Going large: How I specced out my “perfect” 96ft custom motor yacht

It’s not often you get the chance to specify every imaginable detail of your new custom-built motor boat but MBY reader John Wolf is doing just that...

One of the nicest things about boating is that you can have two things for the price of one. Obviously you have all the fun of being at sea with friends and family but also you have the chance from time to time to analyse the huge range of craft available and make a personal choice, and perhaps even specify or build your own perfect boat.

I had immense fun commissioning two semi-custom Fairline Squadron 78s, but that was in 2011 and 2013, so a change was due. I learned a lot in 11 fabulous Mediterranean seasons aboard Squadron 78s, based in the South of France but cruising also to Corsica, Sardinia, the Balearics and Italy. I loved every single day on board and was never let down by the boats.

If there was a guest book, it would have a couple of hundred names in it, while the second Squadron 78 was on Top Gear driven by Jeremy Clarkson and featured in a movie with YouTubers Joe Sugg and Caspar Lee. So I’m very keen to retain all the great features of those two boats while improving things even more on the next boat.

Anyone’s list of essential features in a new boat would be too long to write here but mine included high build quality and reliability, duplication of critical equipment, as professional a galley as possible, fabulous helm stations, enough cabins for family and friends (with laundry facilities to cope), good crew accommodation, fin stabilisation, comfortable places to have lunch, a big swim platform, great mooring gear and much more.

With larger boats it is worthwhile pausing to consider the regulatory rules and the implications for equipment and crewing. Summarising some rather complex regulations very briefly: a boat that is under both the 24m LLL (Load Line Length) and 24m LH (Length of Hull) limits means it can have a captain with only a straightforward licence such as Yachtmaster and be exempt from a number of additional legal requirements.

Article continues below…

Due to the rather odd way these figures are measured, this typically translates to an actual LOA of 95-100ft. Anything bigger requires an upgraded captain’s licence and for most recreational boaters the only feasible upgrade is from a Yachtmaster to a 200GT (Gross Ton) licence (in this context ‘tons’ refers to interior volume rather than weight).

A 200GT boat will typically only be 6-10ft longer than a sub-24m craft yet requires much more regulation such as minimum crew levels and more complex rescue equipment.

Keep it simple

The answer for me was simple: I will have crew but I want to be the captain; I could get a 200GT licence but would not have the time for anything higher; and the extra boat size of a 200GT boat is so marginal that the hassle to benefit comparison doesn’t make sense to me. Having thought it through I therefore decided to choose a boat within the 24m LLL and LH limits, which meant an LOA of around 95-100ft.

That LOA opens up a very wide choice of boats, so it was time to eliminate some. I wanted a five-cabin planing boat with a raised pilothouse design and main deck owner’s cabin, which narrowed the field nicely.

I would also like three crew cabins if possible, so that I could borrow one occasionally when I had too many guests. For practical reasons I didn’t want to travel to Asia to see it being built, which eliminated Ocean Alexander, Horizon and the excellent Pearl 95.

I want to love the look and feel of the boat – very subjective matters of course – and this drew me to European boats more than, say, American ones. I prefer more deck space relative to interior volume so that eliminated the Princess X95 and other similar boats.

No to a cat

I considered a big catamaran such as the Sunreef 80 Power but ultimately couldn’t love catamarans enough; they have fabulous upper deck spaces but more cramped lower decks, and finding two adjacent stern-to berths in a Mediterranean summer isn’t going to be easy.

Also, while they are inherently stable in a way that is useful for a sailing catamaran, they will always roll when one hull is lifted by a wave and that type of roll can’t be cured by stabilisation.

Fairly quickly therefore, the contenders were whittled down to a Sunseeker Yacht 95, Princess Y95, Ferretti 920, Van der Valk, Riva Argo, Riva Corsaro Super, and Sanlorenzo SL96A. All great boats but that was still too many, so I had to eliminate some more.

The Sunseeker and Princess are very fine yachts but ultimately neither builder would agree to the level of customisation I wanted. The Ferretti is also excellent but only offers four bathrooms in a five-cabin boat.

Van der Valk would build a beautiful completely custom-built yacht but I felt that I would be the problem, not them, in that I would not have the time to oversee a project of this complexity, at least not on this occasion. The Riva Corsaro’s extra metre or so of length would force me to relocate to a new berth, which I didn’t want to do.

The process so far had consumed a few months of cogitation, many hours of internet research and several factory visits. The result was two beautiful boats to choose between: the Riva Argo and the Sanlorenzo SL96A.

The Sanlorenzo factory in Ameglia, Italy

I got into very detailed discussions with both builders and their UK dealers, exchanged specification ideas and drawings and spent time at both factories, which conveniently are only a few miles apart in Tuscany, Italy.

