If you are rich but lack recognition, there is a saying: become a politician, build an art collection, or buy a yacht.
But what if you’d prefer to drop anchor without dropping $50m? Then you might hope to score an invite on a floating paradise instead. Unless you plan on rocketing into outer space with Elon Musk or Richard Branson, there is no more extravagant experience than sunning on vast decks, with only the sound of whipping wind and the bow slamming against the wake.
I’ve been a guest a couple of times, and I have learned there are manners to display, moods to gauge, maxims to follow. Most important of all: ask not what the party can do for you, but what you can do for the party.
My first invite was a whopper. A girlfriend asked me to accompany her for cocktails on the Serene, one of the largest yachts in the world, shortly after it was first launched. (Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman has since purchased the mega-yacht, whereupon his captain ran it aground in the Red Sea like a wayward rowboat.) As I click-clacked my heels up the gangway of the 134-metre vessel, I noted it was docked on the west side of Manhattan in a slip usually occupied by the Carnival Cruise Line, whose ships boast over 1,800 cabins.
Up an elevator, I touched the red, bumpy alligator skin lining the walls. The chief stewardess assured me it was real. Through an unending hallway that reminded me of The Shining, I peeked into the spa with massage rooms, sauna and ice cave — complete with stalactites and stalagmites. Past a pizza oven, a teppanyaki grill, two helipads, and an indoor climbing wall, we finally reached the cocktail area. A silver tub the size of a mop bucket filled with glistening black caviar welcomed us. At that point, a Branson rocket launch to Saturn seemed positively thrifty.
The Serene reportedly cost Bill Gates $5m a week to lease. But your potential host could charter a 45-metre boat for a mere $200,000 a week (excluding fuel, food, booze and tips), or a 75-metre model for about $700,000. Alternatively, if their family happened to discover the mobile phone, they might buy one of these monoliths for $30m-$100m.
The new trend among the regulars: a chase boat that follows the big yacht with those crucial-for-survival toys. It holds the helicopter, fishing boats and a convertible in case you want to drive the hills of Ischia. It is also where you will find the submarine.
If your host is a married lothario, a more covert boat may also follow, populated with models and striptease poles. If the husband tells his family he’s out fishing, you can guess otherwise if he comes back with no catch and an unusually contented glow.
Everywhere you’ll find objects branded with the name of the boat: hats, T-shirts, toiletry bags, even the face mist in one’s cabin. Use them on the “beach” of the main boat: sides that flip open with umbrellas and lounge chairs near the stern, alongside a freshwater swimming pool attended by a staff who alternate between serving drinks and folding your fresh-pressed laundry in tissue paper every time you drop your trunks on the floor. Remember the staff’s names: you’ll find them listed with photos in your cabin. Your host will award you points in the who-gets-to-come-back-next-summer algorithm.
The most significant yachts are often packed with art collections that rival small museums. Don’t pop a champagne cork near the Picasso or, as one family did, allow your children to throw the cornflakes on the Basquiat because they found it scary.
Remember, you are a hostage to your host’s desires. As I learnt as a guest in St Barts one Christmas, you must boat-hop with glee: cocktails on a neighbour’s yacht is part of the daily drill. A dawn hike on the Amalfi Coast? (Barry Diller apparently likes his guests to accompany him as a rule.) You must smile exuberantly as you fumble with your shoelaces in the early morning darkness by the edge of the gangway (no shoes allowed onboard, ever). After a boozy lunch, a siesta all your body can do, your host may suggest a jaunt on the jet skis. You slap on the sunscreen, jump on, and twist that accelerator like Mad Max out of Armageddon.
“You spend all your energy anticipating what your host wants,” explains one frequent guest, “and you even suggest to them things you know they want to do, even if you must overcome a severe case of claustrophobia.” The submarine? Love it!
The Wet Set have codes for announcing their waterlogged whereabouts on social media, so pay heed. Faux modesty is booming on Instagram, so for a self-aggrandising selfie, lean on a tell-tale terry cloth cushion against the chrome side rail with the glistening sea behind you.
David Geffen may be the most unabashed curator of coveted guests. He posts his visitors regularly on his Instagram — no logic in pretending he doesn’t own his 138-metre Rising Sun (which reportedly cost $200m to build). On his feed, you’ll find photos of Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom, Jeff Bezos and his new girlfriend Lauren Sánchez, alongside more patrician Wall Street types such as Lloyd Blankfein and Henry and Marie-Josée Kravis.
As I looked out at sea that Christmas in St Barts, an Aperol Spritz that I didn’t ask for placed in my hand, I realised yachting life is a study in opposites. The goal each day: either private insulation or public notoriety. Privilege means clawing your way to the top until you are alone in a vast cabin on your mega-yacht, sealed as tightly as a porthole. Then, without warning, your host wants to boat hop for some bubbly Cristal, and everyone posts a selfie to prove it.
Holly Peterson is a journalist and author of ‘It’s Hot in the Hamptons — A Novel’
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