For fisherman and owner John Risley, life has never not involved the ocean in one way or another. From growing up as a young boy on the misty shores of Nova Scotia, Canada to steering a global empire today that manages the abundant valuable resources that our oceans have to offer, Risley is as much an adventurer in the business world as he is out at sea. Few owners know as much about the last frontier that is our ocean as much as Risley himself and being reliant on its hidden treasures to make a living, few are as passionate about the wellbeing and sustainability of its inhabitants.
Currently working on his latest deep-ocean luxury superyacht that will carry on the famed Northern Star name, we couldn’t think of a better time or issue to catch up with Risley to talk about the yacht life, ownership and protecting our seven seas.
“If you wanna go way back, I guess it all started with a rowboat,” comes Risley’s answer as I ask him to recall his first time at sea. As co-owner of the 51.5-metre Royal Huisman sailing yacht, Meteor, Risley’s time at sea has been spent on a number of different vessels, ranging from deep-sea trawlers and scientific research ships to weekends racing on 20-foot wooden sailing boats. “My first love is sailing, absolutely. Having said that, if you are going to spend a lot of time on the water, then you have to realise there are limits associated with sailing, especially when it comes to longer trips and the logistics that come with that.”
Risley’s love for sailing is what drove his purchase of the 1990 Palmer Johnson, Maysylph (now named Axia); a 37.5-metre motorsailer that became his first vessel to bear the Northern Star name. His time on this yacht, as it turns out, is what would ultimately put in motion a two-decade relationship with the German shipyard Lurssen and an even more flourishing partnership with Moran Yacht & Ship; Risley’s long-time yacht brokerage firm and advisor. “The step from the Palmer Johnson to the first Lurssen, now thinking about it, probably came from my mentality – something which the entire industry is guilty of, including myself – where I thought bigger is better. I now know bigger is not always better, bigger just means different things. It depends entirely on what you want to do on the water, and therefore smaller is sometimes better. But right now, I am still in the ‘bigger is better’ mode.”
What followed surely can be described as bigger. ‘The first Lurssen’ Risley mentioned is, of course, the 63-metre Northern Star from 2005, better known as Polar Star since changing name two years after her launch. Shortly after, in 2009, another vessel of the same name was delivered by the German yacht builder, this time a 75.6-metre motor yacht that, from a distance, could easily be mistaken as her former little sister. It was on his new Northern Star that Risley discovered the world’s oceans in a way he and his family have never experienced before and drove home the realisation that he needs to take care of this precious environment, even harder.
“I am on the forefront of financial activity from the ocean, not just fishing but also energy and other fields of economic development. I am very lucky having had a rowing boat growing up as a young boy and being exposed to the ocean. The ocean remains a huge area for economic activity on a global front, so I want to spend more time at sea and be more aware of the changes that are taking place in the ocean – there are some dramatic changes taking place, not only affecting marine life but on a larger scale. I want to be close to that, and aware of it all while at the same time being a responsible steward of the ocean and what it has to offer.”
And so, to continue living his dream of a life at sea, Risley has embarked on an ambitious new project by drawing inspiration from decades of work building offshore vessels. “The insight I have into the commercial shipping sector (as we operate both in the offshore supply field as well as deep sea fishing) has given me loads to think about when it comes to the development of my boats. Big motor yachts are, as it stands, some of the most inefficient vessels in the world when compared to heavy-duty commercial vessels and their lives at sea. Knowing this, our new project at Lurssen will probably be the most efficient motor yacht in the world when completed.”
What Risley proposes is a complete redevelopment of the engine room on board his new vessel and the way the power it generates will be utilised. Gone are the days of wasteful hours of running generators and instead, a large bank of batteries will supply the vessel with all the electricity it needs. “The only time the gensets will come online is when the batteries need to be recharged,” he explains. “If you consider the setup which the majority of motor yachts run on, they have two main engines and three gensets. And when these vessels are underway, you have at any given time at least three of those engines running, if not four – which is crazy! If commercial vessels are not operated like that, then why on earth are we operating motor yachts in that way?”
