Europe: Spanish tycoons chip in to keep their king at sea in some style

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Spain's royals, like their British counterparts, have a problem with their clapped-out yacht. But for King Juan Carlos, help may be at hand. Elizabeth Nash reports.

King Juan Carlos yesterday welcomed to the Zarzuela Palace near Madrid a delegation of Spanish businessmen who want to buy him a new yacht to replace his much-loved but ageing Fortuna. The 25 entrepreneurs from the Balearics have set up a Cultural Tourism Fund to raise 3bn pesetas (pounds 13m) for the purpose in appreciation of the King's help in boosting the image of their islands.

The royal family holiday every year in their summer palace, Marivent, on Mallorca, where the Fortuna, given to the King in 1979 by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, is usually moored. It has provided countless photo-opportunities for visiting dignitaries from Diana, Princess of Wales to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The businessmen want to order the new craft to be made ready for the summer of 1999. It will be constructed on the lines of one built for the king in 1992 but which for reasons of economy he declined. The shipyard was owned by Banesto bank, whose boss, Mario Conde, tried to give the yacht to the King as a present. But he declined the offer from the man who was shortly to be sacked in disgrace, and who is on trial for fraud.

Unlike Britain's royals, who are awaiting a decision on what will be done with the Britannia, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia have no private fortune of their own. They must be tempted by an offer, backed by the islands' regional authorities, that seems unlikely to arouse controversy.

The tycoons are mostly men from humble beginnings who have in 30 years made fortunes from the economic revolution that transformed the islands of Mallorca, Minorca, Ibiza, Formentera and Cabrera into one of world's most popular tourist destinations. Their leader, Gabriel Barcelo, who runs a hotel chain, started as a busdriver.

Fortuna has suffered a number of embarrassing mechanical failures in its 18-year history. Perhaps the worst moment for the King was in 1988, when, with the Prince of Wales on board, the yacht had to be towed into the Mallorcan port of Soller by two fishing boats. In 1995 Fortuna had to withdraw from the King's Cup regatta after a propeller fault caused an explosion in the engine room.