Nigel Tisdall, The Daily Telegraph, July 12, 2013
On the mosaics adorning their lavish Mediterranean villas, the Romans included scenes of cherubs riding gleefully on the backs of dolphins. It’s a delightful fantasy, and yet, nearly 2,000 years later, here I am doing the next best thing – charging through the oh-so-blue waters of the Caribbean on the back of a Seabob Cayago F7. Otherwise known as an underwater scooter, the silent, battery-powered bullet looks a bit like a turbo-charged dust-buster but can travel at 12 knots and dive to 130ft. Riding one is fun, especially off the deserted white-sand beaches of Anguilla – but, at that speed, it’s a good idea to secure your trunks or bikini bottom tightly.
It certainly helps that my electro-dolphin, which weighs 64kg (about 10 stone) but somehow still floats, has been lowered into the sea from a hydraulic, teak-decked swim platform that descends like a divine drawbridge from the stern of a superyacht. An athletic deckhand in a liveried rash vest accompanies me towards the shore; cold towels and a freshwater shower await my return.
So far, so yes please – for this is just one of many “toys” (as they are unashamedly known) available when you charter a superyacht. Welcome to the truly seductive world of Panthalassa, a 56m (184ft) come-and-race-me sailing yacht, registered in London and with a British skipper. On board there are also three jet skis, three Ribs, waterskis, wakeboards, paddleboards, scuba gear and kite-surfing equipment – plus all the tents, beanbag seats, pop-up bars and flaming torches needed to hold an impromptu party on a moonlit beach of our choice.
As we all know, some superyachts go OTT on all this, with their swimming pools, cinemas and inflatable playgrounds, not to mention mini-submarines and helipads. Panthalassa has a different agenda: true class. A Seabob costs about £11,000 – and we have six, natch. But what really puts the S in this SY (as we in-crowders call them) is that they have all been painted in a bespoke shade of DuPont technical grey that matches the colour of our hull. And that, we must agree, is darn cool.
Superyachts are generally defined as being over 35m (115ft) long and come in two types: motor-only, for posing, partying and inshore sailing; and the masts-and-sails version, for maritime heritage and thrills. About a third of charter superyachts fall into the second category – for me, the only way to go as it offers the best of both worlds.
Built in 2010 by the Italian naval architects Perini Navi, Panthalassa is designed to maximise comfort. Superyacht interiors come in countless styles, from country house to porn baron, but here you get a one-off temple of repose created by Foster+Partners with natural light streaming into the decks below thanks to a masterly use of skylights, glass walls, slimline staircases and oversized portholes.
Multi-million-pound vessels like this carry a maximum of 12 passengers, as having more opens up a viper’s nest of regulations and licences. Many come with an ostentatious owner’s suite, but on Panthalassa all six cabins are the same size, kitted out in a serene and contemporary whirl of Danish leather, Italian marble, French toiletries and carefully-unthrown cashmere throws. Up on the flybridge, a fan-shaped array of sunbathing pads lies ready and waiting with plush towels, chilled water, nibbles and generously-stocked baskets of Lancaster sunscreen. In the evening, it’s time to turn on the soft lighting as the cocktails and canapes arrive in the Caribbean warmth, and our team leader, Captain Greg Butler Davis, shows up in his smart black uniform to tell envy-inducing tales of how Panthalassa has voyaged up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea and sailed past Stromboli at night as the volcano blazed beneath the stars.
His 10-strong crew is equally decorous, predominantly British with an affable style that mixes being natural with knowing your place. Even the old-salt chief engineer wears a spotless boiler suit, while the lithe and lively stewardesses sport white polo shirts and short skirts, as if about to play tennis rather than serve up lobster salads and citron tarts prepared by our cheery Aussie chef.
Judging by the cushions scattered about the decks (I count 111, then fall asleep), the orchestrator of this £30-million nautical Neverland likes to be comfortable. Superyacht etiquette decrees that the owner’s identity is not revealed, but here’s a tip: look in the visitors’ book. I’m initially curious about the style-savvy rich-lister whose taste chimes with mine, but as the days go by it matters less. After all, few us know much about God, yet we’re happy loafing around in His fabulous creation.
Owning or chartering one of these Ferraris-of-theseas is avowedly statement-making. It’s about impressing colleagues, entertaining friends, loving your family and indulging yourself. Wealthy clients now expect superyacht brokers to deliver a truly spectacular experience, and have no qualms about making exceptional demands. “You name it, we’ve done it!” says Charlie Birkett, partner and group CEO of Y.CO, which has access to the largest, most exclusive superyachts in the world. “It could be delivering 1,000 red roses to surprise the charterer’s girlfriend, having a brand-new car winched on board as a birthday present, or organising a last-minute wedding in Portofino, with the crew handling every detail in just a few days.”
Nor does this exclusive and highly-tailored service stop once you step ashore. “We can open all sorts of secret doors,” says Nicholas Edmiston, chairman of Edmiston&Company, which publishes a lavish directory of the world’s 100 finest yachts available for charter. “Magnificent Venetian palazzi, fabulous gardens in the south of France… we know all the owners.”
