It may be landlocked and frozen solid for half the year, but Moscow is also home to largest growing population of yacht owners in the world. Given that Russia now has the second-highest number of billionaires — not to mention millionaires — living within its borders, this fact is less surprising than it might, at first, appear.
Like the private jets that ferry them to Courchevel through the winter and the Ferraris, Bentleys and Maybachs that whisk them through the streets of Moscow, a super yacht is an indispensable sign of capitalist achievement for status-oriented, post-Communist ‘New Russians’. Some choose to moor in the canals of the Moscow River, while other, even richer, ones focus solely on top-end Riviera destinations such as St Tropez, Monaco, Sardinia and Portofino, using a private jet and helicopter to gain access to their yachts. But the aim of most is much the same: to be seen.
In June, the bizarrely named Royal Yacht Club opened in Moscow, an elite club, membership of which signifies social clout amongst the glitterati in the Russian capital. It is one of more than a dozen private yacht clubs that have sprung up in the city. And, tellingly, the Moscow Shipyard, which was founded by Peter the Great and once produced utilitarian boats catering to the masses, has now refocused on the mega-yacht sector.
‘The Russians have much more of a show-off attitude when it comes to their yachts,’ says Damian Sibley, managing director of Hyde Yachts, an exclusive yacht brokerage operating throughout the world. ‘They like the scene and to be where the action is. On the mega-super-duper-giga-yacht side of the market, that’s definitely the Med: a private plane to Nice, a helicopter to Monaco, sitting on the back of your 60- or 70-metre boat and then popping down to Portofino or Porto Cervo for an extravagant meal.’
The very best new-build yachts (generally between 50 and 150 metres) cost between €30 million and €300 million, Sibley explains, and charters can go for as much as €1 million per week. More and more of these are being snapped up by Russians.
‘Ten years ago, the Russian market didn’t even really exist,’ Sibley explains. ‘In 2007, Middle Easterners were still our top clients, but now the Russians have drawn level. Today, Russians account for 25 per cent of our turnover, with Europe, America and the Middle East each accounting for the other three quarters. I’d say that, right now, every big shipyard in Europe — and possibly in the world — is building a boat for a Russian client.’
But Sibley is quick to emphasise that these Russians do not want to be called oligarchs. ‘They are entrepreneurs in their own right and it’s very important to them to be seen that way. They’re all very well advised and they have their finger on the pulse of what is up-to-date. Many of our Russian clients are building distinctive, one-off vessels, rather than repeating the same designs. They’re helping to push this market in a more personalised direction.
‘Obviously, the Abramoviches of this world started the trend several years ago. It is not that people want to be Abramovich, but he has become the benchmark. And there is a competitive nature amongst these people.’
Anton Dolotin, a co-owner of the Royal Yacht Club in Moscow, has referred to the competition between wealthy Russians for bigger and bigger yachts as ‘like an arms race’, including one who commissioned a 133-metre yacht — so large that ‘no marina in the world will be able to accommodate it’.
Dealing with Russians is not always plain sailing. ‘In general, when you’re dealing with these sums of money, certain issues are looked on, not as problems but as opportunities,’ Sibley says diplomatically. ‘Of course they can be difficult, but that’s one of the reasons why they are where they are and it’s their right to be so when they’re spending such vast sums of money.’
He says the key is to be patient and honest with them. ‘Once, a husband and wife came to us and were very interested in a certain boat. We could easily have sold it to them, but in our opinion the price and condition of the boat were inferior to others, so we said so, and by doing this, we gained their trust. Sure enough, they went on to buy a larger, newer, more expensive boat that they otherwise wouldn’t have looked at.’
The current downturn is showing no signs — yet — of denting their bank balances or their enthusiasm for the finer things in life. ‘Most of the yards in Europe with the capacity to build the largest yachts are booked through 2012,’ Sibley says.
In fact, the credit crunch may be playing into the Russians’ hands. ‘They like to replace their yachts at least every three years,’ he explains. ‘So, for those who don’t want to wait five years for a new one, they can come in and take over a project which someone else can’t afford to complete. It’s worked very well for them.’