Shadow yachts come into their own

Quirky, cool and sleek upgrades are elevating auxiliary “shadow yachts” into a stunning subgenre of superyacht in their own right. Alan Harper reports

Damen Sea Axe yacht support vessel, from €16m, with Amels superyacht
Damen Sea Axe yacht support vessel, from €16m, with Amels superyacht | Image: AMELS

Tommy Sopwith’s Philante, built by Camper & Nicholsons in 1937 and still one of the largest superyachts ever built in Britain, was never intended to be the belle of the ball. That honour was reserved for the aviation magnate’s beautiful J-Class racer Endeavour II. The elegant white diesel-powered motor yacht had a humbler role to play alongside the sainted sailboat, carrying provisions, spare sails, launches and crew. At 85m long, she was built to have a transatlantic range so she could tow her superior sister across to Newport, Rhode Island, to challenge the New York Yacht Club for the America’s Cup.

Philante was a tender, albeit one that displaced more than 1,600 tons – a bit-part player in the bigger drama, a bag carrier for her betters. Today she might be described as a “shadow yacht”.

Lynx Yachts YXT support vessel, from €2.3m
Lynx Yachts YXT support vessel, from €2.3m | Image: Thierry Ameller

Shadow yachts are the new thing. When your superyacht is too small, you are no longer expected to buy a bigger one. Instead, you just get another one. Your second yacht carries all the toys and tenders, helicopters and submarines, extra staff and spare crew that clutter up the mother ship and get in the way of the guests.

Credit for the original idea lies with a Saudi prince who purchased a superyacht-sized auxiliary vessel back in the 1990s to follow his megayacht around. He named it Golden Shadow. It carried various boats and a seaplane, and it started something. While the first “shadows” commissioned to address this new market were often unglamorous-looking conversions prized only for their volume and load-carrying qualities, the new breed coming out of Europe has elevated the shadow yacht into a stylish superyacht subgenre. Faced with an entirely new set of problems to solve, yacht designers have been inspired to stretch their imaginations and come up with truly original ideas. The latest shadow yachts are quirky, cool and all points in between.

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The Sea Axe (from €16m), built by Damen in the Netherlands, is the most spectacular of these new concepts so far. The spiritual home of the superyacht, Holland is also headquarters to a serious shipbuilding industry, and the shipyard has been very successful in recent years, servicing offshore, commercial, rescue and military clients with a bewildering variety of specialist craft. Perhaps because Damen is also the parent company of Amels, one of the Netherlands’ top superyacht builders, it seemed a logical step to take its extraordinary-looking “offshore support vessel” designs and make them into something new: “yacht support vessels”.

With a patented hull shape developed for the offshore industry, Damen’s Sea Axe is designed to maintain high speeds in rough weather. As the company emphasises: “There’s no point in having a support ship if it lags behind.” Not much danger of that. Slicing through rather than bashing over the waves, compared with conventional vessels the Damen design apparently suffers 70 per cent less from what naval architects describe as “vertical peak acceleration” and the rest of us know as that intolerable pounding that forces you to ease back on the throttles.

Lynx Yachts YXT support vessel main deck
Lynx Yachts YXT support vessel main deck | Image: Thierry Ameller

Another key component of rough-weather capability is narrow beam, which would be a drawback in a vessel designed for load carrying were it not for the fact that the Sea Axe boats are very substantial vessels indeed. The smallest of the designs revealed so far is some 43m long and, even on a slender beam of 9m, its aft deck offers an immense useable area: some 125sq m. A folding hydraulic crane with a capacity of eight tons should make light work of anything you need to hoist out of the water – your 8m Windy limousine tender, for example, your luxury Pascoe RIB and maybe a U-Boat Worx mini submarine, along with a flotilla of Sea-Doos – while for more ambitious cruising itineraries, the deck is also suitable as a “touch and go” helipad for a five-seater machine such as the EC 120.

The Sea Axe 4008, as this “entry level” model is called, has two decks of accommodation up forward for 10 crew in six cabins, along with a useful galley, plenty of food storage, fridge and freezer space and a large dedicated laundry room. Yacht support vessels are not only popular with owners: just being able to send the laundry over to the other vessel makes a huge difference to the workload aboard the superyacht, while hard-pressed crews also appreciate the chance to take their breaks away from the owners and guests. The tenders, meanwhile, are time consuming to service, maintain, launch and recover. Not having to worry about them allows the superyacht skipper to concentrate on getting his guests to their afternoon anchorage on time, knowing that all the toys will be on the water and waiting.

Sunseeker 86 Yacht, from about £4.4m
Sunseeker 86 Yacht, from about £4.4m | Image: Image courtesy of Sunseeker International

Damen has built four Sea Axe yacht support vessels so far, from 51m to 67m, for owners whose main yachts are all in the 91m class. The shipyard has orders for three more, and its five-model range is topped by the frigate-sized 8517, which, at nearly 85m long, has 33 berths, 548sq m of deck, a slipway for a 14m tender and a helicopter hangar.

