Why tea and biscuits can beat AI yacht surveys

Could AI and machine learning replace the human touch in yacht surveys?

Could AI and machine learning replace the human touch in yacht surveys?

Plain or covered in chocolate? That’s a choice you don’t get with artificial intelligence (AI) but you do with deluxe oat biscuits such as Hobnobs.

It’s one reason AI will never replace the human touch of yacht surveys, says Richard Franklin, Yacht Survey Partners.

While software tools have certainly made the survey process much more efficient, technology can’t reach those places accessed by a natter, a cup of tea and a biscuit, according to Franklin. “It’s a touchy-feely business,” he says.

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However, naval architect Val Martin of Navalmartin believes AI is the future of marine surveys and is developing a machine-learning tool called “Mir” to “disrupt the relationship between the insurer-owner-surveyor”.

“Some professions are being digitised, such as accounting and the health sector, and certainly marine surveying is not streamlined and harmonised in one central database,” he says. “We should look for a smarter future with regard to the understanding of marine safety and seamanship.”

About 80% of Franklin’s work is pre-purchase surveys, for which his team will spend up to five days onboard poring through every aspect of a yacht’s technical and cosmetic condition, but each process starts the same way.

“For us, the people are the key to the survey,” says Franklin. “The first thing we always do is sit down with the chief engineer and just get to know them, have a cup of tea and a Hobnob and find out what it is we need to know and what it is they want to tell us because they’ve got stuff on their agenda too.

“It’s definitely a soft diplomacy survey, it’s not something you can hand over to a computer.  Yes, there are lots of things AI would be great for such as sifting through huge amounts of data but the reality is we’re sat down on the bridge with 10 A4 binders leafing through looking for what we need, which doesn’t work well with the whole AI thing.”

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The 95m Lurssen superyacht Kismet.

Franklin’s team surveyed the 95m Lurssen Kismet in 2023. Photo: Christian Ferrer.

‘Pattern and process’

Not that technology doesn’t have a key role to play, says Franklin.

“We’ve adopted software technology hugely in what we do,” he adds. “We’ve hugely customised a system called Pinpoint Works and we can do a 100m-plus yacht and have a report out in two or three days. There is a pattern and we have a process to get through that as efficiently, thoroughly and quickly as possible.”

Franklin’s team carried out the pre-purchase survey of the 95m Lurssen Kismet, which was bought by a client of Will Christie in September with Chris Cecil-Wright acting for the seller.

“We stepped off Kismet at 1730 on a Friday afternoon, we had our report in – 350 pages – by 1630 on the Sunday and they completed an hour later,” he says.

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Navalmartin’s Mir, which is still in development but has won an award for disruptive technology, is a computer vision app which allows a vessel to be visually surveyed on a mobile device by an owner’s representative.

The company says it hopes to “decouple” the need for a surveyor to travel. “We want to bring the competencies to the vessels digitally as opposed to flying one expert at a time,” adds Martin.

The data is uploaded and centralised and large language models are able to detect common defects, conduct condition assessments and put them into context to establish a vessel’s risk profile for insurance, certification and sale, says the company.

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AI is becoming more prevalent in the superyacht industry.

AI is becoming more prevalent in the superyacht industry.

‘Only way to scale’

One of the issues Mir hopes to solve is insufficient surveyors for the number of superyachts these days, particularly with an ageing fleet and allied to the expense and environmental impact of travel.

Martin’s colleague and co-founder Dr Daria Cabai points to post-hurricane work with more than 100 damaged vessels to survey and says the current survey model is “archaic” and “no longer viable”.

“This is the only way to scale the operation,” says Dr Cabai, who adds that advances in technology make it “unrealistic” for individual surveyors to be expert in every system on board.

She adds: “I always give the example of other sectors like medicine, where machine learning is applied to scan loads of images and is becoming more efficient than humans at seeing those red flag cases. With AI we will all be able to benefit from this massive data bank of knowledge. We don’t necessarily want to take jobs away from surveyors but we want there to be access to expertise and that it’s applied on a global scale.”

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‘Tooled up with lawyers’

About 20% of Franklin’s work is for insurance purposes, assessing damage or loss, reviewing repair quotes and contracts and advising underwriters on “what’s fair, what should be paid and what shouldn’t be paid”, he says.

But again, he stresses the human connection in surveys.

“For insurance you really do sometimes get dumped into the middle of somebody’s crisis,” adds Franklin.

 “In the past I’ve been standing in wellies, knee-deep in concrete, directing the pouring of concrete to fill holes where water is coming in, or been involved in fires the day after it’s happened or in situations where a boat is adrift having lost its power 30 miles off the Cote d’Azur and we have to leap into action to make sure we’ve got tugs on standby, we know where the safe havens are and what we need to do to keep the boat safe. 

“The other side of that is you’re trying to help underwriters come to a successful settlement on a multi-million pound paint damage claim and you’ve got a lot of people heavily tooled up with the best lawyers and nobody takes any prisoners and you’ve got to be spot on and sharp in what you’re saying.”

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‘Lots of egos’

Franklin adds: “In many ways the insurance and legal work is the most mentally challenging and stressful because it’s a big-stakes game, although I have to remind myself that doing a pre-purchase survey on a $200m yacht is also a big-stakes game, but we have a process and we feel very comfortable doing it.”

Then there are those one-off incidents that require agility and outside-the-box thinking, such as the time Franklin conducted a sea trial of a yacht with court-appointed marshals on board because it was effectively under arrest for unpaid debts.

“There’s always going to be things that come up, the secret is to put everything in context so things don’t get blown out of proportion,” he adds.

“You’re dealing with lots of egos – owners, captains, crew who are all concerned about their own employment. Our view is that it’s a people business; hardware is what we do but it is all about how we look after the people.

 “A yacht is the ultimate discretionary purchase. Ultimately, it’s a touchy-feely business.”

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