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A Captain's Berth

Buying or Building Your Own Yacht is a Risky Venture that Requires Long Months of Investigation
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

One man wants to replace his "old lady." The other was simply looking for more power.

For Prince Charles and his coterie of advisers, a drama affecting the entire British Commonwealth is still being played out. Debated in Parliament and in the tabloids, the controversy concerns the royal yacht Britannia, whether this aging ship should be modernized or mothballed. In either event, a costly search to find the world's best naval craftsmen is about to begin. Will the work be done close to home in a yard like Scotland's Ailsa-Perth, or in Holland, at such famed yards as Royal Huisman or Feadship? The suspense continues to mount.

On a more modest scale, Steve Florio, president of The Condé Nast Publications, Inc., faced a similar quandary. Leaving The New Yorker magazine in 1994 to assume his new job, Florio, a longtime sailing enthusiast, realized that "my boat could cross the ocean, yet due to my new workload, I didn't have the time to cross the Long Island Sound."

Saddled with a sailboat that didn't fit his lifestyle (or that of most top-level executives), yet still craving the excitement of reaching distant ports, Florio had one option--buying a powerboat. That decision, coming after years of tending to beloved sailboats, was weighty enough for Florio. It was, however, his easiest choice. What followed was a tricky, and potentially financially devastating, journey to boat shows, shipyards and showrooms filled with fast-talking salesmen. He began a search that demanded the keenest of navigational skills, negotiating between his heart and his mind.

Whether yacht buyers have princely aspirations, want a $40 million "corporate tool" for entertaining purposes, or are in Florio's $1 million range, purchasing a new or used boat is a joy complicated by a range of perils and very easily mixed with disaster. That brokered used yacht may seem like an attractive buy in St.-Tropez or Portofino, but out on the open seas, the unschooled buyer may well be presented with a few harrowing surprises.

As for that custom-designed yacht, there's certainly a great feeling of fulfillment from visiting yards to watch craftsmen turn your blueprints into reality. "It's definitely a bit of an ego statement," says Florio, "to watch your own design being born."

Yet that statement can be out of sync with trends in the marketplace, or simply antithetical to efficiently operating a yacht. As for those picturesque boatyards, frequently shadowed by financial crises and unable to deliver at agreed prices, they, too, have spawned a caveat. All too often, buying a boat also means buying the yard.

They don't look like multimillion dollar mistakes. Sitting serenely in the water, their white fiberglass hulls gleaming in the midday sun, the yachts docked at the Derecktor Gunnell shipyard outside Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, seem ready for seagoing adventures. Their engines purr like Ferraris. Crews are busy at work in wide-body salons, polishing rosewood and teak trim that epitomize classical elegance. Even hearty captains appear, striding through pilot houses equipped with the latest electronics, to pronounce everything shipshape.

Brokers will come on board and tell unschooled clients that yachts like these $3 million to $10 million models are a great buy. In many cases it's difficult to determine whether the spiels are sheer flim-flam, or attributable to a broker's lack of experience. The brokerage business has its share of friendly "ushers"--wonderful men to have a drink with, who having recently sold houses or used cars, know little about a boat's interior sound levels, engineering, and true value.

But once all the talk fades, the shiny toys on board can't disguise the fact that many of the yachts here, whatever their price or pedigree, are still mistakes. Badly designed, they lack ample staterooms, quarters for crew, and at worst, are so overweighted with marble heads and flooring that their speed and fuel ranges are decidedly below standard.

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