It’s a curious thing. When I talk to various corners of the industry, there is always a feeling that – like Formula 1 in motor racing – superyachts are the vanguard of innovation and development, with well-heeled owners willing to invest and push boundaries in all areas of their yachts. But while there is some truth to that – one only has to think of groundbreaking yacht projects over the years from design, systems and propulsion points of view, for example – the more I investigate specific areas like glass and electronics, the more I wonder whether really we’ve got it the wrong way round.
In a recent conversation with Steven Miller of glass specialists ProCurve, he suggested that the superyacht industry still tends toward the conservative when it comes to innovative glass shapes and implementation, and that the real drivers for unusual shapes or complex curves, or one-piece wraparound structures, tend to be the smaller production vessels where designers and marques are looking to stand out from the crowd.
It got me thinking to some other conversations I’ve had over the last few months. Take bridge electronics, for example. There is, for sure, plenty of innovation happening on bespoke projects, with giant touchscreen chart tables and transparent head-up displays, but these are all officially kept as ‘secondary’ systems because they don’t meet the commercial coding required by the IMO for primary navcomm equipment. But again, move down below the regulatory threshold and you start to see incredible innovation in design and functionality. As one industry expert suggested to me, the lack of rules at the lower end means that, all things being equal, small boat electronics are way more advanced than the big systems typically used for superyachts. The picture, of course, is not quite so clear as that would suggest, but there is certainly something in it.
If this story repeats across other areas of design and build (and I believe, in many areas, it does), what does it tell us about our industry and why do we seem to have things the wrong way round? For sure there is an element of conservatism when it comes to design and innovation, driven partly by a desire to keep things simple using tried and tested components and design. There are of course the factors of cost and time of development – and it’s also about those rules we all have to meet when it comes to construction and systems.
Naturally, you could argue that the America's Cup is really the part of maritime that likes to go beyond, and as the team budgets and the list of non-maritime partnerships that the teams developed for this Summer's Cup show there is no shortage of innovation there. But how do we turn this on its head, so that superyachts truly do become the vanguard of all things innovative? Do we rely on a handful of adventurous owners who are willing to push the bounds and prove the concept to the rest?
Even then, it seems that things are slow to catch on. It has taken more than a decade for Maltese Falcon to realise a successor; MY A is still alone in her design reach, except perhaps for her sister sailing yacht. And before you come back and argue about yachts that have shown cool new features, or the fact that personal taste always plays a part, I do get that. And I’m not trying to suggest that the superyacht industry is backward – far from it. I just think we should be working harder to free ourselves of the shackles and really push ourselves forward. Yes, there are regulatory limitations on what we can do, and yes there are individual projects that show us where we can be. But the time to rid ourselves of conservative approaches across the board is now. Who knows, a general progressive outlook from an industry that as a whole is keen to change things up might even be good for attracting the hip young (UHNW) things to this wonderful pursuit we call yachting.