Yas is almost ready to go
It was still nearly three hours before dawn when the Mighty Servant 3, a 27,000-tonne semi-submersible ship, opened its ballast tanks and began to settle into a 20-metre deep trench newly dredged in Mina Zayed.
Normally used for carrying deepwater oil rigs over thousands of kilometres, the job of the Mighty Servant that morning last month was to transport a very special passenger just a few dozen metres.
By mid-morning it was all over and the Yas, the world's newest super-yacht, was floating proudly for the first time in the waters of the Arabian Gulf.
At 141 metres and with a dazzling glass superstructure, the Yas is already making waves in the exclusive world of private yachting.
It will be another six months of final fitting and sea trials before the yacht is ready for its new owner, as yet unidentified.
For Johan Valentijn, the Dutch-born project manager, the launch was exciting and yet strangely anti-climactic.
Months of preparation had gone into making sure everything went to plan. That included digging a trench deep enough to accommodate the Mighty Servant, which is registered in the Dutch Antilles.
"For me the most exciting part of building a vessel is when you launch it into the water with a big splash," Mr Valentijn says. "Still, with a big yacht, you don't just dump it in the water."
For him and his team at Abu Dhabi MAR, the privately owned shipyard that built the Yas, the sight of the gleaming white hull in the water is a moment of almost paternal pride.
This is a project that has taken almost four years, and there were times when some may have wondered if it could ever be completed.
In the summer of 2008, some of those doubts could be understood. The Yas, then identified as project Swift 141, was nothing but a grey steel peeling hull stripped of its superstructure, and engines that looked like a candidate for the breaker's yard.
The ship was a decommissioned warship; a former Kortenaer-class frigate built for the Royal Netherlands Navy in the 1970s.
It was not the most obvious choice for turning into a vessel that symbolises wealth and luxury; yet something in her sleek lines suggested a new type of superyacht to the designers at Abu Dhabi MAR.
For the rest of 2008, work continued on the ship at her berth near the New Iranian Market in Mina Zayed.
Watched by curious shoppers, the hull was gutted and the powerful turbine engines removed. Finally the basic shape of her new superstructure was welded into place, along with a new, longer stern that took the ship's length from 130 to 141 metres - the reason for the project's name.
After delays caused by poor weather, Swift 141 was towed out to deeper waters and loaded on to a submersible heavy-lift ship.
Then began the complex process, accomplished in a few tense hours, of inching the vessel out of the water and moving it sideways on to the dockside at the Abu Dhabi MAR shipyard near the navy base, where the real work could begin. And there, for the past three years, is where the ship has remained, hidden from sight under an enormous, retractable tunnel by the edge of the dock.
There were rumours that it might be ready for the first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November 2009, but the race came and went and there was no sign of the vessel among the private yachts gathered trackside.
Two more Grands Prix passed and then, suddenly, the vast cavernous roof retracted and, like a butterfly released from its chrysalis, the Yas was revealed.
Her captains from the Dutch navy might be hard pressed to recognise their old command, but something of the frigate's power and fighting spirit remains, especially around the jutting bow. This is a ship built for speed, capable of at least 25 knots, making it one of the fastest private yachts in the world.
At the other end, part of the stern can retract to create a private swimming area, or for launching jet skis and other water toys that are pretty much compulsory on a ship of this class.
On the upper decks, a flight deck with safety rails that retract flush to the floor will accommodate the owner's helicopter.
What will turn all heads, though, is the vast curved wall of glass that sweeps round the front section of the upper decks. Behind the glass, which darkens for privacy when an electric current is passed though it, is the bridge and the owner's suite, complete with private terrace. More than 500 pieces of glass, each specially cast, were used in the construction, which the designers admit was the most technically difficult part of the job.
When on board the owner will be able to welcome up to 60 guests, attended by a crew of 60. The Yas is so big new regulations had to be drawn up to cover it in Abu Dhabi waters.
Although Abu Dhabi MAR will not reveal how much the yacht cost, it is generally agreed the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich had to pay something like US$1.12 billion (Dh4.11bn) for his superyacht Eclipse.
Eclipseis the world's biggest superyacht, at 163.5 metres long. But the Yas does not fall too far short, although when it comes to superyachts size is everything.
The Abu Dhabi vessel now qualifies as the sixth-largest in the world and the biggest to be launched since Eclipse.
It is a sign of the times we live in that four of those six biggest superyachts are owned by people in the Gulf, including the second-placed Dubai, owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
Also in the list, and just edging the Yas out of the top five, is El Horria, the elderly but still imposing royal yacht of King Farouk, now cared for by the Egyptian navy.
Where the Yas will sail after the formal handover next year is a matter for conjecture. Her transatlantic fuel capacity means the vessel can easily reach the Caribbean or such other superyacht haunts as the French Riviera and Puerto Banus on the Costa del Sol in Spain.
Most likely, though, the Yas will spend much of its time in home waters, cruising the islands of the UAE. A berth is reported to have been reserved at the Emirates Palace marina.
Don't look for the yacht at next year's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, though. Not until they widen and deepen the harbour at Yas Marina.
Published: December 10, 2011 04:00 AM