IN PICS | Untold luxury is what floats a billionaire’s boat

03 January 2021 - 00:01 By Nadine Dreyer
Billionaire Roman Abramovich’s 162.5m Eclipse has two swimming pools, one of which converts into a dance floor.
Billionaire Roman Abramovich’s 162.5m Eclipse has two swimming pools, one of which converts into a dance floor.
Image: Supplied

It was Aristotle Onassis who started this “rich boys with their big boats” thing.

The Greek shipping tycoon loved entertaining the rich and famous on the Christina, the opulent yacht named after his daughter.

When he succeeded in marrying the world’s most coveted widow in 1968, his reputation took off. Readers of gossip magazines were endlessly fascinated by the shenanigans aboard his floating palace.

When she first boarded the Christina in October 1963, Jackie Kennedy is reputed to have said she finally knew what it felt like to be king (having been obliged to slum it at the White House and the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port).

It had a crew of 60, two French hairdressers, three chefs, a masseuse, a small orchestra and a Renoir in the master bedroom. Among the Christina’s notorious features were bar stools covered with the foreskins of whales.

The 127m Octopus, built for the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, during a visit to Durban. This is the kind of vessel Cape Town wants to attract.
The 127m Octopus, built for the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, during a visit to Durban. This is the kind of vessel Cape Town wants to attract.
Image: Richard Shorey

Once, when Greta Garbo was about to sit on one of them, Onassis said: “I’m going to sit you on the biggest prick in the world.” To which the film legend replied: “Mr Onassis, you are a presumptuous man.”

There’s a documentary on YouTube of software magnate Bill Duker showing a television crew one of the standout features aboard his yacht: storage trunks covered with the skins of 150 alligators. He jokes: “If the rest of the world learns what it’s like to live on a yacht they’re gonna bring back the guillotine.”

As the bank balances of the rich increase exponentially, superyachts get larger and more fantastical. It’s the biggest single purchase the wealthy can make, and that mobility is incredibly useful.

Spending half a billion greenbacks on a yacht is becoming more common. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — believed to be the mastermind behind the 2018 slaughter of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the country’s embassy in Turkey — paid more than $500m (R7.3bn) for his 130m superyacht the Serene.

Inside a salon on the Christina.
Inside a salon on the Christina.
Image: YouTube

With 4,460m², it has more space than New York’s Grand Central concourse and comes equipped with two helipads, a submarine dock, an underwater viewing room, a Jacuzzi and a movie theatre — though these are all pretty standard specs for contemporary superyachts.

The Serene is also a useful bolt hole against the not-so-serene threat of palace coups. According to Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project, MBS spends many nights on his yacht moored off Jeddah to protect himself from assassination plots by his growing number of enemies.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Octopus has a crew of 60 that includes former navy SEALs. It has seven decks and apart from the usual frills includes a custom-built submarine that can remain underwater with 10 people for two weeks, and has a remote-controlled robot for exploring the ocean floor. Billionaire Roman Abramovich’s 162.5m Eclipse has two swimming pools.

So far so normal, but one of the pools has an adjustable depth that allows it to be converted into a dance floor. Safety is paramount for the Russian oligarch, so armour plating, bulletproof windows, a missile defence system and an anti-paparazzi shield designed to dazzle digital cameras are all part of the package.

Aristotle Onassis’s superyacht Christina was the stuff of dreams in the 1960s.
Aristotle Onassis’s superyacht Christina was the stuff of dreams in the 1960s.
Image: YouTube

You cannot replicate history, though. The Delphine, launched in 1921 by US automobile magnate Horace Dodge, can be rented for a minimum of $60,000 a day. It was requisitioned by Franklin D Roosevelt for meetings with Winston Churchill and Soviet politician Vyacheslav Molotov during World War 2.

So what happens on board a superyacht?

“I was on a big yacht down in Sardinia not long ago, and the owner was complaining that he couldn’t get any decent fresh fruit,” yacht broker Nicholas Edmiston told Vanity Fair in 2014. “So there was a helicopter on the yacht, which I sent to the market in Cannes, a 400-mile [643km] round trip.

He got his raspberries and strawberries and was very happy.”

Newspaper magnate Duane Hagadone’s Lady Lola includes the 18-hole Lady Lola Golf Club, where golfers hit floating golf balls off a retractable tee on the sun deck and have their games tracked by satellite. Speed boats retrieve stray balls. International boat broker Steve Kidd had a client who ordered “50kg of Iranian beluga at $500,000, 300 bottles of Dimple scotch, 300 bottles of Johnnie Walker Black, 50 cases of champagne, 40 pounds [18kg] of foie gras … bill just shy of a million”.

London-based designer Donald Starkey told Vanity Fair he “personally put on one yacht alone a Picasso, a Dubuffet, two Utrillos, two or three Chagalls, and more”. Matisse in the guest toilet, anyone?

Last year, as the world went into lockdown, entertainment mogul David Geffen sparked outrage when he posted an image of his $590m superyacht Rising Sun with the caption “isolated in the Grenadines”.

For many the post demonstrated just how tone deaf he and other billionaires could be amid the hardships and misery millions were suffering. To borrow a joke from legendary director Billy Wilder, “he has Van Gogh’s ear for music”.


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