Wings & Water: Thinking Big
The crash of hammers, the clang of metal on metal, and the crackle of welding torches are among Peter Lürssen’s earliest memories. Now 47, he grew up in a house that was about a five-minute walk from his family’s shipyard in Bremen, Germany. “All the talk in the house was about boats,” he says. “My father, my grandmother—it was all they discussed.”
The family has done more than just talk about boats. Over its 132-year history, Lürssen Yachts has created some of the world’s most spectacular custom vessels. Three of the four largest yachts launched in the past decade—the 414-foot Octopus, the 454-foot Rising Sun, and the 456-foot Al Salamah—are Lürssen craft, and in superyacht chat rooms one finds rumors of a 500-plus-foot giant that may debut next year. Last year, Lürssen also built the world’s largest schooner, the 305-foot Eos.
The 232-foot Skat features crisp exterior styling and a minimalist interior, while Kismet contains a number of extravagant flourishes, including a disco.
As it has pushed the size envelope, the company has pioneered a long string of technical and design innovations, including the 360-degree rotating electric propulsion system on the 295-foot Ice and the interior “marina” that holds a 36-foot tender and a 40-foot submarine in Octopus. And in Rising Sun, built for software titan Larry Ellison for a reported $194 million, the company incorporated dozens of 6-by-8-foot windows on the upper two decks by employing a new type of glass that is thick enough to withstand the flexing of the boat in high seas.
Before emerging as a leader in the world of gigayachts—private boats longer than 250 feet or so—Lürssen built high-tech vessels for the navies of West Germany, Spain, Singapore, Turkey, and other countries. Peter Lürssen, now one of the company’s managing directors (his cousin, Friedrich Lürssen, shares executive duties as managing director and president), says that the shipyard’s decision to invigorate its yachting division had more to do with geopolitics than with financial acumen. “In 1988, we met to map out long-term strategy,” he recalls. “One of the pessimists in our group said we should plan for our defense contracts drying up if the Warsaw Pact collapsed. Everyone laughed because we thought that was impossible.”
The Berlin Wall fell about a year and a half later, and 29-year-old Lürssen found himself heading the firm’s new yacht-building division. Over the next six years, the company produced a number of outstanding vessels—including Izanami, Falco, Twirlybird V, Coral Island, and Xenia, boats ranging in length from 132 to 237 feet—but it was the 295-foot Limitless, launched in 1997, that established Lürssen’s reputation as a superyacht builder adept at merging contemporary styling with breakthrough engineering.
Lürssen Yachts was founded 132 years ago, in a shed in northern Bremen.
That vessel’s sleek blue hull and white superstructure were conceived by Jon Bannenberg, the prominent Australian yacht designer who has collaborated with Peter Lürssen since the creation of the 227-foot Carinthia V in 1971. Limitless provided an elegant platform for a combination diesel/ electric and direct-diesel propulsion system (never before used on a yacht) that drove the vessel to 30 mph, an extraordinary speed for a boat that size.
The Lürssen operation now spans five shipyards—three in the Bremen area and two elsewhere in Germany (Wilhelmshaven and Rendsburg)—as well as some joint ventures in other countries. The company works on about 10 to 12 projects concurrently. Building a superyacht requires hundreds of thousands of man-hours, starting with the design and engineering staff, which numbers about 150. The work then moves to the yard floors, where a 1,400-strong workforce pieces together the steel hulls and aluminum superstructures and installs the interiors. “We apply the same standards of engineering reliability to the yachts as we do to our military business,” Peter Lürssen says. “We call it the Bismarck factor.”
There is indeed crossover between the superyachts and the naval projects. “We have a long tradition of building fast patrol boats,” notes Carsten Spieker, head of the mechanical design department. “And we have built minesweepers, which avoid detection by emitting very little noise. We use our military experience to make our yachts faster and quieter.”
Spieker has overseen the development of alternative propulsion systems such as the Azipod technology on Ice, which dramatically reduces greenhouse emissions. The design also has eliminated the need for a rudder, making the yacht easier to maneuver. Lürssen outfits most of its boats with particle scrubbers, which remove soot from the exhaust of diesel engines, and the company’s engineers are studying hybrid engines, fuel cells, and other green technologies for future builds.
The quantity of materials required for a single boat is staggering. In Limitless, for example, workers employed 87 miles of cable, 20 miles of pipe, and nearly 10,000 square feet of teak. “A 200-foot yacht has over 8,500 square feet of interior space,” says Ludger Dohm-Zahlmann, who heads the company’s interior design department. “That’s the size of a large villa. If you look at some of our biggest yachts, the space can be eight to 10 times that—the size of a palace.”
