Alex Finley, a former C.I.A. officer who has seen yachts proliferate near her home in Barcelona, has weighed the superyacht era and its discontents in writings and on Twitter, using the hashtag #YachtWatch. “To me, the yachts are not just yachts,” she told me. “In Russia’s case, these are the embodiment of oligarchs helping a dictator destabilize our democracy while utilizing our democracy to their benefit.” But, Finley added, it’s a mistake to think the toxic symbolism applies only to Russia. “The yachts tell a whole story about a Faustian capitalism—this idea that we’re ready to sell democracy for short-term profit,” she said. “They’re registered offshore. They use every loophole that we’ve put in place for illicit money and tax havens. So they play a role in this battle, writ large, between autocracy and democracy.”
After a morning on the docks at the Palm Beach show, I headed to a more secluded marina nearby, which had been set aside for what an attendant called “the really big hardware.” It felt less like a trade show than like a boutique resort, with a swimming pool and a terrace restaurant. Kevin Merrigan, a relaxed Californian with horn-rimmed glasses and a high forehead pinked by the sun, was waiting for me at the stern of Unbridled, a superyacht with a brilliant blue hull that gave it the feel of a personal cruise ship. He invited me to the bridge deck, where a giant screen showed silent video of dolphins at play.
Merrigan is the chairman of the brokerage Northrop & Johnson, which has ridden the tide of growing boats and wealth since 1949. Lounging on a sofa mounded with throw pillows, he projected a nearly postcoital level of contentment. He had recently sold the boat we were on, accepted an offer for a behemoth beside us, and begun negotiating the sale of yet another. “This client owns three big yachts,” he said. “It’s a hobby for him. We’re at a hundred and ninety-one feet now, and last night he said, ‘You know, what do you think about getting a two hundred and fifty?’ ” Merrigan laughed. “And I was, like, ‘Can’t you just have dinner?’ ”
Among yacht owners, there are some unwritten rules of stratification: a Dutch-built boat will hold its value better than an Italian; a custom design will likely get more respect than a “series yacht”; and, if you want to disparage another man’s boat, say that it looks like a wedding cake. But, in the end, nothing says as much about a yacht, or its owner, as the delicate matter of L.O.A.—length over all.
The imperative is not usually length for length’s sake (though the longtime owner told me that at times there is an aspect of “phallic sizing”). “L.O.A.” is a byword for grandeur. In most cases, pleasure yachts are permitted to carry no more than twelve passengers, a rule set by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, which was conceived after the sinking of the Titanic. But those limits do not apply to crew. “So, you might have anything between twelve and fifty crew looking after those twelve guests,” Edmiston, the broker, said. “It’s a level of service you cannot really contemplate until you’ve been fortunate enough to experience it.”
As yachts have grown more capacious, and the limits on passengers have not, more and more space on board has been devoted to staff and to novelties. The latest fashions include IMAX theatres, hospital equipment that tests for dozens of pathogens, and ski rooms where guests can suit up for a helicopter trip to a mountaintop. The longtime owner, who had returned the previous day from his yacht, told me, “No one today—except for assholes and ridiculous people—lives on land in what you would call a deep and broad luxe life. Yes, people have nice houses and all of that, but it’s unlikely that the ratio of staff to them is what it is on a boat.” After a moment, he added, “Boats are the last place that I think you can get away with it.”
Even among the truly rich, there is a gap between the haves and the have-yachts. One boating guest told me about a conversation with a famous friend who keeps one of the world’s largest yachts. “He said, ‘The boat is the last vestige of what real wealth can do.’ What he meant is, You have a chef, and I have a chef. You have a driver, and I have a driver. You can fly privately, and I fly privately. So, the one place where I can make clear to the world that I am in a different fucking category than you is the boat.”
After Merrigan and I took a tour of Unbridled, he led me out to a waiting tender, staffed by a crew member with an earpiece on a coil. The tender, Merrigan said, would ferry me back to the busy main dock of the Palm Beach show. We bounced across the waves under a pristine sky, and pulled into the marina, where my fellow-gawkers were still trying to talk their way past the greeters. As I walked back into the scrum, Namasté was still there, but it looked smaller than I remembered.
For owners and their guests, a white boat provides a discreet marketplace for the exchange of trust, patronage, and validation. To diagram the precise workings of that trade—the customs and anxieties, strategies and slights—I talked to Brendan O’Shannassy, a veteran captain who is a curator of white-boat lore. Raised in Western Australia, O’Shannassy joined the Navy as a young man, and eventually found his way to skippering some of the world’s biggest yachts. He has worked for Paul Allen, the late co-founder of Microsoft, along with a few other billionaires he declines to name. Now in his early fifties, with patient green eyes and tufts of curly brown hair, O’Shannassy has had a vantage from which to monitor the social traffic. “It’s all gracious, and everyone’s kiss-kiss,” he said. “But there’s a lot going on in the background.”
