The concept of explorer yachts is nothing new; sturdy, ocean-going private vessels have been around since the ’60s, granting their owners access to isolated hideouts around the globe. However, the last few years have seen a spike in the number of explorer yachts launched, in build and in concept. We take a look at this more adventurous side of yachting and what it says about the shifting focus of luxury travelers.
It would be hard not to have noticed the rise in rugged yacht projects in build and on designer’s drawing boards. From Kleven’s mighty 107m M/Y Ulysses to the trio of expedition-ready concepts from Hawk Yachts, explorers are everywhere. In response to this growing market, there has been a tendency to hail the explorer as evidence of the shifting face of superyachting. The question is: is the popularity merely a trend for a more robust aesthetic or does it denote a true evolution in how owners and guests want to use their yachts?
“This is a very good question,” says Marnix Hoekstra, director at Vripack, a studio that has worked on countless explorer and expedition projects in its 55 years. “We have been doing a lot of research and analysis into the motivations of people worldwide, and believe that what we are seeing is a superyacht genre that has evolved from a growing human need to escape.” For Hoekstra, as life gets busier, as time gets more scheduled and as populations get larger, the natural reaction is a desire to get away.
“We call this trend ‘wandering’,” he says. “To counter-balance the structure of everyday life, people want to wander, explore and get lost. The functional response to enabling this kind of travel for many UHNWIs is the explorer yacht.”
Long-range, sturdy displacement vessels with unparalleled sea-keeping, spacious accommodation and room for plenty of toys, ‘explorer’ yachts as we know them today cover both yachts suitable for ocean crossings and longer periods away from marinas, as well as true expedition yachts suited to adventure travel, challenging locations and real autonomy.
Luxury travel is changing
Looking at the wider luxury travel industry – from which trends drip feed into superyachting – the way people have been travelling has been changing. The words ‘experiential’ and ‘authentic’ are firmly established in the travel lexicon, while luxury adventure travel is booming, particularly with families, and holidays centre around unusual and interactive experiences. For wealthy Millennial travelers, going the extra mile to achieve an exclusive experience worthy of bragging rights on social media is also the basis of many travel decisions.
While the industry has tended to view Asians as a more conservative superyacht market, their travel habits are also evolving. “Asian clients are more adventurous than one might imagine,” says Mike Simpson of Simpson Marine. “Like most clients, these customers look for something out of the ordinary that can bring them unique, memorable experiences; something that the less wealthy cannot afford. A superyacht is certainly one of them but an expedition yacht is even better.”
Simpson Marine’s regional customers include those who have driven 6,500 km across the Sahara, gone diving in the Pacific and chartered a Russian icebreaker to go to the North Pole. “Asian HNWI are generally younger than in the West and many are energetic and keen to explore the world around them,” he says. Indeed, according to figures released by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) for the 2015/2016 Antarctic season, the Chinese are the fastest growing segment of the Antarctic market, with one in 10 of all visitors to the region from China; a 25.7 per cent leap from the previous year. “A common misconception about clients from this part of the world is that they do not want to go further afield or out of their comfort zone,” says Fleur Tomlinson, charter manager at 37 South, a company with strong explorer experience. The company’s director, Allan Jouning, captained Itasca, the first ever private yacht to cross the North West Passage. “I cannot speak for the whole industry, but in my experience I have found Asian clients to be very adventurous. We have seen a definite increase in the number of people looking for adventurous charters and I am truly excited about this.”
One of 37 South’s clients is an Asian woman who has chartered traditional and explorer yachts between 30m and 70m everywhere from Antarctica to Tonga and Indonesia. “She loves diving and all water sports,” says Tomlinson. “She charters with large groups of family and friends and has even chartered by herself. She dispels all preconceptions about this market.”
The many faces of the explorer yacht
The growing interest in experiential travel and explorer yachts has seen designers and shipyards come to market with increasingly sophisticated expeditionary offerings and owners push the boundaries of what fits in the explorer mould.
In the past, expedition yachts were mostly refitted commercial vessels; tugs or fishery vessels, for example. Many owners still enjoy taking on a conversion project. The owner of 2013’s M/Y Enigma XK (ex-Norna) was attracted to the 71m fisheries vessel’s capability, strength and history. Similarly, the owner of M/Y Sherkhan, Jan Verkerk’s latest project is a retrofitted 1973 icebreaker called M/Y Legend (ex-Giant), destined for charters in Antarctica.
