Why openness with innovation can change attitudes

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Superyacht Investor London 2024

"Managing the risks with innovative new builds" - Superyacht Investor London 2024.

New-build innovation could spark a seismic shift in the public perception of superyachts but only if old-school practices of secrecy and silos are swept away.

Sustainable technology is on an upward curve and the industry has the potential for meaningful change in attitudes, knowledge and the environment, according to a panel of new-build experts at Superyacht Investor London 2024.

Inspirational owners driving concepts such as Feadship’s hydrogen fuel-cell powered Project 821 are the key, but to mitigate risk and encourage further development, full collaboration from the outset and a willingness to share ideas is needed, said the panel.

READ: Edmiston’s advice and talking markets at SYI London

“We’re in a unique position,” said Derek Munro, director, Divergent Yachting, who has been overseeing new builds since 2004. “We work with billionaires and they’re becoming richer every day and they’re getting younger. And the young ones are willing to invest their money in improving the environment and the planet. 

“And we can make change way quicker than any government can with our clients. There’s a few of them coming through that see that and if they put it in the right place, we’ll see change happen quite rapidly in the next 8-10 years, which will be positive for the industry and potentially for the whole planet.”

Shouting from the rooftops

Peter Wilson, president, Marine Construction Management (MCM) in Newport, Rhode Island said the perception of superyachting is “not great in the media” but insisted the industry has the power to change the narrative by moving from a clandestine, NDA-riddled world to being more “open” and “altruistic”. As Julian Smith, principal surveyor, Cayman Islands Shipping Registry put it on the panel: “We should be shouting about this stuff from the rooftops.”

“People love to take a dig at us,” said Wilson. “But if they can see that we’re doing world-changing, life-changing things, that these owners are investing hundreds of millions of euros into it, then maybe it’ll change the perception. These are not just rich guys having fun. They’re actually doing good work and they’re sharing that knowledge.”

READ: Feadship, MB92, Cantiere delle Marche win SYI awards

Benefit

Richie Blake, MD, Dohle Yachts Group pointed to the “trickle-down” potential of technology, such as anti-lock brakes on Formula 1 cars being adopted by the wider automotive industry or the yacht client who began his electric journey by initially installing batteries so that he didn’t hear the din of a diesel generator while snorkelling.

“It is owners with the inspiration to do it that are pushing the boundaries and challenging us to find solutions that then become the norm,” added Wilson.

Munro mentioned the economic benefits of a large yacht project, drawing on his experience as owner’s representative on the six-year build of the 106m sailing yacht Black Pearl by Oceanco in the Netherlands.

“Oceanco is surrounded by a village and probably 90% of those people work there,” said Munro. “And if you take all the subcontractors and the suppliers, who all spend money in shops and pay taxes, and show the rest of the world how we benefit so many communities, I think they might start thinking of us a little bit differently.”

Julian Smith (left), Derek Munro (centre), Peter Wilson (right).

Derek Munro (centre) talks as Julian Smith (left) and Peter Wilson (right) listen.

Altruistic

Wilson said that when working on the fossil-fuel free Project Zero sailing yacht, an initiative of Foundation Zero, instead of signing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) – “I’ve signed so many I can’t talk to myself anymore” – it was “almost the opposite”, more like a “disclosure agreement”.

“You must show your work and you must share it,” he said. “All the research and development, which is very costly and very time consuming, is all open source because the owners want to encourage other people to do it and have a trickle-down effect, not just in the yachting sector, but globally. That is a very altruistic approach. The confidentiality thing, which we are all very used to, is completely thrown on its head with this project. 

“And that’s taken some time with the manufacturers, the vendors, and the designers, because they want to protect their IP, but we’re looking not at their backward IP, just the stuff they’re developing for us moving forward.”

It seems innovation is at an inflection point, where once it was stifled by factors such as over-complex regulations, reluctant shipyards, disinterested owners and a high degree of risk.

“We haven’t been innovating, historically,” added Wilson. “Look at motor yachts for the last 40 years. They haven’t changed very much. So this is a new problem that we’re tackling.”

READ: Owner Vonk’s journey to net his dream yacht

Catch-22

State-of-the-art solutions require innovative systems, processes and regulatory frameworks and the key is early collaboration across disciplines within the entire ecosystem, according to Blake.

“We’re doing a very exciting project, which has been in the news,” said Blake. “We can’t do that on our own. We’ve brought in a huge number of other people.  

“We’re in a situation where we’re already beyond the base knowledge of the brilliant people at Class and Flag and these sorts of regulators, beyond the prescriptive regulation of the IMO because these things haven’t been thought about.

“How can you put into place standards and regulations for technology that isn’t even widely developed yet? It’s an exciting and interesting place.”

READ: Why new builds need operational design input

Blake spoke of a “weird catch-22”, describing how they developed a training course for crew who are dealing with liquid hydrogen. They consulted a number of professionals from the oil and gas industry and had the course approved by a surveyor who then asked if he could attend the course to learn more.

“So we’ve all got to be open to this and work together if we’re going to do this safely and if we’re going to keep pulling forward within the industry,” added Blake.

Brokerage?

New Zealander Munro said he has been involved on a ground-breaking 100m yacht for nearly three years, working with the owner’s “amazing” and “very, very smart” team to plan the whole R&D and build infrastructure and work on legal and regulatory aspects and is still “nowhere near ready to start” construction.

“It’s a long process, we’re probably not going to launch this thing until the next decade,” said, Munro, who has worked on projects he hasn’t been able to tell his wife or one half of the office about.

“But the client wants to be at the forefront of everything. He wants to use technology that no one else is even thinking of. And so you have to put time and effort into it. And, obviously, from his side, a lot of money.”

READ: ‘There’s always a buyer somewhere on the planet’

While innovation does help to future-proof a yacht, most visionary owners are not doing it with resale in mind.

“The owners are not thinking about the brokerage market,” said Wilson. “They’re thinking about, let’s make this happen. Let’s do this. Let’s create something truly special.”

Munro added: “They’re in it to prove a technology. They’re in it to do something for the planet. The amount of money they’re spending per square metre on these projects, you’re not going to get that back.”

 

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