Somewhat less imposing but with equally purposeful looks, Lynx Yachts’ diminutive Yacht-X-Tender (YXT, from €2.3m) was unveiled at the latest Monaco Yacht Show and proved just as capable of turning heads there as the sleekest superyacht. Despite the tugboat tendencies of that pugnacious profile, the YXT has an all-aluminium hull and is capable of 14 knots, while throttling back a bit should ensure a cruising range of over 1,000 nautical miles. It comes from the drawing board of the long-established Diana Yacht Design studio.

Oceanic Yachts Oceanic 90 motor yacht, €6.25m
Oceanic Yachts Oceanic 90 motor yacht, €6.25m | Image: Oceanic Yachts archive

“I wanted a support yacht with personality,” says company founder Slim Bouricha. “This is designed to support yachts of over 30m and to act as a standalone vessel.” Although just 24m long, the broad-beamed, Dutch-built YXT has a huge aft deck designed around the dimensions of a typical big RIB such as the Novurania Chase 38, plus plenty of additional space for an assortment of smaller craft. According to Bouricha, it gives the owner of a 35m yacht the cruising and charter capabilities of a 60m, not just on deck but down below too: its voluminous interior is divided into four modules, which can be configured according to the owner’s needs. One of them, on this particular YXT, contained a removable pod that cradled the owner’s beloved Land Rover.

Not all shadow yachts make a virtue of such versatility. Sometimes it’s a particular specialisation that drives the desire for such a craft. A Qatar-based owner recently commissioned UK yacht builder Sunseeker to build him a highly specialised shadow vessel to help indulge his passion for scuba diving in the Indian Ocean. Using as a base boat the Sunseeker 86 Yacht (from about £4.4m), which in civilian life is usually a capable and quick four-cabin flybridge cruiser, the Dorset shipyard’s design team created a bespoke dive launch. Outwardly it resembles a standard Sunseeker, but inside it has a completely open-plan saloon with specially built storage lockers, while down on the lower deck, in place of the usual luxurious cabins and bathrooms for the owner and guests, this 86 is fitted with compressors, crew cabins, a galley and dining room and even a video editing suite. The aft garage area has been fitted out as the dive room, opening out onto the water.

Oceanic Yachts Oceanic 90 motor yacht  main deck
Oceanic Yachts Oceanic 90 motor yacht  main deck | Image: Oceanic Yachts archive

If it seems surprising that a production boatbuilder like Sunseeker was prepared to take on such an unusual one-off project, bear in mind that at the same time as ordering the dive boat, the customer – who reportedly owns not one but two superyachts – also ordered a more conventionally fitted out 86 yacht for his own use. It is, after all, a truth universally acknowledged that small boats are more fun – and it’s one that lies at the heart of the whole shadow yacht principle.

Superyacht owners who buy shadow yachts to carry their toys and tenders are acknowledging the irrefutable fact that however thick the carpets, however chilled the air-conditioning and however expensive the artworks aboard the mother ship, there’s nothing to beat getting out there with the wind in your hair and the salt spray splashing your face. RIBs are great – and so are Sea-Doos, sailing dinghies and rowing skiffs. The more, the merrier – literally.

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The logical end point to this line of argument, of course, is that you really don’t need the superyacht at all. Just get a shadow boat with some comfy cabins, load it up with cool toys and cast off. One shipyard that seems to have exactly this type of owner in mind is Oceanic Yachts, which used the recent Cannes show to reveal its first boat (€6.25m): a fast and versatile expedition-style vessel, 28m long, with a clever hull design that is as happy cruising long distances at low speeds as it is zooming along at 20-plus knots.

“This is a platform for fun, that’s all it is,” says Michel Karsenti, Oceanic’s founder and CEO. With its large aft deck area, high-capacity crane and dedicated jet-ski garage, it can accommodate a 6m RIB along with a variety of smaller boats, and would work well as a shadow yacht in the same way as the Lynx YXT. “The concept is to be able to carry as many toys and tenders as you want,” confirms Karsenti, who describes his Oceanic 90 as a “sports utility vessel”. “You’ve got the deck space of a 40m to 50m.”

What the Oceanic also has, though, is comfortable and spacious accommodation for its owner and up to six guests. There is a pleasant saloon on the main deck with an eight-seater dining table, served from a well-equipped galley in the crew area. Guests are quartered in three roomy ensuite cabins down below, while the owner luxuriates in a genuinely impressive master suite on the upper deck, complete with wraparound windows and access aft to an entire private deck. It’s not just the tender stowage capacity of the Oceanic 90 that seems to have been borrowed from a much bigger boat – this owner’s cabin is something else. Even the engine room is huge. If the Oceanic 90 is a shadow yacht, it’s one whose versatility, layout and fleet of tenders could be capable of making even the most dedicated superyacht owner reconsider his priorities.

It wouldn’t be the first time. After his America’s Cup adventures – which involved nearly winning, but not quite – Tommy Sopwith gave up J-Class racing and learnt to enjoy Philante. The yacht he built to play a supporting role came out of the shadows, and the millionaire industrialist spent a lot of time on board her before the war, cruising far and wide and even reaching as far as the Galápagos Islands, where he gathered penguins and iguanas for London Zoo. Philante serves to this day as Norway’s Royal Yacht. As for the belle of the ball, Endeavour II – well, she was thoroughly eclipsed.

For superyachts with the nimble zip of a smaller model, see the 35m yacht club, or for a retro take on super-sleek craft, invest in a vintage Riva boat.

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