SY Interviews: Naval Architects and the Rise of the Explorer

By Jenna Mehdi

The phenomenon of explorer yachting is not undiscussed by any means in our industry, but one which never fails to fascinate and intrigue. A metaphor for the human ability to push the limits of possibility, to reject boundaries and norms, and to explore the awe-inspiring areas of natural beauty put on this earth, explorer yachting is representative of everything that should be admired and cultivated in superyachting. Incorporating remarkable feats of aesthetic design, performance, seaworthiness and reliability, the task of the naval architect has never been so challenging or stimulating as when it comes to engineering and designing an expedition yacht.

Part 3 of our 4-part series features Erik Spek (Director, Azure Naval Architects), Onne Logger (Director, Azure Naval Architects) and Ivan Salas Jefferson (Naval Architect & Founder, Iddes Yachts). 

The topic of explorer yachting is a particularly pertinent one in the post-COVID era. Even as travel restrictions begin to ease, the lockdown period was a time of deep reflection and gratitude for our ability to (largely) move without restriction, and one that will stay with us for a long time. But the surge in popularity experienced by explorer vessels long predates the inhibitions of 2020; we asked our interviewees why they thought this was. 

‘Yachting is always evolving, and extremely rapidly,’ tells Ivan, himself a naval architect for many years before founding Iddes Yachts as an all-encompassing design, architecture and project management firm. ‘Traditionally, sailing in the Mediterranean and Caribbean was evolving alongside rapidly accelerating technological progress.’ The result is the desire to travel to increasingly remote destinations, but not just purely for pleasure, Ivan adds. ‘Superyachts can also be the base to embark on deep ocean or diving expeditions, or become a portable heliport to reach even more remote areas, or support scientific programs, promote innovation and the integration of technologies…’ The list goes on!

Erik and Onne of Azure Naval Architects are well-versed in this evolution of demands, having already witnessed the launch of two units of the successful SeaXPlorer range, designed for Damen Yachting. In 2015 the team were invited to pitch to Damen on a hybrid yacht project (‘This was more or less the starting point of the trend with the bigger explorer yachts,’ says Erik).  

I think people are looking for something different,’ Onne explains. ‘When we started the concept, we had the idea to do this transition between a commercial ship and luxury yacht. So parts of the boat are of the highest quality, where the guests will be, and the areas related to the crew and the outside of the boat are designed for ice-breaking.’ 

‘It’s cost efficient too, and you can build the crew areas to a more commercial standard,’ Erik adds. 

How do you cater to both luxury yacht design and hardy expedition vessel in your architecture? 

The flexibility and balance between the two competing aspects of a luxury finish and commercial standards was a stressing point for all of our interviewees. Ivan adds that oftentimes, the difference between the two is not visibly obvious, and indeed the owner can ‘hand pick several aspects which automatically give their future yacht explorer abilities, such as ice-class or longer autonomy, while retaining a luxury exterior design and finish. Other times, the client may want to go further and include deep diving abilities, or have the vessel fitted to cater for science or research, and the luxury aspect may apply mainly to the interior of the yacht.’ 

The primacy of the clients’ wishes is, predictably, once again central to this balance and its iteration in the naval architecture and design of the yacht. 

In the case of the SeaXplorer project, Onne explains that clients’ requirements feed into the architectural decisions in more ways than one. ‘Of course everyone liked the idea of taking the boat to a more private location, so the range of these yachts is higher, and the hull can take more ice. But all of them have filler systems and full paint systems, because people still feel it is their beautiful yacht. They are more bulky than other yachts; you can bring all of your toys on the boat itself instead of having a shadow boat for example. So I think it is the sturdy look of it, providing something different to all the white motor yachts around.’

Can you tell us a little about the typical architectural features or requirements that separate an explorer vessel from a traditional superyacht?  

As established, the line between expedition and luxury yacht is not so clear-cut, making this a difficult question to answer succinctly. There are however a few distinguishing features which can be found on the majority of explorer yachts which have to be carefully thought through from an architectural standpoint. 

‘First you have to think of the environment in freezing areas. Everything needs to be protected. You cannot just put all of the tenders on the deck, everything needs to be sheltered. 

Clients ask for a higher level of safety in explorer yachts; people are not really looking for a touch-and-go helipad, for example, as there is no backup from local governments. So most often the helideck is certified, and sometimes there is even a second helicopter for redundancy and safety,’ explains Erik. 

Of course, explorer yachting is still very much part of the superyacht industry, and with that membership comes the requirement to stand out and do something different. On the SeaXplorer for example, the team at Azure introduced the innovative new bow lounge; an interesting feature which can be used for whale-spotting in environments which are too cold for deck lounging. This is a very particular feature of explorer yachting, and demonstrative of the need to stand out while still working within the boundaries of what is feasible to the client. 

What is the most challenging aspect of designing an explorer? 

‘It’s essential to understand the operational requirements in as much detail as possible, since an expedition could require a significant amount of features to be incorporated to embark safely in a specific dive or access a remote area,’ confirms Ivan. Iddes Yachts’ own explorer concept, the Class 55 which seamlessly combines luxurious elements with ice classification, was carefully chosen at a length of 55 metres for this very reason. 

Ivan’s sentiment was confirmed by the Azure team; an in-depth understanding of the client’s emotions, requirements, desires and vision is utterly integral to the success of a project, regardless of its explorative ambitions. 

We were interested to know more about this; as Erik and Onne explained, projects and requirements can change over the course of their duration. ‘We have had projects starting as 50 metres and ending up as 75 metres. Sometimes budgetary constraints change, small items can be very important. We are getting used to that and we respect that of course.’ 

Incredible feats have been achieved by virtue of this respect and flexibility; look to the tennis court installed on Abeking & Rasmussen’s 98.4m Aviva, for example. 

So client requirements, and their potential to shift, are as integral and challenging on an explorer project than any other. While this is not exclusive to the trend of explorer yachting, it is prone to manifest in different ways on these very particular projects. 

If you owned an explorer yacht, where would you take it first? 

‘Everywhere!’ was Ivan’s response, expounding in his wanderlust the unlimited possibilities of travel routes opened up on an expedition. ‘Maybe starting with a dive trip in some remote areas of the pacific, continue with a surf trip in a hidden reef and continue further south to enjoy the wilderness of New Zealand… I could go on!’

From the team at Azure, a more modest yet no less adventurous sentiment: ‘I think I’d go to the Med, there’s so much to explore there for me. For experienced yacht owners they have seen it all. But for me, it’s all new! Let’s explore the Med first, then we’ll go to the Arctic.’

An Australian reef adventure or basking on a beach in the Italian Riviera both seem equally alluring to those of us who cannot be counted in the category of experienced yacht owners. Personally, we would like to opt for both.

"Clients ask for a higher level of safety in explorer yachts; people are not really looking for a touch-and-go helipad, for example, as there is no backup from local governments. "

Erik Spek, Co-Director Azure Naval Architects

"Clients ask for a higher level of safety in explorer yachts; people are not really looking for a touch-and-go helipad, for example, as there is no backup from local governments. "

Erik Spek, Co-Director Azure Naval Architects
By Jenna Mehdi
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