SY Interviews: Naval Architects & The Drive for Green Yachting

By Jenna Mehdi

The second article in our series on naval architecture brings us inevitably to the topic of sustainability. Whether due to higher levels of information and education, or public personas and a shifting demographic of owners, the superyacht industry is becoming increasingly conscious of its environmental footprint. We examine how the architects behind the operation, fuelling and power generation of the world’s ocean giants play an integral role in this discussion, the complexities around this, and what the future looks like for ‘green yachting’.

Part 2 of our 4-part series features Thys Nikkels (CEO & Naval Architect, Dykstra Naval Architects), Matteo Magherini (Business Development & Naval Architect, Lateral Naval Architects) and Johan Siefer (Naval Architect, Judel / Vrolijk & Co.). 

The importance of being green is undeniably taking an increasingly large space in the discussion of yacht design. Have you seen that reflected in the jobs you have been commissioned for?

At Dykstra Naval Architects, Thys Nikkels reports a noticeable shift towards ‘greener’ yachting over the last ten years. ‘In 2008 we launched Rainbow Warrior III for Greenpeace, with a philosophy of going motor sailing and reducing fuel consumption,’ he tells us. ‘It was their first new build vessel - we performed a full life cycle analysis of the boat and found that actually over 35 years of a vessel’s lifetime, the burning of fossil fuel was by far the most harmful environmental impact and not the build. So you’re actually better off building a new vessel which performs much better with fuel than buying second-hand and refitting for that purpose.’ 

An interesting observation, not least because of the abundance of sustainable choices available to those seeking to build a new ‘green’ yacht. For an example of the developmental nature of these options, take Lateral Naval Architect’s E-Hybrid system. ‘Effectively you have batteries to run the propulsion power, and a small diesel generator to recharge the battery - a diesel electric in reverse,’ Matteo Magherini tells us. The advantage of this system is that the vessel is effectively ‘future proof’; the batteries can be replaced as technology around it improves, until a diesel generator is no longer needed. ‘It’s a stepping stone to hydrogen and other technologies that will follow.’  

Of course there are challenges in converting client interest in sustainability to green yacht projects. Johan Siefer of Judel / Vrolijk & Co., a naval architecture and design firm specialising in high-performance sailing yachts, tells us that although discussions around sustainability are now held in the very early stages of a project, the ‘risk factor’ is the largest obstacle to conversion. ‘Superyachts far from shore have to be absolutely reliable. Right now some promising green solutions and new techniques need more time and testing - we need to work to reduce the risk factor.’

Can you tell us about the ways in which your design and architecture has catered to a more sustainable yacht? 

Johan’s concerns regarding the risk factor are certainly valid. ‘Rate of development is also an issue,’ Matteo adds. With the average project taking around 4-5 years, it is difficult for owners to decide how much they wish to invest in sustainable platforms when their newly delivered yacht will be fitted with technology developed almost a decade earlier. This aside, there is a dizzying array of options available to owners to build, or indeed already on the water, marking huge strides in the field of sustainability. 

The team at Dykstra has invested heavily in hybrid solutions since 2008, Thys tells us, notably by using propellors to generate power onboard. The best example of this is the 106m sailing yacht Black Pearl, which effectively achieves zero fuel consumption by virtue of two propellors rotating while sailing at 12 knots of windspeed. ‘We are able to generate enough power - up to 450kW - allowing us to completely shut off the generators. So all the hotel load comes from the power generated by the propellors.’

Thys goes on, ‘We’re now looking into a vessel where we don’t carry diesel fuel anymore, we only have storage or electric power onboard and we generate all of the power onboard ourselves with sailing or solar power.’ 

Proving sustainability is not an exclusive privilege relegated to the realm of sailing yachts, Matteo and the team at Lateral earned a name for themselves with the revolutionary AQUA concept presented at the 2019 Monaco Yacht Show. As part of the BMT Group, Lateral looked at advancements in the shipping industry to develop a feasible motor platform powered by liquified hydrogen to achieve the ultimate goal of zero emissions. 

‘The full bunkering capacity of AQUA is 26 tonnes of liquified hydrogen. As current global production is at 28 tonnes, the product needs a client who is visionary enough to invest in the provisioning and develop a network of distribution him or herself,’ Matteo tells us. ‘We have started studies and discussions into making this possible.’

