Building boats - an inside look

Constructing the interiors of today's large yachts is an exercise in complexity, precision - and risk management

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"This door alone consists of 19 pieces," says Paul Benigno, the production manager at Greenline Yacht Interiors (GLYI), swinging open a wardrobe. "Two panels, this stainless steel strip and another one underneath it, the handle, the catch, seals, dampeners -" Next to us, lined in butter-soft cream leather with brushed aluminium decorative strips, is a yacht cabin - a full-sized mock-up of the one that was built and installed in a recently completed yacht. Nearby are dozens of huge, custom-made wooden crates, packed with thousands of components and ready to leave for another yacht under construction in a European shipyard.

We are standing in Greenline's factory in Jebel Ali and this vignette makes immediately clear the extreme level of complexity and precision involved in building the interiors of today's large yachts. The interior of a 100-metre yacht interior could consist of as many as a hundred thousand components, all of which have to be made from scratch, with no margin for error, then shipped to the yard for assembly and fitting into the hull.

Established in 1997 by Samir Badro, who had founded its sister company, Greenline Interiors, in 1976, GLYI has grown to become the world's largest independent yacht-interiors manufacturer. Its credits range from a dhow for a member of the Al Nahyan family to several decks of the futuristic Philippe Starck-designed interior of the 119m yacht A and the interior of what its designer Terence Disdale discreetly calls "the big boat" (at considerably more than 150m, it will be the world's largest when it is launched).

In an industry that's hypersensitive about clients' privacy and governed by stringent confidentiality clauses, I'm not allowed even a glimpse of anything being made for the latter - and I'm carefully steered away from all other areas of the workshop where equally confidential interiors are taking shape. Even without seeing those off-limits areas a walk through the factory reveals the scale of the operation: two cavernous double-height production-line workshops, each of them some 200m long ("one port, one starboard," says Benigno) flank a two-storey central "spine" that houses workshops for all of the other skills employed by Greenline: state-of-the-art laser cutters, a painting shop, a sanding room (every panel is spray-varnished or -painted several times and painstakingly hand-sanded between coats), the upholstery and leather workshop, a metal workshop and another studio for craft skills such as silver- and gold-leafing.

While many of the world's major yacht builders work with outside companies like Greenline - often at a distance of thousands of kilometres - some yacht builders prefer to manufacture their interiors closer to home. Based on the coast of Tuscany and often cited by members of the yacht community as an example of best-in-class quality, Perini Navi works with a tight core of highly skilled specialised suppliers, capitalising on Italy's long tradition of mostly family-run, artisanal companies where techniques have been passed through the generations.

Founded in 1982 by Fabio Perini, a successful industrialist who had built a fortune on his passion for precision engineering, the company now accounts for some 60 per cent of the world's sailing yachts of over 40 metres (the remainder being divided among at least nine other companies). Two years ago, having bought and revived the once great Picchiotti yard, it began work on its first motor yacht. With the launch of the first 50m Vitruvius series scheduled for this spring, work on the interiors is in full swing - alongside interiors for two more Picchiottis and five Perini Navi sailing yachts.

Co-ordinating all of this is Perini's interior quality surveyor, who has been in the job since 1986, building up an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the processes and an almost instinctive sense of anything that might be less than perfect. "To make and assemble the interior of a 90-square-metre main saloon for a 50m sailing yacht takes about 7,000 man-hours," says Franco Torre, the sales director of the motor yacht division.

At Perini, as at Greenline, every interior - indeed, every cabin - is unique, so there are simply none of the shortcuts possible in normal manufacturing. The process begins with the designer's plans and 3-D renderings, which are transferred to the in-house CAD designers and converted into working drawings. Meanwhile, another set of designer's plans are taken to the shipyard, where laser measurements create a virtual three-dimensional model that has to be accurate to fractions of a millimetre. "In a yacht, unlike a building, there is no tolerance whatsoever," says Benigno. The drawings - thousands of sheets of them - are distributed to the various workshops.

Meanwhile, in one of the main factory halls a team will begin building a complete 1:1 scale mock-up of the entire interior, from the frames all the way out to the surface finishes and hardware trims. Perini's in-house interiors department mocks up all of the main components, which are then assembled in the relevant subcontractor's own workshop during the making of the finished product, which is then shipped back to Perini for installation in the yacht.

Apart from serving as a form of project control, the purpose of these mock-ups is to enable the owner to walk through the entire yacht and experience the way the spaces feel and relate to each other; to see the furnishings, complete with finishes and colours for the first time; and, crucially, to sign off the project - or request any changes that may be needed, since to make changes later can be very expensive in both time and money, slowing down the entire project. That's hugely important in an industry where main contractors can face late penalties of 50,000 euros (Dh250,000) a day.

With the interiors built, the logistical challenge steps up a notch: moving the thousands of finished components to the shipyard, where they will be fitted in to the hull. Every piece is bar-coded with a part number and a fixing position; then wrapped, then bar-coded again on the wrapper. All of the pieces have to be loaded in a certain order, so that they are unloaded in the correct sequence at the other end. The workmen who made the components travel with them, to complete the fit-out.

"In this game project management is really about risk management," says Benigno with a smile.