Industry » Features » The Evolution of Yachts for Leisure

The Evolution of Yachts for Leisure

Photo of Ian Biles 140

Part 1: Perspectives on Safety in Yachting
To see the full schedule click here.

The origins of yachting, like the word itself, probably originate in the Netherlands (which seems kind of appropriate to me). The first yachts were light, fast vessels used to convey important persons or messages and they evolved into vessels whose purpose was to be used purely as pleasure vessels.

However, sailing, as a leisure pastime, took a while to catch on. Charles II was presented with a Dutch built yacht which he sailed on the Thames. It was not until 1820 when the Prince of Wales became King George IV, whose interest in yachting resulted in the Royal Yacht Squadron being formed 13 years later and the first racing took place at Cowes.

The Brigantine “Cleopatra’s Barge” can lay claim to be the first American Superyacht at 83 feet or 25.3 metres long and 192 Gross Registered Tons. She was built for Captain George Crowninshield, Jr. who sailed her on an extensive cruise of Europe in 1817.

The development of the steam engine meant that vessels were no longer dependent upon the winds for their propulsion and, soon after the development of the first steam ships, steam yachts and launches were introduced.

The preserve of the rich

As one might expect such vessels were the preserve of the wealthy and as can happen, when very rich people seek to outdo one another, a virtual arms race between some of the leading families in American society the Astors, Vanderbilts, Goulds, Morgans, Bennetts and Hearsts was pursued towards the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century. This led to an increase in the number and size of large yachts, with real competition to see who could build the biggest and most luxurious yachts.

After the hiatus of the First World War and the post war depression in Europe the demand for large yachts was dampened and in the United States the Great Depression and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 provided another dampening factor to the luxury yacht market.

Pioneer Campers via Jeremy Lines
168 ft M/Y Pioneer - courtesy of Camper & Nicholsons

However, the War was also a great spur to technical development with large diesel engines appearing capable of powering yachts but, due to the depression, very few diesel yachts were built. One that was built was the 168 ft “Pioneer”, built by Camper and Nicholson for Paris Singer who was heir to the Singer sewing machine empire and a well known socialite of the 1920s.

In the 1938 edition of Lloyd’s Register of Yachts there are 118 yachts of over 500 tons Thames Measurement recorded but a look through a copy for 1959 shows that this had reduced to 29 of which 13 were either government owned or Royal or Presidential Yachts. Of the remaining 16, nine are registered as being owned by companies and seven by individuals.

Already there was a movement towards larger yachts being owned by corporations and sailing under what are often termed flags of convenience (FOC) in order to minimise the Owner’s exposure to tax and other expenditure. The added advantage for many was that their anonymity was also maintained and this is a situation that has continued to this day.

Technology and communications

In the last twenty five years or so there has been a dramatic increase in the number and size of yachts in use around the world. One of the factors that has caused this development is the improvement in the capabilities of communications equipment and it is now possible to stay in constant contact anywhere in the world. Satellite television equipment is also available, allowing the Owner and guests to be informed and entertained in most of the world’s main cruising areas.

The 1980s saw great growth in what would become the “Superyacht Industry”. The main drivers for the expansion of superyachts have been a period of political stability, an increase in the numbers of wealthy people able to afford the yachts and a social acceptance in the population as a whole of the ownership of such yachts. In concert with this have come technical developments in the ways yachts are constructed as well as advances in communication and navigation.

Yachts lined up leaving IYCA

Today, depending upon the reference source and measure used there are approximately 5,500 or so “superyachts”. The largest superyacht is currently Azzam at 180m in length which, to give context, is just over half the length of the ocean cruise liner Queen Mary II.

In terms of building these magnificent vessels, Italy constantly leads the way in terms of pure numbers produced whilst Germany and Holland constantly vie to build the best that there is (depending upon how one defines best).

