As the captain of a 130-foot yacht, Christopher Campbell usually spends his time at the steering wheel.
But one day last week, he walked the deck of a massive freighter at Port Everglades, waiting for his boss’ yacht to be lifted out of the water and fastened down for a long-distance voyage as cargo.
The boat was one of 27 carefully loaded on top of the nearly 525-foot-long Tong An Cheng freighter for shipment from Fort Lauderdale to the west coast of the U.S. and to Canada.
The price tag for the shipment to Vancouver: About $180,000.
Yacht transport is big business in Fort Lauderdale, an area dubbed the yachting capital of the world. Hundreds of the sleek boats are shipped in and out of Port Everglades yearly on hulking freighters.
Some yachts are shipped in for the area’s international boat shows, where they are displayed for sale and charter. Others come for repair and maintenance between summers in Europe and winters in the Caribbean. And some head out for delivery to owners who bought the boats in South Florida, the country’s leading market for yacht sales.
The business is so big that former New York investment banker Paul Haber set up a company in 2013 in Fort Lauderdale to specialize in just one niche: transport around North America.
Haber said his business, United Yacht Transport, moved about 300 yachts last year and expects to handle even more deliveries this year. The shipment of 27 yachts was his biggest, he said.
But why piggyback yachts on a freighter when they could sail on their own?
Operating yachts across long distances costs a lot more, Campbell said. “To run this yacht from here to Vancouver — with fuel, maintenance, repairs and crew — you’d be talking well over half-a-million dollars,” Campbell said. Fuel alone could cost more than $200,000.
Running a yacht full-out for weeks also causes added wear and tear. And self-powered trips take longer and leave more room for problems.
“Nothing ever goes smoothly” on a long yacht trip, the 32-year-old engineer said. “It’s a floating city.”
The crew also would be spent, running the yacht hard for more than three weeks to Vancouver, sometimes in rough seas.
“Heading up the West Coast is very difficult. There’s no shelter. You’re in open water. It’s pretty miserable, to be honest,” Campbell said.
Loading a yacht onto a freighter for a voyage like that is no small job.
Haber’s company uses a huge crane with an arm carrying a giant sling. The sling is placed under the yacht, and the crane hoists the yacht out of the water and carries it above the deck of the freighter.
Steel columns then are adjusted upward from the deck to meet the yacht, their wooden tops forming a cradle to hold the yacht in place. The columns next are welded into the decks to keep the yacht stable. And giant straps then are pulled over the boat to fasten it down, sometimes with chains attached for extra security.
The process takes time. Campbell expected that loading his yacht would take about 24 hours, with crews working around-the-clock welding down the steel columns onto the deck.
Haber’s company mainly transports yachts in the 50- to 80-foot range, with perhaps 30 percent of his business for yachts 100 feet or longer. His biggest shipment to date is a 151-footer.
Yachts much bigger than that are tough to lift in a sling and often are loaded onto semi-submersible freighters instead.
The world’s biggest yacht transporter, Sevenstar Yacht Transport in the Netherlands, owns some of those submersibles. It hauls lots of yachts between Europe and the Americas, the largest segment of the transport market, Haber said.
Haber said he chose to focus on the less-contested North American market. His company doesn’t own freighters and rents deck space when needed. He aims to be the “low-cost” provider for yacht transport, so he can fill up the deck and leave no space empty.
Most of his company’s deliveries are headed west from Port Everglades, like the 130-foot Oceanfast yacht that Campbell’s boss bought in Fort Lauderdale and was sending to his home in Vancouver.
“Yachts in Fort Lauderdale happen to be about 25 percent cheaper than a similar boat in Seattle, because you have more boats here,” Haber said. That leaves opportunity to transport the yachts as cargo to the Pacific Coast.