A £30,000 bottle of limited-edition Hennessy cognac stands in a corner of the Saatchi Gallery, guarded by a pair of burly bouncers, while guests admire leather-clad bicycles, models of personal submarines, and undulating “wall features” carved from gigantic blocks of marble, according to the designs of Zaha Hadid.
At times, it was hard to tell if the SuperYacht Gallery – a jamboree of fancy boats and luxury lifestyle paraphernalia, with tickets starting at £50 – was actually an elaborate piece of performance art. It felt as if Charles Saatchi might be hiding inside the faceted shell of one of the mirrored sculptures on show, cackling at his latest ruse.
“We have a very strict door policy,” said the event organiser, handing me a glass of champagne at the VIP preview. “We’ve only targeted ultra high net worth individuals: yacht owners, their advisers and captains. The people in this room are some of the wealthiest in the world.”
The guests strolled the galleries, their well-fed cheeks glowing a fluorescent orange as they admired models of the world’s most expensive boats and their bespoke accessories. Many gathered around the glistening champagne-hued model of the £465m Dilbar, the world’s largest yacht by internal volume, providing 3,800 square metres of living space for Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, along with not one but two helipads.
“Dilbar has the most advanced security technologies of any superyacht in the world,” said a serious-faced Peter Lürssen, CEO of the German company that made the 16,000-tonne hulk. “But the things you read about it containing an anti-aircraft missile defence system are all nonsense.”
Nearby, a man dressed as an artist daubed an image of the boat on a canvas, adding to the surreal nature of the scene. Lürssen stressed that his clients were very concerned about the environment these days, always asking for ways to improve a ship’s energy efficiency – although it’s fair to assume that Dilbar’s 30,000kW engine isn’t particularly light on fuel, given that it could power an entire neighbourhood.
This sea-going goliath is from the imagination of Monaco-based Norwegian designer Espen Øino, the creative brains behind some of the world’s most elaborate floating pleasure palaces. “The trend we’re seeing now is for much longer distances and more adventurous travel,” said the designer, in between hugs from the tottering wives of his clients. “Beyond the usual Monaco to St Tropez run, people want to explore more remote areas.”
One of his latest vessels, Cloudbreak, was designed with extreme surfing and skiing in mind. His client took it to Greenland for its maiden voyage and now plans to venture to Antarctica to ski down untouched glaciers. A huge helipad at the rear doubles as a party deck when the sun goes down, with a hi-tech sound system and built-in weatherproof speakers, so the DJ’s tunes can echo off the icebergs late into the night.
“Superyachts are moving from the Range Rover to the Land Rover,” he adds. “These are more rugged ships for explorations and extreme sports. People are also wanting to use their yachts to do something good, to give something back.”
Take his fellow Norwegian, the fishing magnate Kjell Inge Røkke. Described by Forbes magazine as a “ruthless corporate raider”, he recently decided that he wanted to give something back to the ocean, so commissioned Øino to design a superyacht for marine exploration. “The ship will be offered as an arena for scientists and explorers from all over the world,” said Røkke. It will also provide “recreation and inspiration” for himself and his family. Capable of carrying 90 passengers, the ship will be equipped with laboratories, a 40-seat auditorium, a pair of booms to harvest plastic from the sea and a “moonpool” for launching autonomous underwater vehicles.
This follows Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Octopus, which was also designed by Øino as an exploration vessel, with two deep-sea submarines, a glass-bottomed swimming pool, two helicopters, a cinema, basketball court and recording studio (used by Mick Jagger). Its hi-tech features are so advanced that in 2012 the Royal Navy asked to borrow it, to retrieve the bell from battlecruiser HMS Hood which sank during the second world war.
“Just like in space travel, private equity is increasingly coming in to fund exploration,” said Øino. “And these yachts are great for recreation, too – it’s always fun to have some submarines on board.”
Among the high net worth crowd, Alex Jimenez stood out as one of the few non-white, non-suited guests. “They call me the ‘yacht lifestyle influencer’,” he said, showing me his Instagram page, @theyachtguy, which boasts 795,000 followers. “I used to be homeless, but people now fly me around the world to post pictures of their yachts, so I get to see a lot. Everyone’s always trying to top each other – two helicopters, a fleet of submarines, having another yacht following behind. That’s the dream.”
It’s a dream that Russian billionaire Andrey Igorevich Melnichenko has now realised, having commissioned French designer Philippe Starck to design the imaginatively named Motor Yacht A, followed by Sailing Yacht A (which has masts taller than Big Ben). Named so they appear first in shipping registers, and eschewing the usual superyacht aesthetic of looking like souped-up caravans on water, these vessels are angular and stripped back, as if chiselled from the same block of aluminium as a MacBook Pro – perhaps no surprise, given that Starck worked on a yacht for Steve Jobs shortly before his death. Worth a combined £600m, the pair were recently spotted in Monaco, one trailing the other like a valet after his overweight master.
Paolo Pininfarina, of the Turin family company behind many of the famous Ferrari designs, was also on hand to unveil his latest collaboration with yacht-maker Rossinavi. Relatively compact, at least by the standards of others on show, Aurea is 70-metre vessel designed as a streamlined helical stack of concentric rings, each deck flowing seamlessly into the next, with a pair of glass-walled swimming pools facing out to sea, connected by a sweeping double staircase.
“Superyachts are a niche market to begin with,” Pininfarina tells me with a twinkle. “But we are catering to the niche of the niche. We are betting on a new generation of user. This is the yacht of tomorrow.” Actually, with its Hadid-esque swoops, it already looks dated.
Terence Disdale, the Richmond-based designer behind Roman Abramovich’s superyacht Eclipse, prefers the more classic look. When I ask him about the latest trends, he baulks. “Trends? It takes five years to build a boat. You can’t follow trends.”
He shows me images of his boats that include helicopter garages, al fresco firepits and interiors awash with shells, raffia and palm wood. “I don’t do trends,” he says. “I do longevity. This is a piece of architecture that has to last.” Until his client trades it in for a bigger one with a few more helipads, that is.
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