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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

(continued from page 3)

Kenniston is the president of Feadship America. That might not mean much to the uninitiated, but to the well-heeled, from the crown prince of Abu Dhabi to megamillionaire John Kluge, the Feadship name says it all. Never bad-mouthed in an industry known for rumormongering and back-stabbing, the Feadship is universally regarded as the Rolls-Royce of luxury yachts.

"Quality personified, Feadship simply makes a perfect boat," says Mitchell Gibbons-Neff, president of Sparkman and Stephens, a naval architecture firm that designs boats and serves as a client's representative at a building site. "Feadship is the standard. Everyone wants to be like them, but no one has succeeded."

Built in Holland, the typical Feadship is a 165-foot long steel-hulled yacht, averaging $30 million to $40 million. But that's only the delivery price. While owning one of these classic-looking "super yachts," with mahogany columns, swimming pool and 15 knots cruising speed, brings you into very select company (only four or five are built a year), it is not a hands-on experience. A full-time captain is needed to pilot one of these babies, along with a large crew, which means heady yearly costs (for maintenance, fuel, dockage fees and insurance on a $40 million yacht, the tab is usually about $4 million).

"The Feadship is just not for everybody," Kenniston says. "If a buyer wants to relive the glory days of yachting, the 200-footers the Morgans and Rothschilds enjoyed, we're it. But if he's only going to be sailing on Long Island Sound, there are other nice small boatbuilders."

Which brings us back to those typical buyers seeking a $1 million to $10 million yacht. Should they buy an already-tested production boat with a proven resale value such as a Hatteras (in that case, says Steve Florio, "there'd be 200 of them floating around, all looking the same.") or brave the more adventurous route of custom building? It's a plunge that sometimes takes buyers into a world where the resale value of a boat is at the mercy of a whimsical marketplace, and litigation against underfinanced yards unable to complete a project is commonplace.

Production boats do have a few advantages. A prospective buyer can walk into a showroom, and instead of working off blueprints, will usually see a 50- to 80-footer on display. There is also the instant gratification of quicker delivery, plus the knowledge that a company like Hatteras or Bertram has built numerous boats like the one you have selected. As Richard Bertram and Co.'s Alan Stowell says, "There is no learning curve in production boats as there is in custom. All the mistakes and flaws have long been ironed out," at least at the major companies.

The typical production boat, such as a Bertram 50-foot sport fishing craft costing $1.1 million, is about 50 percent cheaper than a similarly equipped custom craft. Since these boats are designed to meet certain mainstream tastes, they have a predictable resale value.

But don't think that these boats can't be customized on the interior. Some owners of Hatteras yachts, which has had a custom yacht series since 1989, are as involved in the building of their yachts as anyone who chooses to go the full custom route. Hatteras offers pre-cast fiberglass hull yachts in various sizes between 92 and 130 feet for between $5 and $10 million; the interior options include everything from three-deck spiral staircases to hot tubs and saunas, and owners can select finishing sufaces to suit their budgets.

Nevertheless Florio opted for the custom route. Deciding to "put his signature on every piece of wood," Florio opted for a custom-built boat "I can run and fix myself without any crew." Before he reached that conclusion, he scoured the marketplace; went to seven builders, numerous boat shows, and three naval architects; and saw a flotilla of 50- to 160-footers, including a Feadship "with all the [on-board] toys."

It was a tiring one-year search, and because he constantly had to balance fantasies with his checkbook, Florio came to a few realizations that are instructive for other new boat buyers.

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