Open for an owner through Edmiston and under construction at Norwegian shipyard, Vard, Project Kilkea is a striking conversion from Bannenberg & Rowell that will transform an 82m offshore support ship into a luxury world explorer. “Kilkea in her partly-built state already has a pretty unique look with her pronounced ‘cab forward’ stance,” says Dickie Bannenberg. “Coupled with that you have the astonishing real estate of the huge deck and tank area. The space available is exciting and allows us to pencil in features like double-height lounges, research zones and a beach club cum-training-area-cum-workshop.” With accommodation for 36 guests, she is designed to be self-sufficient for up to 30 days and will have an Ice Class C hull for light ice conditions.
Today, clients are not limited to taking on a project though or to liking the typically ‘sturdy’ look of many converted explorers. A growing number of shipyards are offering dedicated, well-conceived explorer ranges that embody a refined explorer aesthetic. Mike Simpson points to Sanlorenzo’s 460 EXP series as an example. Two have already been launched, with a further five sold to buyers across the globe; USA, Russia, Mexico, China and the EU. Interestingly, the first 460 EXP, 42m M/Y Moka, was delivered to an Asian owner, who plans to circumnavigate the globe. “He has a great interest in water sports and wanted a stylish, rugged yacht that combined the comfort of a superyacht with the ability to carry many toys,” Simpson explains. “The 460 EXP ticked all the boxes. As the project progressed, the flexibility of the Sanlorenzo team saw the owner’s ideas about what he could carry and the places he could explore grow. In the end, the yacht was extended by over four meters to accommodate a mini submarine and a helicopter.”
For designer Sergio Cutolo of Hydro Tec, the more compact size (under 500GT) of displacement yacht is well suited to the explorer model as they provide extraordinary volume in relation to size. With Italian yard Cantiere delle Marche, Cutolo has designed a range of explorer yachts called the Darwin Class. Built for long range cruising and ocean voyages, the Darwins, ranging from 26m to 32.6m, are sturdy, safe and entirely customizable. The most recent launch was 32.6 M/Y Storm, delivered last year to a British owner. “The success of this series is due to the perfect balance between design and function,” says Cutolo. “The ‘home’ feeling you get when you step on board is so important.”
For those looking for boundless travel, the design check-list is long and very specific; suitable yachts are limited to a few. “On a true expedition yacht there are some key features,” says Rob McCallum, co-founder of EYOS Expeditions, a company that arranges yacht expeditions to some of the most remote places on earth. “The hull and propulsion installation should be built according to the Polar Class regulation with the capability to break through the ice. Light ice reinforcement (for example, Ice Class 1C) is not always enough. Their needs to extra storage space for expedition equipment, provisions, specialist staff and guides so you can explore the remotest coasts and islands with no shore support. When you ‘get away from it all’, you need to be completely self-sufficient.”
Putting this in perspective, most yachts are fitted with a seven- to 10-day garbage capacity, a two- to three-week fuel capacity and limited provision storage space. While explorer yachts as we know them today offer slightly longer periods of autonomy, more storage and are more robust that your typical ‘white yacht’, they are usually not up to an expedition somewhere like the Ross Sea in Antarctica.
With these crucial specs in mind, last year Dutch shipbuilder Damen Shipyard partnered with EYOS Expeditions and Azure Naval Architects to design the ultimate luxury expedition yacht: the SeaXplorer. “This is the first time I know of that an expedition vessel has been designed from the point of view of a practitioner,” says McCallum. “A lot of the attributes of the SeaXplorer have come from the experience of hundreds of EYOS expeditions on dozens of vessels. We provided over 150 design suggestions for the SeaXplorer.” Available in 65m, 90m and 100m versions, the SeaXplorer will offer 40-day autonomy, a hidden helicopter hanger and be the first yacht to meet the new Polar Code Standards, which comes into force in 2017. Importantly, unlike many flashy explorer concepts on the market, it is 100 per cent ready to be built.
