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Greening Superyachts

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It’s taken years for boat builders and designers to persuade potential owners that building more economical, greener boats is a good idea.

When a fall in the value of the ruble can wipe billions off the fortunes of some of the wealthiest yacht owners within a day or two, it’s not surprising that ideas for leaner propulsion systems on boats, saving millions of euros in fuel costs, should have registered only marginally in a list of owners’ financial concerns.

For those of us with more modest fortunes it’s difficult to understand how such savings could be ignored, but for those who think nothing of spending €50m customising a €250m Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, a million here or there is a drop in the ocean.

But the yacht designers didn’t give up on their dreams and the worldwide financial crisis of 2008 delivered a heaven-sent opportunity to plough ahead with cheaper fuel systems and drag efficient profiles.

The results today are designs among some of the leading boat builders that can deliver fuel costs substantially lower than those achieved during the 1990s and early 2000s.

There’s nothing like an economic crisis to focus attention on efficiencies. It happened after the oil crisis during the early 1970s that spelled the end of the big American gas-guzzling cars and a shift to more compact models.

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The biggest irony of all, however, is that such savings are being promised just as oil prices have plummeted

Today, however, there are bigger considerations - the threat of climate change and the understanding that fossil fuels are finite no matter how much oil there is – and there’s still a lot out there. These changes in global perspectives have led to concentrated research and development on renewable energy.

In yachting that’s akin to coming round to where things began – harnessing the wind for sail power. The word yacht came from the Dutch word jaght, short for jaghtschip. Jaght is a derivative of the word jagen, to hunt, so the jaght was a hunting ship, a fast sail boat, ideal for piracy.

In the 2000s owners wanted faster superyachts, sometimes so they could outrun pirates. As the world has shifted to a more austere era, people are turning to efficiencies. Billionaires want to keep their billions.

While there are some big sailing yachts in production today, most sailing superyachts still rely largely on their motors.

I read one figure suggesting that sails, on average, were used on sailing superyacht journeys only 12 to 14 per cent of the time at sea. Part of the reason for this is the comfort of passengers and part also is down to the high cost of sails.

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We’re probably a long-way, therefore, from entertaining sail-power for anything other than the romantic attachment to sail (although some, I know, would argue otherwise), but yacht builders are predicting breakthroughs in the next few years in more efficient fuel systems. Lürssen, for example, has detailed plans for a yacht fueled by Liquified Natural Gas.

“We have the system but we have to sell it,” says Peter Lürssen, the company’s chief executive. “But I’m convinced we will see a yacht with LNG sooner rather than later.”

If owners have proved tardy in spending on efficiency, it hasn’t stopped Lürssen itself from “greening” its shipyards, with a recent €2m spend on industrial filters and extractors to improve the construction process. “We can push a yacht through the water now at the same speed at 50 per cent of the cost of what it was 10 years ago because of continuous optimisation of efficiencies and energy management,” says Lürssen.

One of the yard’s most progressive innovations has been what it calls “peak shaving” that reduces the power intensity of its generators by allowing battery power to cut in during periods of peak output. The system is more fuel efficient than running generations at their maximum capacity.

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The Italian yacht-builder VSY, the company that first introduced dynamic positioning systems to superyachts, has gone so far as to appoint a sustainability manager, Vienna Eleuteri, charged with improving environmental conditions and delivering what she calls a “born to be green workshop’.

The concept will be launched in May at EXPO, which will be hosted in Milan this year.

Through systems concentrating on sustainability in a programme it calls Yachting 2.0, the yard has already reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent in the life cycle of its yachts and believes it can reduce them still further.

Cristiana Longarini, VSY’s managing director, has placed sustainability and ethical construction at the heart of corporate strategy. “She is passionate about this approach,” says Cristina Fonzar, VSY’s head of marketing and communication. “Just as companies are looking now to reduce their carbon footprint, we have also to look at the water footprint of our yachts in future and account for the environmental costs on our balance sheets.”

Oceanco, the Dutch yard that built Equanimity, one of the stars of last autumn’s Monaco Yacht Show, says that green production and efficiency savings have begun to underpin its operations. “Looking at different, more efficient propulsion systems and reducing emissions is an absolute given,” says Marcel Onkenhout,” Oceanco’s CEO. 

One of the yard’s current projects, a 109m yacht, due for launch in 2018, will incorporate a hybrid propulsion system. Its design profile has been shaped so that sailing speeds can be achieved with half the power that would have been used in previous yachts. Given that existing superyachts can easily burn 500,000 litres of fuel if they’re pushing the engines on a transatlantic voyage, such savings should make a big difference to running costs. 

With few signs of yachts getting smaller - there are rumours of a 200m yacht-build that’s said to be awaiting the nod from the potential buyer - it’s good to see builders and designers taking the lead in making the industry fit for the 21st century.

*Image credits: Wikipedia Flickr/Patrick Nouhailler; Richard Donkin


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