Greek goddess of wisdom, war and the arts, patroness of shipbuilding, and protector of Argo, Jason’s ship that voyaged in search of the Golden Fleece, Athena was quite a favorite of sailors. A good day in “The Odyssey” would begin, as Homer wrote, when “Gray-eyed Athena sent them a favorable breeze, a fresh west wind, singing over the wine-dark sea.”
Now comes the new Athena, not from lofty Mount Olympus but The Netherlands, a divine creation in her own right. The three-masted schooner was built by Royal Huisman Shipyard in Vollenhove, Holland. Spanning the length of a football field, she is one of the largest sailing yachts built since Sea Cloud slid down the ways during the days of the Great Depression. While her styling and outfit cannot help but evoke memories of the magnificent yachts of that era, Athena is a completely modern yacht incorporating the latest technology.
Athena‘s hull and superstructure are constructed entirely of Alustar, a proprietary high-tensile aluminum alloy developed by Corus. It is used extensively by yacht builders in Holland and is also finding a market outside the country as well. Like standard aluminum alloys, Alustar’s advantages include corrosion resistance and light weight. In addition, enhanced strength properties mean that yachts constructed of Alustar can be even lighter while benefiting from better stiffness, which translates to less weld distortion and less fairing during construction, as well as less plating deflection during use-and a 19-knot top speed under sail.
The reduced structural weight afforded by Alustar construction allowed Athena to achieve a higher ballast/displacement ratio than otherwise possible, meaning improved performance under her magnificent spread of sail. Performance is always a key issue for her naval architect, Gerard Dijkstra. Aboard Stad Amsterdam, another classic tall ship from Dijkstra’s board, I spoke with the talented designer during the early days of Athena‘s design.
Dijkstra explained that while Holland has a rich history in the realm of sailing ships, most Dutch ships were designed for carrying cargo in support of the merchant trade. As such, speed was often secondary to capacity. For performance-oriented sailing ships, Dijkstra turned to the work of 19th century Americans such as Isaac and William Webb and Donald McKay. These men were giants in the design and construction of clipper ships, sophisticated vessels so swift they were known as the greyhounds of the sea.
While Dijkstra is respectful of the past, he is not bound by it. Ghosts of the clipper ships are clearly evident in Athena‘s hull lines and proportions, but the designer has also incorporated the best of modern hullform research, utilizing both computer design and model tank testing.
No less attention has been brought to bear on Athena‘s powerful sailing rig, built largely on-site by Royal Huisman’s sister company Rondal. Her tapered bowsprit is fabricated of stainless steel. The three main masts are also tapered, and were constructed of Alustar plate. The topsails furl within the masts, and the mainsails furl into the Rondal carbon fiber booms. The gaffs are also in carbon fiber. Standing rod rigging is paired with running rigging of Gleistein Dyneema and Vectran ropes.
The other half of Athena‘s superb design team is Pieter Beeldsnijder, who worked with Dijkstra on the yacht’s exterior and arrangement, and was responsible for her interior design as well. As with Dijkstra, I had a chance to talk privately with Beeldsnijder aboard one of his designs, that one a modern motoryacht one-third the length of Athena. The contrast with Athena illustrated the breadth of his talent, and the conversation reflected the scope of his concern for fulfilling his clients’ dreams. The culmination of this is clearly evident in Athena.
When I saw the drawings and the first keel weldments for Athena in the spring of 2001, it was difficult to grasp the massive scale of the project. Subsequent trips to the Royal Huisman yard, as the hull and then the superstructure took shape, brought that home. It was the latest trip last summer, though, that was most revealing.
Athena is hull and rigging and engines and staterooms, but she is, on closer examination, a myriad of tiny details, each one precisely executed by an orchestra of devoted craftsmen to create a symphony of perfection. As with any orchestra, the conductor is the key, and the maestro of family-owned Royal Huisman Shipyard is patriarch Wolter Huisman, a true gentleman who values the welfare of his workers and the quality of his product above all else. From the inlays in the massive outside wheel forward of Athena‘s pilothouse to the careful splining of her teak decking, from the mirror polish on her deck gear to the flawless varnish on her joinery, Athena shines as Huisman’s magnum opus.
The Royal Huisman yard has undergone a massive expansion and modernization even as Athena was taking shape. Anyone who has spent time around a shipyard knows that lots of climbing is part of the job, and a day of stairs and ladders can leave one exhausted. Huisman’s solution was an escalator from the building floor to the elevated mezzanine surrounding the yacht. In the on-site furniture factory, Wolter Huisman smiled broadly as he showed me the array of modern pneumatically powered workstations. These, he explained, enable workers to lift and tilt heavy wood assemblies easily to the best work height and angle, building better-quality joinery while significantly reducing on-the-job injuries and resultant lost time. It is win-win management at its best, and the ultimate winner is the yacht owner.
Athena‘s owner is no exception. He and his guests are now enjoying a magnificent new yacht that combines the best of design and construction with the latest technology in both ship’s services and in guest comfort. The four guest staterooms, three with queen berths and one with twins, lie just abaft the engineroom. Each has a private bath with shower, as well as a spacious settee for reading or video viewing. A well-situated foyer and engineer’s control room help assure that no hint of engine noise will reach the accommodations.
The owner’s suite spans Athena‘s full beam abaft the guest cabins, near the stern. There is a separate stair and foyer that are normally for private owner use, but can also serve as a secondary escape route for guests in an emergency. A king berth lies to port and the head, with both tub and shower, is full beam. To starboard is the owner’s office/lounge, a spacious retreat with its own head and both desk and sofa space.
On deck, the formal dining room and spacious saloon with game table invite guests to enjoy themselves in a manner that exceeds the dreams of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Topside, a media lounge is fully devoted to the enjoyment of audio and video, as the requisite bar, with seating for the full guest complement of ten, is situated just outside the aft doors.
It is on Athena‘s expansive open decks, though, that I most enjoyed my too-brief time aboard this beautiful goddess. Whether relaxing in the shaded comfort afforded by her many seating areas, pacing the wide side decks while gazing out to the horizon, or listening to the wind in her rigging from the uncluttered foredeck, one cannot help but be in touch with the sea and its traditions. And isn’t that, after all, what yachting is all about?