Not all heroes in the Ukrainian resistance of Russia’s invasion are fighting in the streets. At least one of them could be found performing his patriotic duty in the sumptuous surroundings of a superyacht moored in Mallorca.
Taras Ostapchuk was the chief engineer for the Lady Anastasia, a luxury ship reportedly owned by the Russian oligarch and arms manufacturer Alexander Mikheev. Mr. Ostapchuk is also Ukrainian, and he was thinking about the bombing of his homeland when he opened some valves on the Lady Anastasia, letting in seawater in order to scuttle the yacht.
He was arrested by Spanish police, but when he spoke to CNN, he did not regret his decision: “I tried to sink the boat as a political protest of Russian aggression,” he said. “You have to choose. Either you are with Ukraine or not.”
Mr. Ostapchuk, in his small way, is on the side of American and EU officials who have begun seizing oligarchs’ superyachts at ports around the Mediterranean as part of the sanctions against Russian aggression. That’s if they can prove the boats’ ownership, which can be as murky and impenetrable as the depths of the ocean.
Maybe you’ve also become fascinated with the world of superyachts – which are larger than plain old yachts, but not quite as nakedly insecure as city-block-sized megayachts. They are outfitted with helipads that turn into discos, spas and cinemas, priceless Francis Bacon paintings on the walls, aquariums featuring fish plucked from the nearby sea, and in at least one case, gold toilet-paper holders. (This gilded touch is found on the Scheherazade, a $700-million yacht currently moored in Italy, which Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation says may well belong to Mr. Putin.)
These ships are floating tax dodges lined in teak and marble, registered in countries that know how to politely look away from financial malodors. Money can’t buy everything, but it can often buy mooring privileges in countries that don’t have extradition treaties with the EU or the U.S. This taste for party leviathans is not specific to oligarchs, either: A quarter of superyachts are owned by Americans, and less than 10 per cent by Russians.
Isolation is the other thing money can buy, and in the era of plague and war, that quality is priceless. For the past couple turbulent years, as superyacht sales have soared, the megawealthy have used them as floating escape pods, cheaper than a trip to the moon and easier to access than a sheep farm in New Zealand.
The popularity of these carbon-spewing aquatic Xanadus continues to grow, fuelled partly by soaring markets and partly by the inexhaustible desire of the superrich to leave the grotty world behind. Cheap credit also helped, one wealth manager told Bloomberg, making it easier to “buy social distance.”
Buying distance from others – apart from your invited guests – became a prize beyond riches. “With schools and offices closed, the industry is starting to see an increase in the number of people choosing to sit out isolation at sea,” read a post from TJB Superyachts on “finding the joy in isolation.” “As a floating luxury island, life can go on as the new normal.”
Or can it? I guess it depends on what your idea of normal is. In the case of the oligarchs, they pay for their splendid isolation with paranoia: Their yachts are bristling with defence systems, water cannons and panic rooms. Two of Roman Abramovich’s superyachts – yes, he has a fleet – are protected by missile-defence systems. And then there are the ships’ escape pods, which come in handy when you’re fleeing with James Bond on your tail.
Could it be that the superyachts are no longer the diamante oases they once were? The Russian oligarchs’ crews are zipping their ships around the world, looking for friendly harbours to protect them from the clutches of the U.S. Department of Justice’s KleptoCapture program. President Joe Biden is fulfilling the promise of his State of the Union address to “seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.”
It’s not just the Russians who are weathering a storm: Wealthy yacht owners have found that even the vast stretches of the ocean don’t isolate them from public rage. At the beginning of the pandemic, billionaire David Geffen posted pictures from his $600-million yacht Rising Sun, which features such pandemic necessities as a billiard table and a grand piano: “Isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus,” he wrote. “I’m hoping everybody is staying safe.” Perhaps he’d recently held a séance and accidentally channelled Marie Antoinette. Either way, one of them deleted the post.
Mr. Geffen might have a word of advice for Jeff Bezos the next time they sit down for a game of Monopoly. Mr. Bezos is currently taking heat from the people of Rotterdam, who are worried that the Amazon boss’s new superyacht, currently under construction in the Netherlands, is so tall that it will require the dismantling of a historic bridge to sail under. Thousands have agreed to greet the ship with rotten eggs, a nice change from the traditional bottle of champagne.
It’s unlikely that we’ll see the end of the superyacht age soon. But it’s useful to know that the words of John Donne resonate 400 years later: “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Even floating palaces have to dock sometimes, and their owners must walk among the hoi polloi – maybe one day, even in handcuffs.
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