Size matters: How sheikhs and oligarchs transformed the yachting industry

Story highlights

  • Superyachts have dramatically increased in size in recent years
  • Designers believe newly monied elites in developing countries have ratcheted up this trend
  • Some believe the latest big yachts are tacky and gaudy

How do you design a superyacht fit for the billionaire who has everything money can buy?

Swimming pools, sauna rooms, submarines, helipads and quarters for a crew of 80 to service every possible need -- satisfying the ostentatious demands of the 0.01% is no easy task.

For Ken Freivokh, catering for matters of such luxurious excess has become part and parcel of his job.

From his headquarters on the south coast of England, the architect turned superyacht designer toils over multi-million dollar projects on behalf of the world's uber-wealthy.

As the make-up of this elite group has become more diverse, however, so too have the tastes that drive the high-end of the yachting market.

"The composition of the owners is now maybe a little bit different than it was 10 years ago," Freivokh explained. "Now, there's the emerging countries. There's China, there's Russia, there's the Middle East."

Whereas in the past most clients had an interest in sailing and the intricacies of yacht performance, many newer entrants to the market care more about luxury and having a bigger yacht to trump the next wealthy guy.

Australia's rich sailing tradition
Australia's rich sailing tradition

    JUST WATCHED

    Australia's rich sailing tradition

MUST WATCH

Australia's rich sailing tradition 05:59
Sailing legend's epic career
Sailing legend's epic career

    JUST WATCHED

    Sailing legend's epic career

MUST WATCH

Sailing legend's epic career 08:49
'The F1 boats of the water'
'The F1 boats of the water'

    JUST WATCHED

    'The F1 boats of the water'

MUST WATCH

'The F1 boats of the water' 07:42

"New owners don't come in at 20 foot or 30 foot or even 100 foot. They come in at 100 meters. They come to you and say 'I want a big yacht,'" Freivokh said.

Size matters

Over the years, Freivokh and his team have been responsible for iconic projects such as the Maltese Falcon.

The 88.1 meter vessel was one of the largest sailing yachts in the world when launched in 2006 yet it pales when compared to some of the ocean-faring leviathans built since.

The motor powered Azzam, reportedly owned by he Emir of Abu Dhabi, stretches to 180 meters while Russian billionaire and owner of football club Chelsea, Roman Abramovich, is the proprietor of the 162.5 meter Eclipse.

"Demand for the megayachts above 130 to 140 meters has definitely increased in the last few years," said Mark Duncan, group commercial director of yacht brokerage house, Yachting Partners International.

"Last year, we saw the launch of Azzam which is the biggest yacht ever built and there's another one in build that is set to be even bigger," he added.

Further down the yachting food chain however, Duncan points out that demand for smaller vessels "dried up" after the 2008 financial crash before beginning to rebounding recently.

Freivokh Designs currently has a 141 meter sailing yacht called Dream Symphony -- containing a fitness center, helicopter garage and on-deck cinema facility -- due for delivery to an eastern European buyer in 2015.

Other big projects such as a 145 meter exoskeleton vessel are also on the drawing board. Inevitably, luxury facilities and expensively assembled decor are at the core of the design philosophy.

"Many clients today are not traditional yachties," said Freivokh. "They'll be much more involved with the yacht as a hotel, as a place to entertain or as a place to carry on business.

Russell Coutts' big challenge
Russell Coutts' big challenge

    JUST WATCHED

    Russell Coutts' big challenge

MUST WATCH

Russell Coutts' big challenge 06:42
Putting Bekking's boat to the test
Putting Bekking's boat to the test

    JUST WATCHED

    Putting Bekking's boat to the test

MUST WATCH

Putting Bekking's boat to the test 08:24

"They are quite concerned with things like whether they can have saloons and conference tables where they can work from the boat."

Superyacht kitsch

Freivokh is clear these super-sizing developments have been good for business, as the multi-million dollar price tags attest.

There is also a challenge from an architectural, structural and interior design standpoint.

But he admits to occasional frustration at having to temper the unrealistic expectations of powerful clients who are used to getting their way but don't necessarily understand the complexities of what is and isn't possible.

"They are often trying to move on from their penthouses and their airplanes onto their yacht," he noted.

Others, however, are more perplexed by the psychological motivation for these nautical statements of intent.

Former style editor of Harpers and Queen (now Harpers Bazaar), Peter York, goes so far as to describes the exorbitant decor now found on some of the largest superyachts as completely out of touch with any semblance of good taste.

"The people (who own the yachts) very often come from modest backgrounds and have been impressed not by real experience of sophisticated wealth but by big Hollywood movies and things like James Bond," York said.

David A. Kaplan, author of the book, Mines Bigger, which chronicled the building of the Maltese Falcon, added: "I think for many wealthy people, although not all, there is some desire to state to the world 'look at me, look at the wealth I've achieved.'

