Road Rockets & Mega Yachts | Showboats

by Louis Postel, originally published in Showboats International

1-louis design times

Big cats ready to spring: How supercar design is impacting Megayachts.

If the latest Lamborghini happens to float your boat, why not turn it into just that — or more precisely into a 84 m megayacht?

That rather sensible thought is revving up the hearts and minds of minds of a new generation of M/Y owners and their designers these days: never mind how many staterooms you can fit in, give me some zoom and vroom! Rather than a floating palace, another example of a majestic, triple-decker of an M/Y, another 50m white goddess classic, give me something downright scary. Give me something that performs on a dime with power of a beast…Design it so that seen from its aft looks something like a big cat on its haunches about to spring on its hapless prey. Then make this same beast accelerate to the degree that it takes on the form of wind itself: “subtle and elegant, yet strong and persistent” to quote the designers of the million dollar Huayra, (pronounced why-rah, the supercar named after Huayra-tata, the Andean God of high winds and hurricanes.)

Just as the yearning for elegance and strength on the road has always driven sports car design, it is now increasingly present in M/Y design as well. The wind gods of power and performance it turns out are unapologetically amphibious! Anyone who has been attending Monaco’s Top Marques car shows along with its luxury yacht shows can attest to that trend. But how is such cross-fertilization taking place in a way that makes sense? Clearly, M/Y designers are not about to make literal translations from auto styles and weld them on to M/Y’s. Swath an entire salon in leather with a few chrome accents and you will just get a laugh, as opposed to a classy console motif. Proceed to lower your Huayra in the water and your wind God will just sink.

But taken metaphorically as opposed to literally, taken at its very soul, supercar design has much to offer the future of M/Y design. For many folks of no matter what generation, car design is design on a very gut level. Look up design in the dictionary and you’re likely to find a very fast, curvaceous beast of a car. Indeed, for this modern era years, auto design has represented the apotheosis of art and science, sculpture and engineering, the hand-crafted and the high-tech, all miraculously in sync. Ironically, in fact, for many a common man these increasingly expensive toys of the superrich, the Paganis, Ferarris, Mercedes, Bugattis, Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins of the world project not simply a crude drag strip power, but a four-wheeled expression of democratic ideals. Think about it: where else can anyone find such exuberant blends of absolute freedom with a kind of perfect order, and precision? Where else can this be found but on the open road…and now, increasingly, the wide, wide sea.

Christopher Wyeth took the big cat haunch of great sports cars to the next level as a kind of flared arch. It was part of his design for the new Palmer Johnson 48m SuperSport Series debuted at Monaco last year. Wyeth brought the haunch forward, widened it, and raised it two and half meters above the waterline. A newcomer to yacht design, Wyeth has the advantage of having few preconceptions. He has been heading up Palmer Johnson’s in-house design studio in Monaco for the past two years, shuttling back and forth to the UK to see his girlfriend on weekends.

“We’re quite fortunate that the owner of the company is passionate about design as well as a real car enthusiast. He wants to bring that enthusiasm to yachts. We feel that at least up until now yachts have been a fairly utilitarian product. It used to be all about being on the vessel and looking out at the world, not necessarily about looking at the yacht as an object in itself. We’re not trying to tread on any toes but our owner wants to challenge that notion. Naval architects want big square spaces. They are easy to balance out and very practical in terms of getting every wall to match up. Without CAD systems, it was all a matter of hit or miss. They had to constantly check angles and curvatures to make sure everything fit together. Now, with three-dimensional CAD modeling systems, we can be far more sculptural. No longer are we creating layer cake yachts with tiers on top of each other.”

