July 29, 2011 11:33 pm

Sea monsters

Excess and bling, yes, but superyachts are also feats of engineering and craftsmanship

The other Kate’s wedding this summer was – of course – Moss’s. And without such intense media scrutiny as her namesake or the need for public accountability, she could honeymoon where she liked. It had to be exclusive; it had to be an escape from the paparazzi; it had to be special – so where better than on Sir Philip Green’s Lionheart, his 63-metre yacht?

Possession of a superyacht signifies that you’ve entered the big league – you’re in or close to the Forbes 500. It allows you to float, on your seafaring home, where you will – in Moss’s case, through a crystal-clear Mediterranean taking in Portofino, the south of France and Corsica.

Any self-respecting billionaire must be in possession of a yacht – the larger the better. Roman Abramovich has four, and his most recent seaworthy one is the 170m Eclipse, which cost £685m to build. It has nine decks, a cinema and a mini-submarine – the holiday “essentials”. The master suite comes complete with a sliding roof so the occupants can sleep under the stars. There’s also a paparazzi shield that deflects photographers’ lenses and flashes.

It makes previous superyachts look small by comparison. Larry Ellison’s Rising Sun started life at 120m in the planning stages but by the time it was launched it was 138m. Rumour has it that this was to trump Paul Allen of Microsoft’s Octopus, which stretched to 126m. Ellison’s yacht was designed with a trophy room for the express purpose of housing the America’s Cup; the yacht hit the seas in 2004 but it was six years until the trophy was claimed.

There is an attitude among some yacht owners that bigger is better and these superyachts can resemble supertankers as they lurch through the high seas – crossing from the Med to the Caribbean as the season dictates. A full tank of diesel can cost £300,000. It’s no wonder that some leave their yachts in harbour; it is said that Paul Allen’s yacht remains docked in Cap d’Antibes with its master on board because the cost of fuel is so prohibitive.

A super yacht

Eos, owned by Diane von Furstenberg

There is a sense of showmanship in yacht design. Andrey and Aleksandra Melnichenko commissioned Philippe Starck to create the interior of their all-white A (named after Aleksandra). There are three Perspex swimming pools that light up at night. Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg’s Eos is, at 93m, one of the largest sailing boats in the world, with the tallest mast. It pays homage to the old school of sailing, the days of Onassis and Agnelli, when style ruled. In that mould, designers such as Armani and Valentino hold the Italian flame for style with their boats. Armani’s Main is all pared-down minimalism. The crew are required to change three times a day into Armani-designed uniforms and the teak and aluminium-lined decks are kept immaculate. This is aesthetic perfection and Armani admits that it’s the most financially indulgent of his 10 homes. For flamboyance, the name of the Dolce & Gabbana yacht – Regina d’Italia – says it all.

Designers flock to work on yachts to create something distinctive – the über-chic French designer Christian Liaigre has had several yacht commissions. This is one side of the story. The other is the innovative engineering that builders of yachts help develop. The godfather of yacht design was Jon Bannenberg, the go-to designer for the very rich from the 1970s until his death in 2002. He was a master of taste and an all-round aesthete who understood the engineering of superyachts. Bannenberg‘s enthusiasm, passion, talent and ability to encourage those around him – from client to shipyard worker – represented all that was best about the world of yachts.

His business is now headed by his son Dickie and creative director Simon Rowell. They are well aware of the image of bling and excess that has become synonymous with superyachts, and lament that the craftsmanship, the generations of skilled artisans, the design work and the architecture of yachts are overlooked. It is the sensational stories of celebrity guests and expenditure of vast sums of money that generate the most interest.

Rowell explains the contribution shipyards make to the “cutting-edge of all manner of engineering, from glass and electronics to propulsion and paint”. He recalls a recent launch of one of their superyachts when the young son of the owner crawled all over the massive sculpted coffee tables, created by Bannenberg & Rowell with Silverlining furniture designers, in jeans and a zipped top. The tables came to no harm due to the nanotechnology that had been used to create scratch-resistant surfaces.