Lürssen says he has no favorites among his yachts, but he does point to some favorite features. For example, he is fond of the panoramic skylounge on the 197-foot Linda Lou, delivered last fall to cosmetics entrepreneur Doug Von Allmen and his wife, Linda. The two, who live as many as nine months per year on the water, say that they spend a lot of time in this spot, opening up the back doors to better enjoy the view or closing them to control the temperature. They collaborated with designer François Zuretti to create the boat’s classically styled interior, with its extensive use of marble and light-hued woods such as madrone burl. The top-deck lounge is finished in teak and Spinneybeck leather, while the master suite makes use of onyx and lacquered lacewood.
The bespoke nature of each Lürssen yacht becomes apparent when you contrast Linda Lou’s interior with, say, the spartan white-and-gray design of the 232-foot Skat. The 208-foot Northern Star has a French country design, with Victorian-era wallpaper and appliqué fabrics. And the 377-foot Pelorus showcases natural elements, including floors made from driftwood and walls decorated with such items as banana leaves and shells.
Lürssen’s most recent launch, the 223-foot Kismet, is one of the company’s most extravagant. The yacht, which will debut at the Monaco Yacht Show in September, features an upper-deck “beach house” populated by Hindu statues and decorated with wood bark and other organic materials. The yacht also holds a disco with a panoramic view, and a glass-bottomed Jacuzzi on the top deck serves as a skylight for the beach house.
Northern Star, Kismet, and Pelorus emerged from Lürssen’s shipyard in Rendsburg, while Linda Lou and Skat were built in the Bremen area. There, each of Lürssen’s three yards, all located on the river Weser, specializes in yachts of a certain size. To the west, the Lürssen Bardenfleth yard turns out boats as long as 200 feet (including Linda Lou). Lürssen Aumund, located a bit to the east, can produce the company’s largest gigayachts. Farther east still, across the river from the company’s head office, Lürssen Lemwerder builds vessels as long as 330 feet (including Skat).
A visit to the Lemwerder yard reveals intense activity. The facility comprises a complex of buildings covering 1.6 million square feet and about 2,300 feet of deepwater quays. In one building, an automated system plucks boat parts from among the 20,000 components that are stacked on shelving 40 feet high. In another, metalworkers weld vast steel sections together to make hulls. Elsewhere in the complex, workers attach aluminum superstructures to the hulls and install wiring, piping, and internal systems. Despite the bustle, however, the scene at the boatyard appears orderly, and it projects a surprising sense of calm.
Peter Lürssen’s great-grandfather Friedrich founded the company in 1875, in a shed located where the company’s Aumund shipyard stands now. Twelve years later, he and Gottlieb Daimler, who created the prototype of the modern gas engine, built the world’s first motorboat, a small, rough-looking skiff called Rems that was powered by a 1.5 hp engine. By 1905, Friedrich was breaking speed records with his sleek, futuristic-looking Donnerwetter, which reached 40 mph.
By the 1930s, nearly 1,000 Lürssen workers were turning out recreational vessels and, increasingly, minesweepers and S-boats for the German navy. The shipyard survived World War II, albeit narrowly, having endured an Allied bombing and, at the war’s close, an attack by Nazi troops ordered to destroy German industrial facilities to keep them out of Allied hands. As the soldiers approached, the employees formed a human shield and prevented the troops and tanks from entering their shipyard.
After the war, banned from building naval vessels, the company survived by making small wooden tenders and fishing skiffs. Peter Lürssen’s grandmother Frieda, a woman known for her Teutonic bearing, kept the operation running. True to the nickname that Frieda’s family had given her, “the General” required a daily report of operations even as late as the 1960s. “As a child, I used to sneak a look at those reports; they fascinated me,” Peter Lürssen recalls. “Very early on, I wanted to become a shipbuilder.”
He served as an apprentice in various departments, working as a blacksmith, learning to use a lathe, and casting propellers. After completing studies as a naval architect, he worked at a shipyard in Japan and then built boats alongside Chinese laborers in Malaysia. He joined the Bremen operation in 1987.
“I don’t have many hobbies beyond the shipyard,” Peter Lürssen says. “There isn’t really much I do outside the business.” He hopes that his passion will be taken up by the fifth generation of his family: two sons, a daughter, and a nephew. “But they will have to learn that this business is not easy, that it’s hard work,” he says. “They will have to prove themselves.”