The Mirabella V concept

There was just one thing on the Mirabella V that struck me as BIG; this roller reefing mechanism. That apart, this yacht is so perfectly proportioned that everything else seems to be of normal size, but that is not, of course, true!

Having the world’s biggest sloop, with the world’s tallest mast, inevitably means having the world’s biggest mainsail and that leads to needing sheets to match!

I asked owner, Joe Vittoria, to tell me more.

One of the first things we got into, when we started the build of the boat, was the sheets. You know, we didn’t think about it then, suddenly, we began to realise there was no rope out there that could handle my jib, at least on a single part, but if we did a loop then there was plenty of stuff. These were the kind of things that I wanted to avoid, I just didn’t like the looks of it. Then along came Gleistein and said “we have some rope” and you’ve seen my sheets, they’re not very pretty, but that rope tested to 110 tons. I needed that, because they required me to have three or four multiples of safety factor on the sheets and I think, the way we’ve done it, the lacing of the sail to the sheet is the weak point. The other thing about this rope is that there’s no stretch to it, so if it does break you don’t get a whip it just explodes.

Was there a lot of pre-contract research?

I’m smiling; there was 4 years of research. I really started this boat in 1997 and that was through conversations with an old friend of mine, who’s since passed away, called Bob Derecktor (right) who was a major factor in boat building in the United States. He built several America’s Cup boats and Derecktor shipyards - there are three of them - are well known.

Bob was a very passionate guy and, one day, I started a conversation with him, because we often met to just talk about friendly things, and I said to him “Bob, do you think it would be possible to build a sloop; like 180, or 190 feet long?” His first answer was “Well I don’t see why not.” Then I started saying that I wanted it to be a performance sloop, so the keel depth came in, because Bob’s mind immediately went to the size of the mast. I said I want the mast to be at least 20% higher than the boat is long, just for appearance, and he knew I’d always said I want more rig, because I can always reef. Then I said “I want to build in composites”, so all these things were factors that Bob had to think about and his thinking and sitting down with his engineers is where the original concept and the lifting keel came up.


Ron Holland perfected it, because the one problem with Bob Derecktor was that the way a boat looked was of no importance to him. It was all a matter of “practical” to Bob and, if you’d ever looked at his personal 70 foot boat it was terrible looking, but it functioned perfectly. He could go out and sail that 70 foot boat by himself, but you know when you build a boat like I want it and you have an Italian wife who’s design conscious, that’s a big factor and that’s where Ron came in and took over, about a year and a half after I started talking about it.

Then the boat began to grow in size, for different reasons, and the keel became more complicated, because as the boat grew, the mast grew more and lots of people came in; engineers came in, Paul Johnson, my project manager came in, Fred Cousins an old time engineer at Camper & Nicholson and, little by little, we started writing out a rough specification. Then we got talking to people like Harken and High Modulus, who did the composite engineering for my other boats, came in, for the structure of the hull and the mast and everything else. What I was saying at the time was “You have to tell me if we are going beyond every possible consideration, from an engineering point of view.” Then I kept getting back, little by little, ’we can do it’, ‘we can do it’, so we went out and began pricing the boat and it was started during 2001.

You have the world’s biggest mainsail, did that need a lot of reserach into materials and design?


Robbie Doyle’s sails are on this boat, they’re on my other boats, they’re on that boat (Maltese Falcon). Robbie puts time into these things and he has a son, who I believe is an aeronautical engineer and was at Stamford at the time, and did a lot of work on the Stamford computers. Robbie developed the mainsail which, as you know is in 7 pieces; we took three pieces out already, for certain maintenance, and it makes a difference.

Anyway, Robbie did extensive studies on material; I did not want a laminated sail, because I start worrying they’ll delaminate and I said “Rob you’ve got to give me a sail that lasts a while” As I tell my captains, when this boat crosses the Atlantic, you use the two engines, because the two engines are cheaper than the mainsail. I can run those at a constant 10 to 12 knots, 24 hours a day, so it’s a pretty fast crossing anyway. So, Robbie developed the material, it’s a Super Vectran weave, and came up with a mainsail divided up into pieces. He did a lot of work, a lot of testing, especially on the battens. The top ones compress, they’re gas struts so they don’t break on a tack, when they come under heavy pressure; the bottom ones were originally carbon, I think, then we switched to S glass, because we were breaking too many, not because of sailing but because of mistakes.

The largest sail is the genoa, the EPS, which is about 18,000 square feet, but you won’t see that today, because the bolts – there are hundreds, maybe thousands - that hold the foil onto the headstay have been coming loose, so we’ve got to lower the sail in the shipyard and go down slowly and tighten them up and Loctite them, but, in this wind, unless we went off on a broad reach, we wouldn’t use it anyway.

Did the long build period create logistic problems?

No, I think in fact the bigger the boat it’s almost easier. They were finishing the after pieces of the mould whilst they were moulding the forward sections, or vice versa – I can’t remember, but you had a team of workers doing one thing and another team already moving back doing other work, so the size gave you a certain advantage of being able to put different people on. This is where Vosper Thorneycroft did a very good job of ordering in advance and getting materials coming in. Take the furlers, they’re works of art, and they came in a couple of months before the mast went up, so they weren’t necessary, but they were a show piece in the yard, lying there all polished weighing 3, 3.5 and 3.8 tons.


