Monaco through the looking glass

A ridiculously early start - up at 3.30 am - to make a 6 am flight to Nice, then a helicopter transfer to Monaco and the yacht show - the lens through which we can view a peculiar world that seems to live in its own glass bubble. But the cracks are showing. Most of the yachts here are for sale. In fact most of the worldwide stock of about 4,500 yachts over 30m long is for sale.

This is not to assume the billionaires have run out of cash. But the market certainly has. Finance is hard to come by. So, even if you want to trade up, the chances are you'll be struggling to get rid of your existing yacht. I went on one yacht yesterday that cost Euros 30m five years ago. Today, good as new, it's for sale at Euros 15m. Not cheap at half the price. And there are lots more like it that just aren't shifting.

I asked the captain how often the owner had been on the bridge. "Maybe 10 times in the past five years," he said.

These yachts can't just sit in dock, unmanned. Safety regulations demand they are always crewed so, even when unused - which is most of the time if they're not chartered - they are soaking up money. An accountant might question which side of the balance sheet they should go - asset or liability?

This picture was taken with the fish eye lens from nearly 200 ft up at the top of the mast of Athena, the world's biggest ketch for sale at $95m. It was swaying about a bit too. Inside the yacht were oil paintings by Monet, Sisley and Modigliani. I asked the crew member showing us around if they were originals. "I couldn't possibly comment on that," he said. They must have been copies as no insurance company would have covered them on a yacht, surely. But it did make me wonder whether the owner had the originals at home. Since the owner is Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape and a clutch of other companies in Silicon Valley, I'd guess that is highly likely.

Clark is a self-made man, a high school drop out who joined the US navy, then dropped back in to academia to get a PhD in computer science. The crew had a lot of respect for their boss - it seemed a happy ship - and the yacht was spotless.

Just as there are good and poor crews, there are decent owners and there are owners who can be so demanding and unpredictable that they can make life miserable for their staff. Many of the yachts are run by management companies who must pander to the owners' whims. Among the more bizarre requests have been a patch of grass on deck to provide a dog loo for the owner's Chihuahua (placed, I assume, on the poop deck). Another owner sent his helicopter to the mainland for a morning newspaper, and another sacked his entire crew because his coffee machine wasn't working.

I suppose it's worth remembering that the yards that make these yachts were often devoted to building warships in the past. There's a peace dividend here - just a shame that dividend couldn't be spent more equitably.

Some of the yachts have so-called shadow ships that bring along the toys - speed-boats, jet skis, smaller yachts and submersibles, although the biggest yachts can fit in most of this kit.

It was a fascinating day and I only just made it back before my transport turned in to a pumpkin. Come the revolution......

PS. Sorry for the lack of commenting these past two days. Yesterday was a long time on the go without sleep, hence the back blip, the lost slipper, the lizards running around my feet........

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