(Bloomberg Businessweek) — At a shipyard in the Netherlands—the world’s megayacht maternity ward—the largest vessel of its kind is being custom-built for Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos at a projected cost that tops $500 million. With more than 400 feet of sleek aluminum and steel, it will join an elite new vessel category: the gigayacht.
The pandemic has intensified the desire to bubble oneself away from the world and widened the wealth gap further, making Bezos merely the latest business magnate fancying a life at sea (when he’s not in space).
“The market’s been roaring,” says Sam Tucker, head of superyacht research at VesselsValue Ltd. in London. “Second-hand sales are red-hot, and it’s impossible to get a slot in a build yard.”
Even charters—where a person, group, or family rents out a yacht for a trip—are through the roof. “Our year-on-year business is up over 340% from 2020 up to now,” says Patrick Curley, co-founder of brokerage firm YachtLife Technologies Inc. The company has been fielding so many requests, it’s started offering membership services that give priority to repeat renters.
Even the onboard jobs have become competitive. “There are hundreds of people clamoring to get a spot on a boat,” says Luke Hammond, captain of the 146-foot M/Y Bella (“M/Y” for motor yacht). Most applicants have fantasies of beachside bottle service and sailing to more than a dozen countries a year while attending to deep-pocketed glitterati.
But reality for the crew is hardly sunning in St-Tropez and hobnobbing with sheikhs, as I quickly learned when I scored a position as a deckhand aboard the Bella—a pristine, semicustom, six-cabin, four-deck vessel with a skylight and floating tub in its owner’s suite.
The to-do list I shared with the eight other crew members included tweezing fried chicken crumbs off the teak flooring, acting as a human clothes rack on seven-figure shopping sprees, and ferrying to the middle of nowhere to pick up caviar. If you thought life was always glam aboard a superyacht, here’s proof that it’s super-not.
A good yachtie isn’t seen or heard—but they see and hear everything. Earpieces, radios, and cameras help keep a constant eye on guests, all feeding back to a control room.
When guests are seen leaving for breakfast, the stewards (or stews, for short) are immediately deployed to the guest rooms to clean. When someone picks mushrooms out of an omelet, the chef makes a note to tweak the dish the next morning.
Of course, this also means staff see and hear things of a more risqué nature, such as one yachtie whose repeat client insisted on spending her entire seven-day foray in the nude, often passing out drunk in unbecoming positions. Semiclad sunbathing (most often by “paid friend” types), spouse swaps, and drunken fisticuffs are also common.
Watching the cameras can be like blooper TV. “We’ve seen guys do splits with one foot on the boat and the other on the tender as they drifted apart,” one of my colleagues recalls. “One time,” Hammond adds, “we watched someone get slapped in the face by a flying fish.”
There’s clean, and then there’s yacht-clean
“Salt kills everything,” says Clint Jones, a longtime captain who worked aboard an A-list golfer’s vessel before joining YachtLife as a broker. Anytime the ships move through water—even if it’s simply steering to another beach 30 minutes away—the sea splash necessitates hours of cleaning.
Sports stars are reputed to be the messiest guests and most prone to trashing vessels. The biggest infraction in recent memory, says a senior YachtLife broker, was a current NBA player who went out on a boat in the morning and had wrecked it by lunch, dousing the interiors in sprayed Champagne, then clogging all of the cabin toilets with his vomit.
Even without all that, a stem-to-stern cleaning takes six people around 10 full days. And you can clean a half-dozen hotel rooms in the three hours it takes to clean one yacht stateroom, suctioning walls and air vents with special vacuum attachments and scrupulously microcleaning grout with toothpicks. One day I spent 45 minutes “Q-tip cleaning” a single bathroom cabinet.
The crew knows immediately if you’re a charter newbie when you bust out the aerosol sunscreen—it’s the hardest stain to clean, says Gina Nivison, the Bella’s chief stewardess, who makes every effort to gently cajole clients toward creams before they arrive. Women who sleep in tanning oil and makeup drive staff nuts, too; when I boarded the Bella, staff members were replacing $8,000 worth of linens for that very reason. (Frequent stains of other natures require a quick 86 of bed linens, as well.) Fried food is also terrible: The greasy crumbs tend to escape sweeping and need to be meticulously picked off teak floorboards one by one.
