The Age of Yachts
Updated: Apr 27, 2021
The yacht! – the word itself is elitist and exclusive. If you saw it in print for the first time, how would you even know to pronounce it [ˈyät] and not more like [Jącht] (as in the original Dutch). It requires a degree of connoisseurship (another elitist word) to get right. And demographically, who does the word make you think of? Millionaires, billionaires, kings and queens, of course! And geographically? Monaco, Bahamas, azure seas and island paradises! And semantically? Luxury! Opulence! The 'good life'! And it’s not like this is a new interpretation – it is a late 16th century word that has almost always characterized a ‘pleasure craft’.
Is it any wonder that this type of vessel lent itself so perfectly to luxury cruising when it outgrew the seasonal, ocean liner-based format in the beginning of the 20th century? It would become the first type of custom-built cruise ships in history and the ultimate expression of luxury cruising for almost three decades. The ships that emerged from the union of ‘cruising’ and ‘yachts’ were not only stunningly beautiful, but also represented an important step in the evolution of the cruise phenomenon.
So what makes a ship a yacht?
While most people can agree on what the ‘idea’ of a yacht is, defining the physical traits is a lot more fluid, but in a cruise context and for the time period in question, we are talking about smaller (from 50 – 250 pax), motorized, commercial cruise vessels with a ‘yacht aesthetic’ and a level of refined luxury. What’s a ‘yacht aesthetic’? I hear you ask. Short version: it means ‘a fancy ship’.
The visual signifiers tended to be elegant, sweeping lines and curved hulls with a sheer – the ‘Clipper hull’ was a particular favorite, taken from the mid-19th-century merchant sailing ship and adapted wholesale with the (by now decorative only) bowsprit and counter stern. It was a deliberate break from conventional boxy and utilitarian passenger ship design of the day, meant to evoke nostalgia and imply a racy pedigree. That same impression of speed and sleekness was communicated by the masts (of which there were usually two) and the funnels (of which there were usually one or two) – always slim in design and rakishly angled aft to imply momentum and grace. By the way, this fixation on ‘speed’ was purely aesthetic – cruise yachts were never meant to be that fast (after all, who goes sightseeing at breakneck speeds?), but the impression of an ‘elegant thoroughbred’ was important for the branding. Add to that some elaborate, gilded scrollwork above the clipper bow and around the stern, perhaps even a classic figurehead, and you had yourself a pretty standard early-20th-century cruise yacht.
The Scottish Pioneer
Perhaps the earliest example of such an aesthetic is found in the St Sunniva of the Scottish North Company, built in 1887 in Aberdeen. The North Company introduced one of the first mainstream cruise experiences when they sent their coastal supply ship, the St. Rognvald, on some reasonably priced leisure cruises to Norway (read Northbound). The tremendous success they enjoyed prompted the immediate construction of an additional ship, but appreciating the difference a stylish design makes, the North Company went with a radically different look – that of a cruise yacht. The difference between the St. Sunniva and the St. Rognvald was striking as well as illustrative; one looked sleek, stylish and elegant, the other square, dowdy and workmanlike. It was clear that, given a choice and all things equal, the average cruise guest would always go for the St. Sunniva. She just looked the part of a vessel that you could relax and enjoy yourself on, a vessel made for leisure and pleasure and a vessel you would like to see – and be seen on. But while the St. Sunniva had the visuals down pat, she remained in quality and service a mainstream product and did not rise to the standards of luxury to earn the epithet ‘yacht’.
Classifying a ship a ‘yacht’ is supposed to put you, the guest, into the mindset of a private yacht owner – to make you buy into the fantasy that this is your private yacht. To achieve that, the onboard service level has to have a decidedly ‘all about you’ focus and there have to be sufficiently few fellow passengers around you, that you are not ‘crowded’ out of your fantasy. That’s why a level of ‘refined luxury’ and exclusivity was also required to make it a cruise yacht.
