The History of Super Yachting – Part 1

Christina O: The yacht that launched a thousand ships

It all began with Aristotle Onassis. In 1954 Aristotle purchased a 10-year-old Canadian frigate for $34,000 and set about turning her into the most luxurious vessel the world had ever seen. Spending upwards of $4 million (equivalent of around $35 million today) Aristotle fashioned his very own floating palace and in doing so created an entire industry dedicated to sailing the seas in style.



On his newly refitted 90meter super yacht Aristotle hosted the rich and famous of the 50’s and 60’s: Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, John Paul Getty and John D Rockefeller. Ari’s bar, as it came to be known, was for a time the most exclusive bar in the world. It is where JFK first met Winston Churchill and where Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly celebrated their wedding. No expense was spared in creating a lavish interior of dark panelled wood and then stocking it with the finest brandies, wines and cigars, and, of course, the finishing touch- bar stools covered in Whale foreskin. This was luxury at sea on an unprecedented scale.

Yachting in the 1960’s: Birth of an Icon

Spurred on by the stories and press surrounding Aristotle Onassis and Christina O the 1960’s saw a surge in yacht construction. Shipyards who had traditionally specialised in navy or merchant vessels increasingly found themselves asked to build custom designed yachts. During the 1960’s Feadship launched around 30 yachts with an average size just over 20mtrs but including the more ‘super’ 44mtr Westlak (now Antartica). The German shipyard Lurrsen, traditionally a navy shipyard, also began producing yachts including the 45mtr Sea Star. In the UK, Camper & Nichols built the 46mtr Chambel IV (now Northwind II) with a plush interior designed by Maison Jansen, the famous French design company who’s clients included Coco Channel, the Rockefellers and King Leopold II of Belgium.


 However, the true yachting icon of the 60’s is undeniable- the Riva Aquarama.  Launched in 1962 these sleek 9-meter launches are still held as classics today. Nothing evokes the 1960s St Tropez Playboy quite like the Aquarama with its silky lines of dark mahogany finished with gleaming varnish, subtle dashboard detailing and elegant sunbathing platform. Not only did they look good but they were capable of speeds of up to 50knots thanks to their 400bhp Cadillac and Chrysler engines.

briggite bardot riva 1967

The 70s and 80s: An Industry is Born

The construction of private yachts continued to grow in the 1970s with Italian shipyard Benetti regularly producing boats in the 20-meter range and Heesen in the Netherlands launching it’s first luxury yacht, the 28-meter Amigo. Feadship continued to be busy building another 30 yachts. However, luxury private yachts were still somewhat rare and considerably smaller than those today, averaging around 30-meters. As always in yachting though, there were a few exceptions. These included the revolutionary 1973 super yacht Carinthia VI (now The One) designed by Jon Bannenberg and built by Lurssen. For the first time a yacht was being built from scratch with every element under the full control of a single designer. Bannenberg created the beautiful hulls lines and super structure of the vessel and then complemented them with intricately crafted interior detailing. The result was a stunning, completely consistent vessel, which truly heralded arrival of yacht design and production as an integrated design form.


By the 1980s a real industry was beginning to build up around super yachts and this was confirmed by the 1983 launch of Boat International magazine, dedicated to the super yacht industry and distributed in 55 countries. In Italy Fabio Perini set up the Perini Navi shipyard, which would specialise in creating luxury sailing yachts from 30-meters upwards. Feadship was building as many yachts as ever but they were now averaging around the 40-meters in length. In 1983 Feadship built the classically styled 60mtere New Horizon L (now White cloud) for the Dutch Prince de Lignac as well as the radically modern 45meter pair Azteca and Paraiso. These two yachts, designed again by Jon Bannenberg, shocked the yachting world with their revolutionary, futuristic style.


The yachting industry had been growing in leaps and bounds but all that changed in 1987 with Black Monday. It was the worst economic crash since Black Tuesday in 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. Black Monday wiped billions off international stock exchanges, people were scared and money was tight. Yacht construction projects were stalled or stopped entirely and yachts already built were quiet, tied to the dock waiting for what would come next

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *