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Behind the headlines

Luxury on the high seas

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, nearly a dozen oligarch-owned superyachts have been impounded around the world. On Tuesday, Britain finally got in on the act, seizing the £38m, 58-metre Phi, belonging to mobile phone tycoon Vitaly Vasilievich Kochetkov, at London’s Canary Wharf. So what’s it actually like to be aboard these huge floating palaces?

How long have superyachts been around?
Grand pleasure boats have been popular since antiquity: Cleopatra cruised down the Nile in the 115-metre Thalamegos, a two-storey barge bedecked with so much gold it “burned on the water”, in Shakespeare’s phrase. The Dutch in the 14th century were the first to use comparatively small seagoing boats – jaghts – purely for pleasure, but huge motor yachts are a 20th-century phenomenon. One of the first famous ones was Christina O, converted from a Canadian naval frigate by Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis after World War Two. It hosted both Winston Churchill and John F Kennedy in its heyday, and was the setting for Onassis’s seduction of his mistress, soprano Maria Callas. The stools in the onboard boozer, Ari’s Bar, are upholstered in exceptionally soft leather taken from the foreskins of minke whales.

How do you get a job on one?
“Green” crew members starting out in the industry might walk through marinas handing out their CVs to docked vessels. But to get anywhere, these CVs must, at least for women, include a photo or even a full-body shot, plus your height, age, weight and dress size. “I’ve been there multiple times when captains have gone through a pile of girls’ CVs and they have said, ‘Too fat, too short, too ugly,’” former superyacht crew member Alice Tiller tells The Sunday Times.

What’s it like working on board?
Intense. Crews are well-paid – starting salaries are generally between £2,000 and £4,000 a month, often tax free, with captains on up to £13,000 – but they have to sweat for it. Workdays can stretch to 18 hours, with endless cleaning and polishing. “You polish inside the taps, inside the drain, everything must shine,” says one former crew member. “You vacuum the same space you vacuumed half an hour before, you go mad.” Even on the plushest boats, crew generally live in cramped, dark quarters with bunkbeds and tiny windows. Though a convention protecting employment rights at sea was introduced in 2006, it doesn’t apply to private vessels.

Who are the owners?
It’s often difficult to tell, as ownership is funnelled through webs of offshore shell companies. Americans own around a fifth of all superyachts – often defined as boats longer than 24 metres – followed by Russians, who own a tenth. But the Russians own a disproportionate number of the biggest boats, including 18 of the approximately 100 “gigayachts” (yachts more than 90 metres long). Sheikhs and potentates from the Gulf are also well represented: the longest yacht in the world, the 180-metre Azzam, belongs to the president of the United Arab Emirates, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

And how do they treat their staff?
Not courteously, on the whole. The Russian boss of one boat, says Megan Agnew in The Sunday Times, offered his female staff boob jobs; the captain of another demanded an employee “wear a shorter skirt”. Some boats want their hostesses to have the same ethnic “look”; on others, says a crew member, “you’re handed a size six skort and if you don’t fit into it, you better by the time the season starts”. One stewardess, on her first job, “took a tray of canapes up to the sky lounge, where the owner wanted drinks, and he was sitting there surrounded by women in high heels and nothing else”.

Do any women own superyachts?
A handful, including JK Rowling, who briefly owned the 48-metre Arriva. But the partners of male owners certainly tend to make their presence felt: one “Mrs”, as boat owners’ wives are known, once asked for 1,000 white roses in time for dinner, which the crew had to have helicoptered to the Caribbean from Miami. The next morning, she wanted them gone – unable to throw them aboard, the crew had to jam them in their tiny cabins. “The wives are very lonely and miserable and there is usually a mistress,” says Anna Petchell, a former crew member. They get “very nit-picky”.

What do the yachts’ interiors look like?
Gaudy and over the top. The most expensive yacht ever built is History Supreme, a £2.8bn folly commissioned by Malaysian billionaire Robert Kuok. It compensates for its underwhelming length – 30 metres – by being decked out in 100,000kg of gold, platinum and jewels. The master bedroom includes art made from the bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex. But it’s a model of good taste, says Agnew, compared to the master suite in Khalila, owned by a Russian oil baron. This has a mural which looks, at a distance, like a cherry blossom tree. Closer inspection reveals it to be cartoons of women having sex with each other. Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman notoriously hung Salvator Mundi, a $450m Leonardo da Vinci painting, in his yacht Serene. Art experts pointed out that bracing sea air wouldn’t do the work much good.

How have sanctions affected crews?
Many of them don’t even know who their bosses are, thanks to the shady ownership structures. The yachts which have been seized can’t pay their staff wages – several crews are rumoured to have walked off Russian vessels because of this, including the 80-strong staff of sanctioned business magnate Alisher Usmanov’s Dilbar. One Ukrainian sailor even tried to sink his Russian employer’s yacht in Mallorca, before scarpering to join his country’s army.

Will sanctions sink the market?
No, says Jeff Wise in Intelligencer – in fact, it’s “booming”. The cumulative wealth of the world’s billionaires increased by around 60% – $5 trillion – over the pandemic. So even with Russian oligarchs banished from the high seas, there are plenty of other buyers around to keep the market “white-hot” for the foreseeable future.

🛥🚨👮 Which yachts have evaded sanctions so far?
Both of Roman Abramovich’s monster boats, which are safely docked in Turkey out of range of Western authorities: the 162.5-metre, £750m Eclipse, which boasts its own nightclub and can sleep more than 100, and the 140-metre Solaris. Scheherazade – a £500m yacht staffed with Russian security men and thought to belong to Vladimir Putin – is undergoing repairs in an Italian port, but authorities haven’t struck yet. Other vessels have fled to the Maldives and the Seychelles to dodge sanctions. At least nine have even illegally “gone dark” and stopped broadcasting their coordinates to maritime trackers.