Keeping up with the Abramoviches

It's the ultimate prize for the billionaire who has everything: the world's biggest, most luxurious yacht. No wonder the $200m 'Rising Sun' is being linked with Britain's richest man. Jonathan Brown reports
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A new topic of conversation is being traded across the dinner tables and sun loungers of the international super rich: who is going to buy the world's largest and most luxurious yacht?

A new topic of conversation is being traded across the dinner tables and sun loungers of the international super rich: who is going to buy the world's largest and most luxurious yacht?

Owned by Larry Ellison, the alpha-male chief executive of the Californian computer giant Oracle, the 138-metre mega-yacht Rising Sun is up for sale with a price tag in excess of $200m. One name that is being linked as a possible purchaser is Lakshmi Mittal, the Indian steel magnate, who is Britain's richest man with an estimated personal fortune of £1.48bn.

The sale of such vessels is shrouded in secrecy; all parties enter into strict confidentiality agreements once the deal is in progress. But the rumours are rife - especially when the sale concerns a yacht that emerged from the builder's shed amid huge excitement only last summer. It will never be formally advertised - the potential number of buyers is too small. World of mouth is all it takes. But sources within the yachting world have confirmed that Rising Sun is on the market.

The sale is being handled by a brokerage in Fort Lauderdale, Florida - the capital of the superyacht world. The reason for the yacht's sale is that it is simply too big to berth at non-commercial marinas and is costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in port fees. Potential buyers are warned that yachts cost 10 per cent of the original price each year to keep afloat once maintenance, crew salaries, docking fees and fuel are paid for.

Not that Mr Ellison, 61, is short of money. He has regularly played nip and tuck for number one spot with Bill Gates in the Forbes magazine rich list. He has owned three private jets and seven boats and challenged unsuccessfully for the America's Cup in 2003. He also owns a $150m Japanese-themed home outside San Francisco.

According to one yachting insider: "If he can find a buyer he will sell it. The reason he is selling it is that he cannot berth it. He can't go close to the shore to anchor it. This means the guests can't play around on their toys or go ashore." This can represent difficulties during high- profile wealth-fests such as the Monaco Grand Prix when being seen is all.

Mr Ellison - a man who insists life is about the pursuit of happiness rather than money - is said to have already lavished more than $270m building his dream. A considerable portion of this was spent extending Rising Sun by 18 metres to make it the world's largest yacht. The extra length forced the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Octopus, into second position in a nautical game of "mine's bigger than your's".

It is not unusual for brand-new yachts to change owners quickly. The very rich can find greater pleasure in putting projects into production than in actually owning the end result.

Rising Sun, while on one level the ultimate in conspicuous consumption, has also been the subject of extreme secrecy. No one associated with its production has been willing to discuss the finer details of its opulence. Its maker, the German shipbuilder Lurssen, published specifications containing only its length and a working name LE 120 - the initials of its owner and the original length before it was extended. One detail that has emerged is that Mr Ellison's fourth wife, the novelist Melanie Craft, tried to convince her Bronx-born husband to name it after her. She was unsuccessful. "That got shot down pretty fast," she said.

It has been left instead to an army of international yacht-spotters to fill in the gaps. They do so by travelling around the world's ports and playgrounds of the rich, photographing and logging details of these floating palaces.

The picture that has emerged of Rising Sun is of a private boat, which, but for its lack of armour, resembles something closer to a warship than a pleasure craft. Despite the reputation of its cutting edge designer - the late Jon Bannenberg - it has not been universally lauded for its beauty, but even its critics have to admit it has presence.

"Whether you admire the exterior styling or not, you have to admit that the profile he created for Rising Sun is extraordinary," concedes Power and Motoryacht, the industry bible.

Hulking yet sleek, the yacht seeks to combine extraordinary power with light beauty. It is a difficult compromise. On a Christmas cruise to the Caribbean, Mr Allen was assisted by a crew of more than 50 sailors and staff. Rising Sun's frigate-like power plant, pumps out 36,000kW of energy - the equivalent of an entire small town switching on kettles at the same time. Its four propellers enable it to reach a cruising speed of 28 knots.

In terms of sheer size, it is awe-inspiring. It offers 82 rooms on five storeys, with a total living space said to be in excess of 8,000sq m. Each of the main staterooms - which measure five metres from ceiling to floor - has a balcony, along with huge windows offering panoramic views across the ocean. There are two patio decks on the transom.