O’Shannassy once worked for an owner who limited the number of newspapers on board, so that he could watch his guests wait and squirm. “It was a mind game amongst the billionaires. There were six couples, and three newspapers,” he said, adding, “They were ranking themselves constantly.” On some boats, O’Shannassy has found himself playing host in the awkward minutes after guests arrive. “A lot of them are savants, but some are very un-socially aware,” he said. “They need someone to be social and charming for them.” Once everyone settles in, O’Shannassy has learned, there is often a subtle shift, when a mogul or a politician or a pop star starts to loosen up in ways that are rarely possible on land. “Your security is relaxed—they’re not on your hip,” he said. “You’re not worried about paparazzi. So you’ve got all this extra space, both mental and physical.”
O’Shannassy has come to see big boats as a space where powerful “solar systems” converge and combine. “It is implicit in every interaction that their sharing of information will benefit both parties; it is an obsession with billionaires to do favours for each other. A referral, an introduction, an insight—it all matters,” he wrote in “Superyacht Captain,” a new memoir. A guest told O’Shannassy that, after a lavish display of hospitality, he finally understood the business case for buying a boat. “One deal secured on board will pay it all back many times over,” the guest said, “and it is pretty hard to say no after your kids have been hosted so well for a week.”
Take the case of David Geffen, the former music and film executive. He is long retired, but he hosts friends (and potential friends) on the four-hundred-and-fifty-four-foot Rising Sun, which has a double-height cinema, a spa and salon, and a staff of fifty-seven. In 2017, shortly after Barack and Michelle Obama departed the White House, they were photographed on Geffen’s boat in French Polynesia, accompanied by Bruce Springsteen, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and Rita Wilson. For Geffen, the boat keeps him connected to the upper echelons of power. There are wealthier Americans, but not many of them have a boat so delectable that it can induce both a Democratic President and the workingman’s crooner to risk the aroma of hypocrisy.
The binding effect pays dividends for guests, too. Once people reach a certain level of fame, they tend to conclude that its greatest advantage is access. Spend a week at sea together, lingering over meals, observing one another floundering on a paddleboard, and you have something of value for years to come. Call to ask for an investment, an introduction, an internship for a wayward nephew, and you’ll at least get the call returned. It’s a mutually reinforcing circle of validation: she’s here, I’m here, we’re here.
But, if you want to get invited back, you are wise to remember your part of the bargain. If you work with movie stars, bring fresh gossip. If you’re on Wall Street, bring an insight or two. Don’t make the transaction obvious, but don’t forget why you’re there. “When I see the guest list,” O’Shannassy wrote, “I am aware, even if not all names are familiar, that all have been chosen for a purpose.”
For O’Shannassy, there is something comforting about the status anxieties of people who have everything. He recalled a visit to the Italian island of Sardinia, where his employer asked him for a tour of the boats nearby. Riding together on a tender, they passed one colossus after another, some twice the size of the owner’s superyacht. Eventually, the man cut the excursion short. “Take me back to my yacht, please,” he said. They motored in silence for a while. “There was a time when my yacht was the most beautiful in the bay,” he said at last. “How do I keep up with this new money?”
The summer season in the Mediterranean cranks up in May, when the really big hardware heads east from Florida and the Caribbean to escape the coming hurricanes, and reconvenes along the coasts of France, Italy, and Spain. At the center is the Principality of Monaco, the sun-washed tax haven that calls itself the “world’s capital of advanced yachting.” In Monaco, which is among the richest countries on earth, superyachts bob in the marina like bath toys.
The nearest hotel room at a price that would not get me fired was an Airbnb over the border with France. But an acquaintance put me on the phone with the Yacht Club de Monaco, a members-only establishment created by the late monarch His Serene Highness Prince Rainier III, whom the Web site describes as “a true visionary in every respect.” The club occasionally rents rooms—“cabins,” as they’re called—to visitors in town on yacht-related matters. Claudia Batthyany, the elegant director of special projects, showed me to my cabin and later explained that the club does not aspire to be a hotel. “We are an association,” she said. “Otherwise, it becomes”—she gave a gentle wince—“not that exclusive.”
Inside my cabin, I quickly came to understand that I would never be fully satisfied anywhere else again. The space was silent and aromatically upscale, bathed in soft sunlight that swept through a wall of glass overlooking the water. If I was getting a sudden rush of the onboard experience, that was no accident. The clubhouse was designed by the British architect Lord Norman Foster to evoke the opulent indulgence of ocean liners of the interwar years, like the Queen Mary. I found a handwritten welcome note, on embossed club stationery, set alongside an orchid and an assemblage of chocolate truffles: “The whole team remains at your entire disposal to make your stay a wonderful experience. Yours sincerely, Service Members.” I saluted the nameless Service Members, toiling for the comfort of their guests. Looking out at the water, I thought, intrusively, of a line from Santiago, Hemingway’s old man of the sea. “Do not think about sin,” he told himself. “It is much too late for that and there are people who are paid to do it.”