Mega – Yachts Earn Millions

Mega – Yachts Earn Millions

John Shaw

Austal Ships of Fremantle is not only the world’s top exporter of fast ferries – it is also a leader in the secretive world of making dream boats for the seriously rich.

Austal publicises its ferry contracts around the world – but the buyers of its luxury motor yachts insist on secrecy for their identity and the prices they pay.

These elegant, air-conditioned, turbine-powered vessels are custom-made by Austal’s Oceanfast division for the world’s richest people, mainly European and American tycoons.

These business emperors, and several oil-rich political rulers, have purchased 14 of Oceanfast’s Fremantle-built super-yachts since 1983.

The average price has been A$20m – plus fittings – according to reports by American and European rivals, agents and yachting magazines.

For some multi-millionaires, or those who have even made it to ten-digit fortunes, a personal floating resort in the sleek shape of a 50-metre, 40-knot Oceanfast cruiser is the ultimate symbol of success and power.

Even more than a private jet – say a US$20m Grumman Gulfstream, Dassault Falcon or Bombardier Global – an Austal Oceanfast designed by Jon Bannenberg is the ultimate buyable symbol of success and power. For Australia they are a profitable export which has earned about A$250m in the 1990s.

Bannenberg, a Sydney-born, London-based Australian, is the world’s leading creator of high-style, high-tech, high-speed motor yachts.

The luxury-yacht business is booming worldwide, with the Austal and European yards full and more orders coming in. The size of a super-yacht is also increasing. Although the category begins at about 20 metres in length, the current trend is for yachts of 40 metres or more.

A new 45-metre boat may cost from US$16m to US$25m, and a 10-year-old boat will bring US$10m or more. Yearly maintenance will cost up to 10 percent of capital value.

If you want to try before buying, you can rent one. For example, the 59-metre Altair, refitted last year by Oceanfast at Fremantle for US$10m, is currently advertised in Florida at US$155,000 a week, complete with crew, chef, pool and space for 12 guests.

The biggest oceanic indulgence known in the last 50 years is a 148-metre vessel, whose reported owner is the Sultan of Brunei, an oilocrat whose spending sprees include buying Asprey and Garrard of London, jewellers to the British royal family.

The vast yacht was built in a German yard which designer Bannenberg has used for several recent major projects. These include the 100-metre Limitless, a 25-knot hideaway for an American with apparently limitless funds.

The lists of Oceanfast and Bannenberg clients, and their onboard guest lists, are a Who’s Who of cosmopolitans who have made or acquired fortunes based on oil, media, aerospace, property or political power

None of their purchases were revealed by Bannenberg whose standard contract includes a secrecy clause.

What many experts believe is Bannenberg’s most beautiful creation, the 53-metre “Oceana” built in Fremantle in 1994, had its name changed to “Kremlin Princess” after it was sold in 1996.

The second owner was thought to be one of post-Communist Russia’s new multi-millionaires who are the models for the business czars in John Le Carre’s latest thriller “Single & Single”. Industry sources say the price paid for the yacht in 1996 would have been $45 million.

In the last 30 years in his Chelsea studio Bannenberg has designed almost 100 large private motor vessels, costing up to US$40 million.

Most were sold, or re-sold, to high-flyers who maintain low profiles and low tax rates.

Bannenberg boats not only look good but they work superbly. Their outside lines are distinctive – even futuristic – and the interiors combine tasteful architecture and decor.

Despite the differing tastes of his polyglot clients, there is a discernible “Bannenberg look” which combines Italian flair and Swiss efficiency.

The mega-yachts are, in Bannenberg’s words, “pieces of sculpture which float and move and in which you can live.”

They involve a global industry in which Australia plays a major export role and which turns over about US$1 billion a year. The industry demands art, craft, old skills, new technology and meticulous management.

Bannenberg began his creative career in music. After Canterbury High School in Sydney (also attended by the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard) and the Sydney Conservatorium, he continued piano studies in London before moving on to design.

The world’s fleet of pleasure craft of more than 30 metres in length has doubled to 5,000 in the past 10 years. Busy executives may spend only a couple of weeks on the sundeck each year, a mighty expensive hobby when the boats cost tens of millions to buy and about $l.5m each year to run.

With satellite communications now standard, tycoons can go to sea and still keep making deals. Ship-to-shore business links by satellite phone, fax and email are global, clear, instant and private. Helipads are another shipboard corporate option.

Thanks to such advanced communications, yachts can be more than frivolous indulgence. They are ideal for secret meetings and private business negotiations, and provide perfect personal security.

No owner has been publicly traced yet for Thunder, a spectacular 50-metre Oceanfast-Bannenberg creation with a sculpted “whale tail” mast which sailed from Fremantle last year.

With interiors like a five-star boutique hotel, a cruising speed of 38 knots and space for 10 guests and 8 crew, the vessel is the last word in its market – until the next from the same yard.

Another 1998 delivery from Fremantle was named Bolkhiah. That is the name of the royal family of the Sultanate of Brunei, whose ruler is the richest person in Asia.

Austal-Oceanfast is currently building a 52-metre vessel in Fremantle for an unnamed Greek client, and an Italian yard is working to a Bannenberg design for a 49-metre craft ordered by a Turkish tycoon. These buyers cannot expect much change out of A$30m apiece, by the time optional extras – from sat-phones to saunas – have been fitted.

Austal is now valued at over A$200 million on the stock exchange, with majority ownership held by its chairman John Rothwell.

At the commuter and tourist end of its export business, Austal recently reported new ferry deliveries and orders.

The 86-metre vehicle-passenger ferry “Carmen Ernestina” was built for Venezuela, the first Austal sale of this “Auto Express” type in South America.

Current production at the Austal yard includes orders for Denmark, due for delivery in December, and three for Greece in April and June 2000.

A 52-metre, 450-passenger Austal catamaran with a speed of 42 knots, the “Cat One”, has just started service on the North German coast.

COPYRIGHT 1999 First Charlton Communications Pty Ltd.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group