Inside, the Pauline Nunns interiors are said to be minimalist. But when spending money on yachts in this price range, certain features and accessories are tantamount to compulsory. So there's the inside swimming pool (on the Rising Sun it is on the aft of the bridge deck), the vast crystal chandeliers and the onyx countertops. Jacuzzi bathrooms are typically fitted out in alabaster, while panels of walnut in the bar and staterooms add a hint of old-money gentility. A gymnasium helps work off the excesses of meals made by leading chefs. Fine wines are served from the extensive cellar. Guests can also relax in a private cinema, watching the latest movies on a giant plasma screen.

With 3,300sq m of teak-layered deck space, there is ample room for running about. In fact the main deck is given over to a basketball court, although it can double up as a helicopter pad if necessary following Mr Ellison's surprise decision not to include a built-in hangar in his design. Eyebrows were also raised when it was decided not to imitate Paul Allen whose yacht Octopus includes an on-board personal submarine. This launches via a specially engineered underwater hatch to allow for a spot of underwater exploration between meals.

As for other toys, there are plenty of things to keep guests from getting bored. Rising Sun carries a 4x4 Jeep which can also be carried on board the 12m twin-hull landing craft - just the thing for touring the rugged mountain terrain of the Caribbean islands. Three 12m tenders built in New Zealand carry guests ashore. Most yachts have small sailing dinghies for messing about in the inshore waters, while jet skis and water skiing equipment are practically mandatory.

To cap it all, the whole thing is lit up at night with fibre-optic cables, typically in Mr Ellison's favourite colour - dollar green.

One potential use for the Rising Sun is as the floating headquarters of a global company. New technology and potential tax breaks have brought such a proposition within the realms of reality.

At this year's Annual Yacht and Brokerage Show in Miami Packed the latest must-have accessory was a $50,000 satellite system that gives high-sped internet access and voice-over internet phone service from any point on the planet.

Worldwide, yacht sales are booming, fuelled by the rapid growth in the number of superrich. At the last count there were 587 billionaires in 2004 - 64 more than the previous year. It is estimated that there are 592 super-yachts of 25m or more currently being built at boatyards around the world - 150 more than in 2004. Lurssen is making 10 of them, averaging 75m.

The American yacht market took a dive after 11 September when foreign travel was viewed as risky and flaunting excessive luxury in the wake of tragedy was frowned upon. But the liberalisation of Russia's markets and the emergence of the new breed of rouble billionaires has provided a new source of owners.

Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club, is reported to own three of the world's top 10 luxury yachts. And to meet the demand from the former Soviet Union, which is further buoyed by the relative weakness of the dollar, Yachts International magazine has launched a Russian language version.

Mr Mittal's office said yesterday he would not comment on a private purchase. But whoever does buy Rising Sun could soon be the owner of only the second or even third biggest yacht in the world. It is reported that Platinum, currently being built in the Middle East for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai, measures 160m.

Those who know Larry Ellison insist it is only a matter of time before he builds an even bigger boat.

The world's 10 biggest private yachts

1 Platinum, length 160m

Owner: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. Still in production, but could finally take to the water this year.

2 Rising Sun, 138m

Owner : Larry Ellison, chief executive of Oracle. Offers in excess of $200m now being sought for this mega-yacht.

3 Octopus, 124.6m

Owner: Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Luxurious vessel which boasts "toys" such as a recording studio, basketball court and submarine.

4 Savarona, 124.36m

Owner: Turkish businessman Kahraman Sadikoglu. The splendour of this marble-clad floating palace can be enjoyed for a charter cost of $280,000 a week

5 Alexander, 121.9m

Owner: The Latsis family. Accommodation for 60 guests costing up to $100,000 per day. Guests have included Prince Charles and Camilla.

6 Atlantis II, 115.7m

Owner: The Niarchos shipping family. Little-seen mega-yacht rarely leaves its home port of Monaco.

7 Pelorus, 115m

Owner: Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who is also the owner of Chelsea Football Club. Oversize windows, well-defined curves, and a vanilla-hued paint job.

8 Le Grand Bleu; 112.8m

Owner: Roman Abramovich. Rumoured last summer to have gained up to 6m in length after the creation of a new swimming platform.

9 Lady Moura, 104.8m

Owner: Saudi businessman Nasser al-Rashid. Boasts the world's longest dining table - 20m - where guests including Jean-Claude Van Damme and Elton John have eaten.

10 Christina, 99.1m

Owner: John Paul Papanicolaou. Once owned by Aristotle Onassis.