Exploring The World Of High-End Yacht Toys
So you have the boat you always wanted. You love to take your friends aboard and cruise the deep oceans, either showing off your seamanship by driving the boat yourself, or, if you dropped a few mil for a serious yacht, by hiring a skilled crew to pilot it so you and your guests can enjoy the kind of food they’d expect from a high-end restaurant.
You soon find, however, that sailing from port to port and enjoying time ashore isn’t quite enough. You want additional diversions. Inevitably you seek to add amenities, or “toys” as they call them in the marine industry. Dave Carmichael, who with his brother, Robert, owns three Brownie’s dive shops on the Gold Coast, describes the most common purchases.
“General all round scuba gear is our best-seller,” he says. “Snorkeling gear. Seabobs are very popular, and most boats have paddleboards.” Seabobs, which start around $9,000, are those little water scooters that can glide across the surface and take a rider for shallow underwater trips. Those items, of course, are only used when a boat is docked in calm water.
For the extreme high-end yacht—boats whose sizes rival military vessels—the toys get much bigger and vastly more expensive. You see helicopters on large yachts, giving owners and guests quick ways to come aboard and depart. And for the truly adventurous, there are personal submarines for people who want to do some serious underwater exploring.
More common are boat tenders and smaller crafts, designed to take people where the larger yacht can’t safely venture. Sometimes those are towed behind the larger ship, but when there is room, they are found aboard.
Paul Flannery, director of sales at SYS Yachts Sales Palm Beach, says paddleboards are one of the most popular amenities.
“They’re not expensive, [they’re] easy to store and they provide healthy exercise,” he says. “Underwater seabobs are really popular. Dinghies are always popular. And rigid bottom inflatables. They’re an important way to create activity, like taking the dog to the beach.” Often, these “toys” convey with the sale of a yacht. “When a guy buys a boat he gets some pretty nice gifts from the kids,” Flannery says. "Sometimes they keep those."
Flannery has not had much experience with super expensive toys, such as submersibles. They only go on the most expensive yachts. He adds: “But if you have a guy who has a submersible and wants to buy a yacht to put it on, don’t forget my phone number.”
Safety has not been a problem for the personal subs. The topic is prominently addressed in the brochure for a leading builder of personal submersibles, Triton Submarines. It says in the last year one million people have enjoyed dives on civilian submersibles, adding “In the three-decade operating history of the industry, ABS and DNV-GL classed submersibles have retained a perfect safety record. Civilian submersibles are, statistically, the safest form of transportation in the world today.”
Not surprisingly in a state surrounded by seas, several of the leading manufacturers of “toys” are located in Florida. In fact, two of the more interesting companies are in one town. Triton Submarines and Dragonfly Boatworks are both in Vero Beach.
THE RISE OF TRITON
When Patrick Lahey introduced the idea of a personal submarine at boat shows, few paid attention. Most just strolled past his booth with a tolerant chuckle.
“Actually, we were ridiculed,” Lahey says. “People said nobody would want to have a submarine on a yacht. They thought they were dangerous and massively complicated. Actually, they’re neither. They’re fun to operate and easy to maintain.”
That was in 2006; it was a year before his company, Triton Submarines, made its first sale. It was to a West Palm Beach man who owned a 50-meter Trinity yacht. But as word of the product spread, so did acceptance. It wasn’t exactly a gold rush, mostly because it takes a lot of gold to afford a personal submarine. And one has to already own a yacht large enough to accommodate the vessel. Unless a boat is expressly built to carry a sub (and one is being built right now), you need a sizeable craft, say around 50 meters, to stow even the smallest of Triton’s products.
The company is located in Florida because Lahey knew the territory. He had worked at the FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, a pioneer in underwater research. (In fact, his company’s first employees came from the Institute.) Vero Beach was chosen because Triton’s co-founder and financial partner, L. Bruce Jones, had a residence there.
Calling a Triton submarine a “toy” is somewhat deceptive, unless you are in the habit of spending at least $1.8 million for a toy. The company offers 14 models, with a $30 million price tag for the top-end subs, but none in that range have been sold. The capacity and capability of each model varies, with the maximum diving depth of 7 miles. But most of Triton’s subs go to 7,500 feet.
Lahey became fascinated with submarines as a scuba diver years ago. He began diving as a teenager. “My father wanted me to go to a university, but I told him I wanted to go to dive school,” he says. Lahey first boarded a sub when he was 21, working for a company in Santa Barbara, California. He realized that they eliminated the need for lengthy decompression after a dive.
“I found it very liberating,” he says. “It was transformative to go down thousands of feet and then come up and step outside.”
