How to sell a superyacht

How to sell a superyacht

A glass motorcycle garage on deck? Of course, sir… Simon Usborne shadows the dealmakers at the Cannes Yachting Festival.

Among the boats that shimmered in the heat at the Cannes Yachting Festival last weekend, one vessel stood out. Kohuba has the sleek lines and colouring of a killer whale, and five cabins appointed to the standard of a palace hotel. The underside of its macassar ebony dining table is wrapped in the same shade of leather that encases the door handles throughout the interior. The exotic wenge timber floors are as lustrous as those of a Côte d’Azur ballroom.

At a nose more than 30 metres in length, Kohuba, completed this year in Plymouth by Princess Yachts, was not the biggest boat on show at the annual jamboree in the South of France. But she was the only one to include on her rear decks a glass display cabinet containing a custom-built motorbike. Fat exhausts sparkling under the sun, it stood incongruously on the flybridge, or upper deck, like an automotive version of a Damien Hirst shark.

The journey of the bike to its unlikely parking space next to its own 1.5-tonne crane (the sealed container has to be lowered from deck to land before being opened and the bike rolled out) reveals much about the mechanics and mores of the luxury yacht market. And it is enjoying a buoyant year, as economies recover and, in the case of Princess, a weak pound attracts foreign buyers. “The publicity around Brexit was the best advertising we’ve had for years,” says Chris Gates, the company’s veteran managing director, as we shelter from the sun between the bar and the air conditioner inside Princess’s stand.

This is typically a closed world of glad-handing and negotiating in dockside tents, but Princess had agreed to let me peek through the porthole for a day, shadowing their sales team at one of the year’s most important events. In the modern age of seafaring, boat shows have become the stage for high-stakes dealmaking for a new generation of wealthier and ever more demanding sailor. Buying a superyacht — a crewed boat at least 24-metres long, about the same as a tennis court — remains the last big purchase for the 0.1 per cent. Private jets are easier to justify when time is money and business is international, but there is no logical reason to sink £20m into a 40-metre Princess (plus about £40,000 for each tank of fuel, among other running costs).

Yet buy them they do. According to Boat International’s market data, almost 400 superyachts were sold last year, close to double the figure of five years earlier. The biggest, the American-made, 139-metre Project Redwood, falls firmly into the mega-yacht category occupied by oligarchs and controversial retail magnates (Sir Philip Green’s £100m Lionheart is 90 metres long). The more than 600 boats on show at Cannes range from two to 52 metres.

Princess hoped to sell 10 boats at Cannes, Europe’s biggest boat show, and 250 this year, most of them below the “super” category. Prices start at about £300,000 for a 13-metre V39. At the upper end of the range, the art of the multimillion-pound boat deal is that of not saying no, as Roger Lipman, a tugboat captain turned yacht dealer based in Southampton, found when he sold the Kohuba concept. The client had been talking to another manufacturer about the motorbike idea. “‘What are you doing that for, we’ll do it’, I told him,” he recalls at the Princess stand, where barmen serve Plymouth Gin cocktails. “We estimated it shouldn’t cost more than £500,000 and that was it, a little deal we did in the back room at the Düsseldorf boat show.”

Lipman, who runs the largest Princess dealer (he sells up to 100 boats a year), won’t reveal the client’s identity. Princess is also far too discreet to name him or any of its customers, but minimal online sleuthing leads to Denmark. The bike is a rare custom Viking machine by Henrik Fisker, the Danish designer of Aston Martin DB9 fame, and was commissioned by the same buyer: Anders Kirk Johansen, owner of Viking and heir to the Lego fortune.

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