Increasing regulations

Along with the spectacular growth in both size and number, regulation has followed often struggling to keep up with the reality of what is going on. After only a relatively short spell as the main regulatory reference for Superyacht LY3: the Large Yacht Code (published in May 2014) is shortly to be replaced with the Red Ensign Group Yacht Code (REGYC) seeking to manage developments in large yachts with increasing numbers of passengers, helicopters and submarines.

At the same time as yachts have grown larger, crews have had to become more and more professionally qualified with compliance with The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (or STCW) now the accepted norm. Regulatory controls have been introduced, the International Safety Management Code (ISM) together with the associated bureaucratic mountain that goes along with this.

Required levels of service and excellence have increased with the concept of 7 star service becoming the accepted norm. At the same time the types of service have had to adapt as a more diverse range of nationalities have taken to the water.

Historically many superyacht owners were passionate about their yachts. However, with the advent of the ultra-high net worth individual (UHNWI) this is not necessarily the case and in some cases the yacht is now an addition to the stable of property, private jets, helicopters and other expensive luxury goods.

Running alongside ownership of these vessels there is also an active charter market where owners in effect allow their yachts to be hired by people who wish to enjoy the pleasures of superyachting but without the expense and/or hassle of ownership. Generally owners do not do this to make a profit but rather to assist to defray cost but more importantly to keep the crews actively engaged and on top of their game.

Dilbar on IYCA RolyThe magnificent 156m M/Y Dilbar 

With such phenomenal development a complete industry has developed building, operating and supporting these vessels. The days when one person could be Captain, Manager and Central Agent have gone. Running in parallel with this is perhaps an often overlooked fact that it is only since the 1990’s that the Management of Change has become something that is recognised as a process all of its own and with particular challenges of its own.

Keeping pace with best standards

The rate of change in the superyacht industry, not only in size of vessel but in all areas, continues to increase. Many traditional ideas and ways of doing things have had to be abandoned. These days we are faced with numerous challenges, some old, some new. With increased regulation has come increased accountability. Whilst not a superyacht the recent judgement in the case of the Cheeki Rafiki should have all Superyacht Managers reviewing their systems and controls.

Criminalisation of the Master (and now the Manager) is a reality. Increased knowledge requirements and hence training, just to keep pace with the best standards, places an increased burden on an already busy crew. An ever growing need for paperwork and records adds yet further to this burden. Proper leadership both on board and ashore is vital. Whilst Human Element, Leadership and Management (HELM) training has been introduced under STCW is this sufficient for our industry needs or should we be doing more?

With crew training and retention, the STCW requirements are only the starting point for the crews of today. How do Captains and managers juggle keeping good well trained crew whilst restricting social media interaction (to maintain privacy)? How do yachts maintain cyber security? Are all players ready and prepared to manage when something goes horribly wrong?

In order to manage complexity first one needs to understand it. While the industry might struggle with some of the issues discussed above the owners' insatiable demand for excellence will, in my opinion, ensure a vibrant industry for the foreseeable future. Our challenge as the service providers is to keep it safe for all.



About the Author:

Ian Biles is Managing Director of the Maritime Services Group, incorporating Maritime Services International, The Maritime Training Academy and The Training Academy. 

A keen sailor since the age of 12, Ian worked for 13 years on a range of commercial ships passing his RYA Yachtmaster (Ocean) Certificate and Class 1 (unlimited) Master Mariner Certificate, gaining a wealth of knowledge and experience along the way. Working at Shell Ian qualified as a Naval Architect (BEng Ship Science) and Business Manager (MA Business Management).

In 1992 Ian founded Maritime Services International (MSI) to provide marine survey, consultancy, investigation and legal support services to the marine industry. Now in its 25th year, MSI has over 100 representatives in 37 countries, with over 3500 surveys completed including over 1500 on superyachts. In 2005 Ian launched Maritime Training Academy followed in 2016 by the Training Academy, providing a comprehensive range of distance learning, onboard and shore based training and seminars for maritime professionals.

Post your comment

You cannot post comments until you have logged in.

Login to post a comment


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments



Search articles with keywords