One of Vripack’s latest explorer projects, Point Break, has been created for two brothers looking for a yacht to help them surf and explore the most beautiful places in the world. Point Break is packed with toys and features for the brothers, their children and their dogs; surfboards and kites, even snowboards and skateboards. This is going to be a family-orientated yacht for cosy get-togethers and socialising in between adventuring. “The most unique feature is the water ballast wing tank,” says Hoekstra with a smile. “When there are no wave breaks or wind, the captain can put her in full speed diesel-electric mode to fill up this tank, which will sink the stern creating a great wake that the the brothers can surf on behind the boat.”
Survival at sea and sophistication hardly seem to go together, but there is no need for luxury or comfort to be compromised on a capable expedition yacht. “A vessel’s looks shouldn’t be determined by its capability,” says McCallum. “You can have a very capable vessel that is also very good looking.” Prime examples of beautifully capable yachts are Lürssen’s M/Y Octopus, a yacht that EYOS has taken through the North West Passage three times, and M/Y Latitude, designed by Vripack, also a two-time traverser of the North West Passage. Neither would look out of place in St Barths, but have taken guests, owners and scientists to the far corners of the globe. It would be difficult to tell the more sturdy exteriors from the interiors of most explorer yachts. Designer Katharina Raczek of the eponymously named Hamburg studio has recently been working on the interior refit of a 100m+ explorer yacht and has been cutting no corners in terms of materials, comfort or the fine art installed on board. “Just because the yacht is an explorer, doesn’t mean it needs to feel like a research ship,” she says.
For most UHNWIs, privacy is one of the greatest luxuries. As more travellers seek to get as far away from crowded hotspots as possible, it makes sense that their yachts are capable of taking them where ever they wish, safely, reliably and luxuriously. Owners and luxury travellers increasingly want no barriers to their experiences and with explorer yachts offering the ability to go the distance (and no longer limited to the realms of converted tugboats), it seems that the age of the explorer may be here to stay.
On Your Doorstep
You don’t need to take your explorer yacht all the way to Antarctica to experience something remote and special; there is plenty to see within easy reach of Asia. Dan Tookey of Henry Cookson Adventures, creators of tailored luxury adventures and experiences, highlights three of their top explorer yacht destinations in the region.
Largely closed to tourists for military reasons since the Russians explored it in the 17th century (half of the peninsular is still controlled by the army), the area is now opening up for the intrepid. Washed by the Bering and Okhotsk seas, the area is home to 28 active volcanoes and 160 extinct ones. Mineral hot water springs and geysers are found at the eastern part of the peninsular, while hundreds of glaciers line the mountains. Keep a look out for wildlife: bobcats, sables, minks, wolves, foxes and brown bears all live here. This is a difficult area in which to operate, and permits and permissions must be sought from the army to bring in an expedition yacht. However, the rewards of such effort are rich.
When to go: July to September
Australia’s Kimberley Coast
Travelling down the Kimberley coast can be a truly indulgent experience. To fully experience this diamond coast, we would recommend an expedition yacht capable of carrying at least one helicopter, depending on the number of guests. Before heading in to the lush rivers, from your yacht we can arrange scuba diving with humpback whales, manta rays, dolphins and dugongs. Motor up to the impressive dual King George Falls before sweeping away in your helicopter for a bespoke lunch looking over them. Heading up the Mitchell River you will spot crocodiles basking semi-submerged in the mangroves. Time can be spent chipping fresh black-lip oysters from the rocks to enjoy with a squeeze of lemon and we will introduce you to the taste of pearl meat.
When to go: March – September
Tasmania is home to five national parks and two World Heritage areas making it a pristine environment to explore. Based from a yacht, we would recommend exploring the southeastern part of the island, using helicopters and/or light aircraft to penetrate its inner areas. Once in the remote parks you will be guided by experts and rangers through the beautiful landscape. You’ll stop at remote dining locations and sleep in bespoke African-style safari camps that have been flown in and erected specifically for your trip. Using tender vessels, you can go up the narrow tributaries with local ecologists and conservationists in search of endemic wildlife including the Tasmanian devil, the Eastern quoll, pademelons and the shy bettong. Peaceful cruises along the coastline can be contrasted with adrenaline-fuelled adventures through the island’s canyons and rapids. We can arrange quad-bike journeys and races to remote farms and vineyards for wonderful private culinary experiences.
When to go: November – February
This article was first published in Yacht Style Magazine.
Text by Angela Audretsch