Shipping your yacht may seem counter-intuitive, but putting wear on someone else’s hull can make more sense than you think, writes Will Bruton

Bypassing seasonal weather restrictions and being able to relocate quickly are among the factors making yacht shipping more popular than ever.

Cargo ships cruise well in excess of the speeds of even the fastest racing yachts and are rarely delayed due to weather that would make a passage under sail untenable.

But while there is much less wear and tear on your yacht than a 3,000-mile ocean crossing will cause, there are still preparations you need to make sure your yacht is unloaded in good shape. We take a look at the process and how to prepare for it.

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Once the strops are in position the owner and crew disembark for lifting. Photo: Tor Johnson

Why ship?

The beat back across the north Atlantic to Europe via Bermuda and the Azores is, despite its course to windward, a rewarding trip to make. But there’s a good reason many shy away: it’s often hard on the yacht, as well as the crew. Some 3,000 miles of wear on sails, engine and rigging has a significant impact.

For those who have travelled further, maybe across the Pacific, the trip back to Europe also involves significant weather challenges and time demands. Jeremy Wyatt, director of the World Cruising Club, has noticed a steady increase in the number of WCC event participants using yacht shipping services.

“Many are time-poor and unable to take the long periods of time necessary off work to complete ocean crossings. Also, production yachts proportionally suffer greater stress and wear and tear on the north Atlantic route to Europe than traditional heavy displacement boats. So the cost/benefit of shipping over sailing the route swings more towards shipping.”

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Preparations

Preparing a yacht to be shipped should be undertaken with a similar level of attention to detail as getting ready to complete an ocean passage, or riding out a storm season, in order to minimise the chance of damage.

“The best preparation to get your boat ready for shipping is to think of it as winterising it,” explains Sevenstar loadmaster Geert de Krom. “If you stop for a season at home, you’d take the sails off, make everything nice inside, empty your tanks.”

The other thing he advises is to bear in mind that the yacht may well be exposed to the elements. “The big ship is also moving. If it is blowing 25 knots and the ship has its own speed, it can be 40 knots or more over the deck for days.

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The ship’s loading crew will control the yacht during the lifting process. Photo: Tor Johnson

“The best thing to do is try and get rid of all the sail covers; they’re best stored inside. If a sail cover or other wrapping is blowing off it can also damage their neighbours’ yacht.”

The loading process

Yachts need to have their fresh and grey water tanks emptied (before approaching the ship as there will be divers working in the area) but to make sure that there is a little fuel left on board for offloading at the arrival port.

Owners (or their representatives) are responsible for driving their yacht up to the ship. There are good reasons for doing it yourself if you are able. “I always prefer it if the owner is doing it himself,” explains de Krom, “because they know their yachts best.

“For example, you have to remove your backstay, because we have a spreader beam for the lift, and the backstay is always in the way. On some yachts that’s five minutes work, on other yachts where it hasn’t been removed for the past eight years it takes longer.

“But if it is your own yacht, you know where the tools are and it’s more easily done. In the Caribbean a lot of times the delivery skippers will bring the boat alongside, but they don’t always know where the right screwdriver is.

“Normally you have a contact a couple of days before loading, and you’ll be assigned a loadmaster like me. We agree a loading time, and tell them where to come alongside, which side to put the fenders on. We try to prepare all the clients so we don’t have to shout down from the big ship.

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Sevenstar Yacht Transport loadmaster Geert de Krom

“They just come alongside and then we have a crew who climb down the ladder and prepare the yacht for lifting. The lift rig will be lowered down, and we have one or two divers – always on every yacht – to double-check where to put the belts.”

Then we start lifting. The divers can also give us some information on the level of the yacht, if she is too bow down or stern down,” de Krom explains. “When everything looks safe we disembark, and lift the yacht into position on deck.”

Once the yacht is in position on the ship, it will be secured on its stand with lashings, and the stands are welded onto decks. For some yachts the loadmaster will ask for advice on the best strong points to lash the boat from.

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The yacht is lowered onto a cradle in position and secured with tie-down points. Photo: Tor Johnson

“We always ask owners to send us pictures or drawings of previous lifts. But we ship 2,500 yachts a year, so we have quite a good database of how we’ve lifted previous yachts.” Even though the yacht process is a very well oiled machine, de Krom says owners shouldn’t feel rushed at this stage.

“They have plenty of time to prepare the yacht for the voyage. They can close everything down, put fenders inside, lock everything up, take your time. If you are the first yacht and I still have 45 yachts to loads, you have three days! But even if you are the last yacht, I still always offer the owner time.”

Key things to remember before stepping off for the last time are to disconnect the batteries and turn off the AIS. The process for loading onto a semi-submersible ship is slightly different. “Owners should approach it like going into a big lock,” he advises.

“So you’re waiting for the lock with 20, 25 yachts, and you stand by on Ch21, and one by one the loadmasters will call the vessel’s name, and then we have a lot of crew on board to catch the lines and help the skipper moor.

