Superyachts: Luxury, Tranquillity and Ecocide 
by Grégory Salle.
Polity, 122 pp., £12.99, January, 978 1 5095 5995 4
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According​ to a gushing photo-essay published in Life magazine in 1969, Prince Karim Aga Khan was an ‘outrageously wealthy young man, written off by many as a mere playboy’, who had proved his critics wrong with a display of business acumen – a vast real-estate venture in Sardinia. Sailing across the Mediterranean on one of his yachts, the Aga Khan had fallen in love with its wind-eroded granite shorelines, pink sandy coves and velvety green waters. He and a few investor friends bought 38 miles of coast and 13,000 hectares of land from the daughters of peasants in the area (the sons inherited the more fertile inland plots), hired five architects and built a resort town, Porto Cervo, more easily reached by sea than by road. They called it Costa Smeralda, or the Emerald Coast.

The first building erected in the town of Porto Cervo was the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, which later moved to a marina behind a purpose-built breakwater. The Aga Khan, now 87, is still president of the board and oversees annual regattas at the yacht club sponsored by Rolex, Armani and other luxury brands. He owns several superyachts himself, all named after his favourite racehorses. The pride of the fleet is Alamshar, which is estimated to have cost £200 million to build. Powered by six gas turbine engines, it was intended to have a top speed of 65 knots, though the tabloids have relished the fact that engineering difficulties led to its being capped at ‘only’ 45 knots – which is still twice as fast as commercial freighters. The Aga Khan’s yachts are moored discreetly on various continents and are much featured in yachting magazines, often with the name of their owner omitted. Information about ownership can, however, be found in the pages of Tatler or on the message boards of Ismaili Muslims unhappy about their tithes being used to pay for the extravagant lifestyle of a man who is both their religious imam and the descendant of an aristocrat ennobled by both the Iranian and British monarchies.

The Aga Khan favours motor yachts, but another board member of the yacht club in Sardinia, a Sicilian lawyer by the name of Salvatore Trifirò, owns a glorious 33-metre sailing yacht called Ribelle (this might no longer be the case: the yacht was listed for sale last August at €16,500,000). Its carbon fibre and titanium hull was designed in the UK and built in a Dutch shipyard, with a teak and copper interior styled in Paris. Intended to be equally suited to cruising and racing, it won the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup regatta, along with multiple awards for both interior and exterior design. Unusually, photographs of it abound online. Most superyacht owners aren’t keen on giving photographers access to their living quarters, so we have to rely on snapshots of sweeping staircases, Louis XV furniture and marble fittings. Multibillionaires don’t tend to have great taste.

In a half-facetious account of social class in the United States in the early Reagan era, Paul Fussell – better known for his cultural histories of the First and Second World Wars – mapped yacht ownership onto position on the social ladder. ‘Because it’s the most expensive, yachting beats all other recreations as a theatre for upper-status exhibition. But certain inviolable principles apply. Sail is still far superior to power, partly because you can’t do it simply by turning an ignition key and steering – you have to be sort of to the manner [sic] born.’ For boats to be considered yachts, Fussell thought they should be at least 35 feet (or ten metres) long, and built in traditional fashion with wooden hulls and canvas sails.

Fussell wouldn’t have known what to make of the Aga Khan. He is firmly ensconced in the upper reaches of British aristocracy, but when it comes to yachts, he’s only interested in speed. The ten biggest yachts in the world are all motor yachts, all of them owned by Gulf royals or Russian oligarchs. In the Euro-snob stakes, both these groups are parvenus, so perhaps there is something to Fussell’s interpretation of sail as a signifier of true class.

The very biggest of these yachts, Azzam, commissioned in 2009 for more than half a billion dollars by the then president of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, is 180 metres long. That’s as long as the Gherkin skyscraper in London is tall, and longer than a Royal Navy destroyer. The owners of these behemoths compete to fit them out with the most fantastical amenities. In addition to the de rigueur cinema, swimming pool and gym, Azzam has a ‘golf training room’. The late Omani sultan’s 155-metre Al Said has a concert hall with room for a fifty-piece orchestra. Sheikh Muhammad al-Maktoum’s eponymous Dubai (162 metres) accommodates a disco and a squash court. At 134 metres, Serene, the yacht owned by the Saudi enfant terrible, Mohammed bin Salman, is only the 24th largest in the world, but like Dilbar, owned by the Uzbek-Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, it has two helipads. It also has a room where snow machines produce four inches of the white stuff on demand. It’s not clear what you’re supposed to do with such a room. (Bin Salman is reported to have kept Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi on the yacht while he was deciding what to do with it.)

