x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Azzam: World's largest superyacht sails into the record books

The superyacht Azzam is the biggest vessel of its kind. The owner is still a mystery, but the name, which is Arabic for 'determined', suggests it will be heading for the Middle East.

Azzam, the world’s largest superyacht, during its construction at the Lurssen Yachts yard in Bremen, Germany. Photos by Claus Schafe / TheYachtPhoto.com
Azzam, the world’s largest superyacht, during its construction at the Lurssen Yachts yard in Bremen, Germany. Photos by Claus Schafe / TheYachtPhoto.com

The residents of Bremen, north Germany, are used to seeing some incredible sights emerging from the gigantic yellow Lürssen Yachts dry dock on the bank of the Weser river. But no one had seen anything quite like the massive vessel that was slowly tugged out into public view for the first time on the overcast morning of April 5.

This was Azzam, not only the latest superyacht to grace the water but at 180 metres long also the largest, leaving the previous title-holder - Roman Abramovich's 162.5m Eclipse - trailing in its wake.

It was not the first glimpse of the new queen of the oceans. In May last year, speculation about the latest Lürssen project flared when, minus her bow section, she was moved quietly to the covered dock from her construction shed - for the simple reason that, at 170m long, the shed was too short to accommodate the full length of what would soon be the world's largest superyacht.

Speculation about the identity of Azzam's owner has been rife for much of the three years it has taken to build her. Initially, it was assumed that she had been ordered by a member of the Saudi royal family - the name of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the richest people in the world and a known super-yacht enthusiast, was suggested.

Other rumours have placed the home port of Azzam - which is Arabic for "determined" and also the name chosen for Team Abu Dhabi's entry in the Volvo Ocean Race - in the Arabian Gulf.

This month's launch, conveniently in time for the 2013 Mediterranean superyachting season that begins at the end of May with the Monaco Grand Prix, has caused waves in an industry not easily impressed.

Quite apart from her world-beating size, the yacht was built in a record three years. Powered by four engines - two diesel and two gas turbines pushing out 94,000 horsepower - she is capable of reaching speeds in excess of 30 knots (55kph), more usually associated with fast military-patrol vessels.

This means that if the owner desires, Azzam could cover the 4,000 nautical miles from the Mediterranean to Martinique, for the start of the Caribbean season in November, in a little more than five days.

Not that most owners would make such a voyage, instead choosing instead to fly to meet their yacht when it relocates to a distant destination.

In fact, most owners of the very largest yachts do not spend a huge amount of time on them, says Don Hoyt Gorman, the business editor of TheSuperyacht Report.

"They tend to be very busy individuals who are running a series of corporations," he says.

But when they and their often extensive families are on board "they are really away from the public eye, which is one of the main reasons owners of large yachts want them. And they are also obviously fantastic as well for entertaining clients and business partners".

Size, he says, is not merely a product of billionaire one-upmanship, but there is no doubt that super-yachts, like tall buildings, are growing larger. In the 1980s, a 25m yacht would have been considered large, but now there are about 30 superyachts afloat that are more than 100m long.

For the sake of scale, even Aristotle Onassis's famous Christina O - which was converted in 1954 from a former Canadian navy Second World War convoy escort, and in its heyday the definitive superyacht - falls relatively short at 99m, a little more than half the length of Azzam.

"There was plenty of speculation about 10 years ago, when yachts that were about 120m were being produced, that they were going to be the exception to the rule and there wouldn't be any need to go any larger," says Gorman. "But then there was a significant series of orders placed for very large yachts."

One of the key drivers of the new trend has been the new Passenger Yacht Code, which was introduced in November 2010 by the Red Ensign Group, a collaboration of international shipping registers under whose flag - the British Red Ensign - most superyacht owners choose to sail. It created a separate category of pleasure yachts of any size that carry between 13 and 36 passengers.

It had, said the group, become "increasingly impractical" to apply to pleasure yachts the rules and regulations of the International Maritime Organisation, which had been developed chiefly for cargo ships and passenger vessels.

"Until that code was passed, private yachts were only allowed to have 12 guests aboard, no matter how large the vessel," says Gorman. "And it has allowed much larger yachts."

