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Motor Yacht A, owned by Russian businessman Andrey Melnichenko, was moored last month close to D-day cruiser HMS Belfast near Tower Bridge, a stunning display of wealth. The Philippe Starck-designed, 119-metre (390ft) white superyacht, which has three swimming pools, a helipad, and bombproof glass, represents a lifestyle that is conspicuous but inaccessible to all but the global financial elite and their entourage.
After upgrading to the £347m, 143-metre Sailing Yacht A, Melnichenko, who made his £9.2bn fortune in coal and fertilizers, sold the unusual yacht. His new tenth-largest superyacht has three carbon masts over 90 metres tall and a sail area larger than a football pitch. He joins Roman Abramovich, whose 162.5-metre Eclipse is the second-largest private boat, among the elite.
The Chelsea football club owner’s stunning £724m vessel, which drew headlines last summer when it briefly anchored on the river Clyde in Scotland, far from its typical cruise grounds, is claimed to have two swimming pools (one of which can be transformed into a nightclub), an outdoor fireplace, a recreational submarine, armour plating, bulletproof windows, a missile defense system, and an anti-paparazzi shield designed to dazzle professional photographers.
One British academic penetrated this secretive society. Emma Spence has spent six years researching the sector, crewing on superyachts around the world, and shadowing a yacht broker in Monaco, witnessing how the super-rich use the boats to construct a hierarchy. The researcher earning a PhD on superyachts argues the vessels are unusual among prestige assets: unlike private planes, they are not a functional source of transit; unlike art and property, they constantly depreciate. “It allows the super-rich to act their wealth status,” one owner told her.
Superyachts are boats with hulls greater than 24 metres and a professional crew. Multi-millionaires and billionaires may afford basic annual maintenance and operation charges of 10% of the purchase price.
Spence reveals in a forthcoming book on super-rich lifestyles that owning a yacht isn’t enough—how and where it’s utilized matters. Most luxury vessel owners and charterers like to cruise to renowned ports with bars and restaurants to guarantee an audience of super-rich peers. The Côte d’Azur, where hundreds of superyachts line the docks at Saint-Tropez, Nice, Antibes, Cannes, and Monaco, the Mediterranean’s most prestigious port, was her research area.
Billionaire retailer Sir Philip Green received his third superyacht, the £100m, 90-meter Lionheart, early this year. In 2013, Green joined another yacht in Saint-Tropez without permission. “He strolled up on the aft deck in board shorts and a T-shirt—standard super-rich clothes, as casual as you can be,” she says. “The owner’s adult children and friends all stood to attention until he commanded them to sit down. I’ve never seen somebody command that respect on someone else’s yacht.”
The perma-tanned Topshop tycoon recently ended a two-month Mediterranean vacation with his wife, Tina, leaving his daughter, Chloe, on board in Monaco, where yacht owners and industry insiders met last month at the world’s most renowned yacht show to compare yachts. “The family’s got a permanent place there and I’ve docked alongside him for many years,” recalls Spence. “Years ago in Monaco, a ‘rival’ crew snuck on board in the night and altered the boat’s name using tape to Lion Fart.”
Spence said some yacht owners like French Riviera tourist spots because they like to show off their privilege. “You have this contradiction between yachts and the water affording seclusion against this want to see and be seen,” she explains. Tourists remind the super-rich of their money and rank. Yachts dock in Saint-Tropez with hundreds of people. Aft deck guests sit. Most of these persons are unknown to passersby. Not famous. There’s still awe when they land.”
Spence observed how a group of young men whose parents owned superyachts promoted this enthusiasm with their lifestyle. “Each night, they’d go to major clubs, like the VIP Rooms in Saint-Tropez or Gotha in Cannes, spend £5,000, £10,000 on a table and buy huge bottles of Dom Pérignon with sparklers,” she says. “A group of young women spends the day going from port to port, getting into these clubs and schmoozing these wealthy young men. Women board boats and request champagne on the top deck. “They’re all inebriated and you’re trying to explain at 3 am that stilettos aren’t allowed on board.”
uber-wealthy heirs may squander money on these hangers-on in Côte d’Azur clubs, but on their parents’ yachts, they alter. “On board, it’s the parent’s stack of wine—not it’s something to be handed away,” adds Spence. “The oldest son of one owner came down to ensure I was serving the cheapest champagne. You drop from old Dom to Veuve Clicquot—from 100 euros a bottle to 30 euros.”
