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A Moment of Silence, Please

For a sailor, one of life’s great pleasures is the moment you reach down and hit the engine-stop button. As the diesel or outboard goes silent, your nervous system experiences a perceptible, almost instantaneous surge of serenity. In that moment of transition from propeller-driven propulsion to wind power, the boat seems to relax as well, taking a few seconds to calm itself and adjust to the new mode. After a few moments of dialing in sail trim, the world goes quiet, save the soothing rush of the bow wave. Like a nautical neck massage, you enter a world of blissful chill.

That said, I’m not at all averse to the thrill that good old mechanical horsepower can impart on a restless soul. Ripping along a glassy waterway in the early morning with my slackening facial skin fluttering in the breeze works for me every time, whether on a sparkling Alpine lake in Italy, a granite-lined bay in New England, a twisty misty river in the heartland or an airboat trail in a Florida gator swamp. I once went 80 knots in a high-performance boat called a Hustler. It was so loud in the cockpit, we needed hand signals to communicate, as did the kayakers we passed, although theirs were simple single digits. It was great fun, at least for the first 10 minutes or so.

I once went 50 knots on a large motoryacht on Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, an experience that was great fun for everyone on board, but that generated a bit of anger and resentment from others on the water. Their hand signals were similar to those of the kayakers. Fair enough. Those of us on board faced a bigger problem than the wake the boat was leaving, though: It was nearly impossible to keep the Champagne from blowing out of the plastic flutes in the gale-force winds on deck. The only solution was to guzzle it, which was rewarding in its own way, but hardly showed proper respect for the vintage.

Not all powerboats are about sound and fury. Years ago, I had the pleasure of witnessing the 257-foot, 1921-vintage motoryacht S.S. Delphine crank up her triple expansion steam engines and ghost away from a dock in Europe. The moment was nearly as tranquil as the engine-stop moment on a sailboat.

And, not all sailboats are paragons of peace and tranquility. Racing can be loud, chaotic and stressful. Watching and listening to the onboard video feed from the 50-knot foiling catamarans in the most recent America’s Cup revealed a sailing experience about as far from relaxing as it gets, ever on the edge of disaster and subject to the incessant groaning of the hydraulics that control the foils and sails. I’m sure it’s exhilarating, but I prefer sailing to chill rather than thrill.

A growing number of superyacht owners are equipping their boats with hybrid power plants and latest-gen sound- and vibration-dampening technology, the general theme being quieter, cleaner and more efficient. The main engines still may be big diesels, but some can switch to batteries in port and for short hops. Other innovative power schemes, such as hydrogen fuel cells, are on the horizon. Some smaller boats are hitting the water with full electric or solar power. Most don’t produce enough velocity to get a skier up, but they won’t tax your nervous system or prompt those nasty hand signals.

The engine room of the Italian-built AB 100 Superfast, which Justin Ratcliffe reviews in this issue, houses three 2,600-horsepower MTU diesels. The builder reports a top speed of 60 knots. One could imagine that an hour or two of that setup might leave your ears ringing and your knees quivering. Not so, the CEO of the group that builds the boat tells Ratcliffe: “To give you a real-life comparison, underway at high cruising speed, the AB 100 Superfast is quieter than a Dyson Supersonic hair dryer. That means you can still have a normal conversation without having to raise your voice.” If true, that sounds like the best of both worlds.

In general, I prefer my boating straight up, not shaken or stirred. But, I’m happy to make an exception—provided the Champagne isn’t at risk.