Grand Luxe

Maritime history is filled with dreamers who have built their dreams and, in many cases, won considerable success and respect. In this new millennium David Lester is not so much a dreamer as a serious marketer with an innovative concept.

Put simply, he knows that wealthy Americans like to live close to the water and like to shop in luxurious surroundings for their art and antiques. So he is building a boat that can bring the best of American and European galleries to the local marinas of America’s most affluent communities.

The idea for a floating arts and antiques fair was born at sea. Lester and his wife Lee Ann previously owned a similar land-based business called International Fine Art Expositions, which they sold in 2001. Two years later, the couple bought a 94-foot Ferretti yacht and set off on a 10,000-mile, year-and-a-half voyage that took them from the Caribbean to the Canadian Maritime Provinces. As they voyaged along the U.S. East Coast, it occurred to them that they could replicate on the water the kind of art and antiques expositions they had staged in cities like Miami, New York and Los Angeles.

A computer-generated image depicting one of the galleries. Grande Luxe will have a total of 12,000 square feet of exhibition space on three decks.
“We have been in this same business for 15 years,” Lester said. With Grand Luxe, a five-deck, 228-foot ship with 12,000 square feet of display space, they plan to bring buyers and sellers together in the same wealthy coastal communities they visited in their yacht. “We are bringing clients to the same ports,” he said.

Lester explained the concept this way to NY Arts Magazine: “Most millionaires live near the water and they don’t like going to drafty armories and overheated hotel ballrooms to buy art and antiques. We will bring Bond Street and Madison Avenue to their local marinas. And when the art yacht is in port it cannot be ignored. It will be the height of a five-story building.”

To do this he and Lee Ann, together with some investors, are having a spectacular vessel built with some very pragmatic design criteria ( ). From the boards of naval architects DeJong and Lebet of Jacksonville, Fla., and yacht designer Luis DeBasto, a design has emerged that is at once elegant and completely functional.

The marinas that will be the vessel’s primary ports of call have only light-duty moorings. To bring a 228-by-46-foot ship with a 54-foot air draft alongside would likely result in torn up docks and angry marina managers. Using a technique from DeJong and Lebet’s experience with Florida dinner cruise boats, the vessel being built at Nichols Brothers’ shipyard on Whidbey Island, Wash., won’t require moorings.

Like a construction barge, the boat will have three 16-inch-diameter steel spuds that can be lowered to the harbor bottom to hold the vessel in place. One of the spuds will descend from near the boat’s bow, while the other two will come down from the stern quarters.

To maneuver the vessel in tight spaces, there are two Wesmar bow thrusters and a single Wesmar stern thruster. Each of these will have 150-hp electric-over-hydraulic motors turning props in tunnels. For propulsion the vessel has a pair of 3412 Caterpillar main engines each producing 848 hp at 2,100 rpm. They turn props in nozzles through ZF 2750 gears. Three Cat-powered 550-kW generators sets and one Cat-powered 250-kW genset will meet the boat’s extensive electric requirements.

To be named Grand Luxe, the art yacht will visit some 34 affluent communities along both coasts of Florida and north to Massachusetts over the course of a year. It will work the southern ports in winter and then travel up the Intracoastal Waterway to visit seasonal communities as far north as Martha’s Vineyard and Boston.


Matt Nichols, president of Nichols Brothers, stands near the sharply raked bow. Despite the appearance of speed, the boat will have a cruising speed of just 7 knots. That will be sufficient since the distances between ports of call will be relatively short. [Alan Haig-Brown photos]
Since most of the waters traveled by Grand Luxe will be shallow, the boat has a draft of only 6.5 feet and a nearly flat bottom. The engines’ grid coolers will be mounted on the side of the hull in a fashion similar to that of an inland towboat. All of the machinery, as well as the offices and a large galley to serve upper-deck restaurants, will be located in the lower hull. Meals will be moved up by dumbwaiter. There will be three elevators for people. A total of 12,000 square feet of gallery space will be on the main and next two decks. There will also be 6,000 square feet of restaurant space and an open-air sky lounge on the top deck.
Matt Nichols, Nichols Brothers president, explained that the decks would be coated with a teak-looking rollout material made from cork that is particularly friendly to high heels.

Lester said the vessel “will have 28 world-class exhibitors displaying the finest of art, antiques and jewelry in 200- to 600-square-foot shops renting for $10,000 to 30,000 per week.”

With each contracted space, the operators will get a van so that they can stay in local hotels and commute to the boat. A crew of seven will operate the boat.

Additional staff of up to 49 people for the restaurants, security and other service jobs will be accommodated on a converted 112-foot dinner boat that has 22 staterooms. This boat will accompany Grand Luxe, which is expected to spend only four to 10 hours per week traveling between communities.

Since the value of its fine art and antiques will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars range, special attention is being paid to building in security systems as well as extensive fire suppression.


Grande Luxe under construction at the Nichols Brothers shipyard. The large cylinder is the main propulsion nozzle. The hole in the hull near the nozzle will accomodate the spud that will stabilize the vessel when it is in port.
As dramatic as this project is, Lester is not stopping with Grand Luxe. Four more vessels for different products and areas are already in the planning. One will likely pick up where the old Mississippi River showboats left off to bring excitement and new kinds of shopping experiences to the people along the inland waterways of the United States.

Originally scheduled for delivery in December, shortages of materials and workers have delayed the date to spring of 2007.

Delivery from Washington to the East Coast will most likely be by heavy-lift ship rather than on its own bottom.

By Professional Mariner Staff