I remember going to see things like the passerelle, at the supplier, walking on them, testing them for support, long before they were needed. We had some problems with the forward crane; VT went to two builders, then decided to build it themselves, the most beautiful stainless steel crane. Probably, the biggest problem with VT was that they build warships and the finish of this, which was done by third parties, created more problems than the engineering. They were great at engineering, I remember seeing the pipework, the sections arrived already welded and bent into shape and workers would come and push it through and they knew they would get it through, because the 3-D drawings said it would go in. So, you could walk down in the morning and see pipework lying there and in the afternoon all the pipe work was done.

The build took 3 years, because we ran into things where we knew we had to make changes, but this is where VT came in. They have lots of engineers and they would put them all to work to get problems solved quickly, we never had anything that stopped us, except one thing. Some of the early hinges that came in, for those forward doors, weighed like 40, 50 kilos. They had to be lighter, so we ended up building them at the yard, out of carbon.

When the hull was under construction what sort of material testing was done?

There was constant testing for strength, also some testing, maybe ultra sound, I’m not sure, but it found some voids and they were quickly repaired. It’s a big hull, a lot of coverage, they built a beautiful hull. I was telling Mr Perini yesterday, because I speak Italian, you’ve got to think about composites, this is a wonderful material, there’s no rust, no electrolysis, wonderful insulation with coring, these boats are very quiet inside from external noise, you’d could have a karaoke on the boat next to us and not hear it. Even Huisman is now looking at building superstructures in composites for superyachts and, to me, it’s the ideal material; this one has Kevlar in it and S-glass, with carbon reinforcement. The outer skin is 7 to 9 mm, the inner skin about the same and I think the core is about 2.5 - 3 cms.

There’s a big investment here, does it come back or is a lot of it for your own pleasure and satisfaction in having the yacht.

I build these boats as a business; my wife says ‘as a monkey business’, but we charter and the principle thing is charter, so we use the boats when they aren’t chartered. Now charter is a maximum of 20 weeks a year, we haven’t achieved that yet, but I think as people get to know it we will, because it is unique. If you do that you’ll cover a good part of your operating costs; the asset you only get back when you sell it.

What about depreciation?

I’m sure my accountant would say there’s depreciation for tax purposes, but it depends on the boat and it depends on when you sell it. This boat is actually for sale now, because this is what I do. I want to take on another project; this I’ve done, I’ve sailed on it I know what it can do. Despite what some people have said, I know that anybody we take sailing on it will understand its capability. It’s the right age to sell now and sell reasonably well, also we have a strong market for big boats.

What’s your next project?

I haven’t really thought it through, but I’ll tell you one thing, the next one will be smaller. I’ve done big and now, hopefully, it’ll be something adding to the whole gamut of sailing. I’ve been sailing all my life; I started looking after other people’s boats in New York, then it got that they’d say “Joe, we aren’t going to be using it this week, why don’t you take it for a sail?” So, my next boat might be something for myself, something I’ll want to keep longer.

This is a boat with 14 crew on board, it’s a significant operation. I’m rarely on it for more than 10 days at a time, when we do a longer stretch we invite different people every four or five days and my family is included in that, because I have four children. My son Joe is the oldest and we have three others and they all have kids – we have 10 grand children. They ask to use it, occasionally, so it’s still a family boat. Together, we overflow this boat, so Joe - who has the oldest kids - sleeps on one of my other boats, because they like to sleep late in the morning. The young kids are on here and up early. They enjoy it, but to them it’s another house; they like to go to the beach.

More and more large yachts are being built for charter; do you foresee continued expansion, or will the bubble burst?

I don’t think the bubble will break for the demand, I think what’s going to happen is that the crew situation is going to get very difficult. The schools aren’t bad at preparing engineers and captains, for these new requirements, but I have on board – as a guest in this period - a captain who was with me five years; one of my favourite captains. Well, you know, today he wouldn’t have the paper qualifications to drive one of these boats, with the rules that are there now. They require weeks of schooling to get it and, of course, he’s older now - though still a young man - but he’s got a family, so there’s no way he’s going to go back through all that. He can go and deliver someone’s boat, because he’s an excellent captain, but he cant work in the charter trade.


This, to me, is what’s going to cause the problem. These big yachts are sucking up crew and making the availability ever more difficult. The rules that have been put in place are good ones, but I don’t think enough people are thinking about preparing for even greater demand. They should be looking at young people coming out of the naval service, from an engineering and technology side, and sending them to whatever school is needed for a brief period of time to get them to understand what you need on a yacht. Then they could be available as second engineers and move up to first. Engineering positions are the toughest ones to fill right now and captains are difficult, so this is going to be a problem, especially for a lot of the people who are having these big motor yachts; sailors tend to be a little more experienced. These people aren’t, necessarily, aware of this and no one’s going to make them aware, because they want the contract. Then they learn and what happens is that it is becoming a case of supply and demand, so a financial problem, and it needs to be looked at, because it is going to become a bigger problem.


Aldous Grenville-Crowther

This was a fabulous day’s sailing! I’m no stranger to 20+ knots on a lightweight, round the world catamaran, but doing close to that on a 765 tonne, luxury yacht is an extraordinary and very thrilling experience!

Criticsms? No-one, least of all the Vittorias, would deny that tacking Mirabella, under full main, is a frustrating experience, but I’m sure some lateral thinking will solve the problem. My only other reservation was about the decor, which Joe’s wife, Luciana Vittoria, wanted to be like a home, with lots of free standing antique furniture. My own taste in sailing boat interiors is for something more nautical, but that’s just a personal view.

The photograph of Bob Derecktor was taken, with permission, from a website about his life and work, put together by his daughter Barbara. If you have any material to add to that site, please e-mail her.

Other photos AG-C/BYM News.