Risley understands that the available modern-day technology needed to make old-school fossil fuels redundant are not entirely up to speed yet, but that this should also not hinder ambitious users to explore the possibilities that the existing tech offers today. “Sure, the Tesla’s coming out in five years from now will have better batteries, but that should not stop you from buying a Tesla today. The field has improved by leaps and bounds and there is no doubt that in five years time there will be even better batteries on the market than what there are today, but that is no reason to not use today’s batteries and available technology.”
Being at the forefront of innovation, however, requires one to have the support and knowledge of an experienced partner to successfully pull of such an ambitious project. Risley found this trust in Moran Yacht & Ship, a firm with whom he has built several vessels and from which he has learned many valuable lessons when it comes to creating superyachts. One topic that clearly stands out to Risley is the value of a broker during the build process. “If you think about building a very expensive property, who do you have? You pick your builder very carefully, your architect, interior designer and you make sure you have all the professional help that you can get. Yet, people very often go and build large motor yachts and think the right thing to do is to not find and pay a key advisor any commission as if it is an optional cost that they don’t have to incur. Well, you incur the cost one way or the other. You either pay the commission, or you get a vessel that is more expensive, less capable or not up to the standard you originally expected. And I would tell anyone, as someone who has built probably more vessels – not only motor yachts – than most owners, that it is the best investment you can make.”
But for Risley, involving an experienced build partner has far more valuable consequences than merely ensuring the vessel is delivered on time, especially if what you are trying to pull off has never been done before. “You want an advisor who builds large motor yachts for a living. Someone who has three or four projects on the go simultaneously. That is how you learn from other projects and other people’s mistakes. All that data becomes anonymised, and it then becomes not about ‘what is the colour of that guy’s bathroom’, but more about what we can learn from each other in terms of new technology and building methods.”
The yacht in question is the new 107-metre Lurssen project Icecap which, reveals her owner, will be ready for launch in early 2021. Designed to fit in with the Risleys’ off-the-beaten-track approach to cruising, we can expect the new Ice-classed vessel to be brimming with off-road features only available on a ship this size. A large helicopter landing pad with its own sunken hangar will allow easy transfers to shore no matter where in the world the yacht is. For a more tamed sightseeing experience, a special observation room will be located right on the bow for a 180-degree view of the scenery passing by. One thing that certainly won’t be on board, according to Risley, is a submarine. “I am claustrophobic and I have absolutely no desire to be slowly sinking in a glass bowl.”
As the conversation continues, it seems that the most challenging part of the entire operation would be deciding where to take his new vessel when it is completed. “I want to cruise everywhere. I don’t mean to be facetious when I say that, but we don’t really enjoy the heavily-travelled areas. We have been to them, and we don’t really feel the need to keep returning to the same spots time and again, over and over. The times we have been to remote areas, our guests have been awestruck each time by the beauty, such as Greenland, which we have cruised extensively and only scratched the surface. So these are the type of destinations we would like to visit and to which we want to bring our family, friends and business associates along to experience it with us because it is unique. I don’t really see what is particularly unique about the south coast of France. If you keep going there, you will not experience things that no one else has done before.”
I can sense the hesitancy in Risley’s voice as he continues to talk about the benefits of getting outside the regular cruising grounds. “We go into remote anchorages and we love the fact that there is, by definition, no one else around so it is sort of counterintuitive to say that people should do the same with their yachts. On the other hand, I think that the more people are aware of what the ocean has to offer and how unique it is, what fantastic treasures it holds and how to become proper stewards of it, it can only benefit the ocean environment in the long term. I don’t want to pour cold water on those people who keep going back to their favourite spots in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, I would just encourage people to do more things with their vessels than going to those same old places.”
For an owner that has remained so under the radar over his yachting life, John Risley sure has a lot to teach to aspiring owners with ambitions to use yachting for the greater good. But after his ‘bigger is better’ phase, will he ever return to building another sailing yacht, I wonder? “I don’t know. At some point in your life, you have to confront your own mortality and say, ‘hey, how long am I going to be here?’. I hope I can keep building boats until I die.”