The German icon
The St. Sunniva did not have that, but arguably the Prinzessin Victoria Luise had both the luxury and the ‘looks’ in spades. She was built in 1900 in Hamburg, Germany – the brainchild of Hamburg-Amerikanische-Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft (HAPAG) CEO Albert Ballin and the first custom-built, full-time luxury cruise ship in history (read the White Princess). She ticked every box of the ‘yacht aesthetic’ checklist – a singularly beautiful pleasure craft whose white hull (a novel color choice for the day) would go on to become synonymous with cruise ships. If any ship could be said to have kicked off the ‘age of yachts', it was her, and her originality, functionality and beauty set the benchmark for every cruise yacht to follow her, starting with her own sister ship, the Meteor, launched in 1904.
Ballin had also introduced the ‘floating hotel’ philosophy to HAPAG’s ocean liner fleet – an emulation to bring the luxury and service of shoreside luxury hotel stays to ships as far as technology and safety would permit. This was basically what really changed ocean travel from ‘bearable necessity’ to ‘enjoyable pleasure’ and with Prinzessin Victoria Luise he created the epitome of this philosophy. Catering to only 192 guests max, she gave guests the personal space, the refined service and the tangible level of luxury to indulge in the fantasy of private yacht ownership. Sadly, the Prinzessin Victoria Luise would be lost off the coast of Jamaica a mere 6 years into her career, but her legacy lived on in every cruise yacht built in the following 3 decades.
The cruise yachts pulled a lot of inspiration from the old Clipper sailing vessels for notions of speed, nostalgia and romance, but there was another type of vessel they shamelessly copied; the Royal Yachts of Europe. Every royal house worth its salt obviously had a royal yacht, and they were designed on the exact same formula as the cruise yachts; luxury + elegance. As an example, the Prinzessin Victoria Luise had in fact been closely modelled on Emperor Wilhelm II’s personal yacht, the Hohenzollern, and the emperor himself, a close friend of Albert Ballin, had contributed to the design. The connotations of this design choice went very much hand in hand with the refined luxury aspect – why only feel like you are a yacht owner, when you can feel like you are a king, or even an emperor? This was yet another PR flourish to appeal to the rarified clientele of high society, aristocracy and business elites. And if you think invoking royal connotations is an outdated and cheap trick to lure the impressionable guests aboard, I have two names for you; 'ROYAL Caribbean Line' and 'PRINCESS Cruises'.
The Norwegian Prince
One cruise yacht that had very little trouble evoking an ‘air of royalty’ was the Prins Olav because she was in fact a Royal Yacht to start with. This triple-screw turbine steamer was built in 1907 in Glasgow as an auxiliary royal yacht to the larger HMY Victoria and Albert and named the HMY Alexandra. In May of 1925 she was sold to Nordenfjeldske Dampskibsselskab (the predecessor to Hurtigruten) for £25.000 (a little over £ 1.5 million in today’s money) and the smartest thing Nordenfjeldske did was not to change a single thing. She completed her first cruise season in Norway with only a minor refit, essentially still a royal yacht in all but function and a fantastic public relations coup for Nordenfjeldske. Even though she was extensively remodeled subsequently to increase passenger capacity, the Royal Quarters were kept unaltered and Prins Olav continued to cruise very successfully on her air of royal heritage up until 1937 when she was rebuilt into an intracoastal cargo liner for the newly formed Hurtigruten.
To be clear, the arrival of cruise yachts did not in any way sideline or curtail the existing seasonal, ocean liner-based cruise market – ultimately there were not even that many of them. But they did represent one of the first permanent diversifications of the cruise market; with few exceptions, cruising until this point had been a wealthy guests’ game, but the arrival of the cruise yachts represented the creation of a more refined level of luxury, separate and apart from the existing market. In some ways you could argue it was the moment when the Luxury segment elevated itself from the rest. Furthermore, it was the first time in history custom-built cruise ships, designed for year-round cruising, started to appear in greater and consistent numbers. From this point on designated full-time cruise ships could always be found on the world’s oceans at any time (two World Wars not included).
