The young customs man is at a loss. On this sweltering December afternoon in Grand Bahama Island’s Freeport Harbor, he is the only official on duty; his supervisor is visiting Miami and cannot be reached; and a green-hulled, four-deck superyacht has just docked in the marina. The arrival of this particular yacht could present a nightmare to even the most experienced customs official.
The vessel holds an American guest and a crew composed of a German, a Frenchman, an Australian, two Bulgarians, four Filipinos, and a man from Hong Kong. The crew plans to place the yacht in dry dock for some maintenance, which will take about a week. The American, German, and Frenchman do not require special visas to stay in the Bahamas this long; it seems the Filipinos do; and everyone is arguing about the Bulgarians. Bulgaria is a member of the European Union, is it not? So the Bulgarians deserve the same treatment as the German and the Frenchman, do they not? What about Australia and Hong Kong? Australia is a Commonwealth nation, like the Bahamas, and Hong Kong was a Crown Colony. Should not people from those countries be welcomed here?
The customs man scowls, stares at the sky, and scratches his head.
In a sense, the yacht is as international as its crew. Owned by a Bavarian residing in Hong Kong, it was designed by a New Zealander based in Ireland, built in China under the management of a German, and given an interior decor by the Asian head of a London firm. To celebrate the marriage of East and West that the vessel represents, its owner, Roland Sturm, named it after a Venetian merchant who, about 750 years ago, set off from Constantinople to call on Kublai Khan in Cathay. Marco Polo is the first in a series of handsome, 148-foot expedition yachts that Sturm expects to offer for about $20 million each.
Although it was launched less than a year ago, Marco Polo already is well traveled. In its first nine months it has journeyed more than 15,000 miles, from Hong Kong through the South China Sea, Indian Ocean, and Arabian Sea; up the thin finger of the Red Sea; and into the Mediterranean Sea, where Sturm spent part of the summer aboard it. After Sturm returned to his home in Hong Kong, his crew piloted the yacht across the Atlantic to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., then took the short trip across the Northwest Providence Channel to Freeport on Grand Bahama, where, for the moment, it is stuck in a bureaucratic snag.
“With Marco Polo, I plan to explore the world,” said Sturm, speaking by phone from Hong Kong just before the boat’s trip to Grand Bahama. “I want to go to the Antarctic, visit Chile, round Cape Horn. You know, opera is very popular in Munich, where I discovered boating in the 1970s. I want to take this yacht up the Amazon in Brazil to listen to performances in the Teatro Amazonas, the opera house in Manaus.”
Sturm, a genial man born in Bavaria in the mid-1940s, has made a fortune in real estate, mainly European hotels. In the 1980s, after finding that he loved sailing, Sturm bought a 75-foot ketch from Holland’s Jongert boatyard and recruited Albrecht Buchner, a fellow German, to be his captain. While sailing the Mediterranean, he and Buchner dreamed up a new boat, and then Sturm asked famed naval architect Ron Holland to design it. The 118-foot vessel, called Globana, was built by Germany’s Abeking & Rasmussen and launched in 1995. Sturm crossed the Atlantic twice on it. “My best trip was to Alaska,” he recalled. “The mist rising over the glaciers—it was fantastic. So I decided my next boat would be an explorer yacht.”
For the design of this new vessel, Sturm again turned to Holland’s firm, which is based in Ireland. “Globana is very fast for a sailboat,” Sturm said. “Ron has a lot of experience with racing hulls, and he brings that expertise to pleasure boats. I asked him to do the same for an expedition yacht.” Buchner managed the project, and when he recommended a builder to Sturm, his choice was surprising. He did not suggest Lürssen, Abeking & Rasmussen, or Feadship, all master designers of expedition craft, but instead chose a family-run shipyard on mainland China, Cheoy Lee (see “A Visit to Lo Country,” page 193).
