East London may be a far cry from Monaco or St Tropez, but the international rich are gliding into the capital’s poorest area for the Olympic Games on what looks like a gathering fleet of multi-million-dollar superyachts.
Seven gleaming giants, the biggest of which is 126 metres (413 ft) long, dominate the impeccably kept South Quay of East London’s West India Docks, where daily moorings cost up to 9,000 pounds ($14,000) a day, a third of the average UK annual wage.
With blacked out windows, rooftop Jacuzzis and the sort of security that would satisfy a Russian oligarch or an Arab Sheikh, the superyachts offer a taste of the Olympic party that is to come and the income inequalities of modern London.
“We are still expecting three or four more boats to arrive,” said Fran Read, a spokeswoman for the Canal and River Trust, a charity which oversees 2,000 miles of waterways in England and Wales.
“It’s the most activity the dock has seen since its days as a trading port, and certainly the most super yachts we’ve ever had in West India Quays,” she said by telephone.
Just over half an hour’s walk from the Olympic Stadium, the biggest yacht gracing the aptly named Dollar Bay belongs to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who is ranked as the world’s 48th richest man by Forbes with a fortune of $14.2 billion.
Valued at more than $200 million, the boat is the 12th largest in the world, and comes with two helicopters, a 10-man submarine, a swimming pool that converts into a dance floor and a professional recording studio.
Dutch billionaire Marcel Boekhoorn’s 52-metre Deniki, a regular sight at the Grand Prix of Monaco, is moored just a stone’s throw away in docks which once were the destination of silks and spices from the far-flung corners of the British empire.
The Deniki, the interior of which is decorated with five different types of fine wood, has a bespoke wheelhouse devised to deliver the luxury interior of a Rolls Royce or Bentley.
Just opposite sits Westfield shopping mall group founder Frank Lowy’s Ilona, a 74-metre beast with a fully retractable helicopter pad and two fold-away beaches on either side.
The arrival of the wealthy for the Olympic party is likely to strengthen London’s image as a safe-haven destination of choice for the international rich despite Britain’s worst economic crisis in nearly a century.
Demand from the super-rich has prompted East London’s Royal Victoria Docks to construct a special pontoon with personalised concierge service. Three superyachts are due to arrive there this week.
“It’s proven to be quite desirable because of the proximity to the Olympic venues and London city airport, which is convenient if they have people coming to visit them,” said Kate Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Royal Docks Management.
“There’s not much spare capacity now. It’s great to see the Docks finally coming to life,” she added.
With the roads and public transport expected to be disrupted over the next few weeks, wealthy individuals and companies with tickets to the Games will be taking to the river instead, evoking the Thames’ ancient role as a showy, central way fare.
“When you have that kind of money, you’re looking for all your needs to be fulfilled, especially getting from A to B on time,” said Ann Hayes, a sales and marketing representative from Thames Executive Charters.
“All of our big boats, which take 200 people, have gone.”
On top of existing Thames boat services, several new companies have been set up especially for the Olympic period.
Water Chariots is using east London’s River Lea to provide limousine and cruiser charter services, costing up to 7,500 pounds, to ferry people to the Olympic site.
The appearance of champagne-sipping VIP guests on the dilapidated waterway will be at odds with its image as a home to hippies on canal boats and huddles of teenagers smoking cannabis.
Yet extravagant fluvial displays of wealth are part of a historical tradition in London which dates back to the 17th Century.
“At that time the Thames was London’s grandest street,” said Robert Blyth, curator at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
“There was no ceremonial route on land, so if you wanted to process in regal fashion you would use the Thames so that the maximum number of people could see you,” he said.
For some locals, the prospect of the world’s super-rich piling into the river’s redeveloped docks is an exciting one.
“It’s attractive. I’m keen to see the things they are bringing. For me it’s a first time experience, I haven’t ever seen such yachts,” said Sima Khan, a resident of Gallion’s Reach just next to the Royal Docks.