Beware of rich men sailing big yachts

For the mega-billionaires of the world, a super-yacht offers luxury, privacy and the chance to meet a politician. Andy McSmith reports

Saturday 25 October 2008 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


In the old days, the conspicuously rich owned big houses full of works of art where they invited guests to show off their wealth. But now, if you want the world to know that you are dripping money, you buy a yacht.

That does not mean a modest-sized barque with sail, driven by the wind. Even the luxury yacht aboard which Tony Curtis seduced Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s classic, Some Like It Hot, is barely adequate. What you need to make a real impression is a gigantic, engine-powered floating mansion, with luxury fittings, guest rooms, and a permanent crew of at least a dozen. Then you can anchor somewhere exotic, and play host to the rich and famous.

The mistake Oleg Deripaska made as he entertained guests off Corfu last summer was to invite not one famous politician, but two. He perhaps thought that, as Lord Mandelson and the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne supped his fine wine in his split-level VIP stateroom, they would forget normal political hostilities, and behave like gentlemen.

They did not, for which the rest of us can say thanks, because of the glimpse we have been given of a world beyond our view. Luxury yachts have not featured so prominently in the British news since the corrupt media mogul, Robert Maxwell, fell off his and drowned in 1991. But Mr Deripaska is said to be furious about the publicity that has come his way at a time when he has been negotiating with banks to whom he is seriously indebted, when the value of his business has been hit by recession.

Though Mr Deripaska is said to be the richest man in Russia, he does not flaunt his wealth as openly as some oligarchs. Even his yacht is second-hand. It was built in 2004 for a Japanese tycoon who named it the Queen M, and acquired last year by Mr Deripaska, who sent it back to the Bremen where it was built, for major modifications, and renamed it Queen K. At 238ft, it is the 72nd-biggest yacht in the world, reputed to be worth £80m, with its six decks, four guest rooms, two deck-level VIP cabins, swimming pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, gym, five motor boats, two water scooters and diving gear.

There is nothing second-hand about the Rosehearty, Rupert Murdoch's 184ft yacht, on which he entertained David Cameron in August. It was built in 2006 at the Perini Navi yard, in Italy. Its two smaller boats, or tenders, used to ferry guests aboard, are named Grace and Chloe, after Mr Murdoch's twin daughters.

For all its luxury, it is almost modest, given the scale of the Murdoch's wealth. It is a sailing yacht, albeit an exceptionally powerful one, capable of crossing oceans. It has a stunning interior by the celebrated French designer Christian Liagre but is still cheaper than the engine-powered megayachts favoured by oligarchs.

The yacht sleeps 12 but Mr Murdoch knows too much about politics to make the mistake of filling it with rival politicians. They are sent for, one by one, and nothing about their conversations with the media mogul is ever relayed publicly.

After drinks, on the Rosehearty, Mr Murdoch and Mr Cameron moved across to the Elisabeth F, owned by Mr Murdoch's son-in-law, Matthew Freud, and named after Murdoch's daughter, Elisabeth, Mr Freud's wife. It is a motor-powered yacht, so luxuriantly fitted it created a sensation when it was put on display at a show in Antigua last year. It is nearly 30 years old but was gutted and refitted after Mr Freud acquired it last year. Its special feature is an enormous open deck, with a retractable clear plastic roof, big enough to hold a party for 80, whatever the weather.

Two years ago, Tony Blair was accused of aping a billionaire's lifestyle when he was photographed in the Caribbean, aboard the yacht Good Vibrations, which his family had borrowed; actually, it was only a small catamaran, run on such a humble scale that the Blairs had to hang out their own laundry. The people with whom the Blairs were holidaying, Sir Cliff Richard, and the banker Russell Chambers, are rich but not in the megayacht class.

Mr Cameron does not need to freeload on such people because he married money. That does not sit well alongside the image he tries to convey as Dave the family man, who cycles, does not wear ties, and understands ordinary people.

Hence the highly publicised holiday break the Cameron family took in Cornwall in July, with its multiple photo opportunities, which gave the impression that a Cameron family holiday is just like any other family's. Straight afterwards, the Camerons flew to a very different holiday with almost no publicity. They joined a party of 76 on the south-west coast of Turkey, to celebrate the 60th birthday of Samantha Cameron's mother, Viscountess Astor. The celebration was held in seven gullets – traditional two-masted wooden sailing boats, each with a crew of four – hired at a cost reputed to be £150,000.

You might think that, with a global recession on the way, even billionaires have to think about a few economies, and the yacht would be the first luxury to go. But the mega-yacht industry sails bravely on. Only a week ago, a Dutch shipyard held a spectacular laser show as they handed the new 248ft Ocean Victory over to its unnamed owner. The yacht's dining room seats 32 and it has a health club, sauna, massage room, swimming pool, and 12-seat cinema.

Two days later, the Derecktor shipyard, in Bridgeport, USA, unveiled a scale model of the 2,950-tonne Cakewalk, planned as the biggest yacht built in the USA since the 1930s. And there are some attractive second-hand yachts, such as the 174ft, 530-tonne Independence, built 10 years ago in the same Italian yard as Mr Murdoch's Rosehearty. With six state rooms and 12 crew cabins, it is yours for just under £23m. Or if you want something older, heavier, bigger, and cheaper there is the 190ft, 995-tonne Darli, built from solid steel in a Norwegian yard in 1960 with rooms for 81 guests, going for £3.9m.

Messing about in boats is an old, old pleasure. But for the modern tycoon, a boat is a controlled, closed environment, and completely private.

Here the owner can hold talk business with a famous politician, and no one need know. Or if his business empire is on the point of collapse, he can get up in the night, and tumble mysteriously into the sea, and it will be hours before anyone notices he is gone, because in the modern world, an oligarch's yacht is his castle.

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