Nobody likes to leave home without their favorite toys—submarines, helicopters, shark cages, big tenders and the like—but trying to jam them all aboard a yacht with cranes big enough to launch them and enough staff to service them has left even the most deep-pocketed owners reaching the tipping point of the cost-benefit ratio.
“There are some yachts that have helicopter pads, that have these things incorporated, but they become much more commercial looking, and it takes up a huge amount of space, and it’s not always visually appealing,” says Liz Howard, a charter broker in Fraser’s San Diego office. “In the last five years, owners who built their brand-new, 60-plus-plus-plus-meter yachts to accommodate these heavy-duty toys were finding out that yachts just aren’t the platform for this.”
The new idea is instead buying a yacht-grade support vessel, one that can be built at a length of 164 feet (50 meters) for about $14 million, a fraction of the cost of upscaling to a 250-foot (76.2-meter) superyacht that still might not get it all done.
“One of my clients is buying a support vessel and has no intention of buying a yacht,” Howard says. “He’s going to charter yachts and send his support vessel with all his favorite toys on board, and all his favorite staff, to whatever his favorite destination is.’”
That owner, says Jan Jaap Minnema, a Fraser sales broker based in Monaco, is one among several now testing the concept. Russian oligarchs were the first to embrace support vessels, he says, when even their yachts approaching 300 feet (91 meters) couldn’t hold all the toys they wanted. Today, it’s not just owners, but also charter clients thinking about the possibilities.
“People started to think about buying a toy carrier for themselves, and then chartering a yacht and sending their toy carriers around,” Minnema says.
Damen, the parent company of yachtbuilder Amels, is looking to capitalize. Damen has long built support vessels for coast guard and offshore use—some 200 of them so far—but the company hadn’t thought of the yacht market for those hulls. As recently as the 2000s, only a handful of yacht owners were converting commercial hulls for extra toy and staff space, but those vessels were older and slow. Even when converted, they didn’t feel particularly yachty.
Then, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich ordered 533-foot (162.5-meter) Eclipse from Blohm+Voss, and he placed a simultaneous order, in 2007, for two support vessels from Damen. Victor Caminada, marketing director for Amels and Damen yacht support, says Abramovich knew of Damen’s experience with the commercial versions and wanted the builder to branch out.
Damen gave those hulls the model name 5009—for 50 meters long and 9 meters wide (164 feet by 29 feet 6 inches). “These were still very basic, in a sense,” Caminada says. “They had very little modification compared to an offshore support vessel, but bells started ringing in our ears, that there was a market for it. So we introduced it in a superyacht package.”
Damen brought a scale model of the SeaAxe 5009 to the 2009 Monaco Yacht Show, where a client already building a superyacht felt he needed more room for toys. “We made a list of all that he wanted to have on it,” Caminada says. “That turned into Garçon, at 67 meters long and 11 meters wide [220 feet by 36 feet].”
Garçon made her debut in 2012, and Damen has been building the yacht-grade SeaAxe support vessels on spec ever since. Because the yard still builds the hulls regularly for commercial use, yacht-quality versions of the 5009 model can be tricked out in just eight months, from contract to delivery.
Damen’s latest yacht-support vessel is 227-foot (70-meter) Game Changer, which launched in February, not only with a helipad, but also with a helicopter hangar that can be enclosed for weather—and that allows the mothership to remain a place of relaxation.
“Helicopter operations are noisy,” Caminada says. “They interrupt the party. All your pillows fly away whenever anybody arrives.”
Game Changer can accommodate 22 crew and staff, including experts and guides for whatever sports the owner enjoys. And like all the SeaAxe models, she can keep up with a modern superyacht, overcoming the slowness problem that used to exist with commercial conversions. Depending on the power package, Caminada says, SeaAxe vessels can achieve 25 to 28 knots.
“What these people are finding they use these support boats for is a plethora of things,” Howard says. “One of my clients is a big-game hunter. That’s his thing. So he goes and sleeps on his yachts, and he has his specialist guides, and he takes the helicopter into the mountains and hunts. It’s the same thing with shark diving. Those shark cages weigh tons, so I’ve done charters in California where I’ve had the support vessel carrying the shark cage, and then the yacht that they’ve chartered for the guests. Heli-skiiing works great with this too. You go up to the mountains above the South of France and heli-ski from your support vessel with your experts and your equipment, and then you fly back to your yacht at night.”
Ocean Independence markets one owner’s SeaAxe support vessel for tandem charter with that same owner’s support vessel: 150-foot (45.7-meter) Palmer Johnson Vantage and 180-foot (54.8-meter) Damen Ad-Vantage, which carries a three-person submersible.
And as more owners buy the giant toy carriers, the support vessels themselves are becoming available for charter. This, perhaps, means a future of charter clients being able to mix and match support vessels with the mothership charter yacht of their choice. Clients can even offload the owner’s toys and pile on their own, Howard says.
“If you have all your toys and your stuff and your speedboats and your sport planes and your submarines with you, that makes a difference,” Minnema says. “That’s the holiday.”