The secretive world of superyachts is the ultimate in billionaire excess, where tycoons cavort with celebrities, politicians and sex workers, and where privacy is protected by non-disclosure agreements ensuring absolute discretion from well-paid staff.
Insider accounts are rare, but as owners and their crew come under scrutiny like never before after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a captain who has worked for some of the wealthiest boat owners has come forward to share details of his 15 years at sea.
His account is of a world that is both showy and shadowy, with weekly food orders worth more than €40,000 (£33,000) flown in from Paris, expensive morning-after clean-ups to remove traces of party drugs, and what he sees as an ingrained culture of prostitution and sexism.
The captain, who has sailed throughout the Caribbean and Mediterranean yacht hotspots, said he wanted to highlight how rich owners – and particularly Russians – hide behind a “mess of shell companies” in secrecy jurisdictions such as the Marshall Islands or the Cayman Islands.
As western allies have curbed the financial freedoms of oligarchs who surround Vladimir Putin with sanctions, yachts have become key targets. Among those impounded are the 86-metre Amore Vero, which French authorities believe belongs to Igor Sechin, head of the Rosneft oil company, and the 156-metre Dilbar, thought to be owned by metals billionaire Alisher Usmanov (although both have denied ownership).
“They’re operated in a super-secretive way so they can use them and deflect attention from the ownership,” said the captain, who asked to remain anonymous because he had signed confidentiality agreements. He said he had not worked on any of the seized yachts.
In some cases non-disclosure agreements are mandatory to even interview for a job, he said. The Guardian was shown examples of actual yacht employment contracts: one contains detailed clauses forever barring the disclosure of any information about the identities of the owner or any guests – specifically including references to business documents, photographs and even drawings of the boat.
Posting photographs of the yacht on social media can be a firing offence, and talking to the media is strictly forbidden. Another contract shows employees must consent to polygraph lie detector tests if required.
There is good reason, said the captain: normal laws often do not seem to apply on these floating palaces . He said deep cleaning to remove traces of drugs such as cocaine can be a regular requirement, particularly when moving from one European territory to another where customs officials can insist on spot checks.
The extent of prostitution is an open secret, he claimed, with women regularly transported to boats.
The industry is “very sexist and ageist and racist”. He suggested non-white crew or those from poorer countries have little chance of being hired, and female staff are usually required to send full-length profile photos to prospective employers.
Friends and former colleagues working on several other boats have reported that female crew members are forced to test regularly for sexually transmitted diseases. Some specific yacht users are known to regularly exchange sex for gifts such as luxury watches.
“It’s the norm in the industry,” the captain said. “The owners want to hook up with the stewardesses. It’s quite crazy, and disgusting.”
Yet every summer flocks of young people head to the world’s superyacht hotspots – places such as Antibes, Palma de Mallorca or Fort Lauderdale – to do the “dock walk”: stopping at every big boat along the marina and asking for work. They end up serving the guests or endlessly cleaning salt water from every window.
A life of sun, sea and high pay is the reward. Even junior deck hands with little experience pocket €2,500 a month – an attractive salary when room and board are included, and when maritime loopholes mean earnings can be tax free. Senior crew can earn many times that: some of most prized chefs have been known to earn €25,000 a month, while some captains of the biggest yachts – overseeing a staff of as many as 80 – can earn as much as €40,000 a month.
“The billionaires, it’s their toy,” the captain said. “The money is just a number to them at the end of the day. They’ll pay crazy amounts just to make it work.”
Below Deck, a reality TV show that started in 2013 (and given a second lease of life by internet streaming), depicts an industry of party animals working through constant hangovers, and that does happen on many boats, the captain acknowledged. Yet at the top end that lifestyle is not tolerated.
“Below Deck gives everybody a funny spin on how it is,” said the captain. “My crew are calm and do healthy hobbies.”
The sanctions on Russian yacht owners mean unprecedented upheaval at the top end of the industry, but there have been only occasional public signs of crew turning against owners – in part because of fear for their careers.
“We all do recognise how much of a conflict of interest it is, and it shouldn’t exist,” the captain said. “It’s crazy how it does and it goes unregulated.”