Dilbar is among dozens of multimillion-pound yachts owned by Russian plutocrats loyal to Vladimir Putin that were targeted by the US Justice Department’s KleptoCapture task force, formed in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A great many of these Russian billionaires had wined and dined European and American leaders and officials. Peter Mandelson, then the EU trade commissioner, and George Osborne, the future chancellor, spent some time on the aluminium mogul Oleg Deripaska’s yacht Queen K off the coast of Corfu in 2008. Queen K, later renamed Clio and now renamed Altair, was in the Maldives when the sanctions arrangements began, and is currently safely harboured off the Turkish coast, where the US authorities can’t touch it. Roman Abramovich, who was forced to sell Chelsea Football Club after the war began, still owns the $600 million Eclipse, once the largest yacht in the world, also now safe in Marmaris. Deripaska’s former associate Len Blavatnik – who has a department at Oxford named after him and was knighted in 2017 – has recently upgraded from the $80 million Odessa II to the $350 million Shackleton. Shackleton is also safe – since, as Blavatnik’s representatives point out, he is both a British and a US citizen and so can’t be subject to sanctions, however he made his money.

The US did succeed in seizing superyachts owned by a number of Russian oligarchs, including Andrey Melnichenko, Andrey Guryev, Igor Sechin and Viktor Vekselberg. Many were stripped of their registry by the countries whose flag they fly – usually a Caribbean island with lax tax and regulatory regimes. Other Russians who appeared on the sanctions list, like Deripaska, succeeded in moving their boats to friendlier shores. Seychelles, the Maldives and Dubai have all become safe havens for yachts designated by the US as ‘blocked property’. This means that they can’t use US-owned maintenance businesses, employ US crews or conduct their business in dollars.

Impounding superyachts has caused the US some headaches. In February, Reuters reported that the Amadea, a seized yacht allegedly belonging to Suleiman Kerimov, owner of Russia’s biggest gold-mining company, Polyus, costs $7 million a year to maintain. The Justice Department’s plan to auction it off is being challenged in the courts by Eduard Khudainatov, ex-CEO of Rosneft and not on the sanctions list, who claims that he in fact owns the boat. The Italian media have suggested that Khudainatov may technically also be the owner of the 140-metre, $700 million Scheherazade, impounded in May 2022 by port authorities in Tuscany. Scheherazade is also sometimes referred to as ‘Putin’s boat’, or (according to the FBI) as ‘linked to Putin’ – the assumption being that Khudainatov or whoever has his name on its papers is a ‘straw owner’. When reporters from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty recently tried to film the yacht up close, the crew, still on board, sent a surveillance drone after them. The legal status of Amadea and Scheherazade is difficult to ascertain, thanks to the complex offshore shell companies that hide beneficial ownership. In other words, the offshore corporate registration system encouraged by global capital is doing what it was designed to do: protecting the assets of billionaires.

The number and size of yachts is a crude measure of inequality in the world. Even now, 24 per cent of the world’s superyachts – defined as a pleasure craft more than thirty metres long – are owned by citizens of the United States. The more money the owner has, the more likely they are to get authorities to do their bidding. In Superyachts, Grégory Salle tells the story that the Labour mayor of Rotterdam contemplated partially disassembling the historic De Hef bridge to allow Jeff Bezos’s $500 million sailing yacht Koru to travel from an upstream shipyard out to sea. Only the public outcry put a stop to the plan. Instead, the 127-metre boat was carried on a barge from Zwijndrecht to just downstream of the bridge, where the masts, the tallest of which is estimated to be 85 metres high, were stepped (installed into the hull). The sails are so vast that there was no room for a helipad. So, like a number of other large sailing yachts, Koru has a support vessel, the 75-metre Abeona, which has its own helipad and helicopter hangar, and can accommodate 45 crew members and guests. Having a shadow vessel also means you have, in the words of Boat International, ‘the world’s largest floating toybox’. The support vessel follows Koru around the world carrying jet skis, speedboats, waterslides, mini-submarines and other items of maritime entertainment, while the sailing yacht – as Fussell recommended – maintains a pristine pretence of sporting prowess.

Superyacht sales increased by 46 per cent in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the very rich looked to escape lockdown at sea. Two years ago the New York Times reported that shipyards were ‘struggling to keep up: the order book for superyachts is full until 2025’ – you would now be looking at a date closer to the end of the decade. Most of the American plutocrats who own yachts accumulated their billions in familiar business sectors: logistics, finance, real estate, technology, entertainment and pharmaceuticals. Bezos is the king of logistics and technology; the queen of logistics, the Walmart heiress Ann Walton, owns the largest US-built motor yacht since the 1930s, Aquila. Yacht-owners on the East Coast include hedge fund managers and real estate tycoons and berth their boats in Miami, close to the Caribbean yachting destinations where many also discreetly own private islands. On the West Coast, the yacht-owning Hollywood moguls David Geffen and Steven Spielberg are joined by tech billionaires including Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Alphabet’s Sergey Brin and his former colleague Eric Schmidt. Microsoft’s Paul Allen owned one, as does Charles Simonyi. The tech-bros have grown their businesses courtesy of handsome government contracts and lavish state subsidies, so their superyachts are paid for not just by the labour of those who work in the sector, but also by the average taxpayer.

