Owner Vonk’s journey to net his dream yacht

Owner Erik Vonk has converted a trawler into 45.6m explorer yacht Scintilla Maris.

Owner Erik Vonk has converted a trawler into 45.6m explorer yacht Scintilla Maris.

Erik Vonk puts much of it down to Dutch stubbornness. It helped him drive through his decades-long dream to convert a North Sea fishing trawler into an explorer yacht bound for the world’s remote places.

Of all his ideas and sketched-out plans, he reckons he got 85% past the shipyard, though he laughingly concedes they might not agree with that number.

“Of course, I’m not a shipbuilder so there have been many, many instances where I’ve done an enormous amount of homework and went with all my drawings to the shipyard only to see eyebrows go up, people rubbing their chins and say, well very nice but we’re afraid that’s going to be very difficult,” says Vonk, talking on the bridge of the rebuilt 45.6m Scintilla Maris in London’s Docklands.

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‘Psychologically wrong’

One idea of Vonk’s was to cut platforms accessing the water into the superstructure on either side of the vessel, amidships. He’s spent plenty of time on “white yachts” and to him, beach clubs at the stern of the boat are “psychologically wrong”.

“When I first went with sketches, there was this typical shipyard environment, formica tables, fluorescent lights and guys in coveralls rolling their own cigarettes,” says Vonk, who grew up in the Netherlands but has lived in the US since 1979.

“They’d light the cigarette, and say, ‘Why do you want that?’ And I would explain, and they’d say it’s not possible.” Vonk took his plans to the original designer of the trawler who, he says, came back a week later claiming the platforms actually improved the structural integrity.

Vonk only wanted to access the water but was delighted the yard went on to embrace his vision. “In many cases, of course, the shipyard has been able to navigate me to versions of what I wanted that were actually executable,” he says.

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Scintilla Maris is a North Sea fishing trawler converted into an explorer yacht.

For Vonk, who has also owned a converted 26m tugboat, the journey to rebuild a trawler stretches back a couple of decades. He wanted a robust yacht in which to discover some of the world’s more remote regions such as the Arctic, the Pacific Northwest, the Northwest Passage, Melanesia and the South Pacific.

“I wanted a hull like this for a couple of simple reasons,” says Vonk, the former CEO of recruitment businesses Randstad North America and Gevity. “These have been developed over centuries for fishing purposes in the most treacherous waters around the world, the North Sea, and I wanted a go-anywhere boat. There are no better go-anywhere boats than these.

“Number two, I want comfort not luxury. Nothing in here is luxurious. Everything has been built around comfort, a home away from home. The remote areas are the destinations. This is the platform to get there.”

‘Deeply involved’

One option was to build from scratch based on the design of a trawler but Vonk approached several yards and was told: “We’d love to build it but you’re crazy. This is so over-engineered and far more robust than one would need for a pleasure yacht.”

Instead, he approached Damen Maaskant in the Netherlands, which he considers to be the premier builder of trawlers” and asked whether it would be interested in trying to find one of its own boats and converting it. “They jumped all over it,” he says. “They have been absolutely marvellous throughout the process.”

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It took about five years to source and buy the boat, a 1988 beam trawler, before Vonk embarked on the design and project management himself, consulting the yard and other industry experts when needed, including a chef to help him lay out the galley. The build, essentially “a new yacht on an existing hull”, took four years, with Vripac Design styling the interiors.

“It’s taken a lot of time to do it but for me that journey was at least as important as the destination and the final boat,” says Vonk, who is the executive chairman of People2.0 and who also owns two rum distilleries producing Richland Rum in the US state of Georgia.

“I’ve enjoyed tremendously to be deeply involved in the build of this throughout the whole process. I’ve loved it. As a matter of fact I would love to do it again. I already have some ideas about the next project.”

Erik Vonk's Scintilla Maris has an outside bar.

Scintilla Maris sports an outside bar and seating areas amidships.

‘Not a tree hugger’

Vonk says he has “invested heavily” in light and paid an “enormous amount of attention” to navigation equipment and an integrated bridge system from Alphatron Marine, with a hybrid propulsion system “to be ultra quiet and to be as eco-conscious as one could possibly be with a pleasure craft”.

“To me it’s very important,” says Vonk, who stresses the yacht exceeds the IMO Tier III emissions standards. “I’m not a tree hugger. I’m a realist but when you do something for pleasure that’s not really necessary, I think you want to be very responsible and to me that’s been a very important driver.”

The trawler’s original diesel engine was “beautiful” in “absolutely excellent condition” and Vonk says overhauling it “would have cost a fraction” of the investment in the new hybrid propulsion system. “But burning 500-800 litres of diesel fuel an hour just for pleasure purposes, I don’t feel good about that,” he says.

According to his captain, the hotel and fuel consumption when crossing from the Netherlands to London was just 35 litres an hour, down to 26 litres on the River Thames.

READ: Why new-builds need operational design input

As an owner, Vonk’s key requirement from a yard is “the ability to deliver quality at a reasonable price”.

“I’m not looking to squeeze out the last penny, but I don’t want to overpay,” says Vonk, who was also a banker with Chase Manhattan and ABN-Amro and wrote a book titled Don’t Get a Job, Get a Life!”

“Some yards tend to promise the moon to get the project and then have to scramble back to reality. What I have immensely appreciated is a constant sense of realism based on very thorough know-how.”

‘Negatively impact’

Vonk wouldn’t be drawn on the cost of the project but he has put the yacht for sale with Burgess for €19,250,000 “which represents approximately the investment”.

“You have to take into consideration that’s been built up over 15 years. If you would have that done today you’re talking about a considerably higher amount,” he says, adding he was careful not to anything that would “heavily negatively impact a possible resale and make it an abyss”.

Vonk adds: “I don’t necessarily want to sell the boat because I’m very happy with the outcome but because it is not completely a new build and will still have a little bit of a rebuilt label five years down the line, the value will be more associated with that than with the fact that it is actually a new build in an existing hull. So I thought it was good right from the start label it, peg it: ‘This is the value of the boat’. If someone wants to buy it at that price, welcome, because then I’m going to do it again. The buyer gets a super deal and I get to do a new project.”

Erik Vonk on the bridge of Scintilla Maris.

Vonk surveys the bridge of Scintilla Maris.

‘Hold up their pants’

In choosing Eleonora Pitasso of Burgess as his agent, Vonk says “affinity with the project” and “an established position in the industry” is key.

“I think the combination of Burgess as a brokerage home and Eleonora as a brokerage professional with a couple of decades of successful work within the industry is a winning combination,” he says.

“She has what an old fart like me calls the Rolodex. It’s market knowledge and industry knowledge and I think she’s very strong.”

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When he is not using the yacht, which is sailing under the flag of the Marshall Islands, Vonk will charter it through EYOS expeditions for €160,000 a week excluding provisioning.

There are almost no yachts that can hold up their own pants so to speak but in my case I felt that if we can defray some of the annual operating cost then that’s manna from heaven,” he says. “And the opportunity to team up with an organisation like EYOS was to me was very attractive. I’ve known EYOS for many years, not necessarily as a yacht charter company, but as the premier expedition organiser in the world.”

Vonk’s piercing blue gaze is fixed on exploring the world’s remote regions, but for now he is planning to head up to Scotland and onto the Shetland Islands and the Faroe Islands.

“Small places, small anchorages, maybe even a small dock somewhere. Go to the local pub and make some friends,” he says.


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