Any vessel carrying more than 36 passengers would need to be classified as a cruise ship and all the cruise-ship regulations would then apply, such as those dictating the width of the staircases, the fire retardant materials used and, indeed, the design of the vessel itself.

The result, Gorman says, would restrict how designers could work and how superyachts could operate commercially - "and you'd end up with vessels that looked like cruise ships".

So does that mean Azzam's record is safe? Probably not, says Gorman. According to the industry rumour mill, nothing is being built at the moment that comes close to it.

"But there's really no question, I think, that someone will come along and decide to build something larger, just because they can, and there are a number of yards that can build to that size," he adds.

How much Azzam cost to build remains confidential, although media estimates of the cost of Abramovich's smaller Eclipse, built by Blohm + Voss in Hamburg, Germany, and launched in 2010, have ranged from US$500 million (Dh1.8 billion) to $1bn.

Whatever the cost, says Gorman, running the ship will put a further - and continuing - dent in any billionaire's finances.

"There's a rough rule of thumb we use, that it's about 10 per cent of the cost of the original build to operate and maintain a vessel every year," he says. "It's a significant cost. But of course, we are dealing with people for whom, if they are going to be buying a yacht in the first place, these costs are within their ability to manage."

Besides, he adds, a superyacht is a good investment. "A vessel that is well maintained will keep its value for ever - there have been no yachts that have been scrapped," he says.

The industry, Gorman says, is determined to grow, by tempting more billionaires to sample life on the ocean wave.

"You'd be surprised," he says. "But a very small proportion of people who can afford yachts actually own them." The reason is straightforward. "Just think about your group of friends - how many people would be seasick? The thought of going on a boat isn't necessarily appealing to everybody."

What many people do not realise, he says, is that modern superyachts "are incredibly stable".

"The technology that goes into keeping them flat on the water, even when there are waves and swell all around, is amazing."

The industry's goal is to encourage more people to think about purchasing a yacht by getting them to charter, says Gorman. "Charter is really the first step to see whether you enjoy excellent service, all the privacy you can imagine, a really adventurous lifestyle, a fantastic holiday," he says.

One of the main charter portals is SuperYachtsMonaco - whose website, tellingly, is available in only three languages: English, Arabic and Russian.

Most of us, of course, are unlikely ever to sample the high life on board an Azzam or an Eclipse - but that does not mean we do not stand to benefit from the very existence of these maritime monsters, according to the superyacht industry.

High-profile vessels such as Azzam are seen as flag-bearers for an industry keen to broaden its appeal and to demonstrate that it is a key economic driver.

"There are thousands of people involved in the construction of such a yacht," says Peter Lürssen, Lürssen's managing partner, after Azzam's launch. "A thousand at our group and many more thousands in the industry supporting us."

As part of the industry's drive to win recognition of its role as a generator of wealth and employment, Superyacht Intelligence last year published the first comprehensive economic analysis of the super-yacht industry.

It found that superyachts - vessels defined by the Superyacht Intelligence Agency as more than 30m in length - contributed no less than $31.5bn to the global economy in 2010, creating 33,000 crew jobs, and supporting more than 6,000 companies employing as many as 150,000 people.

The country that benefited most was the US, where suppliers and manufacturers accounted for more than half of the near $6bn generated in national revenue, and in excess of 28,000 jobs depended on superyachts.

But the UAE - where Abu Dhabi is developing yards and related services, including ADM Shipyard, which in 2011 launched the 141m superyacht Yas - also featured in the report, with almost 1,000 jobs and revenue of $220m linked to the superyacht industry.

The analysis, concluded the authors, "should clearly demonstrate that the economic impact of superyachts is, undefinably, vast and should not be underestimated. Countries the world over gain economic contribution from superyachts, and as an industry it must be seen as a source of jobs and positive impacts".

Should you find yourself wondering whether the high life on the high seas is for you, why not charter before you buy? It is, of course, now only the second largest superyacht in the world but, unlike Azzam, Eclipse is at least available to rent - yours for $2m a week through SuperYachtsMonaco.

Enjoy the Grand Prix.