Dockwise: The disappearance of the grand yachts

A few weeks ago there were 30 grand yachts anchored at the bottom of our garden enjoying the warm Indian summer. Now, there are none even though many fine days remain over winter to go boating. Where have they gone? West. In the days of the now defunct they would be reported passing Gibraltar en-route to their winter season in the West Indies once the hurricane season ended. But now many benefit from the recent invention of special dock ships to transport them around the world. These ships flood down to float-on/float-off the cargo of up to 20 valuable yachts. It is a spectacular operation but needs very deep calm water and is not routinely done on the Riviera. Toulon and Genoa are the usual termini for our Coast and the main routes go to Florida and the West Indies in October, and back in April/May before the West Atlantic hurricane season starts. The two leading ships in this trade are the Yacht Express and the smaller Super Servant 4, which in their latest westbound trip carried yachts worth a cool $358 million.

Super Servant 3Loading operation of the Super Servant 3 in Martinique
This is big business, but how did it start? As motor-yachts got bigger in the 1980s, owners used the increased range for a double-season mode: summer in the Mediterranean and then winter in the West Indies – a big change from the short summer use and long winter hibernation that Riviera crews were used to, and with new regulations requiring generous leave periods, life became hard on a yacht constantly on the move. Rotating crews was one solution, but millionaire owners prefer their loyal captains and sea persons to be always there onboard their expensive vessels. A tradition grew up of relief captains taking over for the long trans-Atlantic passages when the owner’s party is unlikely to be onboard, giving two weeks leave twice a year to the permanent master.

Meanwhile the Dutch company Dockwise had developed expertise in heavy marine transport, mainly for moving oil rigs around by ballasting down, sliding them under the rig and then rising so the rig was clear of the water and could be transported swiftly to its destination. The company now operates the largest fleet of specialized vessels in the world, some transporting loads of up to 117,000 deadweight tons. The new market for yacht transport inspired Dockwise to develop real dock ships ( so that the precious white yachts could have protection from heavy seas, and these ships are now getting bigger and faster, with several new destinations worldwide. Since its maiden voyage in 1987, the company has transported over 12,000 motor and sailing yachts to destinations around the globe. Float-on/float-off is expensive, but offers a big saving in engine hours and the alarming cost of fuel, not to mention the Admiralty Charts needed for these long voyages. An amazing new nautical industry, worth investing in – on the Oslo Stock Exchange.