His career over three decades has never been far from underwater vehicles. He worked in the offshore gas and oil industry. He built his first sub working for a Canadian company in the late 1980s. It took another two decades for the idea of personal subs aboard yachts to catch on. By 2006, Lahey and Jones sensed the market was ready for their idea.
“We have built 13,” Lahey says. “We expect to sell between four and six this year. It takes a long time to build one, almost a year. There are 14,000 parts in our 3300 series. The parts come from all over the world. The acrylic spheres are made in Germany.” The 3300 name, like Triton’s other subs, comes from the depth to which they can dive. Ironically, Triton also has 33 employees, including several in Europe.
Although varying in size, Triton’s subs have a distinct family resemblance. They may be the strangest-looking marine vessels since the Civil War Monitor—the “cheesebox on a raft.” Triton’s modern designs look more like a fish bowl on a well-fed sled. And the users of these subs feel like they are indeed in a fish bowl, except the fish are on the outside. The acrylic compartment virtually disappears when the vessel goes underwater.
Lahey explains: “People in it for the first time invariably do the same thing. First, they tend to lean back in defense, then they reach out to make sure the acrylic is still there.”
Although submarines have a variety of uses, including scientific work, ocean exploration and salvage operations, Lahey found Triton’s niche in mega yachts, whose owners can afford the vessels to entertain themselves and guests.
The subs offer a remarkable opportunity for adventure, viewing a sector of our planet previously unavailable to anyone except highly placed scientists. The ocean is a vast place, with only a tiny amount of it ever seen by human eyes. Thus, the charm of his subs. And you don’t have to go that deep to make history.
“You can be 200 feet underwater and be in a place no one has ever been before,” Lahey says.
NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION
Mark Castlow’s path to entrepreneurship resembles that of Patrick Lahey’s.
“I grew up in Miami, and as a kid, I began making surfboards,” Castlow says. “My father had wanted me to be an architect, and he said I had to make up my mind if I wanted to study architecture or build surfboards. I said I wanted to build surfboards.”
And that he did, and still does, but boards today are a minor part of his Dragonfly Boatworks production. His plant (actually several connected buildings) across from the Vero Beach Airport, and by Dodgertown, specializes in shallow water fishing craft—small boats that have developed a following among yacht owners who take the boats aboard to fish in shallow waters where the yachts cannot venture.
Castlow gained experience working as a partner for 15 years at Maverick Boat Group in Fort Pierce. He and his wife, Mary, produced a show to promote fishing before they opened Dragonfly nine years ago. In that short time, Dragonfly has built a sterling reputation for innovation and quality. Andrew Cilla, president of Luke Brown Yachts in Fort Lauderdale, is an enthusiast for Dragonfly’s products.
“They have a land exhibit in front of the yachts at the Palm Beach Show,” Cilla says. “There’s always a group of boat owners hanging around his display. I keep a16-footer on a boat in the Keys. Every other boat owner likes to see it. It’s just cool.”
“Last year we built 56 boats,” Castlow says. “It’s not huge volume. We want quality. We like to work with the customer. They contact us here. We don’t have dealers. There is a certain amount of hand-holding. It’s very relaxed. We want to spend time with people. We want to know how they want to use it. We are part of their lifestyle.”
Dragonfly’s 16 employees also turn out a fair number of stand-up paddleboards, one of the most common amenities on yachts.
“We married the attributes of small boats to paddleboards,” Castlow says, proud of the uniqueness of his work. It often involves customizing its designs for special needs.
“One customer had a problem. He had a 65-foot Rybovich Walkaround. It wasn’t big enough to stow the boat forward; he had to put it on the transom. There wasn’t room even for our smallest boat, which is 16 feet. I said, ‘What do you want me to do to make it fit? Fold it?’ He said, ‘Yes, fold it,’” Castlow remembers. Dragonfly did. The first 4 feet of the boat folds up like the wings of an airplane on an aircraft carrier. Castlow is confident it is the first of its kind ever built.
Another innovation the company developed is what appears to be a wooden boat that is actually made of fiberglass. The owner has the satisfaction of the wooden boat look without the maintenance problems. For Dragonfly, and the many other local companies supplying the yacht toys industry, innovation is its own reward.
Find more yacht trends at the Palm Beach International boat show
It is commonly agreed in the boating community that when it comes to major Florida winter boat shows, they save the best for last. That would be the 32nd annual Palm Beach International Boat Show, coming up this month from March 23 to 26. The venue is not only exceptional on Lake Worth in the heart of downtown West Palm Beach, but the show has a reputation for serious buyers, as opposed to gawkers just there for the fun.
Where: Show entrances will be located at Evernia Street and North Clematis Street
When: March 23 to 26, times vary
Tickets: $22/adults; $12/ages 6 to 15; free/ages 6 and younger
Editor's Note: This article has been updated from the print version that appeared in our March 2017 issue.