The centrality of the owner underpins the extent to which a yacht can be made sustainable then. Great things can be achieved when a willing owner invests in a green sailing yacht, and a visionary owner is needed to progress Lateral’s revolutionary technology for AQUA into the next stages. ‘We must do the right boat for the client,’ Johan affirms. ‘There’s size, efficiency of the hulls - there are a lot of areas of influence to make the project better.’ 

What do you think is the biggest thing that needs to change for the industry to become more environmentally conscious and where does this change need to come from?

While there is certainly a distinction to be drawn between motor and sail yachting (‘More sail yachts, less motor yachts!’ is the solution proposed by Thys), there are significant areas of influence for change on a more general level. 

To expand upon these areas of influence, Matteo points to a ‘pool of consultants’ around the owners of large superyacht projects (80m+) who have ‘the power to steer the project in one direction or another’. 

This is where the risk factor comes into play; owners’ representatives and shipyards will seek to push an agenda of the lowest risk. Developing new technology is one task of the naval architect in promoting green yachting, but educating the necessary players is a fundamental next step. ‘I see ourselves as missionaries,’ Matteo tells us. ‘On a mission to spread the word and push new ideas, encouraging other people to join the conversation too.’ 

There are some people that say yachting (or motor yachting) is inherently contradictory to ‘being green’. What would you say to this?

At Dykstra and Judel / Vrolijk & Co., a specialism in sailing yachts has developed from the passion of sailing shared by the founders. But as Thys tells us, an interesting concept for a motor yacht will always be considered. 

To illustrate this, Dykstra developed Project ICE, a superyacht which uses a kite for fuel saving - another idea borrowed from the commercial shipping industry. ‘It’s something you can actually retro-fit on a motor yacht, too,’ Thys points out. 

Ultimately though, a truly ‘green’ yacht using the technology currently available must be powered by wind. ‘The market of sailing yachts is quite complex. You need more time, more knowledge and more skills to get onboard and enjoy a sailing yacht,’ says Matteo. 

This is a common conception, but one that the team at Dykstra have been fighting hard against with the proliferation of the Dynarig. Bringing Wilhelm Prölß’s rig to the notorious masts of the Maltese Falcon and Black Pearl, the core concept at the heart of the Dynarig is its ease of use.

‘Sometimes as an industry we are building sailing yachts that are so complicated - for aesthetics, comfort, performance - it doesn’t mean the boat is inherently greener than a motor yacht. If it is too complicated to go sailing with the ship, then the crew will choose to go motoring instead, or to save wear and tear on the rig. So as designers we have to give the crew the right ship for the task,’ says Thys.

Johan adds, ‘It comes down to an understanding of our culture and how much comfort and complexity you want.’

Where do you see the industry going in regards to being green in the next 5 years?

The main areas of improvement, our interviewees agreed, lie in furthering the conversation around green yachting. ‘The yachting industry is small compared to industry leaders, so we have to connect and may also have to wait for the heavy industry to develop the products that we can implement,’ comments Johan. 

Rather than any miraculous practical solutions, education and dialogue will be at the forefront of industry efforts in the next five years. Matteo reaffirmed the naval architect’s commitment to education, be it in the areas of hydrogen, electrification of yachts, or indeed simply suggesting a sailing yacht to an owner who would normally opt for motor. 

Thys adds, ‘I hope we have more clients pushing for green options, and an industry that is open to investigate and promote that.’

But the solution isn’t entirely talking shop. In addition to furthering the dialogue into necessary action, there are practical areas of improvement which include capacities and regulation. Matteo suggests that we may be seeing rechargeable capacities in more and more marinas around the world, to cater for a predicted increase in electric yachts. Meanwhile, the IMO regulations on commercial shipping could be extended to cover yachting too. 

The role of naval architects in pushing the sustainable agenda is a complex and critical one. Limited by resources, clients, technology and a host of other priorities, naval architecture has nonetheless managed to break huge ground in theory and practice to curb the carbon footprint of the world’s superyacht fleet. Technological advancements in the years ahead will be crucial to the progression of this, and the continued receptibility of owners amongst other players in translating the research of naval architects into real and tangible change. 

"We’re now looking into a vessel where we don’t carry diesel fuel anymore, we only have storage or electric power onboard and we generate all of the power onboard ourselves with sailing or solar power."

Thys Nikkels, CEO Dykstra Naval Architects


"We’re now looking into a vessel where we don’t carry diesel fuel anymore, we only have storage or electric power onboard and we generate all of the power onboard ourselves with sailing or solar power."

Thys Nikkels, CEO Dykstra Naval Architects
By Jenna Mehdi
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