Billionaires Sail Luxury Icebreakers Through Post-Lehman Waters
Cool piped jazz floats over the luxury icebreaker Ulysses as Brian Carver wheels the five-story megayacht away from the sound of Cristal Champagne corks firing along the Monaco coast.
“This is not a marina ship,” says Carver, skipper of the 196-foot, 49 million euro ($66.9 million) expedition vessel that can tackle polar waters as easily as lay anchor for months along the uppermost reaches of the Amazon River. “Ulysses is a luxury yacht designed to avoid what’s happening on land.”
The decommissioned U.S. Navy submarine lashed to the foredeck provides an underwater getaway for six people.
Other isolationist perks aboard the ship named after the Ancient Greek mariner who got lost in a sea of troubles include a retractable helicopter pad and a 180,000 gallon diesel tank that costs around $700,000 to fill. That’s ample fuel for more than 6,000 nautical miles, and enough power to ensure the yacht’s four quantum-zero stabilizers allow guests to continue playing pool in a storm and not tilt the Batman pinball machine.
Those interested in this example of the future of luxury superyachting should contact billionaire owner Graeme Hart, managing director of the private-equity firm Rank Group Ltd. in Auckland, New Zealand.
It has been three years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered the worst fiscal crisis following the Great Depression and a gust of fear among the armada of giga-yachtsmen who each September sail into the Monaco Yacht Show to preen and prance their monstrous vessels for sale. Time and Europe’s multibillion-dollar credit calamity have not been kind to them.
Everything anchored in Monaco was on fire sale. The pitch aboard My Trust, a floating dockside city state selling at a distressed 23.95 million euros, includes a black-and-white loop video of Dean Martin singing happy songs from the 1940s. The tune that wafts from a passing 120-foot luxury ketch in need of a paint job is Shirley Temple chirping “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” an anthem from the Great Depression.
There are 450 private vessels that bow-to-stern stretch beyond 200 feet, according to the Camper & Nicholsons 2011 Superyachting Index. That doesn’t mean their owners have found Peppermint Bay. As Patrick Coote tells it, the only sailors with the bankroll to keep the luxury-yacht market afloat are Russian, Chinese, Brazilian and old-money Europeans, and most of them want to navigate away from marina life.
“An ice-class megayacht is the solution,” says Coote, marketing director of Fraser Yachts. “New buyers want the ability to smack into any sort of iceberg and not do a Titanic.”
For the middlemen charged with making the sale in treacherous post-Lehman waters, discretion is often more important than vanity.
“Many owners don’t want to be seen near their expensive toys,” says Pascal Wiscour-Conter, chief executive officer of ItMovesIt SA, a Monaco-based software company that specializes in managing the between 20,000-to-160,000 housekeeping documents annually required to keep private Gulfstreams in the air and superships at sea.
“Explorer yachts like Ulysses cater to the new expectations of high net-worth individuals in a troubled global economy,” says Wiscour-Counter, who has managed three explorer megayachts during his 20-year nautical career. “An ice-class vessel is more luxurious and more anonymous than any bling yacht. They’re also bigger inside, which means they can carry more stuff and avoid the need for a ghost ship.”
Although Wiscour-Conter says the financial chaos of 2008 compelled the rich to downsize their vessels and not attract the attention of tax authorities or judicial investigators looking to seize potentially questionable assets, it didn’t mean they’d stop pulling into port on a whim to buy a Picasso or a Porsche.
“We had a client on a 115-foot luxury yacht,” Wiscour- Conter says. “Three days into the voyage, the client had already berthed at three ports and bought 2 million euros worth of merchandise. But the boat was too small to carry the load, so we had to arrange for a ghost ship and crew to follow with the client’s shopping.”
Luxury icebreakers avoid the need for illusion.
“These yachts have no appeal for the guy who turns up stern-to-dock so people can watch him eating caviar,” says Burgess Yachts CEO Jonathan Beckett, who marquees his fleet of 150 vessels as “the superyacht superpower.”
