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Go Dutch or dolce vita?

Two rival shipyards are each offering a new long-range motor yacht – with subtle but distinct differences in styling, build and customisation. Will Dutch precision win out over Italian élan? Alan Harper reports.

July 09 2011
Alan Harper

There are plenty of places to go if you want a superyacht. Germany has excellent shipyards. The US is making inroads. New companies in China are addressing the needs of overseas and local customers, often staffed by boatbuilders from Europe or the US. Flagship models from long-established British yards are getting bigger and bigger, and with increasing size comes more opportunity to customise.

But most people with more than a few million to spend and a hankering to get afloat in as much style as possible still find themselves gravitating towards specialist yachtbuilders in one of two countries: the Netherlands or Italy. Yacht is a Dutch word, of course: going boating for pleasure was invented among the sandy islands and inland seas of old Holland, and once the English royals caught on, the business of getting your curly wig and lace ruff soaked in salt spray was the height of upper-class chic – much as it is today.

Surprisingly, the concept of getting wet for fun took time to arrive in more southerly waters but once it took hold, the Mediterranean became the world’s yachting playground – above all in Italy, where hundreds of boatyards abandoned fishing and began producing elegant speedboats, motor launches and sailing craft. The postwar Riviera was fuelled by Italian style.

And it still is. Visit September’s Festival de la Plaisance in Cannes, or the Monaco Yacht Show a week or so later, and Italian motor yachts seem to dominate the waterfront. But look beyond the radical profiles, the chic interiors and adventurous colours of the shipyards from Viareggio and Ancona, and you’ll soon find interlopers from further north: less assertive perhaps, more conservative, but quietly confident. It might be a long cruise south from the IJsselmeer, but there is no doubt these yachts regard the Mediterranean as home waters.

Over the past couple of decades, the quality and reliability of superyachts has improved dramatically. To the layman one pristine dream machine can seem impossible to evaluate over another, but to the expert eye crucial differences can be discerned under the skin.

“The interior finish is much of a muchness these days – it’s of very high quality,” says Nick Edmiston, chairman of the eponymous charter and brokerage company. “But in engineering, plumbing and wiring, the Dutch and Germans still have an edge,” he contends. “Italian quality has improved a lot, but the Dutch and Germans just seem to get better and better.”

Such differences, whether perceived or real, come at a price. “It’s a gross generalisation, but an Italian yacht will tend to cost 30 to 40 per cent less than an equivalent-sized Dutch yacht,” says Camper & Nicholsons sales broker Simon Goldsworthy. “So a customer with £20m to spend can get a much larger Italian yacht.”

The Moonen shipyard in Holland may not have the cachet of better-known compatriots such as Feadship or Royal Huisman, but for more than 25 years it has been quietly building a reputation as a producer of quality, bespoke motor yachts with timeless, classically Dutch styling. Size has not traditionally been Moonen’s thing – its most successful models have been comparatively modest motor yachts of 25m to 30m – but in 2008 it acquired a new shipyard with a bigger assembly hall, and can now build superyachts up to around 50m.

By contrast, Benetti Yachts of Italy has a track record second to none: founded in 1873, builder of Adnan Khashoggi’s Nabila in 1979 (the world’s biggest private yacht in its day), pioneer of the fibreglass “production superyacht”, and constructor of magnificent bespoke creations in steel and aluminium up to 70m, it is one of the top names in global superyachting.

Moonen and Benetti are perhaps unlikely rivals, but at the autumn boat shows these two shipyards faced each other across the pontoons with remarkably similar products. In the Dutch corner was Livia, the third 30m Moonen 97. Benetti turned up with the first Delfino 93, a new 28.5m that provides an entry point to the shipyard’s seven-model Class range.

Both are low-speed, high-volume, semi-custom craft of essentially conservative design; although, with that rakish stem and vertical windscreen, there is something definitely edgy and Italian about the Delfino’s profile. The Moonen, meanwhile, slightly longer and slightly wider, has significantly more fuel capacity and range. These are displacement yachts, with traditional, rounded hull forms designed to cruise efficiently with modest horsepower at modest speeds – and, thanks to excellent internal soundproofing, in virtual silence.