The North Star
The age of yachts closed out with the most famous and beautiful of all cruise yachts - the Stella Polaris. Launched in 1926 by Gotaverken shipyards in Sweden, she became the last of the great cruise yachts to be built before the Great Depression of 1929 put a stop to further luxury construction projects. She was commissioned by the Norwegian Bergenske Dampskipsselskap (Bergen Line) who had already enjoyed success with luxury yacht cruising, using the aforementioned Meteor (acquired from HAPAG in 1922). Gotaverken had never built a cruise ship before but wisely stuck to what they knew best; building a strong and classic ship, and then outsourced the interior to the best craftsmen, designers and artists they could find.
The result was an outstanding combination of Scandinavian design and engineering, incorporating all the traits of the yacht aesthetic in a modern, yet timeless vessel. The craftsmanship was immaculate, the materials first-class; teak decks and expensive wood panelling, polished brass and gleaming scrollwork, plush textiles and elegant decor. She was spacious, yet intimate - luxurious, yet cosy and with 130 crew to 198 guests the service level was high and personal. The ship was exceptionally well-designed and well-run and quickly grew an adoring fan base of regular cruisers who would follow the ship for most of her career to the point that passage on her more exclusive voyages (like her annual world voyages) were advertised as 'Memberships'.
The Stella Polaris would end up cruising full-time for 40 years (save for a stint of war duty during WWII), far outlasting all other yachts of the age. She underwent several refits and a change of ownership to Swedish Clipper Line but continued to be one of the most illustrious and beautiful cruise ships of any decade. In 1969 she was sold to Japanese corporation who laid her up on the Izu Peninsula as a floating restaurant for another 36 years. A Swedish company bought her in 2005 with the intent to move her back to Stockholm and refit her as a floating hotel but fate had other plans; in 2006 while under tow out of Japanese waters she sprung a leak and the last relic of the age of yachts was lost to the waters south of Nagoya.
This was not a comprehensive list of cruise yachts, but just a few that were very illustrative of their origin, popularity and significance during the first three decades of the 20th century. Apologies to the Argonaut, Oceana, Meteor, Venus, Empress of China and others of their kind for not getting to their story, but I only have so much space.
The Great Depression, topped off by WWII ended the age of yachts and by the time peace and normality returned, cruise yachts had gone out of fashion - not aesthetically (to this day most people can appreciate the beauty of a classic yacht), but semantically. The word just smacked a little too much of elitism, snobbery and pompousness with the mainstream demographic that the fledgling post-WWII cruise industry was trying to attract and the modern ships did not really fit the visual profile anymore either. Only a few luxury lines dared use the word ‘yacht’ unashamedly in the branding (looking at you there, Seadream, Seabourn and Seacloud).
Funny thing is the ‘yachts’ are now back in vogue. Ritz-Carlton is entering the cruise business and doing so not with a fleet of ships, but with a ‘yacht collection’. Scenic Group, which owns both the Scenic and Emerald Waterways river cruise lines, is forming both an Emerald Yacht Cruises brand and a Scenic Discovery Yacht brand. Crystal Cruises has also launched a Yacht Expedition brand and emergent expedition brand Norwegian Yacht Voyages are about to do the same. A good deal of this ‘yacht resurgence’ is coming from the growth in the expedition cruise market, where a lot of smaller upscale vessels with refined luxury are entering the market, and making the epithet relevant again. While the modern yachts look nothing like their historical predecessors, the visual signifiers still communicate the same traits of elegance, luxury, speed, sleekness and style but going very clearly for a more ‘futuristic vibe’ rather than a nostalgic one.
Whether the word ‘yacht’ has now lost those unfavorable connotations to elitism, snobbery and pompousness or the current generation of affluent travelers have decided they can live with that association, I cannot say. But either way, after a good 100-year-break we are once again in an ‘age of yachts’.
This is the ninth article in a series of historical retrospectives on the history of cruising prior to the industry formation in the 1960's. Although not academic papers, the articles are researched to the extent of my resources and ability and strive to be as historically factual as possible. If you enjoyed it, feel free to like, share or comment and follow me (or The Cruise Insider) for more instalments.