“Once the yachts are on the ship we start deballasting, and we have between 12 and 22 divers in the water. They have underwater stands they put in place so the yachts will not tip over.

“Loading takes place on one day, so if all the yachts are on by 1000, by 1700 the decks will be dry. The clients can stay on board, do some paperwork – or leave when the yacht is ready.

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To prepare for unloading, remove the backstay, put out fenders and long mooring lines, and double-check you have enough charge to start the engine. Photo: Drone Caraibes

“Then by the evening the deck is dry, and the crew put all the sea fastening stands on to prepare for the voyage, which are also welded to the deck.”

How the yacht is secured is crucial. The loss of the 40m superyacht My Song, which fell from a ship last year, is at the centre of a legal case. When yachts ride on deck, they are held in a cradle supplied by either the yacht shipping company or sometimes the yacht owner.

However, if you supply your own cradle you should check it has been designed for use on the deck of a ship as well as for static storage ashore.

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The owner (or owner’s representative) is responsible for driving the yacht up to the ship. Photo: Tor Johnson

While seeing your yacht hoisted atop a giant ship is spectacular, de Krom pleads that owners bring only essential crew who are able to climb the ladders. “It’s not a family party. I’ve had babies onboard coming alongside.”

He also advises that anyone at loading or unloading wears sturdy deck shoes – not flip-flops. “We will provide the safety vest and helmet. But at least wear decent shoes to protect yourself. We work on a big steel vessel and there are so many ways to hurt yourself.”

Dirty air

One of the chief complaints made by owners after yacht shipping is that of dirt from the ship’s exhaust system causing staining to the hull and mast, particularly for yachts positioned downwind of the exhaust.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to wax the hull as well as to take down all canvas and as many lines as possible. Some owners prefer to have the yacht shrink-wrapped for even greater protection.

Andrea Lezzi organised the movement of the 82ft Southern Wind Feelin Good from Thailand to Palma and, unusually, he also accompanied the yacht on the shipping stage of its voyage.

“No one wanted the yacht to go through the Gulf of Aden so it was decided shipping was the best option early on. The ship we were allocated was not a specialist yacht transport ship but a heavy lifting cargo ship that can carry almost anything with its own cranes on board.

“One early miscommunication meant that the loadmasters didn’t realise how big our fixed keel was, assuming it to be retractable.

“The guidance to remove all canvas, indeed anything you can, is worth heeding. On our passage we had 30 knots on the nose of the cargo ship and she moves at 20 knots; that’s 50 knots over the deck.

“So, shipping can still be quite harsh on the yacht in a different way. In total we used 43 lashings onto the deck and 23 inside the yacht for various furnishings.”

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While the cradle is being welded onto the deck owners have some time to make final checks. Photo: Tor Johnson

Lezzi travelled as a passenger on the ship. “I was on board for 40 days in total. At first the shipping line wasn’t keen to accommodate me but we negotiated a rate for a cabin for the passage.

“I polished the yacht before we left – not to a shine, but to protect from dirt. But one big advantage of being on board is that I was able to rinse the yacht off every day with freshwater from the ship.”

Yacht shipping tips 

  • Check your insurance for every stage of the operation in advance. Are you covered at every point in the process?
  • Strip everything you can from the yacht. Canvas work should be removed and lines moused out.
  • Is your yacht watertight? Yachts are exposed to the same weather as on passage and sometimes worse.
  • Is your interior secure? Yacht shipping companies recommend using trucking straps to secure anything below that might move.
  • Empty all water tanks. Fuel tanks should only carry the minimum of fuel necessary to get to and from the ship. Gas bottles should also be removed.
  • Check your yacht shipping contract. Some do not guarantee a delivery date and weather delays do happen, even to big ships.
  • Shop around. Prices for shipment vary significantly based upon many factors, including how full the ship is at the time of quotation. Check if there is a scheduled service as they are often cheaper.
  • Think in terms of winterising your yacht – shipping via northern Europe can expose the yacht to cold. Will anything freeze?
  • Leave the mast up. Specialist yacht shipping companies will ship almost all yachts with the rig stepped.
  • Leave a spare key. If the ship pulls into another port, Customs may want to get on board your yacht

Be covered

Insurance should be an early consideration. Robert Holbrook of Admiral Marine says: “We insure a lot of yachts which are shipped to Europe from places like the Caribbean.

“We have found over the years that the shipper often provides cargo cover which is well priced and so the normal practice is to cease cover on the yacht from the time that the yacht is loaded (usually when the slings are attached), and cover remains suspended until the yacht is safely offloaded onto the water or onto the quay at the destination.

“It is not possible to cover the yacht as cargo under a normal yacht policy. The cover offered while the yacht is being shipped is Institute Cargo Clauses (All Risks).”

If it’s not you loading and unloading, you should also be careful to check there are no blurred lines in liability with who you put in charge of the yacht.

First published in the February 2020 edition of Yachting World.