“Benetti has relied on an all-Italian team of designers, and the result is a true, 100 per cent Italian-style product,” says Benetti CEO Vincenzo Poerio. A five-cabin yacht, the Delfino punches above its weight in terms of accommodation volume. There is a separate half-deck for the wheelhouse, which frees up space on the main deck for a professional-sized galley and a big saloon and dining area – not to mention a huge owner’s suite taking up the entire forward section of the main deck.

“The volumes dedicated to the owner and guests are so huge that the Delfino is often compared to 105ft [32m] competitors,” claims Poerio. Hidden wiring and pipework are also executed to big-yacht standards, as are the air-conditioning and ventilation systems.

While designer Carlo Galeazzi has undoubtedly played a clever hand in organising the Delfino’s interior spaces, Moonen already held a couple of aces with the 97’s longer length and wider beam. “It’s a full two-decker, with a very big flybridge,” explains Emile Bilterijst, Moonen’s managing director. “There are four cabins below, and there’s a lot of living space in the saloon and flybridge, and also for the crew – so it’s a good charter boat. Most Moonens are private yachts, but at around 100ft, charter is something you have to bear in mind.”

Livia’s owner is a first-time yacht buyer with a young family, who lives in the Caribbean but often works in Europe. She decided a yacht would make an ideal Mediterranean home from home: “We plan to enjoy the yacht with family and friends for a year or two,” she says. “After that we’ll look at chartering her.”

As a designer herself, Livia’s owner had firm ideas about her yacht’s interior. “I wanted an extension of our home – light and airy, with freestanding furniture,” she explalins. The layout of the previous 97 was too busy, she felt; too many curves. With Art Line of Arnhem, one of Moonen’s regular interior designers, a new interior was created with an emphasis on straight lines and clean, rational spaces. “It feels less busy, and makes it seem larger – Moonen were very willing to please.”

Benetti can also entertain owners’ wishes in the interior décor of the Delfino 93, with a variety of Galeazzi schemes to choose from. “Clients tend to be customers who have previously owned fast boats, and have finally decided that a full displacement hull has a lot more to offer in terms of comfort and volume,” explains Vincenzo Poerio. “They have also been waiting for a top-quality shipyard to design a long-range, full displacement yacht with modern lines and a look that will last for decades. This, combined with the possibility of fully customising the interiors, from classic baroque to modern minimalist, really has won them over.” But here, Moonen holds another trump card. While Benetti has blazed a trail with semicustom superyachts built in fibreglass, traditional Dutch steel and aluminium construction means that each yacht is essentially built from scratch – so adjustments and alterations that would mean literally breaking the mould in a fibreglass yacht are relatively straightforward in metal.

“We probably customise more than Benetti,” says Moonen’s Emile Bilterijst. “We can change a flybridge layout quite easily, for example, and we can alter more in the basic design and layout. The interior is always fully bespoke – you can choose any interior designer.” Livia’s interior is described by her American owner as “Californian beach house”. She says: “We wanted a family cruising boat that immediately felt comfortable – so as soon as you take your shoes off, you feel like you’ve been there before.”

All this takes time, of course, and comes at a price: at about €8.5m basic, the Moonen comes in at least €1.65m more than the Benetti. But whether your choice between Holland and Italy comes down to cost, style or customisation, it’s clear that the shipyards are getting their marketing right: Moonen has recently completed a fourth 97, while Benetti has so far built three Delfinos, for owners in Australia, Hong Kong and the US.

“There is a huge pride in the shipyards of both countries,” says Nick Edmiston. “Maybe it’s stronger in Holland, where they’re very solid and detail-minded. But,” he adds, “the Italians know what good living is about.” Characteristics, he feels, that are reflected in each country’s yacht-building traditions. “Would you rather go out with a Dutch or an Italian girl?” he asks.

A tantalising question, which is left hanging in the air.