Beckett accepts a cappuccino from a steward aboard Cakewalk, Burgess’s 280-foot superstar and on sale for 152 million euros. Cakewalk is a mighty ship. Yet the only ice she can crush comes from the lounge bar.
“Someone will eventually buy Cakewalk,” Beckett says. “But the future is the self-sufficient explorer yacht, with fuel tanks and provision stores for owners who are allergic to marinas.”
Beckett leans back on the sofa and lays out the monetary dynamics of 21st-century superyachting: “There are no more than 25 people in the world who can afford a yacht in the 200 million-to-300 million euro range,” he says. “It’s more interesting in the 100 million-to-200 million euro range because we have hundreds of potential buyers.”
Fraser Yachts CEO Hein Velema adds the caveat emptor. “I’m a little nervous about the global economic situation,” he says. “Americans are not ready to commit to buying a yacht.”
Yet Beckett says the dearth of U.S. cash on deck for Burgess superyachts in excess of 150 feet is more than made up for by the Chinese market. “There are right now 2,500 superyachts in the world,” Beckett says. “And there are right now 10,000 people in China with the money to buy one.”
Beckett reckons some 100 explorer yachts have set sail since Lehman sunk. “More of them are on the way,” he says. “They’re a deal, particularly for Americans. We can purchase a used commercial ice-class or similar vessel for, say, 750,000 euros and then give it a 30 million euro refit into a luxury vessel with more decks, head space and range than anything on display in Monaco. That’s the trending global market.”
Luxury-icebreaker extras on offer in Monaco include the Jetlev Flyer, a self-contained 129,000 euro carbon-fiber backpack that uses a 225-horsepower water nozzle to launch passengers on a 180-minute, 35 kilometer-an-hour journey at an altitude of 33 feet. Escape pods provide serenity. The discerning prefer the $60,000 SeaJet Capsule, which resembles a gigantic escargot with a propulsion system. It lets passengers “look cool, fast and rich at the same time,” says SeaJet designer Pierpaolo Lazzarini.
Modern trinkets do little to enhance the 164-foot Shandor. Originally built in 1986 for Fiat SpA (F) Chairman Gianni Agnelli, the 8 million euro refit vessel, with a 100,000-liter fuel tank and a range of 5,600 nautical miles, is Jurassic in comparison to the 370-foot icebreaker Le Grand Bleu. Built for U.S. cellular-network tycoon John McCaw Jr. in 2000 for $90 million, Beckett 4 years later brokered the ship to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich for an undisclosed amount.
In 2006, Abramovich presented Le Grand Bleu to his friend Eugene Shvidler as a gift, leaving the oil tycoon’s Barcelona- based Ocean Group fleet without a luxury expedition vessel.
“Abramovich has the biggest luxury yacht in the world, the 557-foot Eclipse,” Wiscour-Conter says of the ship that’s 176 feet shorter than the Lusitania and cost an estimated 800 million euros to build. Unlike the fabled paquebot that fell victim to a German U-boat off Ireland in 1915, Eclipse features an array of torpedo and missile defense systems.
“Le Grand Bleu changing hands is a significant development in the competitive world of superyacht owners,” Wiscour-Conter explains. “Now the only cost-effective way to out-Abramovich Abramovich is to own a luxury icebreaker.”
The Norwegian superyacht company Palmer Johnson Yachts LLC has risen to the occasion. It’s called the PJ World, a 269-foot luxury ice crusher that’s six stories tall and priced at 135 million euros, not including the 35 million euro all-weather jet-powered Eurocopter. The steel-hull vessel, which can travel more than 10,000 nautical miles on a tank of gas, has a 200- square-meter master suite, a country-club-sized swimming pool, eight guest cabins and a 29-member crew.
“PJ World launches next year and we don’t yet have a buyer,” says Palmer Johnson salesman Mauricio Weiszberger. “We took a big risk and built her on spec to capture the market that’s on the horizon.”
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