A time traveller from the early 20th century, returning to Cannes by submarine after an absence of a hundred years, might not, at first, notice much change in the view through the periscope. Searching for the harbour entrance along the shoreline while taking bearings from the ancient landmark of Castre Tower on the hilltop, they might catch sight of swarms of low-profile, straight-bowed craft hurtling past in clouds of spray, as if the early motorboats so popular on the Côte d’Azur during the Edwardian era were still in vogue. There were good reasons for the straight-bowed shape back then, because it enabled the designer to maximise the length of the waterline, for speed, without adding to the overall length of the hull. In a modern planing boat, however, which lifts its bow out of the water and skims across the surface, a straight bow confers no such advantages. When used in today’s boats, it’s all about the look.
The silhouette du jour for superyachts and sailboats, along with increasing numbers of power craft, the straight (or plumb) bow started as a modern retro trend with Luca Bassani’s sleek and sweet-sailing Wally yachts in the mid-1990s. They colonised the collective yachting consciousness so successfully that Wally soon launched its own range of high-speed tenders to match. They were paint-strippingly expensive (starting at €545,000) but impossible to ignore.
Boatbuilders were quick to realise the potential of this new sector, in which wealthy clients might not allow themselves a superyacht, but could easily be consoled by a tender – especially if its looks carried the cachet of smart regattas in Sardinia and St Tropez. Fjord Boats’ new German owners relaunched the company, just as the market took a nosedive in 2008, with the straight-stemmed 40 Open. This was a startling stylistic departure for a family cruiser but it was an instant success, and the company has followed it with a series of appealing craft that range in size from the brand-new outboard-powered 36 Xpress and its sibling, the 36 MY Tender featuring a sheltered front cockpit for Gucci-clad passengers, up to the big 48 Open (€952,000), which can be fitted with two sleeping cabins and a high-performance engine installation. Fjord’s bold step has proved hugely influential. The look became mainstream, and every boat show since has seen new boatbuilders throw their hat in the ring.
At last autumn’s Cannes Yachting Festival, the water was crammed with the latest members of this burgeoning tribe of angular high-performance tenders. Take the Finnish-built boat Axopar 37: with its pugnacious, jutting bow it wouldn’t look out of place in an old glass-plate photograph among venerable racing craft from the turn of the last century, when the internal combustion engine was the latest yachting fad and naval architects were still wrestling with the problem of planing. But there’s nothing antique about it. Those dashing Edwardian aristocrats in their oil-spattered goggles would be unsettled by the Axopar’s fibreglass construction, no doubt, bemused by the outboard motors on the stern, and astounded by the forward cabin with double berth. But nothing would quite prepare them for the Axopar’s performance, with its two-stepped hull, wave-slicing deep-V sections and a vice-like grip on the water in even the fastest turns. It could literally run rings around them.
A basic Axopar 37 T-Top starts at a competitive €96,720, but that barely covers the paint job of the new, limited edition Brabus Shadow 800, an ultra-luxury version of the 37 that is the result of Axopar’s new partnership with German automotive engineering group Brabus. The full-spec example revealed in January, with its 400hp Mercury Verado twin engines, high-gloss paint, leather upholstery and excellent audio system, tipped the scales at €539,400.
Maine sailboat builder Hinckley was among the first, in 1994, to cotton on to the possibilities of combining retro styling with a high-quality finish: its demure Picnic Boat took its inspiration from the workaday charm of the local lobster boats. Also at last autumn’s Cannes, Zeelander Yachts of Holland took a leaf out of Hinckley’s American stylebook with its new Z55 (from €2.245m); but while it betrays faint echoes of the Picnic Boat aesthetic, particularly up front, what it really wants to put you in mind of is a raffish fast cruiser from the Prohibition era – a rum-runner, perhaps.
