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How big is 'too big' for a superyacht?

By Jim Boulden, CNN
February 7, 2013 -- Updated 1836 GMT (0236 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aly, CEO of Blohm+Voss, told CNN that super yacht building was hurt in the crisis
  • Lurssen shipyard in Bremen will soon unleash the world's longest mega yacht
  • Some of the mega yachts need 60-80 employees when the boat is in full use

Editor's note: Editor's note: Jim Boulden is a correspondent for CNN's international programming based in London, where he covers a wide range of business and news stories. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- When pictures leaked out in December of the late Steve Jobs' new yacht, Venus, leaving The Netherlands, interest was once again sparked in the mysterious world of the super mega yachts, and in those who build them for the super mega rich.

I say mysterious because the business of yacht building is full of rumors and speculation until the ship is seen leaving the sheds of the family-owned builders, whether in Amsterdam, Hamburg or Bremen.

Read more: Steve Jobs' yacht impounded over pay dispute

A bit of the veil on this industry was lifted in London in January when the builders and designers of the biggest yachts celebrated the launch of the 2013 Top 100 Forecast from superyachts.com.

The backers of this event are at pains to remind people this business employs thousands of people (craftsmen, architects, builders, designers, deckhands), and when a new anchorage is discovered by the rich and famous to park their yachts, it can generate a lot of income for a region.

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And since they aren't allowed to talk about those who buy these yachts, they are only to happy to talk all about the business.

Herbert Aly, the CEO of Blohm+Voss, told me that superyacht building was actually hurt during the economic crisis. It took some time for the slowdown to filter through as orders can take five to seven years to fulfill, so 2011 and 2012 were the tough years. But that's coming to an end.

Watch here: Yacht sales down amid austerity

"We've seen the rock bottom of it," Aly stressed. "And I think 2013 will be a promising year for the industry, for the big ones."

Aly said the bigger yacht side of the business is coming back faster than the smaller side.

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Aly's competitor Peter Lurssen would agree. His famed Lurssen shipyard in Bremen will soon unleash the world's longest mega yacht, codenamed Project Azzam. While Lurssen is not allowed to confirm the owner, or the specifics, he can talk a little bit more once aficionados caught a glimpse of it.

"The yacht had to leave one shed and flowed through the river to the next shed, and even though the nose wasn't on, specialists were there with their instruments and they figured out it, yes it will be longer than what is flowing today."

Watch here: 'Super yachts' gather in London

The '"specialists" estimate it will be around 180 meters long, beating out Roman Abramovich's Eclipse, built by Blohm+Voss, which comes in at 163.5 meters long.

Will they just keep getting longer?

"Maybe we will see 200 meters, but I think that's it," said Aly. "Why do you go for a bigger one if you are alone on it?"

Read more: Olympic yachts glide into London for a colorful makeover

Well, not exactly alone, since some of the mega yachts need 60 to 80 employees when the boat is in full use. But he has a point.

We could ask one of the owners, but they tend to like the yacht to do the talking.

Henk de Vries of Feadship built the Venus for Jobs, though he won't confirm that. But he says building for the mega rich also means building an intimate relationship.

"It's very personal. I have the cell phone number of my customers." And they have his. "Oh, yes, and they call me when something breaks down."

Does that mean de Vries will do whatever it takes to strike a deal with a tech billionaire or Saudi sheik?

"I had someone ask me the other day, 'but you can't say no to a prince?' I said, yes, we do. We do it all the time," de Vries said, laughing.

All the builders stress that the ship takes on the personality of the person paying for it, and that things like the interior can change over the years it takes to build the ship. But since they only can book a profit once the yacht is delivered, they work hard to find a compromise.

And de Vries has something new and special coming out of the shed soon.

"Whereas the Venus was about eliminating everything, and going back to even than more than basic, just purity and form in design. This project that will be shown to the world, again I can't say anything, except that it is very large, and it's immensely complex and has everything that is included in that one."

In other words, while the roofline of Venus looks like -- you guessed it -- an iPhone, the next one will be all about the bling.

Project Azzam will be all about the yacht's length.

With the business of big yachts coming back, it's possible other builders might want to get in on the action. Europe's family-run yacht builders caution against it.

"We see military shipyards, commercial shipyards who think, 'oh, OK. I'll do a frigate, paint it white, put a nice interior in it, I have a nice yacht.' No way," said de Vries.

It's about the personal touch, as Lurssen stressed. "We had a client that had in the contract that I could never resign as a director as long as the yacht is still not delivered, in fact not out of warranty."

At a time that Europe is very worried about jobs, the uptick in interest for mega yachts should be looked at in a positive light, even if news reports will soon be filled with gossip (and jealousy?) over Project Azzam and the "bells and whistles" yachts to soon sail away from the shores of Europe to the Middle East.

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