Report: Building Superyachts for Shady Billionaires Is a Thankless Job

Controversial customers, envious owners and cultural mores are impacting the multi-million dollar boat industry

Superyacht
Luxury yachts moored during the recent Monaco Yacht Show
VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images
By Kirk Miller / October 9, 2019 12:37 pm

Superyacht envy is a thing, and it’s causing some concern among the people who build boats for the 0.0001%. In a recent New York Times feature, several superyacht designers expressed concern about production issues with the giant boats they’re working on.

At places like the Monaco Yacht Show, buyers are being exposed to new boats and features that they want to tack on to their existing or in-production ships, creating some headaches for the builders. “It’s fine when [the changes] are superficial,” as Dickie Bannenberg, head of the superyacht design house Bannenberg & Rowell, told the Times. “Let’s say they liked the plates or towels on their friend’s yacht — but if you’re not careful it can verge on, ‘Oh, my friend’s gym was like this, can we have something similar?’ or, ‘I would really like to add a submersible vessel.’”

Accommodating those requests isn’t often possible, no matter how much money the clientele can throw at them: the production schedules for these vessels often take 2-4 years, or even longer for significant customization, as Heesen superyacht PR manager Sara Gioanola told us last year.

The Times also notes several other, more concerning issues with the rising popularity of superyachts (loosely defined as measuring more than 100 feet, and costing anywhere from $5-$500 million). Among them: controversial clients (arms dealers, organized crime leaders, businessmen arrested for fraud, embattled political leaders, etc.), political and cultural restraints (especially among the class of newly rich billionaires based in China) and the global consolidation of shipyards.

One promising note: Some yacht owners, like the late Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, use their ships for critical research and sustainability experiments. Currently, a 600-foot boat called REV is being used as a marine research vessel, and can also sail around the world without refueling.

In those cases, “[there’s] a much bigger desire to actually interact with the ocean rather than sitting in a glitzy apartment that happens to be floating,” as Bannenberg tells the Times.

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