Stuck at home for the past six months, many of us have felt the urge for a lockdown splurge: a new sofa, perhaps a home cinema, or a new car.
Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, known as UHNWIs in the luxury industry, are no exception. Still, it may come as some surprise to learn that the summer of COVID has seen the busiest August for brokerage yacht sales in five years, with 32 superyachts changing hands on the secondhand market last month alone, according to a register of such sales maintained by BOAT International magazine.
Industry insiders gave The Daily Beast a number of different reasons for the rush, but ultimately it seems that, after a summer spent chafing at a byzantine network of travel restrictions like everyone else, HNWIs are looking for a loophole that might enable them to resume the business of vacationing. And your own bio-secure yacht, within driving or choppering distance of home, is just that.
Stewart Campbell, the editor-in-chief of BOAT International, which tracks all global sales of boats over 24 meters (78.7ft) in length, told The Daily Beast that although the first part of the summer had been quiet—“you can’t buy a boat if you can’t see it” after all—now, “buyers are back.”
He says that the industry is quietly confident of a “bumper” Q4. “That is certainly the hope and the expectation, and the early signals are that that will be the case. Boats are being bought and sold at a good rate,” he said.
Prices start at about half a million dollars for a fixer-upper, rising to a limit defined only by the sky. If you’re keen to buy a smallish vessel right now, for example you could take the eight-berth Kemosabe for $1,650,000 or the similar-sized Money For Nothing for $6 million.
There is no official definition of what a superyacht is, and owners themselves shrink from the rather vulgar term. But generally a superyacht is, for starters, professionally crewed on a year-round basis, and more than 75 feet long.
Most yacht owners have been careful to be discreet about their vacations this year, although not all. MMA champion Conor McGregor, for example, couldn’t resist Instagramming from his vacation onboard a 120-foot Sunseeker that charters for a weekly rate of €100,000 ($118,200).
Jay-Z and Beyoncé were pictured this week on board the Lana, one of the most expensive yachts to charter in the world, which costs a cool $2 million a week to hire. Eagle-eyed observers in the Hamptons spotted sugar baron Pepe Fanjul’s huge yacht this summer. Another yacht-lover, Tommy Hilfiger, used his $40 million yacht Flag to get to and from his home in Mustique in style this summer, a source told The Daily Beast.
Meanwhile on television, there is the weekly, high-rating shenanigans of Bravo’s Below Deck, which addictively sketches the intrigues and arguments of the hot young crew whose job it is to serve the demanding and weird super-rich folks on board such craft.
Jamie Edmiston, CEO of Edmiston, a superyacht broker specializing in the sale, charter and management of luxury superyachts over 30 meters in length, told The Daily Beast that while yachting as a whole was brought to a grinding halt in the early days of COVID-19, the industry is now adapting successfully to the challenges of a changed world.
One significant change, he says, is that Americans, who would traditionally have represented a significant slice of global charter clientele, have been unable to travel to Europe to get on a yacht. As a result, many American owners forewent their planned holidays in Sardinia, Capri, or Monaco, and instead instructed their crew to head for New England or the Bahamas, where they could be easily accessed either by car or helicopter.
Once hurricane season in the Caribbean subsides, Edmiston says, he expects a very busy Christmas and winter in the charter market, not least because of the “incredible bio-security” that vacationing on a yacht offers.
“A yacht operates in a highly disciplined environment,” Edmiston says, “It is like a little bubble, probably cleaner than a hospital, and since COVID came along, that has become even more valuable.”
Andrew Winch has a unique perspective on the desires of the unfathomably rich. Winch is the founder and creative director of Winch Design, a multi-award winning design studio which has designed and curated several of the world’s most celebrated superyachts, including the 133-meter (436-foot) Al Mirqab.
Al Mirqab is one of the largest motor yachts ever built and the prized possession of Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, the former Qatari prime minister.
Winch, whose studio employs more than 100 people, concurs with Edmiston, telling The Daily Beast: “Yachts have always been maintained to very exacting standards. The cleaning is sometimes called ‘cotton bud cleaning’ because they will clean the showers and bathrooms and bedrooms with cotton buds so that it is immaculate. That is what these clients are expecting. How much cleaner can you make it? Not much. This is what the culture has always been.”
Winch, who has been in the business of yacht design for 35 years, says another interesting part of the new normal of COVID means that people taking vacations on yachts will be more likely to stay on board for the entire duration of their holidays: “Do you go on shore to the restaurants? Maybe not. Do you go to see another friend on another yacht? No probably not. For the time being, you are probably quite happy to stay on your own yacht with your own family.”
Indeed one new COVID-era yachting trend is minimizing the number of shore visits that the boats have to make, and this explains an uptick of interest in so-called “endurance” yachts, which can “endure” up to 90 days between shore servicing.
EYOS Expeditions specializes in designing and operating these ultra long-range vessels, focusing on a class of yachts known as Expedition yachts. The company helped design the new standout boat in this class, the luxury 62-meter (203 ft) Damen SeaXplorer, which, while able to break ice, also wouldn’t look out of place at the Cannes film festival (whenever that happens again).
EYOS Expeditions founder Rob McCallum says that while expedition vessels used to be seen as niche, “now people are increasingly thinking they want the ability to go remote and they want endurance.”
Even if they don’t intend on sailing up to the Arctic and going without shore support for three months, the fact that classic cruising yachts typically have to rely on land-based services—namely loading provisions and fuel and unloading garbage—has made them significantly less attractive in a world ridden with a highly infectious virus.
“Minimizing shore visits minimizes risk,” says McCallum, “If you keep going to shore every few days, every time you interact with the port you’re being exposed to risk. If you have a boat with high endurance it's less risk in terms of COVID.
“We operate a vessel at the moment which has an endurance of 90 days. That is extreme. We don't push it beyond 30 or 35 days, but we have been able to keep it COVID-free simply because it doesn't do that many port calls.”
He says that an often overlooked but absolutely key part of enabling boats to avoid having to make repeated trips to marinas is maintaining morale among the crew.
“When people talk about high endurance they automatically think that means fuel, and fuel is part of the equation, but so is quality living space for the crew, because if you are not turning over your crew that often, you need to have things like a really good gym and a really good theatre in place so that the crew are having a life as well.”
For wealthy yachties, as Andrew Winch says, the boat has always been a kind of home and a “very safe home” at that but the advent of secure mobile communications means they are now also offices.
There are now quite a few billionaires living for months at a time at sea and running their business empires from the ocean wave, even if most are more wised up than to post on Instagram about it, as David Geffen did at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Safety and privacy have always been an issue,” Winch told The Daily Beast. “COVID does not change that. It emphasizes that.”