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Insight: Light up your life

Written by
Justin Ratcliffe

Inside, outside or underwater, onboard lighting sets the mood, enhances our perception of space and can even become a work of art itself. In short, it is an integral part of yacht design that contributes to the overall aesthetics by marrying functional needs with materials and finishes to bring a custom project to life.

Irisha's exterior signature line“As yacht designers, we strive to create an emotional and architectural experience, which can only be improved with good lighting design,” says Ben Harrison of Harrison Eidsgaard in London. “You could say that light – its colour, intensity and distribution – is the basis of everything we do.”

This hasn’t always been the case. It wasn’t long ago that lighting on yachts was strictly functional. Limited by profit margins and technical platforms, boat builders relied on generic solutions and were generally slow to embrace innovation. To some extent this was understandable: the vibration, saline environment and limited space for wiring aboard yachts meant conventional solutions were favoured over new but possibly unreliable technologies.

“Every stakeholder appreciates the added value of good lighting design, but in the past it was usually delegated to the shipyards and the installation was very much driven by the budget,” says Claudio Zimarino, advisor for the London-based firm John Cullen Lighting that has developed lighting solutions for superyachts such as Feadship’s 70-metre Joy, Derecktor’s 85.6-metre Aquila and Royal Huisman’s 57.49-metre Twizzle. “It’s only fairly recently that we’ve seen more attention being paid to lighting by enlightened players.”

The big change came with advances in Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology and the push to phase out energy-gobbling halogen bulbs. In the early years, LEDs were expensive, difficult to dim and gave out a harsh blue light, but there was no denying that their small size, low heat emission and long life made them ideal for yachts. Interior and exterior lighting was quickly transformed by using LEDs for accent, ambient and task lighting. The strip lighting beneath furniture units that lends them a ‘floating’ look – an effect that now appears on almost every yacht regardless of size – would be virtually impossible to achieve with other light sources. 

LED chipChips with everything
Recent improvements in the high-tech manufacturing of LED chips have led to further gains in the quality and consistency of light they emit. Today’s high-power LEDs can be smaller than a grain of rice and render colours that are very close to natural light. This is an important consideration for any illumination project, but especially in the retail sector. In fact, Luce5 Yachting in Viareggio was set up so that yacht builders could benefit from the company’s experience working with high-end retail clients such as Prada, Bulgari, Fendi, Boucheron, Zanotti and Zegna. In the two years since the new division was founded, it has collaborated with Benetti on multiple new-builds, including two 100+ metre superyachts due to launch in 2019, and signed off two refit projects with the ‘relamping’ of Benetti’s 52-metre Falcon (ex-Sai Ram) and Oceanco’s 85.5-metre Sunrays

“We started working with Prada because their famous handbags were showing up as different shades of red under different LEDs, sometimes in the same store,” says Riccardo Di Bene, Managing Director of Luce5 Yachting. “The same thing can happen on a yacht: if you don’t use the best quality LEDs, your carefully selected walnut veneer can end up looking like cherry wood. The ultimate goal is to develop lighting solutions that are perfectly harmonised with the interior and exterior furnishings, decor and ambience.”

On board Benetti's Falcon Photo: Alessandro BianchiTechorate your space
Miniaturisation and gains in performance of LEDs have led to new applications that were unrealisable a decade or so ago. Super-bright, electroluminescent LED sheets are now available that can be flexed into fluid, organic shapes. When combined with a reflector and laser-machined diffuser, they offer perfectly uniform brightness across the panel for backlighting marble and onyx, or creating ‘skylight’ panels calibrated to resemble diffuse daylight. Even wood veneers can be backlit and LEDs are being used to add sparkle to micro-perforated leather, providing ambient illumination while accentuating the natural properties of materials. These advances have given birth to a new expression – techorating – to describe the fusion of technology and decorating.

Of course, LEDs have also impacted the exterior lighting of yachts. Instead of lighting up the whole superstructure like a fairground attraction, here the trend is towards more selective, indirect illumination. By way of example, Ben Harrison points to M/Y Irisha, the 51-metre Heesen delivered to her owner earlier this year: 

“Irisha has a very distinctive glass arch over the wheelhouse and we chose to accentuate this signature feature at night with LED strip lighting,” he explains. “We intentionally did not do the same on the deck below, because we would have ended up with that scatter-gun speckling of lights that we’re trying to move away from.”

Aquila Cinema Room by John Cullen LightingLighting in a digital world
Technology has revolutionised the light sources themselves, but also redefined the design process and introduced new tools for personalising the lighting design. Pre-set lighting scenarios, controlled by a handheld tablet or smartphone according to the occasion or time of day, are now fully integrated into the domotic networks aboard yachts. This requires a dozen or more different loops for adjusting the lights in each room, which further involves a lot of complex circuitry that has to be defined ahead of time (the final programming of each loop is often the last job of the designer before delivery of the yacht). This painstaking process is being superseded with LEDs that can be individually controlled using a Digital Addressable Lighting Interface (DALI), a network-based system whereby each light is assigned a specific code. This represents a huge step forward for designers and shipyards alike, who no longer have to decide which lights have to be wired into which loop during the design phase. 

What’s next?
The Internet of Things (the concept of connecting any device to the internet, including cell phones, wearable devices and products such as coffeemakers. An extensive network of connected ‘things’) is becoming a reality and part of this process is Li-Fi, a form of wireless communication using light that is 100 times faster than average Wi-Fi speeds. Because LEDs are semiconductors that can modulate current and output rapidly, they are ideal for implementing Li-Fi. The drawback is that Li-Fi is short range, although in terms of security this is arguably an advantage on yachts: to hack into the Li-Fi network, you would have to stand very near a light source to do so. Innovations like this promise undeniable benefits, but the rapid advance of digital technology brings with it unforeseeable challenges:

“A custom superyacht takes around three years to build, so what we specify today may be old by the time the yacht is delivered,” says Claudio Zimarino. “This means we have to constantly stay on top of the latest developments in lighting technology, fixtures, drivers and control systems. But this is precisely where specialist lighting designers can put their knowledge and expertise at the service of owners, designers and shipyards.” 

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