20th May 2016
Words by Jeff Mills
It’s yet another sunny morning on the Caribbean island of Antigua and the transient population of English Harbour is easing itself into the day. Yacht crews are sitting eating their breakfasts outside cafés; vans loaded with expensive food and wines are making deliveries to the superyachts waiting patiently at their pontoons and an orderly line of people is forming outside the harbour office, as skippers present their boats’ paperwork for official stamping.
English Harbour was once best known as a dockyard much frequented by Admiral Lord Nelson, one of many in the Caribbean that he visited. These days, though, it is no longer ships designed for war, but ships built with nothing but pleasure in mind that are tied up alongside some of the most expensive moorings in the world. The vessel we are seeking, Sherakhan, is big, even by superyacht standards. It’s just days since we left the dark and dismal English mid-winter to head for the bright skies, warm waters and perfect sandy beaches of this Caribbean island. And we are not alone. Plenty of senior business people, wealthy families and groups of high-flying friends have discovered this well-trodden route to attend corporate meetings afloat or, perhaps, the ultimate in luxury holidays.
These are the same high-fliers who, during European summers, can be found luxuriating on board superyachts berthed all over the Mediterranean from Monaco and Saint Tropez to Italy’s Amalfi coast, Sardinia and the more exclusive of the Balearic Islands. A berth at the Royal Yacht club in Palma, once a favourite of King Juan Carlos of Spain, may be great for a few days of fine dining and shopping, and Ibiza could be perfect for superyacht owners or charterers who fancy some frenetic nightlife, but for the exclusive few, it is destinations such as Formentera with its secluded beaches and discreet high life that appeal most. Economic downturns are for other people, it seems. When, or more accurately if, any slowdown were to reach the rarefied world of superyachts, their owners and those who charter them, it is likely to mean little more than easing back the throttles as your skipper navigates the way into your very expensive berth in some Mediterranean or Caribbean hotspot. Far from being in decline, as some reports may suggest, the superyacht business is alive and well, perhaps in better shape than it has ever been, according to those in the know. Not only are there plenty of orders for new boats for those with the serious money needed to buy them, but there seems to be a queue of well-heeled individuals waiting to charter them, even before they have left the boatyard. And it is not only corporate tigers and wealthy entrepreneurs who are lining up with their credit cards in their hands. Much of the demand for charters for the biggest and most luxurious yachts is coming from large, and presumably wealthy, families, as well as those who want to use the vessels for corporate entertaining.
Such is the strength of this sector of the yacht charter market that some of the biggest of the superyachts are being built or converted specifically to meet this demand. According to those in the know, the trend is for clients to request the newest and biggest superyachts they can find. New yachts are booked up way before they are launched and must be equipped with all the latest toys, such as helipads, jet skis and, in some cases, their own submarines. In the Mediterranean during the summer you are likely to spot many well-known superyacht aficionados: Arcadia Group chief Sir Philip Green, who owns the Benetti superyacht Lionheart, designer Giorgio Armani, Hong Kong businessman Ambrous Young, the Lebanese jewellery family Mouawad and Saudi Arabian Prince Khaled bin Sultan are among the privileged few. And there are many more high-net-worth individuals who prefer to keep their private lives private. Their beautiful vessels may be famous on the circuit, but that doesn’t mean their owners have to be in the public eye, too.
Back in Antigua, there are huge and beautiful boats everywhere you look in the marina. One boat in particular, Le Grand Bleu, was part of Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich’s personal flotilla, before it was passed on to his business associate Eugene Shvidler. Or how about the fabulous Christina O, once the plaything of Aristotle Onassis, where he entertained his mistress Maria Callas, not to mention Winston Churchill.
Or maybe Octopus, built for Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft? And what about that enormous and very beautiful state-of-the art sailing ship? Could it be Parsifal III, which may look as though it’s built only for pleasure but in fact also comes with all the latest communications systems, just in case you need to keep in touch with the office? Then one of our group spots Sherakhan towering above most of its neighbours on the adjoining pontoon.
As the white-uniformed crew rush down the pontoon to greet us and spirit away our baggage, there’s time to reflect on the big league of superyachts. At 228ft (70 metres) long, Sherakhan is far bigger than anything we could have imagined, but then this vessel was not conceived as a yacht at all, but as a training ship for the Dutch navy. The sheer beauty of the ship today, from the sparkling navy-blue hull to the white superstructure and immaculate wooden decks, is down to a long-term dream of the owner, Dutchman Jan Verkerk, who has overseen every detail of Sherakhan’s transformation from workmanlike navy ship to ultra-luxurious superyacht.
Board this yacht and you step into a world that even the top five star luxury hotels find it hard to compete with. There’s a main saloon with a massive atrium, twin sweeping stainless-steel staircases and a magnificent handmade dining table capable of seating 26 people for meetings or dinner. There’s even a fireplace and a baby grand piano. Imagine a spectacular apartment in Paris, Monaco, London or Los Angeles, then add some additional ingredients such as exclusivity, privacy, luxurious bespoke interiors and stunning views. Next, take the whole thing and place it in the water somewhere exotic and you will start to understand the thrill of being at sea on board one of these majestic vessels.
As this craft is capable of carrying up to 26 passengers, plus, of course a large crew, she is not technically a superyacht, but a passenger ship, I learn. The rules state that while superyachts are allowed to host dozens of passengers while they are berthed, they may only sail with up to 12 passengers. Sherakhan may be bigger than other pleasure vessels but the facilities you find on board are fairly similar to those you may expect to find on board the very best superyachts. Think pure excellence, such as you may find at a top-class hotel and then imagine that you can instruct it to take you virtually anywhere you choose to go.
There are ensuite cabins for all the guests, all very similar, all outstanding; there’s an owners’ cabin on its own deck, where facilities include a private Jacuzzi, not to mention a couple of bathrooms, a study and an extra bedroom for your personal staff. And a few decks down there’s a state-of-the-art sauna and spa area, complete with an indoor pool. There’s another pool, outdoors on the top deck, where most guests tend to spend their leisure time while at sea, sunbathing and sipping cocktails until one of the crew announces lunch or dinner, which can be eaten pretty much anywhere and in any style you choose. So it is no wonder that one of the latest trends is the employment on board of the highest-quality chefs, who must not only be excellent cooks, but must have experience in all kinds of different diets, such as macrobiotic, low carb, high carb, vegetarian and of course all the “designer” diets, such as Atkins, South Beach, Zone and Hollywood.
The crew will even arrange breakfast on the beach, if you choose, after which you may want to get down to the serious business of sunbathing or sightseeing, or possibly make use of all the watersports toys on board. On-board jet skis and inflatable tenders are lowered into the water for anyone who fancies roaring through the waves or trying their hand at water-skiing or even scuba diving. Best of all, perhaps, you don’t have to make any decisions at all, apart from choosing what you’d like to eat and drink, whether you want to use the on-board gym or spa, or even make use of the services of the on-board masseuses, beauticians, personal trainers and yoga teachers demanded by some owners and charterers. If you have a preference for where you want to cruise, the captain will follow your plan, of course, but if not just tell him when and from where you have to fly home and leave the rest to him. After a few days in this floating paradise you will have lost track of time anyway.