In the Victorian era, it was said that the length of a man’s boat, in feet, should match his age, in years. The Victorians would have had some questions at the fortieth annual Palm Beach International Boat Show, which convened this March on Florida’s Gold Coast,says an article published in Newyorker.
A typical offering: a two-hundred-and-three-foot superyacht named Sea Owl, selling secondhand for ninety million dollars.
The owner, Robert Mercer, the hedge-fund tycoon and Republican donor, was throwing in furniture and accessories, including several auxiliary boats, a Steinway piano, a variety of frescoes, and a security system that requires fingerprint recognition.
Nevertheless, Mercer’s package was a modest one; the largest superyachts are more than five hundred feet, on a scale with naval destroyers, and cost six or seven times what he was asking.
For the small, tight-lipped community around the world’s biggest yachts, the Palm Beach show has the promising air of spring training. On the cusp of the summer season, it affords brokers and builders and owners (or attendants from their family offices) a chance to huddle over the latest merchandise and to gather intelligence: Who’s getting in? Who’s getting out? And, most pressingly, who’s ogling a bigger boat?
Spence looked for promising clues (the right shoes, jewelry, pets) as well as for red flags (cameras, ornate business cards, clothes with pop-culture references).
For greeters from elsewhere, Palm Beach is a challenging assignment. Unlike in Europe, where money can still produce some visible tells—Hunter Wellies, a Barbour jacket—the habits of wealth in Florida offer little that’s reliable.
One colleague resorted to binoculars, to spot a passerby with a hundred-thousand-dollar watch. According to Spence, people judged to have insufficient buying power are quietly marked for “dissuasion.”
For the uninitiated, a pleasure boat the length of a football field can be bewildering. Andy Cohen, the talk-show host, recalled his first visit to a superyacht owned by the media mogul Barry Diller: “I was like the Beverly Hillbillies.”
The boats have grown so vast that some owners place unique works of art outside the elevator on each deck, so that lost guests don’t barge into the wrong stateroom.
At the Palm Beach show, I lingered in front of a gracious vessel called Namasté, until I was dissuaded by a wooden placard: “Private yacht, no boarding, no paparazzi.”
In a nearby berth was a two-hundred-and-eighty-foot superyacht called Bold, which was styled like a warship, with its own helicopter hangar, three Sea-Doos, two sailboats, and a color scheme of gunmetal gray.
The rugged look is a trend; “explorer” vessels, equipped to handle remote journeys, are the sport-utility vehicles of yachting.
If you hail from the realm of ineligible visitors, you may not be aware that we are living through the “greatest boom in the yacht business that’s ever existed,” as Bob Denison—whose firm, Denison Yachting, is one of the world’s largest brokers—told me. “Every broker, every builder, up and down the docks, is having some of the best years they’ve ever experienced.”
In 2021, the industry sold a record eight hundred and eighty-seven superyachts worldwide, nearly twice the previous year’s total. With more than a thousand new superyachts on order, shipyards are so backed up that clients unaccustomed to being told no have been shunted to waiting lists.
Pandemic and yacht demand
One reason for the increased demand for yachts is the pandemic. Some buyers invoke social distancing; others, an existential awakening. John Staluppi, of Palm Beach Gardens, who made a fortune from car dealerships, is looking to upgrade from his current, sixty-million-dollar yacht.
“When you’re forty or fifty years old, you say, ‘I’ve got plenty of time,’ ” he told me. But, at seventy-five, he is ready to throw in an extra fifteen million if it will spare him three years of waiting. “Is your life worth five million dollars a year? I think so,” he said.
A deeper reason for the demand is the widening imbalance of wealth. Since 1990, the United States’ supply of billionaires has increased from sixty-six to more than seven hundred, even as the median hourly wage has risen only twenty per cent.
In that time, the number of truly giant yachts—those longer than two hundred and fifty feet—has climbed from less than ten to more than a hundred and seventy. Raphael Sauleau, the C.E.O. of Fraser Yachts, told me bluntly, “covid and wealth—a perfect storm for us.”
And yet the marina in Palm Beach was thrumming with anxiety. Ever since the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, launched his assault on Ukraine, the superyacht world has come under scrutiny. At a port in Spain, a Ukrainian engineer named Taras Ostapchuk, working aboard a ship that he said was owned by a Russian arms dealer, threw open the sea valves and tried to sink it to the bottom of the harbor.
Under arrest, he told a judge, “I would do it again.” Then he returned to Ukraine and joined the military. Western allies, in the hope of pressuring Putin to withdraw, have sought to cut off Russian oligarchs from businesses and luxuries abroad. “We are coming for your ill-begotten gains,” President Joe Biden declared, in his State of the Union address.
Nobody can say precisely how many of Putin’s associates own superyachts—known to professionals as “white boats”—because the white-boat world is notoriously opaque. Owners tend to hide behind shell companies, registered in obscure tax havens, attended by private bankers and lawyers.
But, with unusual alacrity, authorities have used subpoenas and police powers to freeze boats suspected of having links to the Russian élite. In Spain, the government detained a hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar yacht associated with Sergei Chemezov, the head of the conglomerate Rostec, whose bond with Putin reaches back to their time as K.G.B. officers in East Germany.
In Germany, authorities impounded the world’s most voluminous yacht, Dilbar, for its ties to the mining-and-telecom tycoon Alisher Usmanov. And in Italy police have grabbed a veritable armada, including a boat owned by one of Russia’s richest men, Alexei Mordashov, and a colossus suspected of belonging to Putin himself, the four-hundred-and-fifty-nine-foot Scheherazade.
In Palm Beach, the yachting community worried that the same scrutiny might be applied to them. “Say your superyacht is in Asia, and there’s some big conflict where China invades Taiwan,” Denison told me. “China could spin it as ‘Look at these American oligarchs!’ ” He wondered if the seizures of superyachts marked a growing political animus toward the very rich.
“Whenever things are economically or politically disruptive,” he said, “it’s hard to justify taking an insane amount of money and just putting it into something that costs a lot to maintain, depreciates, and is only used for having a good time.”
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