Both were incredibly helpful and welcoming throughout and had a delivery slot in early 2024. This part of the process is always fun but has the rather awkward aspect that one party will fail to get the nod and I didn’t wish to waste anyone’s time. I therefore candidly told both builders early on that this was a two-horse race, naming the other horse.

My final choice was the Sanlorenzo, with much sadness at having to reject the beautiful Riva. The decision was based on features such as the SL96A’s larger galley, a growing appreciation on my part of its asymmetric layout, a larger tender garage (albeit at the cost of a smaller engineroom), three ensuite crew cabins rather than two and the offer of customisation throughout, almost without limits.

Sanlorenzo builds only 50 boats per year (three or four of which are SL96As)

I honestly had no idea at the start of this project just how much customisation Sanlorenzo would offer on this size of boat. As just one example, most builders offer their interior furniture in a choice of three or four veneers with either a matt or gloss finish.

When I asked Sanlorenzo for their menu, the answer was: “Any sustainably produced veneer available anywhere on the planet, with the grain direction at any angle and any degree of matt/gloss from 0% to 100% in 5% increments.

“Alternatively, any surface can be spray-painted in any colour or leather covered or mirrored along with any surface effect like fluting or fielding. And this applies to the ceilings as well as the walls and furniture.”

Choosing from Sanlorenzo’s vast selection of marble and wood finishes

Team effort

Gosh, an infinite menu. I needed to research a million things but help was at hand. First, I am buying the boat through Sanlorenzo’s UK dealer, Nick Hatfield at Sanlorenzo UK (part of Ancasta), who has been incredibly patient since our first contact a year and a half ago, an excellent source of advice, and much fun to work with.

Second, Sanlorenzo assigned me an excellent project team of four advisers based at their factory in Ameglia covering design and technical aspects as well as décor. They have thousands of samples in their showroom of veneers, fabrics, marbles and paints, and offer lots of great advice, yet they still give customers carte blanche to apply their own materials and ideas. They also produce amazingly life-like renderings of the boat’s interior, a big help when choosing colours and layouts.

In the end, I specified an Alpi wood veneer made in Italy from fast growing Scandinavian softwood (to reduce consumption of precious hardwoods) but stained and formed into a digitally created perfect copy of American walnut, and never before used in any other SL96A.

Detailed renderings show exactly how the interior of John’s boat will look

And that was just the veneer – the same infinite choice is available for marbles, granites, carpets, soft furnishings, window dressings, leathers, lighting, light switches, bathroom taps, door handles and countless other items.

In the bulkhead across at the forward end of the saloon, Sanlorenzo will build almost any feature you ask for so I specified a bronze-framed custom Mondrian mirror wall with LED lighting and a hidden TV.

When I read on Sanlorenzo’s website that they build only 50 boats per year (three or four of which are SL96As) and that each one is individual and unique, I wondered at first if they were exaggerating but they absolutely are not. For a boating enthusiast this is ‘kid in a candy store’ stuff and, as you can tell, I’m loving the opportunity to create my perfect boat.

The main deck owner’s cabin was one of John’s must-have features

Moving away from interior finishes, the boat will have an interesting technical specification. An obvious area of research was hybrid drive using alternator/motors on each shaft linked to a lithium-ion battery pack.

This would allow the boat to be docked using only batteries, to run slowly on generators, and to run at moderate cruising speeds with only one main engine powering both shafts and the hotel load.

Although these systems have been talked about in the yachting press, the reality is that they are still in their infancy. No doubt things will be different in a few years but right now a customer like me cannot simply tick an option box to have one of these systems installed.

There’s no shortage of sociable deck space on the Sanlorenzo SL96A

SL96As are powered by MTU 2000-series engines, invariably the 36-litre V16 2,216hp version but mine will be the first one built with the 2,400hp version, a choice made to give a couple of knots more top speed when needed but more importantly the comfort of slightly lower RPM at any given cruising speed.

There will be a pair of Kohler 45 kVA generators, which have John Deere 4045 engines, the 4.5-litre 4-cylinder version of the legendary 6068 engine fitted to many trawler yachts.

Generators and shorepower will be 3-phase 230/400 volts AC and all the big motors on board will be 3-phase. Stabilisation will be provided by a pair of Sleipner Vector fins, 1.65m2 each and powered hydraulically, which is quite a big change to the standard specification of 1m2 electrically powered CMC fins that have been fitted to all other SL96As.

The standard fins would be fine under way but I am seeking more powerful stabilisation at anchor. Air conditioning will run on chilled water provided by a triple Condaria chiller set with inverter-driven variable speed motors and 180,000Btu/h of cooling capacity.