Some naval architects may be predisposed to squares and straight lines, but not all. An exception to the rule is Greg Marshall. Based in Victoria, British Columbia, Marshall is one of the most experienced (and celebrated) designers in the M/Y field. Like newcomer Chris Wyeth, he does not hesitate to point out the growing influence of auto design. “Cars have set design taste for the past sixty to seventy years,” says Marshall. “Yacht design is about five years behind. The fins on the back of Chris Crafts, are a good example. That’s why we watch car design very carefully. Not coincidentally, our office is full-up with work. Right now we are meeting with a long-time client who is looking for us to turn four guest rooms into two. He has come to the conclusion that he just doesn’t know enough people who would want to go cruising with him. And he complains that his yacht’s decks, hallways and salon are all beginning to look the same. ‘Give me something that will turn my crank like my Bugatti Veyron,’ buyers are telling us. Even if this means buying a less practical boat, they don’t care. Because their buying habits have been formed by the car companies themselves. They plan on turning them in like a lease after two to three years. They don’t want to mess around with them. Like Mercedes and Volvo engines, we’re now covering up M/Y engines. Seriously, what owner today is going to be tinkering with them? Conservative yachts have just died…because people were falling asleep. As a matter of fact, I don’t think we even have a white boat on the boards.”

Architect and yacht designer Martin Francis is often looked to for hints about what’s next. Just last year, in fact, his studio introduced at Monaco the 14m yacht Granturismo commissioned by Mercedes-Benz Style and Silver Arrow Marine, a newly-formed company inspired by the classic road rockets of the ‘30s. “We weren’t setting out to build just another boat, but started out with a blank sheet of paper,” says Francis from his studio in southern France. “The plan is to produce a range of production yachts, the next one may be smaller. In fact, we have no plans to extend the concept to mega yachts.” Francis goes on to say that to imitate a Silver Arrow interior on an M/Y would look ridiculous. “Red leather and polished metal would look tacky — like those fake diners you see in the US.”

What turns Francis’ crank about the Mercedes project and car design in general, in fact, isn’t so much the aesthetics, but the ride. When he lectures on design, the emphasis is on honesty and performance, engineering quality and proportions. And while Wyeth extolls the virtues of using CAD and 3-D modeling for construction, Francis warns of the downside of these new technologies: “Take Frank Gehry’s Bilboa museum — which is indeed a, very curvy, very sensational building. That said, there are too many designers out there who are actually very bad sculptors.  It’s a matter of getting the proportions right. It’s a problem of people inside the yacht looking out at all these sweeping curves, but not feeling at home at all. Many of these curves are superfluous and have very little to do with aerodynamics.” Francis shares a final thought about CAD pros and cons as he is about to board a flight for Germany where he will check on the progress of his Granturismo line. “Mercedes invests millions on mock-ups and clay models. Nothing is exclusively off the computer. I’m off to see one now.”

Of all the leading M/Y designers we interviewed, Luiz De Basto was the least sanguine concerning the influence of car design. Though his Aston Martin-inflected concept yacht Voyage neatly recasts some of the elements associated with the cars (the iconic grille, the front and tail, the side ventilation, De Basto insists there is a major distinction between designing a boat and a car. Yacht design starts with immutable lines to be filled in later: waterlines, deck lines, sheer lines. With a car you can start with almost abstract shape or surface and then figure out how to make it function.

De Basto recalls a client who once asked him to design a yacht that was like a shark. After going through a sequence of sketches, De Basto came up with it. “Nature can inspire you directly,” he says, “but if a client came up to me and said ‘see this Rolls…make a yacht for me like’ that I’m not so sure. Look at it this way: there are basically five drivers in yacht design: 1. History 2. An expression of speed and power as in airplanes 3. Architecture as in buildings and houses 4. Nature as in bio design (birds, whales, sharks, etc.) and, lastly 5. Auto design. People get very excited about the latest supercars, but the scale is so different from yachts. You can’t walk on the hood of a car. Yachts don’t have wheels – so stretching out an arch to look like a Model T wheel cover on a yacht can look like a pastiche.”

Savvy owners and designers, of course, aren’t looking for a pastiche. But some of them are finding huge opportunities and excitement deep in heart of that crouching beast called auto design.  While literally replicating the look of wheel covers may prove to be a passing phenomenon, the realization of science and art, engineering and sculpture remains a long-sought ideal. Expressing that ideal in one combustive force through yacht design as well as auto design is now looking a lot like the future.