Insight: What is a custom yacht?

Written by Merijn de Waard

Here we consider the different definitions of yacht categories and what should be considered when deciding how to classify them.  

1. Made or done to order; custom-made Thunder on seatrialsPhoto: Tom van Oossanen / SuperYacht Times

Custom is a much-overused word in the superyacht business and it is often used in the wrong way. In order to define the meaning of the word in the yachting lexicon we need to look at how it applies to the yachting industry and, actually, if we need to use the word at all? 

If we look at the official definition of custom above, then it would only apply to yachts that are made to order. Does that mean that a yacht that is part of a production line and gets ordered by the customer before the construction is started, is also a custom yacht? 

Instead of looking for the definition of custom it is much more beneficial to look at what we are trying to achieve from the definition. In this case, we are aiming to clearly establish categories in which different projects fit into. 

Thunder exterior detail

The first question is: who began the project? If the yacht builder started the project then we are talking about a model, because they have created this with their own vision in mind of what the market wants and it is not the specific vision of a client. If the design and concept of a project is started by a client then we can speak about it being a bespoke yacht. 

So, for project type we have:

  • Model – design and concept initiated by the yacht builder
  • Bespoke – design and concept as per the brief by of a yacht owner

Does this mean that bespoke yachts are all one offs and models can’t be one off creations? It would be easy to assume that bespoke yachts would all be one off creations, but there have been cases where two clients have ordered the same yacht, which they have developed together. In this case they are still bespoke yachts as the design of these projects was initiated by the client. 

Ultimately, there are only a handful of projects you can debate about. There are several one off models, for example, as in some cases the shipyard starts a model, but it might prove to be unsuccessful and no more are built. On the bespoke side, the confusion arises mainly around large yachts (70m+) which are built on speculation as one off projects based on a platform. Often they are developed by a yard’s investor for personal use. In this case it is a mixture of bespoke - as the yard investor is a client himself - and model -  as the project is created with a vision to resell it. 

Another term used a lot in the yachting industry is semi-custom. Where does that fit in? If we work with ‘model’ or ‘bespoke’ yachts, then everything that is referred to today as semi-custom is a model. That, however, does not mean that there are not different types of models we can identify:

  • Model where the client can change parts of the exterior design and choose their own interior design 
  • Model where the client can choose their own interior design  
  • Model whereby the client can only make limited interior changes - e.g. fabrics and furniture

There are also different categories for bespoke yachts. 

  • Bespoke with unique design and engineering. This is a yacht that has been specifically developed to meet the brief of a client, with all elements developed from scratch.
  • Bespoke with unique design with a proven platform. Several large yacht builders work with platforms of 80-metres and above. Using a platform reduces construction time while still providing unique exterior and interior design.  

Thunder on seatrialsPhoto: Tom van Oossanen / SuperYacht Times

Is the quality of a bespoke project better than a model? 
In the superyacht business bespoke projects are perceived as the best yachts in the world. Often this title is assessed on either the finish of the exterior/interior, or the technical aspects of the vessel… rarely both. But in reality, this perception of bespoke yachts as superior to models is not entirely accurate. 

For example, if a yacht is built as part of a series, then the builder should have learned from the first few vessels in the series how to make the following ones better. It is very hard to build something as complex as a large yacht and do everything perfectly the first time, but it is possible! Of course it also happens that yacht builders don’t learn from their mistakes and keep building models that have the same problems. 

It is true that clients will often spend more money on the interior and exterior finish of a large bespoke yacht than a shipyard would on a 30-metre model. Quality in the yachting industry is often perceived as the level of finish on the inside and outside and not so much on the technical side of the vessel, simply because it is harder to judge the technical aspects of a yacht for people who have no knowledge or access to those parts of a yacht. 

Besides looking at just the design side of how a project is started we also make the distinction between projects that are started with an owner or projects that are started by the shipyard on speculation. 

This is separate from the questions of a yacht being a bespoke project or a model. While a project started on speculation is pretty much always a model, unless a client is speculating, it does not always mean that the construction of a model is started by the shipyard. 

For example, it’s possible that a model is begun by a client, because maybe the shipyard had three projects on speculation but they were all sold and the client wants number four. Then it is possible for them to place the order without the yacht being started on speculation. So it is a new order, but not a bespoke project.

Thunder on seatrialsPhoto: Tom van Oossanen / SuperYacht TimesWhy definitions matter
This is very valuable information, especially over a longer period of time, as you will be able to see trends in the market and when shipyards are investing and if they are still investing in new speculation builds when the market is on a downward curve. 

What does it matter if we call something a custom project, bespoke project, semi-custom project, model or production yacht? It’s simple: we need to professionalise the business and be able to explain it to the future generations of yacht owners. To be able to do that we need to have clear definitions of what is what. In addition, we need to keep track of the statistics on the market. The more precise information we have, the better we can make decisions and the more transparent the superyacht business will be - for the benefit of all. 

SuperYacht iQ Market Report 2017

For full details of the number of new and completed yacht sales, order your copy of the SuperYacht iQ 2018 Market Report here. It is for sale at €299 and the digital version will be sent out early next month.

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