Sometimes you need a second boat for prostitutes
Gone are the days when pleasure yachts were drifting cocaine dens—“it’s definitely not the ’80s anymore,” Hammond says. Boats can be impounded and captains arrested if illegal substances are found on board, thanks to ubiquitous port laws that clamped down on smuggling in the ’90s. In a total U-turn, the Bahamas, once a prime drug-dealing way station, is now among the most family-friendly locales—along with much of the Caribbean. And in general, the no-narcotics rules are so strict, Hammond has had to fire a few deckhands over the years for casually smoking a blunt off the bow of his ships.
Prostitutes are a different story. “We see day-use girlfriends on other boats all the time,” says Christopher Sawyer, the Bella’s chef, “especially in the Med.” He’s even witnessed big spenders fill a secondary superyacht with women to trail the lead vessel, swapping them on and off—10 at a time—throughout the course of several days.
Often a yacht will be rented for two weeks: the first for the family, the second for bachelor party-esque antics. I’ll tell you about the crazy land-bound shopping sprees in a bit—they’re often the wives’ revenge.
Stocking the fridge is a seven-person job
Taking every guest into account when food shopping is key. Especially pets. Once, Sawyer cooked a week’s worth of meals for a dog named Bellini. “He just looked at you like he knew he was rich,” he says.
Babies can be discerning, too. “One guest had me cook whole meals, just to cram them down the blender for his kid,” the chef notes. “I remember making a lovely Irish stew, then pulverizing it into mush.”
Most ingredients are purchased near the shipyard before departure. “The Publix in Palm Beach is probably the most profitable grocery store in America,” Sawyer says. It’s the go-to spot for yachts docked in both Riviera Beach and West Palm Beach, and stocking the Bella’s six fridges and freezers takes seven piled-up grocery carts.
“Milk is the bane of my existence,” Sawyer laments. “Everyone needs it for their coffee, and it’s hard to keep it fresh for a weeklong charter.”
Additional port purchases require upcharges of about $1,000 for every $6,000 of groceries. “If you want to make bank, start a business that stocks boats,” says Hammond, whose 18-year yachting pedigree includes stints aboard vessels that Microsoft and LVMH execs own.
Choppering in caviar is like an Olympic relay race
The Bella’s kitchen staff sends out detailed guest preference surveys to anticipate unexpected food requests. But guests’ nationalities contain valuable clues, too.
Whatever Middle Eastern clients want, they want it in abundance. “They eat like Americans but want five times the portion size, always served buffet-style,” Sawyer says. “And they only eat around 10%.” Emirati and Saudi wives like to commandeer his kitchen to cook meals just as their families like them. “I don’t usually mind,” Sawyer says. “I get to learn new recipes!”
For Russians, “it’s a lot of lentils,” he continues. “You know, besides the vodka and caviar.”
And, boy, do they like their fish eggs. Every experienced yachtie I met said that if a guest arrives via private jet from Moscow, a chopper will likely come to replenish the supply halfway through a trip. “It’s a total flex move,” Jones says.
Once, in an ultra-remote part of the Caribbean, he had to magically conjure more Champagne and caviar—calling up a provisioner in Florida and then organizing a private plane to fly it to St. Lucia. From there, Jones says, “we had to hire a boat to run it halfway to our vessel, so I could take a tender and ferry it the rest of the way.”
Crew are often more spoiled than the guests
“When you’re around people with high demands all the time, it really starts to rub off on you,” Nivison says. “Since we don’t have to pay for our food or housing, we really go all out when we have time off—as though we owned our own boats.”
The average stewards and deckhands make about $3,000 a month—a number that’s barely gone up in decades. But yachties will commonly throw down on bottle service at Nikki Beach alongside moguls and heiresses, “and we buy all the Gucci glasses and bathing suits, too,” Nivison says.
Better yet, they’re frequently asked to accompany guests on six- or seven-figure shopping sprees—to hold the bags—and get rewarded with collateral, such as an Hermès scarf. Other times, luxury apparel is left on board. “We offer to send it back to clients. But they usually don’t care, so we get to keep it,” one of the stewardesses reports.
