In Defense of Superyachts | Teen Ink

In Defense of Superyachts MAG

July 26, 2023
By 14312 BRONZE, Germantown, Maryland
14312 BRONZE, Germantown, Maryland
1 article 0 photos 4 comments

Favorite Quote:
When duty falls, it falls to you

Superyachts: to socialists, a monument to the exploitation of the working class; to environmentalists, the embodiment of greed; to naval architects and marine engineers: a unique opportunity.

The largest and most opulent private ships of millionaires and billionaires, superyachts, have a bad reputation, and for a good reason. Many object to their existence on a moral level or the process in which their owners procured their riches. Recent anti-oil protesters and Western sanctions have put these crafts into the view of worldwide news and have sparked a new debate about their existence. 

For instance, protesters have recently defaced the superyacht of an heiress of the Walmart fortune, proclaiming, “The richest one percent of the world population pollutes more than the poorest 50 percent,” in an attempt to draw attention to the climate crisis and disproportionate carbon emissions between the global rich and poor. The ship was a good scene for the protest, as many view such crafts as serving no purpose other than to be toys for the uber-rich and unnecessarily polluting already fragile ecosystems.

While such statements are not wrong, superyachts can be a tool to fight climate change. Naval architects and marine engineers (those who design watercraft and those who design onboard machinery on watercraft, respectfully) understand this idea the best.

To understand this claim, one must understand the realities of naval architecture. Most vessels are ordered, designed, and built to fulfill a specific role and meet finite criteria. Shipping lines want vessels that are efficient and budget-friendly, fishermen want boats that can catch x-amount of fish per year, governments want ships that can endure decades of abuse, etc. Unique to yachts is their lack of a specific job. Future yacht owners want a ship that fits their tastes and that can meet their gargantuan budget. Those two elements are how a superyacht can be used to fight climate change.

The first element is a superyacht’s budget, which is often in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Such a massive budget will fetch an owner the newest and best technologies around today, which include expensive, prototype design elements. Many of these designs are meant to reduce carbon emissions, from solar panel sails to complex electric drive systems. These technologies are perfect to be fitted onboard yachts, as many are in prototype stages and are not trustworthy enough for companies to sink millions of dollars into. In addition, yacht owners don’t care about their vessels’ economic reliability. The wide variety of tastes in ships also means a large variation in vessel shapes and types that can be used to test new pieces of technology.

This aspect of yachts is unique and underlines why superyachts can be a valuable tool. Take the soon-to-be-completed yacht Obsidian, which hosts a groundbreaking engine system, including experimental biofuel engines and an innovative electric propulsion system. Her engine reduced carbon emissions by a whopping 95 percent, and such a feat can only be achieved on a superyacht as of now. No shipbuilder or organization is willing to dump millions of dollars into one unproven and experimental piece of technology, let alone a whole suite of equipment. These groups want tech that is proven, reliable, and efficient. This is because it is incredibly expensive and difficult to equip their vessels with new pieces of technology — and is especially worrisome to shareholders as unproven ‘carbon cutting’ pieces of equipment may very well do the exact opposite. This mindset is good for business, but not for innovation. Superyacht owners don’t care about such notions and are willing to invest in new technologies to show off. Many may accuse this mindset of greenwashing — making empty acts of environmental stewardship to distract from worse acts of intentional pollution — but the results don’t lie. In this case, greenwashing can be a positive. Again, take the Obsidian for reference. Should the application of her biofuel engines be considered a success, then the ideas and technology behind it would be proven in the real world. Now, the designs can be perfected and offered up to the marine industry as a whole.

Such a situation is not merely theoretical — the exact situation of a single ship’s innovation being a catalyst for others has been seen time and time again, from Arcform to Longitudinal Framing, Liquid Natural Gas engines, and beyond, to include every moment of modern naval history. In the case of Arcform, the design was first published by the famous naval architect John Isherwood in one of his scientific papers, yet it failed to draw any attention from his peers. It was only by the successful construction and operation of three Arcform tramp ships did the design prove itself in the real world, kicking up a short period of frenzy as dozens of ships were built to the design. While many designs have the opportunity to be sponsored by big-name companies or supporters, many start-up groups lack the chance. Other ideas and innovations are often seen developing in private industrial or public laboratories; however, the operator of such gives priority to whichever technology promises a desired result, letting all others die on the vine. For instance, the United States’ Naval Warfare Centers are the only research technologies that give American warships a competitive edge, and shipyards only develop technology that makes their work more appealing on the market. The owners of superyachts provide a path for future development to technologies that don’t provide a commercial advantage during the initial development stages. Look at any journal of yacht development, and it would be clear that the Obsidian is not alone. Every front page is full of news regarding the latest and greatest developments in yacht design, which in turn is the latest and greatest in naval architecture, marine engineering, and environmental technology. Moreover, the pages of every marine engineering editorial are plastered with stories of how a certain technology is sweeping the merchant fleets of the world because one organization — one ship — took a risk to demonstrate such an idea. These technologies sweep the industry, as equipment that reduces fuel consumption is great for businesses. Fuel is the greatest cost for every shipping line that has, is, and will be in operation. As an unintentional bonus, the reduction of fuel consumption also reduces greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. 

Again, superyachts are small enough for the application of prototype technologies, given they have the budget for such. Conveniently, smaller superyachts are the correct size for small, experimental drafts of technology, which initially can’t be scaled up for the massive civilian vessels currently in service. During the initial design of any ship, the vessel is not immediately built, especially if the design is brand new. Instead, designs are tested digitally before models are built and go through trials in tow tanks to examine important characteristics. Then, and only then, would a ship begin construction. Such a process exists for the naval architect, but not so much for the marine engineer. In most cases, there is no space to apply experimental versions of upcoming designs; instead, the technology would be immediately fitted. The aforementioned weariness of major cooperations kicks in during this step, as untested designs are treated with a healthy level of caution. This is where superyachts take the stage — with a wide range of shapes and nothing to lose from a failure, up-and-coming technologies can be fitted, studied, and adapted to both the ship and the greater industry. Only then would the greater industry be more open to the innovative — nowadays synonymous with eco-friendly — design for large-scale applications and benefits. The widespread environmental benefit from a certain technology would vastly outweigh the disproportionate pollution generated by one yacht. 

The role that superyachts fill in the design process for the marine engineer is solely unique to itself. No common type of vessel lacks the economical reasoning to avoid novel technologies and has a reason to actively seek out innovation. In the greater industry, superyachts unintentionally provide a critical role in demonstrating environmentally friendly technologies that can not be found anywhere else. The greed that drives their creation drives their innovation.

The author's comments:

Such observations occur when the marine industry is working tirelessly to reduce its carbon footprint with countless examples of innovation and advancement. Whether superyachts truly have a rightful place in the process or are forever doomed to the pointless flaunting of wealth is up to the historians of tomorrow to decide. 

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This article has 1 comment.

14312 BRONZE said...
on Jul. 27 at 11:28 am
14312 BRONZE, Germantown, Maryland
1 article 0 photos 4 comments

Favorite Quote:
When duty falls, it falls to you

This piece was very much a nuanced defense of a poor position, which is interesting as I oppose the existence of superyachts on a moral level.