It was day three of our stay aboard the 236ft superyacht Axioma when we faced our first blip on the horizon. Wafting from our cabins to the terrace for breakfast, we had expected to be greeted once again by platters of tropical fruit and freshly baked pistachio muffins. Instead, we were affronted by the sight of a crudely proportioned research ship, compromising our view of St Barts and the other vessels shimmering expensively in the harbour.
“It’s so ugly,” said one of our party. “It’s Arctic P,” said another. “That vessel was built as a salvage tug but was refitted as a superyacht and now belongs to the Australian billionaire James Packer.” That changed things. On learning that Packer’s travelling companion was his then-girlfriend Mariah Carey, our all-encompassing aura of affluence was intact once again. We could return our attention to breakfast.
Though guests on superyachts (motor or sailing yachts measuring 78ft and upwards) won’t typically be able to identify those on neighbouring vessels so easily, sailing the “Milk Run” route – a sort of elite nautical passeggiata that runs along the Caribbean islands in winter and the Mediterranean coast in summer – pretty much guarantees you’ll be surrounded by the world’s wealthiest people. There is no more extravagant, costly way to holiday.
Our own passage on Axioma ably demonstrated that. Exceptionally elegant, the vessel features a pool, Jacuzzi and spa, as well as a 3D cinema, a three-storey inflatable water slide and a battalion of “toys” that includes jet skis and Seabobs; a crew of 20 serves a maximum of 12 guests. Through the superyacht brokerage Yachting Partners International (YPI), one week’s charter during the high season in winter costs €635,000 (£550,000), excluding food, drink, fuel and staff gratuities (when tipping, clients often give the crew 10 per cent of the charter price). The four-year-old yacht is also on the market to buy through YPI for €68million (£58 million).
Though the rates are unfathomable to most, they are also hefty enough to require the super-rich to consider the expenditure carefully. Mark Duncan, until recently YPI’s commercial and marketing director, is frank about superyachting being a form of unfettered indulgence: “Yachting is not an investment, neither is it an essential. It’s a pure plaything, and the ultimate reward for all the hard work, the late nights, and the lack of quality time you’ve had with your family for however many years.”
More and more people are beginning to agree with him. With a total value of €3.4 billion, 393 superyachts were sold worldwide in 2015 (complete figures for 2016 are as yet unavailable). Today there are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 superyachts afloat, of which about 1,500 can be chartered.
Duncan is optimistic about the industry’s future. “Luxury yacht charter is an industry that’s been going for only 40-odd years; it’s been a cottage industry – the preserve of ‘those in the know’ for so long – and we estimate that 94 per cent of ultra-high-net-worth individuals do not charter or own a yacht.” UHNWIs are generally defined as individuals with investable assets of at least $30 million and today number about 220,000, with a combined net worth thought to be in the region of $30 trillion. The potential for growth in the superyacht industry is immense and, according to Duncan, it is being realised.
Though the volume of sales fell in 2016, every year since the global financial crises to 2015 saw the buying and selling market increase by an average of 17 per cent. Those who do splash out on the activity are often prompted by surprisingly simple motivations. The owner of the 144ft Seven Sins told me it was “contact with the world’s oceans and unlimited freedom” that made the purchase most appealing; for others, celebrities in particular, it is the unrivalled sense of privacy.
Key to convincing these people to spend on superyachts are the brokers, and among the best connected is YPI’s director of sales, Russell Crump. “As a broker you’ve got to source UHNWIs, play in their games, be at their parties and make sure you become ‘the yacht guy’ so that, when they do think about yachting, you’re on speed dial.” Being present at the right events is essential, as is an understanding of the tastes of different nationalities. In Crump’s experience, Russians “inherently like glam”; Americans favour “old-style… ‘country house’ interiors”; Middle Eastern clients are drawn to an “Arab chic” aesthetic; while Britons “tend to be a bit sober”.
India, Brazil and Mexico are likely emerging markets – Chinese consumers remain somewhat averse – and any young broker who taps into those regions can expect to be handsomely rewarded. Crump and his similarly well-connected peers can earn between 20 and 60 per cent commission on transactions, and experienced brokers might make around €500,000 annually.
They enjoy some of the most generous remuneration on offer in the luxury yacht industry, which is today estimated to be worth some €24 billion and to employ more than 130,000 people. But it’s the yacht crew who are most valued by guests on board. They are tasked with ensuring every need is anticipated and catered for, and should be able to oscillate nimbly from invisible sentry to chirpy caregiver. On constant call and confined to cramped quarters, crew can expect ceaseless exertion if aboard an in-demand yacht. During one popular stretch, Axioma’s crew worked for 84 days in a row.
It is typically the chief stewardess who takes responsibility for ensuring everything surpasses customers’ expectations, and Axioma’s, Suzy Sawers, has fielded every conceivable request in her 29-year career. For a recent superhero-themed children’s birthday, she arranged for a costumed Batman and Hulk to circle Axioma on jet skis; at another soirée off the coast of Turkey, guests gathered in a replica Bedouin tent and were surprised by belly dancers.
For capable crews the rewards are great. With no living expenses, a wage provided and tips often staggeringly generous, money builds quickly. But for Sawers it’s the sense of pride that comes with serving the world’s most privileged consumers that has kept her at sea for so long. “The ultimate compliment for me,” she says, “is when they turn around and say that’s the best holiday they’ve ever had in their life… you’ve given them something they’ve never had before, which I think is pretty special.”
Breakfast finished, a leisurely jet-ski jaunt completed and a crisp G&T in hand, I’m also finding my time on Axioma pretty special. A day earlier we had taken the ship’s tender to Anguilla’s Sandy Island, a slim crescent of sugary sand that is home to nothing but a makeshift bar, to sip on pina coladas as the sun set; this afternoon promised a treatment from the onboard masseuse or perhaps some snorkelling. Fleetingly ensconced on one of the world’s most beautiful yachts, it was a tantalising insight into what life is like for the privileged few for whom money truly is no object.