“Her style is reminiscent of traditional Newfoundland lobster boats and old New York commuter boats,” confirms company chairman Sietse Koopmans. “The high bow, the forward wheelhouse, the sloping stern – everything harks back to the 1930s. We tried to take this and add a modern flair.” When it came to the design brief, one yacht dominated the mood board – Aphrodite, a curvaceous 74-footer built on Long Island in 1937 for John Hay Whitney, who used her to commute up the East River to his Wall Street office.
Creating the flowing curves that are achieved in traditional wooden boatbuilding by steaming the planks before applying them to the frame is no simple task in the era of fibreglass moulds: “The final product required 67 custom moulds to create the exterior alone,” says Koopmans. “It had to be more than just a boat – it had to be a piece of art.”
Perhaps surprisingly for such a high-concept product, the Z55 also works well at a purely practical level, the wheelhouse, in particular, offering unusually good 360-degree views for everyone, not just the lucky person on the helm, thanks to its raised seating, big side windows and a clever sliding glass partition aft, between the galley and cockpit bar. A six-berth with the customary tiny third cabin that bedevils most boats of this size, the Zeelander is no slave to tradition, with its ingenious tender garage opening out on the port side, Volvo IPS pod-drive propulsion and engine options that go all the way up to twin 1,000hp diesels, which should be good for more than 40 knots – faster than Aphrodite. Koopmans was evidently serious when he talked about the Z55 as a work of art. The quality of detailing on board is nowhere more intense than in the fine-grained wood trim around the gunwale and deckhouse windows. Of course, it’s not really wood. Wood needs looking after, and the unbreakable rule of retro is you’re buying all the pleasure of the original iconic object but none of the pain. Like the best trompe l’oeil in a baroque country house, these areas of moulded fibreglass are adorned with a painted finish so fine it will have you scratching at the grain to see if it’s real – it’s the precise grey of weathered hardwood. Joints between the imaginary planks are rendered so convincingly that if you look closely you will see the slight signs of water ingress, as if in a couple of seasons you will need to strip it back and revarnish. Relax – you won’t. “It’s indistinguishable, beautiful and eliminates maintenance,” says Koopmans.
With its triple engines, pod drives and 46-knot top speed, the SR52 Blackbird built by Norwegian company Windy (which is based in Sweden) was originally drafted by the late superyacht designer Ed Dubois as a tender to Aglaia, a magnificent 216ft sloop that his studio had created for a Norwegian owner. “Ed contacted me to see if we were interested in building the tender and it started from there,” recalls Windy CEO Knut Heiberg-Andersen. “He gave us a free hand to change everything but the profile.” With its low freeboard, upright stem and sloping transom, that all-important profile was, of course, a faithful echo of the mother ship’s – as is the quality of the SR52’s high-tech construction and finish. So although you don’t actually need a superyacht to join the queue for a Blackbird, it will help if you have €1.56m.
Another regular at the Cannes show, Vanquish Yachts from the Netherlands builds in aluminium rather than fibreglass, though its boats are so beautifully faired and finished it’s impossible to tell until you’re close enough to knock those glossy topsides with your knuckles. The thing about building boats in metal is that there are no moulds of the kind used by fibreglass constructors for series production. Beyond a certain price point, however – and starting at €985,000, the VQ48 I tested at Cannes is presumably well beyond it – this becomes an advantage. Owners can have whatever they want, because pretty much everything except the position of the engines is fully customisable. Complementing the uncompromising severity of its exterior design, the show model had a stripped-back fit-out so minimalist it was almost spartan, with just a convertible dinette down below, along with a small shower compartment and a very basic galley.
So, just as it was for those oil-spattered pioneers of another age, the focus of this boat was exactly where it ought to be – on the driving experience. But any resemblance ends there. A deep, secure cockpit and an excellent helm station encourage your exploration of the VQ48’s handling and performance to be as uninhibited as you dare. It won’t be wrong-footed and it drives like a dream.
Deep down these boats may have almost nothing in common with the antique craft they so resemble. But our time-travelling submariner would find them as reassuringly familiar as the Castre Tower – through a periscope, at least.