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Transporting Million Dollar Yachts Over the Seven Seas in 2010

Yacht transport is a booming business. Charter companies and yacht owners seek new itineraries, brokers sell to another continent and racers follow title competitions across the world. All need a quick, efficient and secure way to transport their precious cargo. Sevenstar, a 10 year-old Dutch company and subsidiary to Netherland's largest ship owner, Spliethoff, is one of the big players in this fast-growing market.

How does it begin? After accepting Sevenstar's quotation, yacht owners provide customs documentation and sign contracts that outline basic data like ownership, length, beam and weight, and include drawings that give the underwater profile.

I boarded MV Deltagracht, one of Spliethoff's 88 cargo vessels, to witness the loading of yachts under Sevenstar's umbrella, and their transport to new destinations. Two yachts would be discharged in Papeete, Tahiti and the others in Newcastle and Fremantle, Australia.

The yachts, some worth several million dollars, were loaded at the port of Florida's West Palm Beach using the ship's 120 ton cranes. Sevenstar's load master David van Rensburg's highly specialized team and the vessel's crew, under command of captain Ruud Verschoor, filled every square meter of the deck space in a very short time, precisely following a plan compiled by the calculating team at the Sevenstar office in Amsterdam.

After three days of frenzied loading, the vessel left the port carrying 30 yachts – 600 tons in weight, worth over 60 million dollars – heading south to the Panama Canal.

We set sail via the east of Cuba at an average speed of 17 knots, avoiding the possible oil film floating near the Gulf. In three and a half days, the breakwaters of Cristobal came in sight. After bunkering 500 tons and waiting a half day for convoy, the pilot boarded at 19:00. Sevenstar's delicate cargo passed the canal in less than eight hours, tightly fastened to the deck, a stunning view for night workers in the canal.

At three a.m., MV Deltagracht passed under the Bridge of the Americas continuing her journey north of the Galapagos Islands to Papeete, accompanied by numerous brown Jan van Gents, birds that tend to fly as far as 500 miles away from their habitat, the Peninsula de Azuero of Panama.

At 100° 40' Western Longitude, about halfway between the Panama Canal and Papeete, third engineer Anton crossed the Equator for the first time. True to tradition, he had to be "baptized" to become a real seaman, and for days before, the ship was buzzing with secret activity. Neptune, the Captain and the crew unanimously concluded at a BBQ on deck that Anton bravely withstood all tests and thus would make a great seaman.

Time flies on board Deltagracht as yachts are treated like babies, taken care of down to the last detail. Constant care had to be given to the precious cargo on the weather deck. More than 200 webbing straps, each capable of holding at least five tons, needed daily checking and, if necessary, the attached tension ratchets had to be adjusted. Some of the abundantly greased screw jacks of the supports needed an extra turn, and barnacles and growth had to be removed.

Most owners delivered their yachts clean and shiny, even under the waterline. Other yachts seemed to be OK but once on deck of Deltagracht, they showed a lot of contamination. Several hulls were found covered with creatures of the sea, which still seemed to be alive. The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) would never allow such "infected" vessels within their borders, so underway the bottoms were cleaned by deckhands earning some extra pocket money.

Two weeks and two days after the Florida departure, Deltagracht entered the port of Papeete, Tahiti for the first time. Captain and crew got a hearty welcome from Port Autonome Papeete's tug boat Aito Nui, spouting water from its fire engine at the port's entrance.

While Sevenstar's load master Tom Wylie, from Majorca, and the vessel's crew started preparations for discharging the two largest yachts, a welcome ceremony took place in the ship's office organized by port agents Pascal Bredin and Vaea Olanda of Tahiti Yacht Services. Harbor master Francois Chaumette and port manager Patrick Bordet presented a plaque commemorating Deltagracht's first visit to French Polynesia. The captain and I each received two leis made of Tahiti's sweet-smelling Tiare flowers, one to keep, a second one to throw into the sea when leaving the island, an old tradition which assures the visitor of a comeback.

The discharging of a 78 ft Nordhavn and a 72 ft Marlow by the load master and crew went off without a hitch, while tourists and locals watched the spectacle from the nearby quay and annual canoe races took place at our starboard.

After leaving Tahiti, and eight days and two hours at sea, we approached the port of Newcastle, a two hour drive north of Sydney, at dawn. Here the majority of the yachts had to be discharged. For the first time, we needed coats to withstand the wintry cold in the Southern Hemisphere.

Once berthed, the ship and its crew were subject to a strict inspection by the officers of the Australian Customs and by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Services. The Customs Labrador dogs thoroughly combed out every corner of the ship, the crew's private quarters and even the inside of all 28 yachts, of which 26 were to be discharged during the two following days

Only after several hours could the yellow flag be lowered as a sign that the ship met the requirements of the authorities in every way. The green light was given to the Sevenstar load masters Malcolm Fleury from New Zealand and Paul Miller from Southampton for the discharge. An army of local stevedores swarmed the ship, taking over the duties on deck, and the discharging process passed off quickly and smoothly, despite cold and windy gusts. Every 20 minutes, a yacht was lowered alongside the Deltagracht and sailed to the nearby marina and fishing port, some assisted by a SAR team in a local rescue boat.

Transporting a yacht this way is an efficient process: from our departure in West Palm Beach to our arrival in Tahiti, only16 days passed and 10 more days to Newcastle. Just a few weeks had passed, unloading was complete and the yachts now were at home in the Pacific.

The Loading Process
First a yacht is brought alongside the vessel on its own power. With the help of one or two divers, lifting belts are placed under the hull at the right place and angle, making sure that belts don't touch the propellers and shafts or other delicate parts. The divers check for any damage before the yacht is lifted, and take underwater photos if necessary. "The divers are my eyes under water" says Sevenstar's load master David van Rensburg from Namibia, who is in control of the operation.

The loading process in West Palm Beach is carried out with the help of the ship's crew and its cranes. A trombone spreader is used to make sure no compression load is placed on the hull by the belts. Six deckhands and the chief officer keep everything well controlled during the hoist and the placement on deck, where wooden blocks are put in place to support the keel of the yacht and screw jacks are added to keep the yacht upright and spread the weight. The screw jacks are secured by stoppers, steel angles welded to the deck. Finally, many webbing straps with ratchet tensions ensure that the yachts cannot move during transport.

Els Kroon is a Dutch former teacher who now lives and works as an award-winning free-lance photojournalist on Curaçao.

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