John’s custom designed wheelhouse will have five Garmin screens

Gadget heaven

Navigation hardware is fast moving and each year the manufacturers release more gadgetry, some of which seems unnecessary but is still fun to play with. I have specified 11 large Garmin touchscreens (plus several smaller screens and iPads); five in a bespoke curved array in the wheelhouse, three at the flybridge helm, one each in the crew area and owner’s cabin, and a final one in the aft cockpit, mainly to view the docking cameras when manoeuvring into or out of a berth using the throttle and thruster controls situated there.

There will be two doppler radars, a FLIR night-vision camera, an electric fly-by-wire steering system, and Kahlenberg horns. All the boat’s switching will be digital, so that lighting, tank management, generator control, fire alarms and security can be controlled from the Garmin touchscreens or iPads.

I like to run a boat with two people on watch in complex situations or at night, so the pilothouse will have a custom second seat and the standard flybridge helm bench will be replaced by two Besenzoni pilot chairs with electric height adjustment and joysticks in the armrests to control the autopilot and nav gear.

“Sanlorenzo assigned me an excellent project team of four advisers based at their factory in Ameglia”

The flybridge helm is being custom-built inverted left to right, so the helm is close to the centreline of the boat rather than on the starboard side.

Foredeck gear will consist of two 125kg anchors in pockets with 140m of 14mm stainless steel chain each side. As well as the usual capstans mounted on top of the anchor windlasses, there will be two additional capstans dedicated to hauling up groundlines when Med mooring, to avoid having to use the anchor windlass clutches, making the whole operation faster.

Having four powered winches on the foredeck (3-phase electric, by the way) also gives plenty of redundancy. Both anchor pockets will be fitted with cameras and night lighting – a gadget I found very useful on my last Squadron 78.

John has decided not to have the sunbeds at the bow shown in this rendering to give easier access to the forward mooring gear

The boat will be used for cruising with family and friends, never chartered. Guests often come for a few days, then are replaced by others, and we often have guests for the day or for lunch in addition to those sleeping on board. So it’s rather like running a hotel.

To make all this work requires several things, of which perhaps the most important is serving great meals; a big consideration in the design of this boat. There will be a fabulous oversized dining table on the flybridge that seats 12 and converts electrically to lower and smaller cocktail tables for daytime and evening use.

The custom galley will have two ovens, two dishwashers, an American double fridge, Sub-Zero freezer drawers, Dekton worktops and a large window to give the chef a view. Also there is fast-routing for plates to move between galley and dining table, in the form of a custom serving hatch that connects the galley and pilothouse.

The boat will have three icemakers, including two commercial Hoshizakis. For party evenings the flybridge will have a Pioneer DJ deck with serious speakers and amplifiers – Ibiza nightclub material – designed and supplied by Amptec in Belgium, whose owner is a serious boater.

Storing the Williams 435 in the tender garage keeps the bathing platform clear

Tenders are a compromise on this size of boat. They can live on the bathing platform, which makes for a much less clean look but permits something like a 5.6m RIB with a 115hp outboard – this is how Sunseeker do it on their 95 Yacht.

Italian builders prefer to hide tenders in garages and the biggest that will fit in the SL96A’s garage is a Williams 435 Sportjet. I generally prefer an outboard to a jetdrive boat but I’m going to go with the Italian flow and try the Williams 435 – it’s a beautiful boat and big enough.

For those occasions when we need something bigger, my brother and I (we keep our boats in the same marina) have also ordered a custom-built Ribeye Prime 821 to use as a chase boat.

We love their boats and working with the Ribeye team – it would be hard to find a more enthusiastic and creative bunch – and crucially, on our first visit to their Dartmouth factory, Ross Chivers, one of Ribeye’s owners, texted me when we were 15 minutes away to ask how we liked our bacon sandwiches and duly delivered them to our exact specification on arrival!

The chase boat will have a hardtop, heads compartment, a colour scheme matched to the Williams 435, Garmin navigation, a bow thruster, and a white-painted Yamaha 300hp engine with autopilot and joystick manoeuvring.

Drop down bulwark makes for a better view from the saloon

Champagne moment

Projects like this require a fair bit of patience – I spent the first half of 2022 in negotiations and research and signed the order in July 2022. The build started in February 2023 with delivery scheduled for April 2024 and by the time this article is published should be a third of the way to completion.

The project is also a huge learning process, which I enjoy immensely, and while the build process itself is of course fun (I visit the factory as often as I can and receive regular photographic updates), I can’t wait to see a smashed bottle of champagne as she is lowered into the sea in Ameglia next year.

First published in the June 2023 issue of MBY. You can read more about John’s project on the MBY forum and in future issues.