Now, on Grand Bahama, Buchner is worrying mightily about the customs problem. While Marc Rebuffé, Marco Polo’s French captain, leads the official to the helm for a private conference, Buchner perches on a stool at the boat’s black marble bar, discussing the situation with Dennis Mok, who oversaw the yacht’s construction at Cheoy Lee before launching his own boat design and sales company last year. After learning that Rebuffé is pouring a stiff drink for the official, they ask a hostess for cocktails of their own and settle in for what looks like a wait.
Mok grew up in Singapore and joined Cheoy Lee in 2000. “The company builds a lot of commercial boats,” he says, “but it also makes luxury craft, so it knows how to create a fine interior. We were excited when Roland approached us about the Marco Polo project, because it would show that we could build a great expedition yacht.”
Buchner grins. A Stuttgart native, he has vast experience as a boat captain and boatbuilding project manager. “There were some problems, of course,” he says, “but every time we pointed to something we wanted changed, Cheoy Lee scrapped it and did it over, sometimes overnight. And the workers there are used to building strong, solid boats.”
Indeed, although Marco Polo has the profile of a megayacht, it resembles a commercial vessel in many respects. Most notably, it has a steel hull and is driven, like ships and fishing boats, by a single engine. Most motor yachts are equipped with two engines positioned side by side in an aft room. But Sturm chose the single-engine configuration to gain more fuel efficiency. Marco Polo also has a pump jet forward, which provides an alternative propulsion system if the engine fails (the pump jet can push the yacht at a speed of about 7 mph) and lends the boat 360-degree maneuverability in tight spaces. In addition, Marco Polo’s bow, like that of many commercial vessels, is bulbous below the waterline, which enables the boat to travel through rough seas with a minimum of pitching. However, unlike most ships, which are constructed entirely of steel, the yacht has a superstructure that is produced from a fiberglass-and-foam composite, a lightweight but strong material that allows Marco Polo’s structural elements to be relatively small and its interior to be extraordinarily spacious.
At 15 mph, its normal long-distance cruising speed, Marco Polo has a range of about 3,800 miles, permitting it to cross the Atlantic without refueling. When the yacht travels at approximately 12 mph, its range extends to more than 6,900 miles, a distance sufficient for crossing the Pacific. The vessel can reach 17 mph, a good speed for a boat this size. The hull is painted British racing green, the same color as Sturm’s Bentley.
Inside Marco Polo, you will find no semblance of a commercial vessel. The bar where Buchner and Mok are sitting, on the main deck, is at the aft end of a sprawling, open-plan salon. The walls are Macassar ebony, and the furniture is a complementary shade of cream. In the rear of the salon is a formal dining area. Khuan Chew, the half-Chinese, half-Japanese head of the London design firm KCA International, has placed touches of red and gold throughout the room, and a jade Buddha sits on a table near a sitting area. But the decor never devolves into a pastiche of Asian elements.
The yacht’s most striking interior feature, the master suite, occupies almost the entire upper deck. Sturm, who desires a good deal of privacy, imagined his bedroom as a penthouse of sorts. The room, which you enter through sliding double doors made of Japanese shoji paper, has built-in wardrobes on the starboard side. The en suite bathroom, clad in marble and limestone tiles, has a deep bath and a Turkish shower. A forward study within the suite holds Sturm’s desk, a piece he thinks of as the vessel’s center.
The lower deck holds three double cabins fitted with limed oak and textured wallpapers. A fourth room contains gym equipment, but it could become a fourth cabin. The rooms and hallway are decorated with Asian artworks, with titles such as Huang Shan: Mountain of Chinese Painters, 1983 and Shanghai: Mandarin Yu Garden, 2002. Forward of the cabins, Holland designed an unusually spacious living area for a crew of as many as 10.
At the moment, the crew is the customs official’s concern, specifically the Filipinos and the Bulgarians. He is dead set against the Filipinos disembarking, but he seems of two minds about the Bulgarians. Still ensconced with Rebuffé in the helm, he has moved to his second drink (a tall Bloody Mary). The captain appears to be making progress, but the official still wants to speak with his boss in Miami, and he has reached for his cell phone at least a half-dozen times in the past hour.
