The first thing I noticed as I approached Excellence III, docked stern-to along the ancient stone wall surrounding the harbor in Antibes, France, was Old Glory flying at the center of her wide stern. The 188-foot motoryacht was designed in England by Donald Starkey and built in Germany by Abeking & Rasmussen, but owner Herb Chambers is a proud American and wanted her registered in the States, a rare thing for a yacht of this size.
Inside the main deck foyer, I was greeted by a bald eagle, one of only three of this type sculpted by Rene Lalique, that dominates the center of a four-deck stair tower. One might guess the yacht was designed and built around this owner's favorite piece, but the eagle, like the flag on her stern, is just one example of how Chambers made her his own.
Excellence III started life as a spec build, and her systems and design are the result of excellent timing. Chambers entered into the project early enough to add his own touches, but late enough to take advantage of the collaboration between A&R and Starkey, who had teamed up on an earlier project of similar size.
The team widened and restyled their earlier build and gave her an entirely new arrangement and décor. With the extra beam, minimal taper in the after hull lines, and just a smidgen of tumblehome in the superstructure, Starkey had an incredible amount of enclosed volume with which to work.
As Ray Shore, the yacht's amiable captain, put it, "This yacht is big for its size, probably the biggest 188-footer afloat.
Originally trained as a landside architect, Starkey says his forte is in space planning, a talent that was apparent as I walked through Excellence III. It would be easy to get lost on a yacht this large, but the layout, for all its elegance, is logical and straightforward. This decision to keep things simple arose from the spec build, but the result dovetailed perfectly with Chambers' plans for the yacht. As with his earlier boats, Excellence III gets a great deal of use, but is also active in the charter market, through Camper & Nicholsons International. Making it easy to get around the yacht allows guests to settle in quickly and feel more comfortable aboard.
Chambers bought into the project before construction of the interior was started, so he could have made substantial modifications to the original plans. He and Capt. Shore, however, found little to change. Starkey, too, is pleased with the yacht, and enjoyed the creative freedom Abeking & Rasmussen gave him in the early stages of construction.
"I think this is one of my favorites, Starkey said, "perhaps because more of my personal tastes went into this than any other yacht.
Those tastes include a great deal of mahogany throughout, finished dark but with modern rather than traditional detailing. The joinery is accented with lighter flame and splayed root mahogany. Light-colored soft goods also help to keep the interior from getting too dark, as does the use of honey onyx stonework, which is found in impressive quantities in the saloon, foyer and all baths, at Chambers' request.
Reliability and safety should always be paramount, but these obvious priorities are too often ignored or shortchanged. Not so aboard Excellence III, which Starkey lauded for being built to a standard, not to a price. Not only are there backups for all critical systems, but backups for the backups exist. If the electronic engine controls malfunction, the captain can send signals to the engineer on duty with a modern incarnation of an engine order telegraph. Should the topside steering fail, a magnetic compass and wheel in the lazarette will bring the yacht home. Each anchor is held tightly in place with a windlass brake, a chain compressor and a devil's claw.
From the guest quarters and engineroom, there are at least four means of egress. Topside, four 25-person liferafts are fitted, two per side, ensuring no one will have to try out for the swim team.
Fire doors can be controlled locally or from the pilothouse, where monitors indicate their status. Unobtrusive lighted arrows similar to those on modern airliners mark the path up stairs and along passageways to exits in the event an emergency knocks out the main lighting. Power for this and other emergency systems, including a fire sprinkler system, comes from an air-cooled emergency generator on the top deck. Well isolated from engineroom flooding or fire and equipped with its own fuel supply and switchboard, the genset is tested during monthly crew drills, according to Shore. On this all-Caterpillar yacht, the emergency genset is a 3304, the two main generators are 3406 models, and the propulsion engines are massive 3516 diesels operating at a quiet and leisurely 1600 rpm.
The fire protection system is about as complete as possible. It includes features I've promoted for years but have seldom seen fully implemented. The fire detection system throughout the accommodation spaces includes smoke and heat detectors. This gives an early warning regardless of the type of fire, whether slow and smoldering, or hot and quickly growing.
The fire suppression system uses sprinklers that are individually activated and initially charged from the freshwater pressure system, with changeover to saltwater fire pumps if necessary. This will snuff a fire in its early stages with minimal damage from fire and water. In the engineroom, CO2 and mist sprinklers are fitted.
Guest accommodations include four staterooms belowdecks and a VIP stateroom abaft the pilothouse. Forward on the main deck, the full-beam master suite includes an office and an exercise room with a clever arrangement of doors, passageways and furnishings that allow guests to use the amenities without disturbing the owner.
Some of the spaces are so large that special features were incorporated to keep the guests and crew from feeling overwhelmed. Three sofas and a couple of chairs are clustered toward the center of the saloon, with passages outboard of them. The dining room has spacious seating for 14 guests, with space left between the seat backs and bulkheads for not one, but two staff to pass during meals. A room-dividing bar separates the two spaces, and pocket doors at the four corners can enclose the dining room for formal occasions.
The main crew quarters are forward, with four upper-and-lower cabins on the lower deck and another two cabins below them on the tank deck level. There are separate mess and lounge areas, so part of the crew, normally 13 strong, can relax, reading or watching a movie, while others eat.
In the sky lounge abaft the pilothouse, three sofas are mounted on a hidden circular track, allowing them to be arranged with a focus aft for large outside parties, or forward for more intimate movie nights, complete with Linn surround sound and an overhead projection system. In addition to the sky lounge, VIP stateroom and pilothouse, this deck carries the captain's cabin, the ship's office and an extra cabin for additional guests or supernumerary crew, such as a helicopter pilot.
With tenders and water toys stowed in a stern garage and the MCA-required rescue boat on the foredeck, the after ends of this deck and the top deck are devoted to guest dining and relaxation. In addition to tables and bars on each deck, comfortable settees are set a few feet forward of the transom. They face aft rather than forward for a better view, whether at sea or moored stern-to in the Med.
Sitting here with Old Glory waving in the gentle sea breeze, under taut mesh awnings that shield the sun's harshest rays without blocking light, looking over Antibes' ancient wall to the azure seas that give this section of coastline its name, it was hard to imagine a more enjoyable spot.