Sinking a fortune into something sinkable has never been more expensive – or more popular. Clive Aslet steps aboard one of the new breed of superyacht.
The ship’s tender emerged into Zante Marina in St Kitts out of a velvet black Caribbean night. Standing beside a couple of crew members, dressed in whites, was my hostess, Miriam Cain from the yacht brokers Camper & Nicholsons, her satin evening dress trailing like a slip stream. When we arrived alongside the luxurious 70-metre motoryacht, Sherakhan, I felt guilty. Only minutes earlier, after a tedious flight from London, I had been wondering whether it had been a good idea to come at all. What ingratitude, what foolishness! As I stepped aboard, earthly cares were left where they belong – on land.
I had filled out the questionnaire that Camper & Nicholsons send in advance, frivolously listing a preference for Puligny-Montrachet. It was a bit of a tease, to see if they could get it in these waters. Rum yes, white Burgundy, I figured, possibly not. On my last night, the Michelin-starred chef created a whole meal around the wine. It turned out that my little luxury was almost absurdly modest beside some of the requests that Camper & Nicholsons has to field.
One Russian oligarch wanted two brand new yellow Ferraris to be standing at the dockside to give to friends when he boarded – at 48 hours’ notice. The request was fulfilled; I won’t say how much it cost. Another client had silver chopsticks air-dropped at sea. Those concerned may have consoled themselves with the fact that, however extravagant these whims may seem, fulfilling them is an awful lot cheaper than actually owning one of these vessels.
And yet the grand thing about this new age of plutocracy that we inhabit is that a growing band of individuals want to do that, too. Demand for the new breed of giant superyacht has exploded in line with wealth, and the yards that build these luxury vessels are struggling to keep up with orders. Showboats International magazine reports that there are now 777 yachts more than 50 metres long under construction. This represents a 15 per cent increase on the 2006 figure, which was in turn up on that for 2005. Overall, the superyacht industry has doubled in size during the past ten years, the only constraints on growth being the shortage of trained crew and of superyacht berths.
Some vessels are now more than 100 metres long. A few are inching their way towards 200 metres, earning a new description: the gigayacht. ‘Twenty years ago, a yacht of 50 metres would have been considered big,’ say Jan Vankerk, the shaven-headed, Dutch owner of the Sherakhan. ‘Now they’re incredibly big – 150 metres, even more.’
Joining the superyacht club is harder than getting into the MCC. Building one can take five years and costs can be rule-of-thumbed at £1 million a metre. Since billionaires don’t like queuing, a healthy market in yacht futures has developed. Would-be owners are prepared to trade their place in the queue to even richer people who don’t want to wait.
Roman Abramovich already owns two luxury craft but has jumped the queue to order a third, from Hamburg shipbuilders Blohm & Voss. Abramovich’s vessel, appropriately called the Eclipse, will be eight metres longer than the 147-metre Prince Abdulaziz, owned by the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. The Prince Abdulaziz used to be the biggest yacht in the world but lost the crown (it is very much about crowns) to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s Dubai.
The 184-metre Dubai began life in Germany, having been commissioned by Prince Jefri, younger brother of the Sultan of Brunei. Work stopped in 1998, when Prince Jefri fell out with the Sultan. The hull was removed to Dubai and finished in what is effectively Sheikh Mohammed’s own dockyard.
It’s hard to compete with that. But private owners are doing their best to keep up. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, owns the Octopus, which, at 120 metres, is larger than some islands in the Maldives. The old guard of British owners, including Sir Anthony Bamford of JCB, Sir Donald Gosling of NCP and Sir Bernard ‘turkey twizzler’ Matthews, has been joined by the retail king Philip Green, Formula One champion David Coulthard and ultra-stylish development managers, Nick and Christian Candy of Candy & Candy.
There was a time when the British Royal Family shared the pleasures of the high life on the high seas but the Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned by the newly-elected Labour government in 1997. As a result, the Queen was forced to charter the Hebredean Princess, a former Caledonian-MacBrayne car ferry, to cruise the Western Isles with her family as an 80th birthday treat. There is one consolation for Her Majesty. The superyacht boom is something of a British thing. Of the 2,300 biggest luxury craft in the world, 1,000 fly the red ensign – but 90 per cent are owned by nationals from elsewhere.
The appeal of the superyacht is not hard to appreciate. It’s so big that it forms its own secret world. Owners can guard their privacy. Most fit anti-paparazzi lights to their vessels and a few can launch missiles. It is the ideal platform for parties and excess – away from prying, censorious eyes.
And how they party. The 76-metre yacht Mirabella V, which Southampton’s Vosper Thorneycroft built for Joe Vittoria, the former head of Avis Car Rentals, includes a 600-bottle wine cellar. The Octopus comes with music studio, cinema and submarine. The helicopter pad on Rising Sun, owned by Larry Ellison of Oracle, doubles as a basketball-court-cum-danc-floor. Ellison describes it as ‘absolutely excessive. No question about it. But it’s amazing what you can get used to’. You could shoot clay pigeons from almost any deck, but do try to avoid hitting an albatross.
A superyacht is also the ultimate toy box. A senior Russian politician in his 50s surprised the captain of a superyacht by spending three hours racing about on a jet ski. ‘We didn’t have those when I was younger,’ he grinned afterwards. Less riotously, high net worth individuals are spending freely on big family holidays – in the knowledge that their safety and security are guaranteed.
With their high ratio of crew to guests, super yachts provide a setting that helps smooth out inter-generational differences. Water sports, sunbathing, spa treatments, Michelin-starred chefs, the tender standing by to whisk you ashore for shopping or local colour – this degree of service means that children, parents and grandparents can happily coexist, meeting only for dinner.
Best of all, you don’t have to squeeze into a cabin the size of a wagon-lit. A superyacht has the sort of bedroom suites you would find in the Ritz. Rich materials and luxurious woods abound, or appear to (artificial veneers are used to meet fire regulations and reduce weight, but are very convincing). Crew members polish the handrails until they gleam. However neatly you hang up the towel you have used in the bathroom, you will still find that it has been carefully folded and returned to the cupboard by the next time you go in. Shipshape is one word you could use; sybaritic is another.
Yet these impressions of grande luxe are only the window dressing. The real achievement lies in what you don’t see. ‘The art of building mega yachts is in making wishes come true,’ says Verkerk.‘The problem is the technical realisation. Take water: we need 20,000 litres a day, just for the jacuzzis.’
Savvy port authorities have realised that these monster vessels also need berths, within reach of the bright lights of the city but equipped with fuel tanks and generators. San Diego is testing the waters with a two-year trial of eight giga moorings on the Embarcadero. The Mexican port of Ensenada could become the largest west coast megayacht marina, according to plans recently announced by the Meridian Development Group.
The Carenage in the Spice Island of Grenada, in the Caribbean, is also being revamped for super yachts. British entrepreneur and hotelier, Peter de Savary, wants to make Grenada another St Tropez. Other developments are afoot on St Maarten. The new superyacht facilities are a demonstration of that grand fact of nature: when billionaires want to spend money, everything becomes possible. Welcome aboard.