“I did not plan to get into yachting,” says Istros’s captain, Tristan Le Brun, who landed the top job on an 84-foot Moonen yacht when he was 22. “I studied economics and sailed competitively. I took a break (from grad school and sailing) one summer and worked for a boat rental company,” he says. And that’s where someone from the yacht spotted him and asked him to help for a day. He made a good impression and was called back for a summer season as relief crew and by the end of that stint, he was offered the position of captain. “I was catapulted to the post without holding the certificate to become a stewardess,” he says with a grin. However, he had a graduate degree, a good head for numbers, a knack for fixing things, and a healthy dose of skepticism toward arcane maritime rules and habits. “With a rational brain, you can question just about anything,” he says.
For the better part of the past decade, he’s worked for the same family, supervising three increasingly involved refits, the last of which yielded the superb modern classic known as Istros. At 42 meters, with unmistakable classic charm and brand-new equipment — including C18 Caterpillar engines, a Capstone microturbine, flat-panel antennas, and a paperless bridge — plus a comfortable and playful interior by Van Geest Design, Istros is a rare gem.
Le Brun was scanning a database of all boats for sale globally — a hobby of his — when he came across a yacht in Malta with a bit of a mysterious history. He knew the boat. It was built in 1954 in The Netherlands, and best he could ascertain at the time, it was a Feadship. It had loads of charm, pedigree, an interesting history (although that was tangential), and it could be had for very little money.
“(Refitting) Istros was my idea initially,” says Le Brun, adding he had little trouble getting the owners who love “projects and beautiful machines” to get behind the enterprise. They kept the acquisition quiet, methodically researched all costs associated with her rebirth, and only approached yards when they had all that information in hand. Le Brun was keen on getting the work done at Feadship to preserve the pedigree. Agreeing on terms wasn’t easy, he says, but eventually, work began at the Palumbo Shipyard Malta under the supervision of a dedicated technical manager assigned by the Dutch shipyard.
Sniff around any older vessel, and you’ll have a few unwelcome surprises no matter how much homework you’ve done. The superstructure’s poor condition became obvious as they began taking things apart, but the biggest shock was the weight of the original engines, which they wanted to remove. At 18 tonnes, they represented 15 percent of the boat’s weight.
“We were not interested in keeping the old engines. They were not reversible. You had to start and stop them to go forward or back,” Le Brun says. “We wanted a modern yacht, not a museum piece.” In great part, this was due to their goals. “From the beginning, we wanted to do charter, so it had to be compliant with commercial rules and have the maximum space for comfortable cabins for guests, so there were multiple constraints.”
On the face of it, the decision to replace the engines made sense but once their true nature was revealed, the refit team ended up with an unforeseen stability issue. They’d have to add tons of ballast unless they compensated in some other way. A new superstructure, which was built in aluminum (instead of the original steel), took care of several issues at once — corroded metal and many hours of painstaking (and costly) labor. A scan was done of the old structure before the old structure was excised, and the captain decided to ship the hull to Feadship where she’d be united with a new top. That was off-plan and a trying time, he admits, but Istros was finished spectacularly, with top-of-the-line tech and a lustrous paint finish by Jotun. The paint supplier, who works in the commercial sector, was Le Brun’s choice. “Everything they do is precise and calibrated,” he says.
Among Istros’s modern marvels is one microturbine instead of one of two generators. Feadship had been looking at the tech for a while and Istros seemed like the perfect candidate. “We don’t regret this choice. It’s a real asset for a yacht,” Le Brun says. “What’s amazing is that there is no noise and zero vibration,” he says. With the combination of a battery bank for peak shaving, it supplies clean and reliable power.
Inevitably someone will ask, why not build a brand-new yacht with a classic design? “You can’t build a new boat to look like an old one,” he says. “When you see Istros you can see it’s an older boat, because of the freeboard, the height of portholes.” And her smokestack only emits a little water vapor when the turbine starts. “We did replace a lot of the boat, but we respected its authenticity,” Le Brun says.
This article originally ran in the September 2021 issue of Dockwalk.