Whether you’re admiring them from the quayside at Cannes or partying on board, you can’t fail to be impressed. Adrian Morgan steps inside the super-yachts of the super-rich and famous

Sea Life

To yacht-spot at Cannes is to observe the mega-rich at play, albeit behind smoked windows, protected by CCTV and Ray-Banned deckhands. Here in high season, internet billionaires, Russian oligarchs, property developers and pop stars vie for the limelight aboard super-glamorous, super-swanky vessels.

Everyone with the wherewithal to commission a yacht is playing the game. And bigger is better: it’s not so much a case of keeping up with the Joneses, as trumping the Trumps (Trump Princess, which Donald sold to Saudi Prince al Waleed bin Talal, was a mere 86m in length).

In the last three months of 2004, 16 superyachts (yachts more than 30m) were launched from a handful of yards worldwide. The largest is Rising Sun, a 138m steel yacht for computer billionaire Larry Ellison, from the Lurssen yard in Hamburg; the smallest a 31m aluminium yacht from Cantieri Navali di Lavagna in Italy. Their combined value, if the figures could be prised from secretive offshore accountants, would top £500 million. Of the world’s top 100 superyachts, 41 were built in the past five years: largest is the 160m Dubai royal yacht Platinum.

The growth of superyacht-building is less a reflection on the strength of the global economy, more on the staggering wealth of the few. To step aboard a superyacht is to enter a world that even the best hotels cannot hope to emulate. Here, deckhands, stewards, chefs, engineers and captains outnumber guests two, three, even four to one. This is a world where towels are changed five times a day; private cinemas show the latest films, downloaded via satellite in mid-ocean; gyms and saunas rival the finest health spas; and myriad “toys”, from mini-subs to windsurfers, are there to entertain you. Above all it is a private world that moves: today Cannes, tomorrow Sardinia. Summer in the Med, winters in the Caribbean.

Supporting the fleet is a raft of naval architects, builders, interior designers, structural engineers, project managers, brokers and craftsmen. Everything from the carpets to the stainless steel anchors is made to the owner’s taste, be it leather and mahogany or chrome and aluminium, Brit Art or Old Masters.

So let’s step aboard that 75m motor yacht, moored nearest the harbour entrance. The owner is at the gangplank – he calls it a ‘passarelle’. It retracts hydraulically into the stern. He is 45, and made his money in property. “Welcome aboard,” he says. “The steward will take your shoes – they mark the teak decks. Have these Gucci loafers instead.”

To step aboard a superyacht is to enter a world that even the best hotels cannot hope to emulate

Built last year, the hull is made from ultrasound-tested welded steel. The super-structure is lightweight Alustar alloy, to keep weight low for better stability. Registered in the Cayman Islands for tax reasons, she weighs – or rather displaces – 2,000 tons. Her two Caterpillar 3,140hp diesels will push her to 18 knots, not that you’d notice any vibration as the entire accommodation ‘floats’ on anti-vibration mounts.

She carries 300,000 litres of fuel – more than enough to cross the Atlantic and back – and her desalinators produce 40,000 litres a day, so no worries about refilling the two Jacuzzis. The hull was designed by a naval architect, entirely by computer, her sea-keeping and fuel efficiency verified by tank-testing. The structural analysis took into account worst-case sea states, hurricanes, collision, fire and grounding. She meets strict Maritime and Coastguard Agency regulations. She has active stabilisers that damp out rolling, and navigation electronics the envy of the captain of a supertanker.

The five staterooms each have plasma screen TV, and a vast storage capacity holds 12,000 CDs and 750 DVDs. The sound system here and in the cinema on the main deck, which seats 14, is by Linn – a snip at £600,000.

Andrew Winch is among the elite of mainly London-based yacht designers which includes Terry Disdale, Tim Heywood, Don Starkey and Bannenberg, all of whom have also designed houses.

“You can’t just be an interior decorator and expect to succeed in this business,” says Winch. “You need to understand yachts, and what is possible. On a yacht, everything loose falls over. You can’t simply hang a picture on a wall. Nor can you put up a stud wall and plaster it. You need access to the pipework, electricity cables and communications wiring.”

Winch is currently working on a 120m yacht that carries a helicopter, Range Rover and military Hummer. “Controlling weight is crucial,” he explains. “If we use marble on the top deck, it will be a veneer on a honeycomb base. It looks like a 40mm slab, but weighs just a fraction.”

Above all, it is a private world that moves. Summer in the Med, winter in the Caribbean

Trompe l’oeil and wood-graining are favourite tricks to manage weight, a factor the house designer has no need to address. Nor need he worry that his building will habitually slip along at an alarming angle. On Winch’s drawing board is a sailing yacht with a beam of 18m. “The main saloon is 16m wide,” he says. “That’s a hell of a long way to slide down, so we’ve been asked to restrict the yacht’s angle of heel to 10 degrees.”

Meanwhile, our superyacht-owner is waiting by the lift in the atrium to show us the bridge. “Those LCD monitors display everything from the wind speed to the CCTV on the aft deck,” he reveals. “Well, with two Monets on board, we have to be careful. We can also check everything remotely from our apartment in Monaco – ship’s position, engine revs, fuel – by satellite.

“Do we still use a sextant? The skipper’s ex-Royal Navy and likes to keep his hand in, but we use a Transas electronic chart system – although we carry Admiralty charts, just in case – and every kind of communication system.”

The yacht and her crew of 26 cost £2 million a year to run, partly recouped by chartering. The family use her for three months a year. Impressive, but she pales alongside Netscape owner Jim Clark’s 90m three-masted schooner Athena, with its computer-controlled sails, or Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s 128m motor yacht. Octopus not only has a helicopter pad and a 300-seater rock stage, but a 40m floodable canal where he keeps a 6m tender and 20m submarine.

Still, our current host seems suitably content with his lot. “My steward will see you ashore. The slippers? Oh, keep them as a souvenir.”

Get on board AT MIPIM

Superyachts are the playground of the super-rich. But the swing-park and slides for the averagely affluent MIPIM-goer are the 70 or so “gin palaces” moored along Cannes’ Albert Edouard quayside. During MIPIM, companies charter these boats as a floating corporate HQ with cocktail bar and French restaurant attached.

Consultant Arup will base itself on the four-cabin Sunny Dream instead of on an exhibition stand, calculating that the extra cost is recouped in goodwill. “We host cocktail parties and buffet lunches every day, and there’s a dining room for meals with close friends and clients. It means we can hold events outside conference hours, in a nice relaxed atmosphere,” says Daire Hearne, business development manager.

Even the public sector has dipped its toe in Cannes’ warm saltwater. Lobbying group Business Liverpool is chartering a 35m yacht to host a welcome party on the Monday evening and events throughout the week. “We’re stepping up the ante – we wanted to give better value to our private sponsors,” says Paul Whitehead, its marketing manager. “It’s another platform for them to use and host private networking events.”

All these yachts might whet your appetite for some real sailing, but your chances of seeing Cannes from the Med are limited. Agent GVA Chapman Swabey is offering twice-daily sailing trips on the 57ft Miracle, but invitations have already gone to clients and contacts. GVA Chapman Swabey partner Tony Joyce says that clients respond well to the trips. “It’s great to breathe sea air and have a break from it all. We let our guests skipper and crew if they want.”