Wealthy Chinese may not be buying many big yachts. But they are buying up big yacht companies.
Two of the world's top yacht companies were taken over by Chinese companies this year, leading many yachtmakers to see China more as a competitor than the market of the future.
This summer, Dalian Wanda Group, the China-based property giant, acquired control of British yacht-maker Sunseeker International for around $500 million. Sunseeker is famous for making the speedboat that appeared in the James Bond film "Quantum of Solace." Dalian Wanda is controlled by Wang Jianlin, an outspoken billionaire who owns a Sunseeker yacht.
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Dalian Wanda said the deal "further enhances our position in the global luxury, entertainment and tourism market."
The deal followed an even more high-profile purchase of a controlling stake in Ferretti Group—one of the largest and most revered yacht brands in the world—by Shandong Heavy Industry Group-Weichai Group, which makes bulldozers and tractors. The deal was valued at around $230 million.
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The question with both deals is whether the new buyers will move production to China and compete with lower-cost products. Both companies insist they are buying the brands for their prestige and history and that they would never damage the brands by moving production.
In an interview, Ferretti CEO Ferruccio Rossi said the company will never build Ferretti-brand yachts in China. But he doesn't rule out creating a separate brand, with smaller yachts, that could be built in China for its domestic market.
"The market in China is big, and there is a space for every brand in every position," Rossi said. "Maybe we will develop specific brands and boats for the domestic market, maybe we will do it when the market will be big enough. At the same time, we will keep the Ferretti-built product at the top-end made in Italy."
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He said, Ferretti is like Ferrari, a brand that depends on its Italian production and heritage.
According to Rossi, the Chinese purchase of Ferretti will help the company better understand China's yacht market and its customers. He said that wealthy Chinese use yachts more for private business meetings and building "guanxi"—personal relationships and influence—rather than partying on the water with friends and family.
As a result, Ferretti and its brands have started building boats with meeting areas and a large dining area rather than Jacuzzis, sun decks and bars. Rather than bedrooms, a Chinese buyer prefers karaoke rooms and an area for gambling or cards.
"They are really looking for a status symbol," he said. "They are looking for something where they can meet with people. It's much more about public relations to share rather than about private utilization, as it is in the Western world."
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He added that "a boat is a fantastic place to build up a strong personal relationship because you're in a very comfortable environment, very soft, very private. You can have this time. Nobody will disturb you."
The company expects Asia to account for up to one third of its sales in five years, up from 10 percent today, he said. Yacht companies need to be more patient, he added.
"China has a different flow of time compared to [the] Western world," he said. "You need to be there. You need to deal with clients. Maybe right now the number isn't what you expect for a market that big, but don't be too rash about that. Prepare the ground and the benefits will arrive."
—By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter @robtfrank.