I once boarded a superyacht, the personal cruise ship favoured by billionaires. The yacht, later extended to include a glass-bottomed pool and 15 cabins, was owned by Ron Perelman, the cosmetics tycoon, although he had not invited me to join him — it was the venue for a trade show party in Cannes.
Perelman placed the yacht on which we sipped our drinks up for sale at €90mn two years ago, along with various of his properties and works of art. “For far too long, I have been holding on to too many things that I don’t use, or even want . . . It’s time for me to clean house, simplify, and give others the chance,” he reflected.
He is sailing against the tide. The FT reported this week that Credit Suisse has lent more than $1bn to ultra-rich clients to buy their own yachts (what it called “luxury toys”, in an investor pitch). A private boat builder in the Netherlands is making a 127m sailing yacht with three masts for Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, which is so tall it may require part of a bridge in Rotterdam to be dismantled on its route to the open sea.
The pandemic briefly dented the superyacht business but it has bounced back rapidly — about 1,000 yachts are on order or being built this year, according to the trade publication Boat International. “The last two years have been crazy. It has been harder to find boats than clients,” says Sybil Napolitano, owner of Peritas International, a London-based yacht charter agency.
I wonder why, sometimes. Eight or nine figures is a lot to pay for a luxurious, but often blandly furnished, floating hotel that will require expensive upkeep. Gazing out in summer from a Mediterranean beach at all the superyachts anchored offshore, it looks like a complicated way to relax.
Then consider the angry local reaction to the news that Rotterdam might agree to the request to take down temporarily part of the Koningshaven Bridge, at Bezos’s expense. One Facebook group has formed to organise a protest at the bridge and throw eggs at his $500mn boat as it goes by.
When David Geffen, the entertainment billionaire, blithely posted on Instagram in March 2020 that he was “isolating in the Grenadines avoiding the virus” on his superyacht Rising Sun, he provoked outrage and had to go silent. It sounded too much like boasting that he had sailed far away from other people’s troubles.
That is the superyacht’s paradoxical appeal: the less popular the display of wealth, the more desirable the boat. If you want to travel beyond the reach of egg-throwers, paparazzi or even onlookers, it offers an ocean domain. A Russian oligarch can place his security guards and helicopter on a support vessel moored nearby.
“Elites reshape their environment through the physical and symbolic power they exert over space,” one research study of rich holidaymakers in St Tropez concluded. Expensive beach clubs offer one way to take part in the “aristocratic parade” without becoming over exposed to gawkers, but a superyacht is the ultimate means of controlling your visibility.
Most superyachts now provide “toys and tenders”. The former are jet skis and seabob water scooters on which guests can speed around noisily, having ostentatious fun. The latter are dinghies and water taxis for them to take trips to flashy waterfront restaurants and clubs before escaping to sea again.
Napolitano says only a minority of her charter clients, typically paying €250,000 a week rent, are “party people” who drop anchor at St Tropez, Mykonos or Ibiza. The rest are families who want to be as invisible and inviolate as possible, often taking a helicopter out to a yacht and then nosing around coves in the Aeolian or Balearic Islands.
But even a billionaire likes to be seen sometimes and Geffen’s Instagram account still shows his past superyacht holidays. Here he is off Mallorca with Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom; “having a great time in the Balearics” with Bezos and Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs’ former chair; and eating an “incredible lunch” at a restaurant on the Amalfi coast with Paul McCartney.
Look carefully and you see not just a rich man displaying his possessions but one who is patently enjoying himself. It is not only the scenery and sea, but the joy of hosting others, albeit from an elite circle. Geffen fought a long legal battle to limit access to the public beach in front of his Malibu home before settling, but has no problem controlling who boards his superyacht.
A “Giffen good” is what Victorian economists called a staple that the poor spent more on as its price rose in order to live, and perhaps a superyacht is a Geffen good. I define the latter as a super luxury on which the wealthy splash out as they become richer so they can share it with celebrities.
Even that has limits. The bigger the superyacht, the more of the ocean or Mediterranean marina it occupies: every neighbourhood eventually gets overcrowded. Perelman put his own boat up for sale during a personal liquidity crunch, but he was right to celebrate his release. Superyacht owners have a lot to take on board.