What does is take to win the America's Cup?
What does is take to win the America's Cup?

    JUST WATCHED

    What does is take to win the America's Cup?

MUST WATCH

What does is take to win the America's Cup? 06:25
Who are the best sailors of 2013?
Who are the best sailors of 2013?

    JUST WATCHED

    Who are the best sailors of 2013?

MUST WATCH

Who are the best sailors of 2013? 07:02
Part 3: Recruiting for 2014 America's Cup
Part 3: Recruiting for 2014 America's Cup

    JUST WATCHED

    Part 3: Recruiting for 2014 America's Cup

MUST WATCH

Part 3: Recruiting for 2014 America's Cup 04:53

"If you've already got multiple homes and multiple, cars a yacht is sort of the way to do it."

Yachting outliers

Chairman and editor in chief of the Superyacht Group publications, Martin Redmayne, provides a more charitable analysis, arguing that there are only a few hundred yachts in the world above the 60 meter range.

"There are a lot of very intelligent, discreet, wealthy individuals who don't want to be ostentatious," Redmayne said.

"The exceptions to the rule are people like Abramovich and people like the Royal families in the Gulf because they have unlimited access to wealth. They are statement palatial yachts that are in some ways an ego trip.

"If you take all the high profile billionaires in the world they probably have a yacht that is nowhere near as big as an Abramovich," Redmayne added.

While Freivokh notes many Russians and Asian buyers tend to have more extroverted tendencies when it comes to displaying their wealth, others are more considered and understated.

He speaks of the pleasure of working with one American owner who enjoys yachting in the Arctic and asks for specific but reasonable additions to his vessel and its tenders.

"The better projects are those where one is able to work very closely with a knowledgeable owner with reasonable expectations that relate correctly to the size of the yacht," he said.

"If he's going to want to be traveling, exploring relaxing or what then we can respond much more accurately," he added.

      MainSail

    • Wide shot of a sailboat from a drone

      Drones offer new angle on superyachts

      "Sometimes, I fly the drone with my head in a trash bag so I don't get salt spray from the sea on my equipment," says drone operator Justice L Bentz.
    • Dave Swete and Nick Dana on the bow of Alvimedica for a windy downwind sail change during the team's second trans-Atlantic training session, this time from Newport, Rhode Island, USA, to Southampton, England

      Disney duo's new 'fairytale story'

      Navigate the world's most treacherous seas, crossing 73,000 nautical kilometers in a confined space with stressed-out, sleep-deprived crewmates. 
    • The Triton Submarine.

      Millionaire water toys

      Personal submarines, jetpacks, even 'walking boats.'
      Why the Monaco Yacht Show is a bit like stumbling upon James Bond's secret gadget lab.
    • London's new superyacht hotel, in Royal Victoria Docks.

      Inside $67M superyacht hotel

      London's new superyacht hotel is so enormous, authorities had to lower the water level by five meters just to fit it under a bridge.
    • Thomson hurtles up to the top of the mast aware that the boat can keel at any moment and fling him either onto the deck or the water below

      What next for sailing's daredevil?

      His mast-walking stunts have attracted over 3.5 million hits on YouTube, but Alex Thomson just wants to get back to doing what he does best.
    • Endeavour, a 1934 J-Class yacht, racing during The America's Cup Anniversary Jubilee around The Isle of Wight 21 August 2001. The four entries in the J-Class category represent the oldest remaining class used in America's Cup competition. Over 200 boats, including vintage yachts are taking part in the America's Cup Jubilee to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the first America's Cup race in 1851. AFP PHOTO Adrian DENNIS (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

      Through hell and high water

      Elizabeth Meyer talks to CNN's Mainsail about the "Armageddon battle" to restore the pioneering J-class boat Endeavour.
    • Specatators use a boat to watch as boat crews race on the River Thames at the Henley Royal Regatta on July 2, 2014 in Henley-on-Thames, England. Opening today and celebrating its 175th year, the Henley Royal Regatta is regarded as part of the English social season and is held annually over five days on the River Thames. Thousands of rowing fans are expected to come to watch races which are head-to-head knock out competitions, raced over a course of 1 mile, 550 yards (2,112 m) which regularly attracts international crews to race. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

      'Downton Abbey' on the water

      Like "Downton Abbey," Henley's Royal Regatta reminds its visitors of an England of old. But for how much longer?
    • LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 10: Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge poses next to the America's Cup as she visits the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for the Ben Ainslie America's Cup Launch on June 10, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

      Britain's $134M secret weapon?

      Can a $134 million budget and the royal seal of approval bring the coveted America's Cup back to British shores for the first time in sailing history?
    • Eyos Expeditions offers superyacht journeys to the most remote places on Earth.

      Yachting to the ends of the Earth

      Bored of lounging on your superyacht in the Mediterranean? An increasing number of millionaires are now sailing their luxury vessels to the ends of the Earth, to get their kicks.