunei and then to the American business magnate Donald Trump.

Despite recent eye-catching attempts by architects such as Zaha Hadid to change the face of contemporary yacht design, Winch refuses to be drawn on possible future design trends. “Luckily, yacht design doesn’t tend to work in that way at all. You can see trends in fashion or in hotels – the evolution of a concept that eventually filters through to the mainstream – but yachts are a very personal statement of success. You create any yacht you want and nobody can tell you you can’t have it or that it can’t look like that. It reflects who you are and what you have.”

For Winch, a yacht’s success isn’t defined by its size, its style or even its technology, but by the extent to which it meets and exceeds its owner’s expectations, something that makes every project unique. That’s something that he sees in one of his latest creations, Sea Owl, the product of a five-year-long collaboration between the designer, the ship’s owner and the Dutch shipyard that finally delivered the yacht in May 2013.

On the boat’s completion, the owner’s representative described Sea Owl as “quite possibly the most-customised 62-metre yacht ever built”.

“The original brief from the family was that they wanted ‘a magic yacht’. They said: ‘Create magic, Andrew,’” Winch explains. “They wanted a project that would make the hairs on the back of their necks stand up, because they were having so much fun with their family and their grandchildren. At the very end of the project, a carpenter came towards me in the yard and asked: ‘Can anybody tell me where these mice are supposed to go?’”

The rodents in question were a pair of carved, full-sized mice that Winch’s team had designed to emerge from beneath the yacht’s furniture, so that the owner’s young grandchildren could be sent to look for characters from one of their favourite fairy stories. A visit to the other side of the looking glass, indeed.