Refitting has become increasingly big business for a large number of shipyards. We discussed it with Alberto Perrone Da Zara from the Lürssen group
by Francesco Michienzi
In the past year, numerous yachts measuring between 60 and 100+ metres have used Lürssen’s facilities in Bremen and Hamburg for modification and maintenance work. They include some of the most beautiful yachts in the world, like the 126-metre Octopus. Refitting is a real art to which more and more yards are devoting their energies, professional skills and investments. A job that combines professional techniques with a taste for artistic expression, creativity and innovation.
What are your yard’s strong points when it comes to refitting? Refitting is a very challenging job that shouldn’t be confused with berthing. It involves making major changes to a boat, from fittings to furnishings, and can sometimes be a very lengthy process. Lürssen has always done this kind of work and I’ve been personally involved in it for six years. I think our strong point is having the capacity and space to be able to do very big jobs, as well as being properly organised so that we don’t waste time. We’ve done very large refits for cruise and commercial ships at our facilities in Hamburg, such as adding a 30-metre long insert, or 120 cabins. This also requires an excellent procurement office that ensures all the pieces are available in the warehouse so that the work can be carried out without losing time.
THE GERMAN YARD POSSESSES UNIQUE FACILITIES AND THE POTENTIAL TO UNDERTAKE SEVERAL JOBS AT ONCE.
There’s also the risk of getting estimates wrong. This is a very common risk and mistakes like this can be made. However, the more organised you are, the more of the right people you employ and the fewer risks you run. The rule is that the algebraic difference at the end must always feature a plus sign.
So when you write an estimate, you need to analyse the boat’s condition very carefully. Of course. I’ve visited various boats accompanied by sixteen people. The first contact is all about getting to know the captain and the management, as well as getting a sense of the atmosphere on board. Then you start to estimate how much work there is to do, and this is where the sixteen people come into play, who include experts in air conditioning, systems, plumbing, design and other details. We now have an analytical process that helps us to gain a better understanding of the owner’s history as a whole, so that we can focus on exactly what work needs to be carried out.
In such a selective process, isn’t there a risk of being uncompetitive in the market? Fortunately, our sums seem to have added up, as owners continue to seek us out. I made a naive mistake in the past thinking I could make a profit by bringing in smaller boats from other yards too. I drew up a long list of boats over 65 metres long and under fifteen years old, located all over the world, but looking at the statistics for the last six years, since we bought Blohm & Voss, I realised that the average in both volumes of business and hull size is always 101/110 metres. Our skills mean that we always have big jobs to do on large vessels.
What refitting work has been the most satisfying so far? It’s difficult to say, and then we can’t disclose anything due to privacy. In all honesty, it’s not the job that’s satisfying, but the relationship created with the client or their representative. These jobs involve significant figures and are tied to contracts that could also be trapped. There’s nothing black or white in a refit, but lots of grey areas instead. No matter how accurate the job definitions may be to the point of splitting hairs, there is always something that needs to be interpreted and that could perhaps create a conflict with the customer who expects something different. Or something unexpected, a problem that proves bigger than initially thought. Let’s say that satisfaction comes when you work with a collaborative team and when the captain thanks you for the result.
Over 1,800 people are employed by Lürssen, including more than 450 naval engineers and architects and a multitude of craftsmen able to tackle any project, be it new construction, a refit or a conversion.
What has been your most technically complex job? Naturally, I don’t need to know the name. A couple of years ago we had to change all the generators on a hull with diesel-electric propulsion. It was a very complicated job involving huge loads and weights. Meanwhile, at the start of the pandemic, we refitted the interiors of a boat that was practically new but not built by us. We practically stripped it back to the bare metal, removing floors, walls and ceiling, reassigning certain spaces and replacing the systems – almost everything. It was satisfying, but as the teams were unable to work together, we lost out in many ways.
Isn’t it more convenient to build a new boat? No, because you have long waiting times. A boat of this size takes four or five years. Even a refit takes a certain amount of time, but I’ve never known anything longer than 18 months. If you’re in your seventies, then going from four years to eighteen months makes a big difference.
For all yachts, the time will come when they need a refit, some repairs or even a conversion. This is the work that Lürssen performs with German precision and for which it is renowned around the world.
Do you do everything in-house or do you rely on external firms for certain kinds of work? As in the case of new builds, we have tried to keep the core activities such as engineering, metalwork and electrical systems design in-house, but we also rely heavily on external companies. Lürssen has its headquarters in Bremen and new engineering office in Croatia. In total we are employing more than 450 engineers and architects
What about the rest? The rest is entrusted to firms we’ve been working with for years, who know our exact requirements and how we work, our expectations and exactly what to do. We use German, Austrian and also Italian firms for the interiors. Meanwhile, the paintwork is entrusted to British or Greek firms. They’re very reliable and it’s almost as if they were employed by our organisation.
THREE SHIPYARDS OFFER PLENTY OF SPACE FOR BUILDING
AND REFITTING SEVERAL YACHTS AT THE SAME TIME IN COVERED
SHEDS AND DRY DOCKS.
Have you sometimes felt like you’ve detected a desire in some owners to salvage old boats and turn them into something really special, almost like a challenge? Yes, and they’re wonderful challenges that start with very long chats and never-ending dinners. But they’re sometimes very risky projects, because these hulls, that I believe date back to 1929 or 1939, have arrived here, near us, and they’re like ruins. Unlike when working with bricks and mortar, to restore boats to new you have to follow very specific regulations and it can be risky, if not downright crazy, to change the spaces or systems completely. We’ll rarely accept such extreme jobs, as you can’t even estimate how long it will take. The owners themselves, after looking at the plans, often desist from their original idea.
How many boats are you currently refitting? There are currently four in Hamburg and two in Bremen.
I’ve noticed that some boats are around ten years old on average and still have a highly contemporary layout and appearance, but their value has depreciated massively compared to the initial price. After ten years, the boat is worth less than a third or even a quarter of what it was. In a case like this, would a serious refit be economical? Generally speaking, like in the world of cars, if you buy an object with fairly low brand equity you have to ask yourself whether it makes sense to spend as much as the boat’s worth and add even more to it. It’s happened to me. In cases like these, it’s not just about mathematics. Obviously, you need to assess the type of hull you’ll be working on. Refits are worth it on hulls of a certain type. We’ve not carried out major work on boats where it wasn’t worth it.
(Alberto Perrone Da Zara, to the highest standard – Barchemagazine.com – October 2022)