How To Spend It

Boats

Less is moor

A shift in the boat-buying demographic is driving a new desire for simplicity. Alan Harper spotlights two pared-down vessels returning to traditional values

June 25 2013
Alan Harper

It’s not just humans who tend to put on weight and acquire an excess of “stuff” as they get older. Machines suffer the same fate. Look at the Mini. The gamine go-kart of Swinging London was born in 1959 and reinvented 37 years later with nothing mini about it except the name – it was longer, wider, taller and heavier. The original Fiat 500 – the car that made the original Mini look big – would almost fit into the boot of the current model. As technology improves and expectations increase, we start demanding more of everything – more complicated electronics, more powerful engines and more refinements, such as air-conditioning. Designers have no choice but to go bigger just to have the capacity for it all.

It has been the same with boats. In the days of the original Mini, the offshore racing revolution helped to create a new breed of family cruiser – sleeker, faster and more seaworthy than its predecessors, but barely more comfortable inside than a stripped-out racer. Then, it was foam cushions, lino and two-burner stoves. Now, it’s sprung mattresses, Italian leather and dishwashers. Yet in strange and unexpected ways, this trend is being reversed. Not through nostalgia for rubber gloves and lumpy beds – hard-won luxuries must never be surrendered – but because of a new desire for simplicity. Customers are no longer asking for more, but less.

The cultural re-evaluation that came with the financial crash went hand-in-hand with an economic one, and both have had an impact on boat design. Some yards sensed a need to downsize, for reasons either to do with cost (if the buyer simply couldn’t afford a bigger boat), or philosophy (if he just felt it was the right thing to do). Others realised that, as they bade adieu to the boat‑buying boom, they were also saying goodbye to the particular type of buyer who fuelled it – often young, often newly wealthy and often buying his first-ever boat.

Many of the boatbuilders who clocked the downsizing trend started reintroducing smaller family cruisers, but some looked a little more closely into the problem. One yard that might have read the runes more deeply than its rivals was Windy Boats of Norway. And, in Italy, Ferretti Yachts noticed a demographic shift, as many of the young first-time buyers it so enjoyed meeting in the good years disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. Fortunately, its old-guard, traditional customers never left.

Arendal boatbuilder Windy Boats, famed for its high-quality, high-tech and eye-wateringly expensive sports cruisers, discerned a hidden urge beneath the changing market imperative. Not for cheaper boats, nor specifically to do with size, but rather a yearning for a time, real or imagined, when boats, boating and, indeed, life itself were simpler and more fun. Exemplified by its 31 Zonda, introduced in 2011, Windy’s solution was to recall its Scandinavian heritage and produce something fast, beautiful, exhilarating, capable and – above all – simple. “It’s a classic, conservative boat,” says Windy CEO Knut Heiberg-Andersen. “But it’s not back to basics – it’s back to our roots, a new infusion of Windy’s essential DNA.”

The reverse curve of the 31 Zonda’s sheer line and its low-profile windscreen are straight out of the 1960s, when boats by the likes of Jim Wynne, Ray Hunt and Don Shead battled for supremacy off Cowes and Miami – and the good guys always won. Its wave-slicing 24º deadrise angle is a classic of offshore design, and its hull was described by one specialist magazine editor as Windy’s best ever. “The balance of the boat is perfect,” he said.

But perhaps it’s not what the boat has got that defines the character of this latest kind of luxury sports cruiser, but what it hasn’t. There is no radar arch, no mast, no hard top, no hamster-sized second cabin – just a big double berth, room to breathe down below and a safe and practical cockpit that can rapidly be sheltered under a well-designed canopy. The 31 Zonda is a boat for people who love boats – a £200,000 expression of pure, undiluted fun. If you really do want something bigger, there’s a 39 Zonda on the drawing board.

In Italy, Ferretti has also been addressing the economic reality. With younger customers retreating, its 870 model, a beautifully appointed 87ft flybridge motor yacht, was launched at the 2012 Cannes Boat Show, aimed at long-standing customers who have owned boats before, know what cruising comfort requires and aren’t impressed by the gimmicks and flashy design that appealed to the newly moneyed ingenues.

“Yachts like this are very important to the business,” the boatyard’s engineering chief, Andrea Frabetti, said at the Cannes show, likening his spectacular €4.6m craft, perhaps a little disingenuously, to a Mercedes E-Class. “It’s mid-range, traditional,” he explained, indicating the neighbouring 81ft Ferretti 800 to illustrate the contrast in concept. That yacht has the sort of interior layout that became de rigueur in the boom years, with an open‑plan galley and breakfast bar and a stupendous master bathroom with frosted-glass doors and a huge hull window all to itself. Both attention-seeking features look as if they’re straight out of a hip architectural magazine – which is exactly the point. The old-money approach to the new Ferretti 870 is more understated. The galley is a discreet area where the crew can work unobserved. The owner’s cabin is light and spacious, with plenty of floor area and windows on both sides. Its well-appointed and luxurious bathroom is behind a solid wooden door. As a suite, it’s maybe not as cool as the 800’s, but it’s deeply civilised.

Stepping back from the structural ostentation of the boom years and reaffirming its shipyard’s simpler cruising values, the Ferretti 870 has a surprising amount in common with the sleek, pared-down luxury of Windy’s 31 Zonda. Neither is trying too hard to impress, yet both, in different ways, show how less can be so much more.