Harbours – A complex organism

In this article, we will discuss project planning, fleet sizing, and dock services to create a successful and welcoming marina

by Paolo Viola*

One of the key issues that need to be considered when planning projects for marinas or harbours is defining the number and size of the fleet of boats that are expected to moor there. If you overestimate the number, you run the risk of ending up with an empty or scarcely utilised harbour, while underestimating can put the operation’s business plan at risk. However, the number is not all that counts. Defining the categories, i.e. the size of the berths, is even more important and difficult. Berths for excessively small boats may not guarantee the expected financial returns on the investment, while large berths – although in high demand today – risk failing to find a sufficient amount of users.


This is obviously a typical problem of preventive market research, but we all know that the boating market is constantly evolving and has rather unreliable trends. Just think of the disruption produced by the war in Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia, the cost of fuel, and the green revolution. So how should one proceed when drafting a mooring plan?I asked engineer Giuseppe Vadalà, who has a long experience as project manager in the field of marinas and has been promoted and completed more than one for a large construction company that also handles maritime works. Vadalà explained that the most important priority is to identify the potential target for Marina’s “permanent” berths – based on the location of the site, its land and air connections and proximity to urban centres – and to make an appropriate estimate with regard to “transit” berths. This distinction has always divided the clientele in two: a first group of customers who occupies (incorrectly we also say “buys”) berths for a longer period of time – months or years – and another group who stay in the harbour for short periods – days or weeks – during holidays, usually in the summer, sometimes even to do maintenance work or to accommodate the crew during wintering when the boat is not used often or not at all.

The success of a new Marina must include all the following activities:
– urban planning and road accessibility, road, rail and air transport;
– the aforementioned market research to define the flows divided between stationary and transit users, which will result in the composition of services for both needs;
– an appropriate financial business plan covering changing boundary conditions and sensitivity analysis
to assess their impact;
– sustainability analysis of the harbour facility as a whole, in order to minimise externally supplied energy components and tend towards autonomous or at least reduced-impact action;
– enhancement of the component resulting from external shipbuilding and refitting, as well as of all those support activities which – especially in the off-season – make it possible to maintain a high flow of users and consequently the “life of the harbour”, such as sports events, regattas, convention and exhibition activities;
– presence of specialised shops of adequate standing, as well as accommodation that will also attract tourists travelling off-season who find the “sea during winter” appealing.

The services that well-equipped and well-managed Marinas can offer boats and people are actually the real feather in the cap of nautical tourism.

The entrepreneurs behind Marina had long prioritized maximising the number of permanent berths and had considered the rule of reserving a certain number of berths for transit to be disadvantageous. There is no doubt that the “sale” (or the early definition of multi-year lease contracts) represents a fixed, certain, and quick source of income and reduces the exposure of the investment; it can provide a guaranteed income and a good outcome for the business plan. However, in recent years, these certainties have disappeared, or rather, they have become more limited, due to the economic downturns we have experienced, which have greatly affected customers’ investments in berths (as well as in tourist real estate). Today such investments seem to be back on the rise, but maybe not for the segment of the middle class that in the past could afford to buy a boat of up to 10-15 metres in addition to a place to keep it. Moreover, we can’t forget the general “drain” we have witnessed in the past years due to the taxation on “luxury goods” – which seems to be more feared than real – and which triggered a “witch-hunt” against shipowners with a consequent loss of about 35,000 to 40,000 boats that have been moved to neighbouring berths across the border.

Simultaneously, in recent years, with a further increase due to the pandemic, short leases have become increasingly attractive, especially for large boats, since our coasts have been discovered by cruisers arriving from all over the world with their own boats or through charter companies. Even the Italian boating industry, which now ranks among the world’s top superyacht manufacturers, has commercial and launching needs close to the shipyards. This means that also refitting, which is still uncommon in Italian harbours, is becoming an interesting and growing business.

Today, more than ever, defining the number of total berths as well as the mix of lengths of the boats that need to berth there is crucial in the preliminary study.

In conclusion, it is now more necessary than ever to preventively study and clearly define the total number of berths in the harbour and determine the mix of lengths of the boats that need to moor there. These figures will of course depend not only on the standard parameters (draught, evolution circle within the harbour, mooring methods, etc.), but also on the definition of an accurate business plan and on an in-depth study of the users’ market of origin, tourist routes, and the different dynamics of the shipyards.Finally, the facilities should be as flexible as possible, with movable jetties almost everywhere – although obviously, weather conditions do not always allow it – so that they can easily adapt to the demands of a fast-changing market. Climate evolution has taught us that we are moving towards a tropical system, with sudden and strong weather phenomena that cannot be ignored and must be kept in mind from the preliminary stage when designing a new harbour facility.

This is what we were able to learn from engineer Vadalà. But then there is the issue of harbour services, which naturally need to be in line with the standing of the harbour and compatible with its geographical location. Building a harbour far from a residential area is one thing, but building an entire harbour square in an old fishing village or the Marina which goes hand in hand with a new urban waterfront is quite another. The subject is highly multifaceted and must take into account both services for boats and for people.


Paolo Viola (Naples, 1936) is an engineer and urban planner specialising in harbour design, head of the “Marina & Waterfront” area at WiP Architetti s.r.l.

Boat services consist mainly of berthing assistance, incoming and dock management, cyber security, perimeter security and security meeting room, radar, leisure & WI-FI, maintenance, guarding, hauling and launching, winter boat storage, energy and drinking water supply, distribution of pay TV channels, digital signage, tracking and bathymetric surveying by drone, energy independence of facilities (photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, wave motion exploitation, etc.), security for coastal sailing and docking, facilitation of movement and transfer of boats in harbours via the web, digital connections, and so on with everything that technology can offer the world of sailing year after year.

Services to people are even more diversified and among these, we will just mention the internal circulation within harbour facilities by means of electric vehicles, parking, hotel hospitality and crew village, luxury shops, food service in all its configurations, emergency medical service, environmental sanitation, a concierge service promoting the territory, tourist itineraries, access via an app to historical, archaeological and natural sites, museums, exhibitions, theatres, concerts and other events, etc.

The services that well-equipped and well-managed Marinas can offer boats and people are actually the real feather in the cap of nautical tourism, though it is key to make sure that they offer an accurate and well-calibrated mix, otherwise the harbour risks failure.To guarantee the success of a new Marina, as engineer Vadalà reminded us, the secret always lies in the preliminary project, which cannot focus only on the maritime component, but must include all activities that can no longer be considered as being secondary since they guarantee the success of the entire infrastructural operation.

(Harbours – A complex organism – Barchemagazine.com – June 2023)