The Master Boat Builders

If you can dream it, Royal Huisman can build it

Whirlwind, Endeavour, Hyperion, Juliet, Athena. All known as "breakthrough" yachts—the biggest or the fastest or the most beautiful in the world when they were built at the Royal Huisman Shipyard in Vollenhove, in north-central Holland—they are named for gods and goddesses, for the object of heartbreaking love, for their speed. We can't tell you the names of the boats' press-shy owners, though you probably know one or two, but they are not the sort to cruise the Mediterranean in shiny white gin palaces. They are bright, curious, passionate, and often young. But above all else, they are serious sailors. They know that Royal Huisman will deliver boats so huge and fast—technically and aesthetically perfect, devotees say—that they can sail any sea in the world. As this shipyard, which has been family-run for the past 118 years, promises, "If you can dream it, we can build it."

"You could call me a serial, and incurable, entrepreneur," says the Juliet's owner, who is 55 and commissioned the boat eight years ago. He is calling in from the Technology Entertainment Design conference in Monterey, California (a rather typical forum for a Royal Huisman kind of guy), to offer up a few yarns about the yard he came to know so well during the five years it took for Juliet—all 143 feet of her—to be built. "I was there for one week of each month for the duration," he says, "which means I made fifty-six trips. I love that yard, and I cried when I left."

Building a megayacht is like building a Beaux Arts mansion and a spaceship, then sliding one into the other: You must fit an enormously complex and elaborate structure—the yacht's vital technological systems—into a perfectly formed hydrodynamic shell. Then you must make it beautiful and livable without compromising those delicate systems. If you make a mistake, it could cost thousands—maybe millions—to fix. It might even cost you your life. Put more simply, a megayacht is a high-end house you propel through water. Its design is a collaboration between a naval architect and a visionary with deep pockets, otherwise known as an owner. The results are then edited and elaborated by a shipyard. Possibly it will cost $20 million to build, asJuliet did, and employ hundreds of artisans and technical specialists. Megayacht building is an industry like none other.

"There is a Dutch expression, 'To keep your wooden shoes in the mud,' " says Alice Huisman, 42, explaining the gestalt of her family's business. Alice and her two sisters work alongside their mother and father in a company so large that it employs more than 300 craftsmen, and still so small that on Sundays the telephone rings through to her mother's house. Alice's great-grandfather's yard produced sturdy wooden workboatsthat skimmed along the Zuider Zee, Holland's inland sea. When her father, Wolter, "put on his wooden shoes and joined the yard" at 13, as Alice puts it, Huisman was making wooden pleasure boats. In the 1950s it made steel boats for cruising and racing, and the Zuider Zee was reclaimed as farmland. By the '70s the yard was working exclusively in aluminum; light, strong, and flexible, it was the perfect material for racing boats. And Huisman built lots of them, famous yachts that sailed in round-the-world races and won.

In the 1980s they built cruiser-racers—racing hulls with comfy interiors so owners could play, too, and not have to go to bed in a tin can. In 1986, two years after the yard celebrated its 100th birthday and was given the designation "Royal" by the Netherlands' Queen Beatrix, the yard built a boat measuring over 100 feet, Whirlwind XII, and began to morph into the sort of Bond-movie-finale complex it is today. You can see it for miles, its mammoth aluminum sheds with their woodworking, machine, and lofting shops ("like Santa's workshop," says Juliet's owner) standing straight and tall against the flat Dutch landscape.

"The reason, of course, is Wolter," says Jack Somer, the coauthor of Juliet: The Creation of a Masterpiece, a book documenting the boat's construction and launch. "He's an astonishing personality, and I don't mean a superficially sparkling personality. He's an extremely conservative guy who is a genius at adapting to new technologies."

Wolter's rigidity and perfectionism are legendary; the tale of each new Huisman boat invariably includes a tussle with the family patriarch, who serves as the shipyard's managing director. In 1984, Elizabeth Meyer rescued Endeavour, the lovely J-class yacht that had been built in 1934 as an America's Cup contender. Endeavour's 130-foot skeleton was wasting away in an abandoned airport near Southampton, England, when the 31-year-old Meyer fell for her. "I had an instinct about her, and I had an instinct about Wolter Huisman," Meyer says. "It must have been in 1984, at the party for the yard's centennial, and I went up to him and said, 'I'm going to buy Endeavour, and you're going to put her back together.' And he said, 'No you're not, and no I won't.' And I said, 'Yes I am, and yes you will.' That pretty much describes the relationship from start to finish." Five years later, Endeavour was finished, and she was towed, as all Huisman boats must be, on a barge along the freshwater IJsselmeer to the North Sea for launching.

Juliet's owner describes his relationship with Wolter in equally intense terms. "It was like design arm-wrestling," he says. "We inspired each other. Wolter says that I stretched him. I debated him and he debated me, but I respected him enormously for doing so. My father was a little like Wolter; he never wanted to say yes until he was absolutely sure that he could do something."

Marilyn Mower, who is the editor at large of ShowBoats International, a magazine devoted to megayachts, calls Wolter Huisman "the archetypal perfectionist—a hardheaded Dutch craftsman." As she explains it, "It wasn't that Royal Huisman was the first to use the newest material, whether it was steel or aluminum or composites, but that Wolter always did it best. He has researched, he has practiced, and he has perfected the art of building boats. And at the end of the day, he's a man who passionately loves what he does."

"Wolter is never-endingly interested in improving the yard," Meyer adds. "I went to see him a few weeks ago and noticed that he had installed an escalator in one of the construction halls to speed up the workers. He made a rule: 'No standing still on the escalator.' The workers were laughing as they told me the story, but I noticed they were all moving right along."

Maybe the most famous Huisman boat is Hyperion, the multimillion-dollar, 155-foot sloop with its "computer wardrobe," as the company brochure describes it, of high-tech systems tracking everything from bilge pressure to sail trim. She is the world's largest single-masted vessel, and as such a laboratory for countless new technologies developed by Huisman to conquer the unique engineering problems presented by her size. If you consider that her mast, at 192 feet, is the largest "stick" ever made, and then ponder the sail area a mast of that size generates, you can appreciate the hurdles that had to be surmounted. (The average Royal Huisman project measures 40 meters, or about 130 feet, and takes three years from conception to launch.)

Two years after Hyperion's launch in 1998, her owner decided that she wasn't quite big enough. He has since commissioned Royal Huisman to build his next boat, a 298-foot, three-masted schooner named Athena. When launched in 2004, she will be the largest pleasure sailing craft ever built.

The way Meyer sees it, "these yachts are artistic and technical creations, and building or restoring one is patronage of the arts. It's like the Medicis hiring the greatest artists in the world. They provide a creative venue second to none. No one hesitates to explore an aesthetic possibility because it's expensive. The object is to have the expenditure reflect your aesthetics and tastes."

Royal Huisman has a waiting list of several years, but serious sailors will wait as long as it takes to build a dream.

Royal Huisman, American contact: Michael Koppstein, Box 2268, Ogunquit, Maine 03907; 207-646-9504;