“To have an industry that simultaneously drives forward, crosses over and utilises technological advances while marrying them to the finest traditions in craftsmanship and handed-down knowhow is an often overlooked benefit for all associated businesses,” Rowell says. “It’s also proven to be something to which the ‘old world’ has managed to turn its hand rather well, a source of national pride for those involved, myself included.”

So who is buying and commissioning these yachts, and where are they going? The Greeks helped set the trend for yachting, as it provided them with the perfect excuse to discover their unspoilt islands in the 1960s. These islands have now geared themselves up to mass tourism; one suspects the prices go up when the islanders spot the arrival of a yacht, and why not? In the 1970s it was Europeans who were largely commissioning and the 1980s and 1990s were dominated primarily by the Americans and Gulf states. The noughties were the decade of the Russians and former Soviet Union – pushing the price, length and fuel consumption to increasingly profligate levels. There remains the middle market, although tens of millions are required to purchase a mid-size yacht. And then there are the running costs which are – as a rule of thumb – approximately 10 per cent of the purchase price. This is not a pastime for anyone but the ultra-rich.

Another option is to rent and most yacht owners, however wealthy, charter out their boats. The average time spent on board for an owner and their family is rarely more than four weeks a year, so it’s fiscal insanity not to charter out your yacht for the remainder. Edmiston is one of the leading yachting brokers, with offices in London, Dubai, Moscow and elsewhere. As a general rule you could rent a 46m yacht that sleeps 12 and has a crew of eight for about $200,000 per week. It’s a lot cheaper than buying and puts me in mind of an American millionaire who once cautioned, “If it flies or floats, rent it.” Prince Stas Radziwill – a regular on the Agnelli yacht – used to say one should never spend more than 10 days on a yacht, and ideally no more than a week. The cruising grounds of St Tropez and Sardinia are firmly on the summer map. A habitué of St Tropez’ Le Club 55 complained to me that it is now impossible to swim in the sea outside the restaurant due to “the tankers” that perch there. Other favourite destinations are Portofino, the Greek and Croatian islands, the Amalfi coast and Aeolian islands. In winter the Caribbean still reigns supreme, with St Barts being particularly popular. Brazil, with its stunning coastline and new-found affluence, is also entering the market.

Superyachts have a tough press and perhaps they deserve it. They’re seen as the ultimate symbol of conspicuous consumption. They are, however, the ideal travelling villa, with all the luxuries of the most decadent of private homes. The expense is unquestionably enormous but what a holiday: docking in Corsica one night before sailing through the Mediterranean down to Sardinia the next, then on to Capri and the Amalfi. The choices and destinations are endless and it’s the perfect way to see a coastline. Being on the sea, the privacy, the escape, gazing at the stars in the clearest of skies – there’s an enormous allure and it can get in the blood. The design and engineering aspects, the skill and craftsmanship, the dedication that yards and designers demonstrate in order to create sculptures for the sea are something to celebrate. Whether we celebrate every owner of every superyacht is another question.

Properties to park your yacht next to

Every yacht eventually needs to dock and, should a life of luxury on the water ever prove too tedious, there is a range of homes that can serve the landlubber at heart. Here are a few properties close to places you can park your superyacht.

In Glyfada, Greece, €24m will buy you a villa looking out over the marina (through Christie’s) in one of Athens’ swankiest suburbs. A stroll away is an array of cafés and boutiques.

A six-bedroom house, with its own modest mooring and the encouraging name of The Lighthouse is in Jolly Harbour, Antigua. Complete with its own patch of beach, it is on sale for $3.3m (Savills), with space for proper yachts in the terminal just across the other side of the harbour.

Overlooking the Vineyard Haven Harbour in Martha’s Vineyard, a seven-bedroom house has vast views of the coast and marina. A maintained and modernised 1840s Greek revival classic, it costs $2.2m (Sotheby’s).

The glamour of superyachts is intrinsically linked with the south of France, where Monte Carlo Star is available in the Carré d’Or area for €13.5m (Knight Frank). The duplex apartment has views of the waterfront with superyacht docking at the Hercules Port. Jiten Karia

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