Setting sail: the boat built specially for billionaires

Mirabella V cost &Acirc;&pound;30m, has the largest sails on the seas and is finally ready for charter, six months behind schedule. <i>Jonathan Brown </i>reports on a yacht designed for the world's richest tourists
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The Independent Online

Aspiring sailors are often taunted with the jibe that taking to the water is akin to standing in a cold shower with all your clothes on while ripping up five-pound notes. But try telling that to Joe Vittoria.

Aspiring sailors are often taunted with the jibe that taking to the water is akin to standing in a cold shower with all your clothes on while ripping up five-pound notes.

But try telling that to Joe Vittoria.

This Saturday his Mirabella V - the world's largest single-masted yacht - will begin its maiden voyage, leaving Portsmouth for Portugal, from where it will continue to the Mediterranean to pick up its first charter. It will be a welcome departure for the £30m sloop which has been earning unwanted headlines in recent months.

Nearly six months late, the Mirabella V has missed the first two major dates on the European yachting season: the Cannes Film Festival and the Monaco Grand Prix, where the world's wealthiest sailors indulge in the international art of nautical one-upmanship.

The project over ran its budget by £5.4m, hitting its builders Vosper Thornycroft (VT) which signed fixed contracts with the wiley Mr Vittoria - a matter he says is strictly for them and not for him. The American-born entrepreneur who built and sold the Avis rental car chain, is sanguine about the delays. It is said the reason why his luxury yacht failed to make it to Monaco in time was because his wife Luciana was unhappy with the floral arrangements on board. It was a nice story. After the requisite rare orchids were ordered the 68-year-old marketing-master conceded: "The boat is virtually ready, it is only silly things causing the delay. I'm partly to blame and so is my wife."

It put the project back in the news.

Yesterday, as Mr Vittoria revealed the finished yacht to the world's media, he was again in a positive mood. A week on his sloop will cost £140,000 per week for the low season rising to £150,000 for the high season.

To break even, he must find holidaymakers able and willing to find that sort of money for 14-15 weeks of the year. If he can book for 20 weeks he will "make a little money" above his running costs of £1.4m-£1.7m a year.

"There are 497 billionaires in the world and I need just 20 of them," he is fond of saying when asked how he will make such an extravagant venture turn a profit.

Mr Vittoria insists he never reveals the names of his clients. He already successfully charters two other 130ft plus yachts, Mirabella and Mirabella III - he sold Mirabella II and decided to skip Mirabella IV - and is highly regarded within the charter sailing industry.

While celebrities and big business leaders obviously form a part of his business plan he says he never knows who is on board until they are afloat.

"When I know names it normally means they are gone," he said. He believes luxury yachts are not a ready target for terrorists and says Americans, often reticent to go abroad in times of war, at the moment feel comfortable on board luxury charters.

The typical profile of a Mirabella V sailor, he says, is "a successful business person, who may have created a business and sold it. Someone who is seriously well off but not just on paper."

And he believes what he offers is value for money: He added: "There are plenty of people out there who will spend £1m on a holiday - there are too many resorts and places with private flights that end up that type of money."

So what exactly will you get for that sort of money? The yachting world has been reporting in increasing tones of awe on the development of the Mirabella V - the last to be constructed at the VT yard at Woolston, Southampton.

The yacht is big, and for a sail boat it is awesome. From the tip of its mast to the base of its keel it stretches to a distance twice that of Nelson's Column. The mighty mast stands 50 per cent taller than any other mast built - making its sails (as big as a football pitch) the largest in the world - and required six months of rigorous testing at the National Physics Laboratory in London to bring it up to the required standard.

Its length is 247ft and at top speed can reach a respectable 20 knots - making it a boat that will appeal to the enthusiast as well as those sailors of the gin and tonic variety.

It had been suggested the yacht would sail up the Thames to Greenwich's National Maritime Museum but was unable to navigate the Queen Elizabeth II bridge at Dartford, over which thunders traffic on the M25.

The maiden voyage will take in Naples, the home town of Mr Vittoria's wife, where the crew will undergo familiarisation training. Yesterday she said: "I am a perfectionist. For me the details are very important, I notice every little thing but the Mirabella V has lived up to what I expected."

Builders VT employed technology from the Grand Prix and aerospace industries to create the yacht. It was created in five sections and then bonded together. VT project director Rob Carr said: "Designed and built in three years, Mirabella V is a landmark ship in all respects and the experience VT Shipbuilding has gained from this project will shape the way we do business in the future."

Despite its vast size, it is the add-ons, the "toys", as Mr Vittoria puts it, that add the waft of luxury. There are 12 teak and fabric-lined cabins for the guests as well as a sumptuous state room for the yacht's master - the chief charterer or Mr Vittoria and his wife when they are on board.

There is a pool and a jacuzzi - with room for 20 people - while guests can gather round on the skydeck to take the helm or take in a film at the outdoor cinema. For the connoisseur, there is a 600-bottle wine cellar, for the film buff, a second cinema, and a gymnasium and sauna for the keep-fit enthusiast.

Mrs Vittoria has imported silks from specialist museum supplier Antico in Italy for the decor as well as decked out the lavish interior with antique furniture, topped with Cristofle cutlery, Bagni Volpi sheets and table linen from Italy.

The rest of the action takes place in what has been dubbed "Joe's garage". This area contains a 29ft tender - essential because Mirabella V will be too big to moor in most docks. Mr Vittoria points out: "If I've learned one thing it's that you have to move your guests quickly but, importantly, comfortably, without wrecking the hairdos."

The Mirabella V is a floating watersports centre with diving gear, water skis and inflatables. For real sailing nuts there are also four small Laser racing dinghies and, bizarrely, two 1.5m miniature remote controlled replicas of the Mirabella V for a gentler workout.

The yacht is being launched into a buoyant economy and analysts are confident that this summer's Mediterranean cruising season will be the best yet. They are hoping the same will follow when the yachting world decamps to the Caribbean in October for the winter cruising season. Mirabella V has already been booked for a month over the Christmas and New Year period.

Andrew Bray, editor of Yachting World, said: "Big boats are not just buoyant, they are booming. People out there with money want to spend £10m-£15m on a boat. It is the super-rich that are powering this boom."

The market, both for the sale and hire of boats, is being boosted by the growing presence of the Russians, who have been big players in the charter world for nearly a decade. Roman Abramovich, the Russian oil magnate and owner of Chelsea Football Club, is expecting to take delivery of his third yacht, Ecstasea, this year. But it is the Americans who control the biggest wallets and with it the biggest boats.

Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, became the first person in 2003 to own three private yachts measuring more than 200ft. His flagship is the 413ft Octopus, which is swathed in secrecy and is thought to have cost £113m. But Mr Allen is facing stiff opposition as admiral of the fleet from another computing tycoon.

Oracle's chief executive, Larry Ellison, has commissioned a 460ft vessel - also his third yacht. The whisper is that it will be called Rising Sun and will be launched by the end of 2004.

Analysts say the yachts are part of a revolution in the industry in recent years. There are more and more luxury yachts, growing ever bigger and increasingly sumptuous.

Nick Heming of Camper & Nicholsons, one of the world's leading brokers and charterers, said the only way was up. "The sky is the limit. You have clients who are earning millions of pounds a year and they will continue to stretch the boundaries. There is always something new coming into the market - something bigger and better. If you are rich you always want something more."