Y.CO has likewise worked with the bespoke holiday experts Based On A True Story (Boats), which specialises in “magic-carpet-ride” luxury experiences. Given a brief to “keep the children entertained” on one superyacht holiday in the Mediterranean, it arranged for junior guests to be taken into the souks of Morocco to buy an old teapot that was then found to conceal an ancient message and password. This in turn led to a trip into the desert to meet a Tuareg nomad, triggering an elaborate seaborne treasure hunt that concluded with a piratical fiesta in Majorca complete with blazing guns and fireworks.
While it’s feasible for a group of friends or two families to get together to charter such yachts, it is far more common for one person to treat everyone else. Where you go depends on your taste for adventure – summer in the Med, winter in the Caribbean is the traditional track, with superyachts switching between the two in a glittering transhumance. “Some clients spend £5 million or more on a superyacht holiday,” says Nicholas Edmiston, “so it’s understandable that they want to be seen doing so.” That means anchoring off St Tropez in high summer rather than exploring the shores of Java, although you can still find out-of-the-way spots in the Med. “Try the west coast of Corsica,” Edmiston says, “which has beautiful beaches that can only be reached by sea with no one there.”
Modern communications, together with the increasing size and comfort of yachts, make it easier to hop on and off at any point – with the help of private jets and helicopters. “We’ve seen a rise in enquiries for furtherflung places such as the Belize Cayes, the Galápagos and Antarctica,” reports Charlie Birkett. “These are usually from regular charter clients who have visited the more traditional destinations and are looking for something off the beaten track. As yacht design evolves, longer-range charters are making such destinations more accessible.”
You could equally go sailing in Alaska, the Maldives or Papua New Guinea – but one thing is certain, there will be no place for mud. In the perfectionist world of superyachts, these beauty queens must look as new and shiny as the day they were launched. Immense amounts of labour and materials – costing £2.6 million a year in the case of Panthalassa – are devoted to maintaining that “straight-out-of-the-box” look.
My voyage starts in the Isle de Sol Yacht Club, the newest superyacht marina on the French-Dutch Caribbean island of St Martin/StMaarten, where the painting, buffing and polishing is ceaseless. Up to 40 superyachts can berth here, and their names say it all. Four Wishes. Imagine. One More Toy…
Bizarrely, the only way in and out of this megarich powwow is through a small channel with a scruffy bridge raised only three times a day. The wind is up, so leaving without a scratch to the sides (or worse) means Captain Greg is in for an adrenalin-pumping moment. Skippering a superyacht is an impressive feat of multi-tasking, in which you don’t just sail a huge and complex machine. You also need to know everything from how to fix bilge pumps and the intricacies of Croatian VAT to the best way to bag a top dinner table during the Monaco Grand Prix.
We do it, just, and Greg celebrates by playing “Pinball Wizard” at full blast on the sound system. Needless to say, this isn’t any old hi-fi; it’s a no-expense-spared extravaganza featuring Apple-based Savant technology that also lets users adjust everything from the blinds to the air con to the security cameras from a smartphone touchscreen. Then there’s the satellite broadband, the video-conferencing saloon, the 60in flat-screen TV with a Kaleidescape system offering 500 movies on demand. You don’t get mega-rich without being a control freak.
Out on the blue ocean, however, there is a delicious sense of freedom. Now where shall we go? St Barths? Saba? The BVIs? It’s up to us. The crew lower the keel, we turn our head to the wind, then up goes the mainsail on a mast that soars to 59m (190ft). But if you want to pull a rope, forget it. Everything is done from two consoles with enough buttons and switches to fly to the moon.
Soon we are bouncing over the waves, hitting 12 knots and leaning at a jaunty 14 degrees. The sun is out, the engines are off, the brown boobies are saying hi… Up above us, Panthalassa’s vast sails do their bends and stretches, more than 16,000sq ft of iceberg-white triangles tangoing with the warm wind. Suddenly the clichéd bubbles-and-bling image of superyachting seems ridiculous. The supreme way to enjoy a charter like this, I realise, would be to spend part of your holiday competing in a superyacht regatta. That’s when the rock-star crews come on board, and the fun really starts. The Bucket in St Barths, the Loro Piana in Sardinia, Les Voiles de St Tropez – oh yes, I’m free. Are you?
How to do it
Panthalassa ( sypanthalassa.com ) can be booked through Y.CO – The Yacht Company ( ycoyacht.com ). A seven-night charter costs from £131,335 in the Caribbean, or £173,337 in the Mediterranean. A regatta package, including a professional racing crew, starts at £167,471.
Split almost equally into French and Dutch sides, the green and hilly island of St Martin/St Maarten is a popular starting point for Caribbean yacht charters and has 13 marinas, a lively beach scene and many fine restaurants. Air France flies from eight UK airports via Paris; return fares range from £645 (economy) to £2,230 (business class). Stay at the just-refurbished La Samanna ( lasamanna.com ) in St Martin, an Orient-Express hotel with 83 ocean-view rooms and suites, plus four three- and four-bedroom villas set on cliffs overlooking a long and virtually private white sand beach (a deluxe room costs from £544). Transfers from the airport take 15 minutes.
All images: Adam Parker