Taking a well-earned break, Rebuffé makes his way to the rear of the vessel. Poised, soft-spoken, and unwaveringly polite, he has captained boats throughout Europe and the Near East since the 1980s. Rebuffé fixes himself a soft drink (for he is on duty), then comments on a topic of concern to everyone in his profession these days.
During the trip from Fort Lauderdale to Grand Bahama, Buchner had discussed the history of this area, with its rumrunners, drug smugglers, and “wreckers,” islanders who lured boats to founder on rocks so they could steal the cargo. The pirates Henry Morgan, William “Captain” Kidd, and Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, sailed here, and in the early 18th century the Bahamian island of Nassau was ruled by privateers. But the pirates of those days barely resembled their modern counterparts.
“Twenty years ago,” Rebuffé recalls, “I piloted the Red Sea quite a bit. Back then, you could get away with a submachine gun and a Winchester .30-30 for protection. But these days, especially off the coast of Somalia, pirates are quite organized and well trained, usually by local strongmen. What are you going to do against two dozen paramilitaries with machine guns? So now, the best approach is to avoid provoking aggression: Once you start shooting, they’ll shoot back.”
Sturm is well aware of the problem, and during the phone call he said he has taken certain steps to address it. But he acknowledged that when the boat visits places like the Red Sea and the Strait of Malacca, everyone aboard must be extraordinarily vigilant. “It’s an unpleasant consequence of being an international citizen,” he said.
But neither the threat of piracy nor setbacks such as the one his crew is encountering now will keep Sturm from enjoying the open sea, and he suspects that he is not alone. In fact, he is banking on it. Sturm, Buchner, and a colleague have formed a Hong Kong–based company called Maritime Concept and Construction (MCC) to design and market a series of 148-foot Transocean Explorers modeled on Marco Polo. Once this vessel clears the hurdle at Grand Bahama, it will proceed to the island of Saint Martin to be viewed by a potential buyer. Meanwhile, Cheoy Lee has begun building hull number 2, which will become Sturm’s new personal yacht once it is completed in the fall of 2009. Construction of hull number 3 will begin toward the end of this year. “I expect,” Sturm said from Hong Kong, “there will be many more boats in the series, now that people can tour and ride in one.” Buchner says the company is considering building a 200-foot version that could carry a helicopter.
“What makes a successful explorer yacht?” Buchner asks. “Strength and reliability, of course. Speed, range, fuel efficiency. Easy maintenance, lots of storage for spare parts, and tenders that run on diesel so you don’t need to carry two kinds of fuel. A strong hull and protected rudder and propeller, so the boat can survive scrapes against the ground in shallow water. Marco Polo has all these things. But then, of course, we’ve also made it a delight for the guests and crew.”
He adds that an owner of a Transocean Explorer will be able to modify its layout and interior, and that the builders at Cheoy Lee are eager to try new configurations. Whatever the modifications, says Buchner, these vessels will be relatively inexpensive. By having boats made in China, MCC can take advantage of that country’s low labor costs. “You can’t get a yacht like this anywhere for $20 million,” Buchner says. And the time lapse between order and delivery will be remarkably brief: Cheoy Lee says it can begin work on an order immediately and complete a Transocean Explorer in 18 months.
At last, the customs official is returning from the helm. But by the expression on his face, the news is not wonderful. Unable to reach his boss, he has taken a middle course: Buchner, Mok, Rebuffé, the American guest, and the boat’s Australian chef may stay, but the rest of the crew must leave.
Fortunately, the setback will turn out to be minor. The crew members will drive to Freeport’s airport and fly to Miami. With the help of a Cheoy Lee executive stationed in Fort Lauderdale, they will secure the appropriate visas the following morning, return to the island that afternoon, and about a week later, in good spirits, set off for Saint Martin.
Some time later, Buchner will send an e-mail to his American guest, saying that he is heading back to Germany to see his family. “You must ride again with us sometime,” he will write. “There are so many great places to explore!”
Maritime Concept and Construction, +33.6126.96.36.199, www.mcc-marcopolo.com