The Hylas 49 /Insieme/ floats out of the dock bay of Yacht Express, the 685-foot flagship of the Dockwise Yacht Transport fleet. For more photos, click here .  http://www.sailingworld.com/photogallery.jsp?ID=1000024220
I had seen commercial ships before-plowing through weeknight racecourses on Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, navigating the twists and turns of Ohio’s Cuyahogoa River-but I never understood just how big they are until yesterday, when I took a tour of Yacht Express, the 685-foot flagship of the Dockwise Yacht Transport fleet.
The world’s first purpose-built yacht carrier was making its inaugural visit to Newport, and Dockwise invited members of the media aboard to witness the loading and unloading process.
Approaching the ship through the fog, I didn’t grasp its enormity. It wasn’t until a few minutes later, standing on the upper deck, looking over the dock bay where boats were floating in and out like transients at a marina, that I realized the scale of the operation. Wait a minute, I just watched a 49-foot boat pull a U-turn in the belly of a ship!
As colossal an undertaking as the Dockwise process may seem to a first-time observer like me, it’s becoming part of the routine for many sailors. William Borel is project manager for Challenge Twelve, the 1983, Ben Lexcen-designed 12-meter based in Antibes, France. When the boat’s owner opted not to sail in the 2009 12 Metre World Championships (Sept. 22 to 27), the crew came together to finance the regatta themselves-and chose Dockwise as the logical means of transporting the boat from France to Newport. On Tuesday morning, Borel met Challenge Twelve at the end of its Atlantic crossing and, with a skillful touch and an air of insouciance, backed it off the ship and into Narragansett Bay.
Dockwise charges about $35,000 to ship a 40-foot boat from Newport to the Mediterranean. For owners comparing the costs of hiring a crew to sail the boat over, the Dockwise option starts to look pretty good. It’s also a great option for sailors who don’t have the time, or the temerity, to sail across an ocean.
A Canadian family (they asked not to be named) used Dockwise to transport their Hylas 49 Insieme to the Mediterranean, where they spent two years cruising out of Palma Mallorca. Yesterday, they were anxious to float off Yacht Express and on to the continuation of their journey, two more years of cruising along the East Coast. “When you factor in the costs of hiring a crew and food and fuel and wear and tear on the boat, it just makes more sense to do this,” said the owner.
On deck, Yacht Express felt like your average marina on a Tuesday morning-people working on their boats, preparing for big races, setting out on cruises. The real action happens below the surface of the dock bay. To start the unloading and loading process, the ship takes on water until its cargo bay becomes a 27-foot-deep boat basin, the front of the ship open to surrounding water. Departing boats simply untie and sail off; oncoming boats move into their predetermined positions. As the ship rises and water drains from the dock bay, divers position supports beneath the boats. Before the ship departs, the crew welds seafastenings to the deck and straps down its precious cargo.
Not long after our tour concluded, Yacht Express departed Newport for Port Everglades, Florida. Currently, these are the only U.S. ports Dockwise services, but the company has plans to add Long Beach, California, to its list of more than 20 ports worldwide.