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No port in the #coronavirus storm: Europe’s yacht industry in turmoil

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The coronavirus pandemic has spurred the world’s wealthiest into putting their contingency plans into action. Silicon Valley’s tech gurus have decamped to doomsday bunkers in New Zealand, while in Europe, controversy has sprung up over a private virus testing site in a billionaires’ compound on the Riviera.

While most French hospitals struggled to handle the influx of Covid-19 patients, the mega-rich living in palatial villas at Les Parcs de Saint-Tropez didn’t have that problem. The denizens of the ultra-luxury community—a group which includes steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and Francis Holder, the founder of the Paul bakery chain—have access to a special medical unit well-equipped to test them and their friends for antibodies against the coronavirus.

If the private infirmary has been held out as an example of how the well-to-do are getting special treatment that’s making it easier for them to weather the public health crisis, the pandemic has nevertheless struck a blow to the luxury sectors which not only cater to the tastes of the 1%, but employ thousands of European workers. The yachting industry, in particular, has been rocked to its core.

Monaco, which is still hoping to hold its world-famous yacht show in September, barred its wealthy residents from taking their yachts out and is restricting boats’ access to its port. The Principality’s ban follows a broader pattern: one by one, Mediterranean countries have closed their borders and their ports. Billionaires hoping to escape on their superyachts would have trouble getting to them in the first place—and those who are already on board their luxury ships are having trouble finding marinas that will allow them to dock. That’s to say nothing of the problem of staffing the boats—many yachts still out to sea are running on a skeleton staff, as workers are too concerned about their health to sign on to a long voyage.

Yacht brokers, meanwhile, are counting on a moderate recovery in the fall to salvage a dismal 2020. Jonathan Beckett, the CEO of industry titan Burgess, predicted in late March that some of the world’s most expensive superyachts could be soon be up for sale as owners’ finances come under strain. Beckett’s words seem to have been prophetic: a number of high-profile boats have come on the market in recent weeks for intriguing reasons.

In an astonishing announcement, the custom-built Luminosity, “one of the greenest gigayachts to date”, is up for sale just weeks before her scheduled delivery to her anonymous owner. The fact that, after waiting 5 years for the 107 metre Luminosity—which features everything from a swimming pool which converts to a dance floor at the push of a button to a “virtual forest” where “e-flowers” open and close in response to motion—her owner is putting her on the market without ever enjoying the stunning craft is a sure sign that the coronavirus pandemic has even disrupted the lives of the elites cocooned in their sumptuous villas.

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Other luxury vessels, meanwhile, are changing hands for more conventional reasons than the coronavirus pandemic. Russian oligarch Oleg Burlakov sunk a fortune into the eco-yacht Black Pearl, named after the ship in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Dubbed “the most spectacular sailboat in the world”, the sleek steel and aluminium ship has carbon fibre solar masts permitting her to cruise no matter the direction of the wind.

Burlakov, however, is now embroiled in protracted divorce proceedings after having been spotted with younger model Sofiya Shevtsova. Legally, Burlakov’s wife is entitled to a large portion of the family assets—something which Burlakov is reportedly trying to sidestep by reregistering the Black Pearl under the name of one of his relatives, Nikolai Kazakov. The transfer has put the Black Pearl’s future in doubt, as Kazakov is by all accounts not a wealthy man and does not seem to have the funds to maintain the 106-metre-long vessel.

Matters of the heart may be the culprit in yet another recent yacht listing. In mid-April, former Italian prime minister—and the world’s 190th richest person— Silvio Berlusconi listed his superyacht Morning Glory for sale. Morning Glory has a particularly storied history—Berlusconi bought the Italian-built ship from media mogul Rupert Murdoch,  who married his third wife Wendy Deng onboard, back in 1999. Since then, the “bunga bunga” king has enjoyed summers onboard cruising the Mediterranean, and has spent huge sums on refitting the ship, which now boasts a freshly repainted hull, new engines and entirely redone rigging.

Berlusconi hasn’t offered a reason for parting with the luxury vessel—but it’s possible that his romantic troubles have played a role. Just last month, the former prime minister split from Francesca Pascale, his partner of 12 years. The twice-divorced octogenarian politician, who apparently asked Pascale to marry him “every day” while they were together, has already moved on to an even younger flame—Marta Fascina, a 30-year-old MP in his Forza Italia party.

Another jewel of the yacht world in engaged in a bitter falling-out. Twin brothers David and Frederick Barclay, who for years have managed a business empire including the Ritz in London and the Daily Telegraph, have shared their sleek yacht Lady Beatrice, named after their mother, since 1993. The brothers were once inseparable—living together in a castle on their private island, Brecqhou.

This brotherly affection has now imploded in spectacular fashion, after David’s youngest son Alistair was caught secretly recording his uncle Frederick in the Ritz’s conservatory. A lengthy legal battle between the twins is now on the cards, and the Ritz—the crown jewel of the brothers’ assets—was recently sold to an unnamed Qatari businessman. Other parts of the Barclay twins’ business empire are likely to be parcelled off as well, including the Lady Beatrice.

Amidst these family dramas, the global pandemic will only put further pressure on the yacht market, and aficionados are certain to see some exceptional superyachts listed on the secondary market in the coming months.

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