Spence thinks the super-rich utilize yachts to limit access to outsiders. Some used maritime law to get rid of the clubgirls they brought home. They would sleep and order the yacht to depart port in the morning, knowing the crew would have to remove any stragglers before sailing. “In port, you can have as many people as you like, but at sea, you can only have 12 passengers unless you have large-yacht certification,” explains Spence. “The owner’s sons would just slink off to their staterooms leaving a few random women around the yacht. “It’s awkward when these individuals believe they’re going to remain and spend the week partying on a yacht and then they’re rudely booted off.”
Superyacht owners and crew share more than meets the eye. Spence believes the captain’s contacts, not the owner’s, secure the most prestigious position on the T-jetty, the first row of yachts on the Monaco Grand Prix race start line. “Knowing who to pay extra for the privilege. Crew links reflect the owner’s standing. Your skipper will have a greater chance of becoming a port leader if they know French and have worked in the industry for years.
Spence argues the entire industry is gendered. The inside crew is female and the deck crew masculine. Two female captains and two female chief stewards have been found in six years of industry investigation. Women retire because boat owners don’t want them inside after a certain age—late 30s and you’re out.
Most owners buy used superyachts from brokers and customize them. Camper & Nicholsons estimated 4,476 yachts above 30 metres worldwide, with 268 sold via brokers last year for $2.68bn (£2.18bn), or $10m each. They believe that 222 yachts over 30 metres have sold worldwide this year. Next, buy or commission a “series yacht” from a shipyard, which will have the same cabin configuration, exterior style, and machinery, but the owner will choose the furniture and furnishings. Naval architects create the upper tier, which takes years to build.
Eastern European billionaires and Gulf royals dominate the 100-meter-plus superyacht market, according to Monaco-based dealer Peter Thompson.
The super-wealth rich’s drives superyacht size. Knight Frank’s latest wealth study found 187,468 ultra-high-net-worth individuals globally, up 61% from 2005. Credit Suisse estimates that the number worth at least $100m jumped from 30,000 in 2010 to 44,900 in 2015, while those worth over $500m rose from 2,800 to 4,500.
“The client who 15 years ago would have been pleased with a 40-metre [yacht], which would then have been one of the largest yachts in the harbour, is today surrounded by dozens of yachts of 60-70 metres, and this plants the seed that he really ought to upgrade,” says luxury yacht broker Simon Goldsworthy of Camper & Nicholsons.
Infinity pools, helipads, theatres, dive rooms, and more can fit on a 60-metre yacht but not a 40-metre one due to innovative design. London-based superyacht designer Evan K Marshall says many of his clients’ ships are more expensive and more personalized than their residences. “There is healthy competition among friends who own vessels,” he explains. If someone says, “Oh, I’ve just ordered an 80-metre,” his friend will call his broker and say, “Listen, I’m thinking of building an 85-metre!” That’s great.”
Marshall’s most prolific client is Brooklyn automobile tycoon John Staluppi, who names his yachts after James Bond movies. He ordered the 66-metre Benneti superyacht Spectre last year. Thompson, who worked on several projects, said Staluppi gets a new superyacht every 18 months to three years, compared to a client average of five to seven years. “The first one I did was The World is Not Enough, then he sold it and bought Quantum of Solace, then Casino Royale, then Diamonds are Forever. Spectre and Skyfall are coming. He enjoys creating. He rarely travels. They’re his floating homes.”
Spence said many French Riviera boat owners alternate between living on board and in their luxury villas or mansions. “They would have a fully staffed home and the boat doing precisely the same thing, 20 minutes’ drive away. You’d both be on call, so you wouldn’t know when the owner would arrive at the house or boat. The home staff would call ahead to the boat, and the owners would arrive 10 minutes later with fresh towels and scented water.
In recent years, more superyacht owners and charterers, particularly those under 40, have gone beyond the “milk run” of Mediterranean resorts to isolated passages like the Arctic Northwest Passage, driving demand for designer icebreakers like the SeaExplorer range. William Mathieson, editorial director of the Superyacht Group, attributes this tendency for “expedition ships” to an emerging younger super-wealthy elite, from heirs to dotcom billionaires, “who desire to seek an elusive experience”. He thinks some owners will use it like a Chelsea tractor, while others will go on exotic trips.
Spence thinks this trend partly reflects yachting’s romanticized concepts of escapism and owners’ obsession with bragging rights.
She crewed aboard a yacht whose owners flew in at ports. “They would leave it in the Med, travel down to Mauritius, then fly back when it’s in India,” she explains. “It’s a floating hotel. They ate onboard and shopped.
Even if they never board, having a yacht in remote locations is a social statement. Even anchoring your yacht on the Thames is noticeable because it is far from the south of France where all the other yachts are.”
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