Billionaires have always been keen to escape from the hoi polloi: to heavily securitised compounds, private islands, exclusive ranches and hunting grounds, ski chalets and beach houses, offshore havens, on private jets or superyachts. As long ago as 1919, Nikolai Bukharin diagnosed this tendency as caused by ‘the fear of impending social catastrophes’. Peter Thiel of Palantir provided seed capital for the Seasteading Institute, founded by Milton Friedman’s grandson, which aims to establish seaborne ‘communities’ in international waters, outside the reach of national laws. The institute’s tagline is ‘opening humanity’s next frontier’. Billionaires experiment with escaping from regulation, taxes and scrutiny, but also from the everyday – yachts are only the beginning. Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans to colonise Mars, though, as with much that Musk promises, this may largely be bluster intended to bilk investors and treasuries of money. In July 2021 two pilots flew Richard Branson and a few of his employees on a Virgin Galactic spacecraft towards the Kármán Line, considered to be the edge of space. Virgin Galactic plans to sell seats on its spacecraft for £360,000. A few days after Branson’s trip, Bezos flew ten miles higher on a rocket launched by his commercial space travel company, Blue Origin. Accompanying him was the teenage son of the head of a Dutch private equity fund, who paid millions for the seat.

The other playground is deep under the ocean. Last year, Stockton Rush took his submersible Titan down to the wreck of the Titanic, more than two miles below the surface of the North Atlantic. Rush was practically American aristocracy, with two ancestors who had signed the Declaration of Independence and a grandfather who had been a director of Standard Oil of California when it hit oil in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. Rush founded his company OceanGate to take the super-rich on underwater adventures, often to shipwrecks: the Titanic was the big prize. This time, the submersible, which had suffered material fatigue at its seams, imploded. Among the final voyagers, along with Rush, was one of Pakistan’s richest men and his 19-year-old son.

At the height of the Gilded Age, Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class described expensive sports – epitomes of conspicuous consumption – as ‘activities deliberately entered upon with a view to gaining repute for prowess’. Sports with high capital outlays educate sportsmen with ‘arrested spiritual development’ in the virtues of economic value. Veblen names bullfighting, shooting and yachting as models for capitalist conquest, based as they are on the competitive planting of flags. One can imagine nerdy crypto billionaires revelling in the unfamiliar machismo their yachts allow them to display. But yachting as a metaphysics of affluence is also much more mundane. These sleek machines still produce emissions and rubbish. And lives below deck mirror the class politics of the much less glamorous service industry on land.

Very few crew members are employed directly by the yacht owners whose boats they maintain. Often only the yacht’s captain is a long-term employee of the billionaire, a bit like an estate manager at sea. The other crew members face short contracts and precarious employment without any benefits. Since the yachts winter in the Caribbean and summer in the Mediterranean, recruitment agencies hire people to sail the boats across the Atlantic while the owners fly over in their private jets. Just as on a cruise ship, the majority of crew members aren’t in charge of navigation or maintenance but are hospitality workers, preparing and serving food, dispensing massages, spa treatments and entertainment, cleaning and housekeeping. The old/new money divide – or the European/American chasm – that distinguishes types of owners has its own effect on the crew. The New York Times quoted a former yachtie on the difference: ‘The Europeans don’t know your name. You’re just there to serve them. Americans want to be your friend, they want to know where you went to college and they want to buy you drinks. Then they want you to work eighteen hours a day and tend to their six kids.’

A hundred years ago, D.H. Lawrence called the stretch of land that runs along the eastern coast of Sardinia ‘forsaken, forgotten, not included’. The difference between the extravagant lives of the yachting class and the people who serve them in the hotels, restaurants and clubs of Porto Cervo – and Korčula and Valletta and Eleuthera and Dubai and Mustique and St Barts and Keppel Bay – remains stark. In a 1964 interview with Sports Illustrated, the Aga Khan saw Porto Cervo as a place of escape: ‘Eventually Porto Cervo will be one of the finest ports in the world, and civilised, too. I mean, nobody will throw tomatoes at the boats, anchor lines won’t get tangled and a yachtsman will not feel he is an animal in a zoo.’ But perhaps Derek Walcott’s description of these places is more apt: ‘new plantations/by the sea; a slavery without chains, with no blood spilt –/just chain-link fences and signs, the new degradations’.

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Vol. 46 No. 11 · 6 June 2024

Laleh Khalili quotes Paul Fussell: ‘Sail is still far superior to power, partly because you can’t do it simply by turning an ignition key and steering – you have to be sort of to the manner [sic] born’ (LRB, 9 May). The sic is wrong, Fussell falsely accused. ‘To the manner born’ is from Hamlet: ‘though I am native here/And to the manner born, it is a custom/More honoured in the breach than the observance.’ The eggcorn ‘to the manor born’ is, although sometimes seen, less correct except when referring to the title of a late 1970s BBC sitcom.

Benjamin Letzler
Mödling, Austria

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