The same applies to food and booze. “We once had such a ridiculous surplus of Kobe beef that I was doing wagyu fajitas for the staff after we got sick of eating fillets every night,” Sawyer says, laughing.
Even still, employee turnover is high, largely thanks to “cabin goggles,” the phenomenon of appearing better-looking simply because you’re among a limited population of yachties. You may not be looking to shack up, but if you’re a three on land, suddenly you’re an eight at sea—so it’s only a matter of time.
Usually it’s a stew quitting to follow a dashing deckhand onto another yacht. (Sure enough, while I was on board, the Bella’s third stew—who was as new to the crew as I—was passionately texting a yachtie she’d met at the previous shipyard.) Very rarely, a senior crew member will marry into the owner’s family, securing a lifelong upgrade on the yacht they once scrubbed. Dreams can come true.
It’s all about the tips
When a boat is being chartered, the unspoken rule is for the renter—called the “primary”—to tip each crew member 1% of the total weekly rental cost. For the Bella, which costs $220,000 for seven days (not including food, fuel, and dockage), staff can plan on pocketing at least $2,200 each. The number can be far higher if a group leaves behind what’s left of their food and fuel deposit—30% of the total trip cost—and it’s dispersed to staff. A great summer in the Med could bring in $50,000 worth of tips per person, and then there are those elusive one-off charters where yachties hit it big with a $10,000 bonus.
Owners, on the other hand, rarely tip because they’re the crew’s boss. But anniversary bonuses, meant to reward loyalty, can be tremendous: a Breitling watch for completing a year of service or a Rolex for hitting five. Yachties who get in with their owners are even sometimes granted shares of their companies or invitations to be early investors in their next ventures—forms of gratitude that could pay dividends.
South Florida is the new Med
South Florida—from Palm Beach down to Miami—is quickly becoming a ’roided-out version of the Mediterranean. “But in Florida,” YachtLife’s Curley says, “the party’s all 12 months of the year.”
There the business is about day charters, often for time-crunched celebs willing to drop $15,000 on one epic joyride. On “Sunday Fundays,” Curley says, “you head out in the morning, drop anchor at the sandbar off Key Biscayne, play with the toys before you’re too drunk, then dock at the trendiest club.”
Drugs are rampant on land, even among brokers. At one agent’s office, I watched as he closed the sale of a limited-edition 110-foot Riva Dolcevita (a certain soccer star owns one; the asking price is more than $15 million). He then slammed his laptop shut and did a line of blow off its silvery sheen; another did a key bump while we were driving to meet a day charter client at his house.
At one club, I was invited on board an owner’s docked boat, only to find a veritable buffet of weed. While looking for the bathroom, I stumbled into another secret lair: a dedicated cocaine room, complete with an ornate mirrored table.
You lose going in and going out
As a general rule, superyachts cost a million dollars for every 3 feet you build. Because they measure at least 120 feet, buying one will set you back about $40 million before common add-ons such as Jacuzzis and helipads. And then there are the toys, from Jet Skis to $5 million submarines.
Fueling, electricity, dockage fees, maintenance, and other operational expenses stretch the wallet further at an annual rate of about 5% of the ship’s purchase price. That includes taking care of the crew. As I learned happily, owners are responsible for feeding them, stocking their bathrooms with toothbrushes and shampoos, and outfitting them with a branded wardrobe. My Manhattan closet would barely fit everything I received upon boarding: on- and off-charter uniforms, three colors of evening wear, formal “number ones” for greeting clients, and Helly Hansen wind shells for a stop in Alaska.
Then there’s the art. “I once worked on a vessel that had a Picasso in the galley—the staff saw it way more than the owner!” Hammond says, adding that his ships have held everything including Fabergé eggs and concert pianos. Another, owned by an LVMH exec, was designed with as many Dior products as could fit inside, including custom wallpaper. (Salt air and sunshine be damned.)
But the biggest depreciating asset is the ship itself. “You lose 20% of what you paid as soon as your boat leaves the yard and then single-digit percentage points off the purchase price every 12 months after that,” Hammond notes. That’s an $8 million instant hit on a $40 million sticker price, minus an additional $2 million a year in upkeep.
Says Hammond: “Clearly if you’re getting into yachting, you’re not doing it as an investment.”