Yachts vs. Ships: Back to the Future

Written by Justin Ratcliffe

If you picked up a glossy brochure about a new sailing yacht and read about its “modern underwater profile with a fin keel incorporating a trim tab and a low VCG bulb keel with a balanced spade rudder”, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was the result of extensive innovation and the latest design thinking. It is actually a contemporary description of the 38-foot yacht Dilemma designed by Nathanael G. Herreshoff and launched 130 years ago.  Savannah Rolls Royce Azipull propulsion“The combination of modern materials and improved sail plans have allowed some of the most innovative ideas of the late 19th century to finally become a reality,” says Mark Small, a naval architect at Rob Doyle Design.  Feadship unwittingly caused a bit of a stir in 2015 when it described 83.5-metre Savannah as “The world’s first hybrid superyacht.” Royal Huisman shot back with the reminder that in 2008 it had launched 58-metre Ethereal, the ketch-rigged sailing yacht noted for her pioneering hybrid propulsion that could draw on 500 kW/h of stored energy in her Li-ion battery bank.   Ethereal profilePhoto: Franco PaceThe first diesel-electric (DE) ship was the Russian tanker Vandal in 1903 and hybrid-powered submarines have been around for well over a hundred years. Modern advances in AC drive technology and power management systems largely derived from the commercial and military sectors, together with demand for low emissions and noise levels and increased flexibility and redundancy, is driving DE and hybrid solutions for yachts.  

Pods able to rotate through 360 degrees gave rise to Dynamic Positioning (DP) systems for automatically controlling the position and heading of a vessel. Once limited to semi-submersible drilling platforms, oceanographic research vessels, cable layers and cruise ships, the popularity of the compact and user-friendly Volvo Penta IPS system with individually steerable thrusters has meant DP capability is now available for smaller yachts under 30 metres in length.  Ambrosia yacht anchored The principles of hydrostatic stability for floating bodies, the basis of modern naval architecture, were first outlined by Archimedes around 250 BC. Boat builders have been looking for ways to enhance the stability of hull shapes ever since.

The German engineer Otto Schlick was the first to suggest using a gyroscope to supply torque to oppose rolling motions and his system was installed on a torpedo boat in 1906. The concept was improved upon by the American inventor Elmer Ambrose Sperry and the naval transport vessel USS Henderson was the first large ship with gyro stabilisers in 1917. Bold yacht at Miami Yacht Show 2020Photo: Ralph Dazert / SuperYacht TimesBold yacht overhead viewPhoto: Guillaume PlissonSignificantly, all these innovations were introduced first on naval or passenger ships. Indeed, modern specialists like Naiad Dynamics and Quantum Marine pioneered stabilisation solutions in the military and commercial sectors long before applying their know-how to superyachts.

“Although stabiliser fins originated with the military, they are now standard on every superyacht,” says Erik Spek, Director at Azure Yacht Design & Naval Architects in the Netherlands. “What gets me every time is that the order form of one particular supplier still asks us to specify the type of combatant vessel!”  Motor Yacht A in the Caribbean Photo: Benoit DonneMotor Yacht A in the Caribbean Photo: Benoit DonneThere are very few technical innovations that have migrated from leisure yachts to other sectors. Water jet propulsion is a rare example. The Italian inventor Secondo Campini unveiled the first functioning pump-jet engine in 1931, but it never became a commercial product. The first person to achieve that was the New Zealand inventor Sir William Hamilton in 1954. Hamilton never claimed to have invented jet propulsion, crediting Archimedes and his screw turbine, but he did refine the concept enough to produce the first modern, commercially viable jet boat.  Spectre yacht cruisingPhoto: Jim RaycroftWhen scaled up in size, the performance, manoeuvrability and shallow draft of waterjets made them ideal for fast patrol boats and high-speed ferries. At this point, the flow of knowledge was reversed and any developments in the military and commercial fields were quickly picked up by superyacht builders. Hydro Tec founder Sergio Cutolo, for example, began his career as a naval architect developing naval and passenger vessels, as well as fast yachts, for Baglietto and the Rodriquez Group

Even current trends in aesthetics seem to have trickled down from other sectors. The exterior lines of yachts such as motor yacht A designed by Philippe Starck and Bold by Espen Øino were inspired by military designs, and modern explorer yachts take their styling cues from research and supply vessels. But it seems the tide could be about to turn.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of The SuperYacht Times newspaper. To receive all future issues straight to your door, subscribe to the newspaper here.

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