are you angry Politically radical? No? Neither were others before. However, one magic word is enough and you can become one very quickly: Superyacht.
Last week the news circulated that leisure boats, despite their catastrophic CO₂ balance sheet, were still not part of the extended EU emissions trading system – which even the “Tagesschau” reported with the sentence “super yachts remain duty-free”. Less reputable sites pointed out: “Toys of the super-rich exempt from planned climate taxes”.
That’s where the fun stops. “A handful of the super-rich are having fun on the sea – so what?” asks Grégory Salle in his new book about “super yachts” – and he answers the question himself: “So what: everything.” For the French sociologist, yachts “condense all the essential characteristics of what defines our epoch: the rapid increase in economic inequalitythe acceleration of ecological catastrophe, the persistence of judicial injustice”.
Inequality is “a torrent that carries everything to the richest”
In fact, we’re experiencing “the biggest boom the yachting industry has ever seen,” the magazine recently reported new Yorker Celebration. In 2021, the industry sold 887 superyachts, almost twice as many as in the previous year. In the meantime, the shipyards are so hopelessly overbooked that their wealthy customers suddenly find themselves in an unfamiliar place: on the waiting list.
The boom corresponds to the world’s increasing concentration of wealth – the “staggering scale,” according to Salle, “at which a very small number of people are hoarding wealth.” This inequality, according to the appropriate sea metaphor, is “not just a trickle” but “a torrent that carries everything to the richest”. But most of the time we only hear a gentle splashing of it. Inequality is hidden in offshore accounts and behind the high walls of discreet foundations. Well-mannered lawyers and advisors protect and augment them until their trail is lost in increasingly complex financial flows.
Unless you buy one yacht. Admittedly, they are also made to make themselves thin: they have powerful engines and often helicopters and small submarines on board; they move far from the reach of the police in international waters; they are registered in tax havens under the names of nested company structures; and their crews are largely deprived of rights by Maltese employment contracts and watertight standstill agreements. There are even yachts that are almost invisible on the sea with the help of mirrors – and Russian oligarchs, whose ships simply disappeared from radar after the invasion of Ukraine.
Nevertheless, super (over 30 meters in length), mega (over 50 meters) and above all giga yachts (over 80 meters) are of course not really inconspicuous. After all, they are like that new Yorker writes, currently “the most expensive objects that our species knows how to own”. Long as a soccer field, one full tank for 1.5 million dollars, as much CO₂ emissions as 1400 “average people” – even those who tread carefully with such a footprint make quite big waves.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, for example: When a bridge in Rotterdam was to be dismantled for the maiden voyage of his mighty new sailing yacht, which had even survived the German bombing raids, 13,000 people organized themselves on Facebook to throw rotten eggs at the ship. The bridge remained, the yacht disappeared into the night and fog with the masts retracted.
In this context, Salle speaks of an oxymoron of “demonstrative seclusion” – of “forms of retreat (…) that paradoxically take place in order to be noticed”. You don’t want to arouse the anger of the people – but the admiration of the top 0.1 percent. Hence the never-ending adolescent comparison of lengths, the struggle for the most prominent berths and the outbidding competition for the best anecdotes: of showers from which nothing but champagne flows, of helicopters full of hostesses, and of the owner’s children, who take the $110 million on-board Basquiat with them throwing at their cornflake bowls. Finally, anyone who reads from experienced superyacht captains how a very wealthy owner enjoyed getting his equally wealthy on-board guests to scramble for three daily newspapers every morning will notice: Status fears are also in the top 0.1 percent at these levels.
On the other hand, it has a calming effect. Super-rich series like “Succession” and royal family dramas like “The Crown” also show us with pleasure that human abysses really come into their own on teak decks. It would be much harder for the rest of us 99.9 percent to bear if the yoga billionaires who call their ships “Namasté”, “Tranquility” or “Bliss” are right.
This brings us to a central epistemological problem: Most people who write about superyachts don’t have any. In fact, only one writer seems to have made it onto the superyacht – Harry Potter creator JK Rowling. Everyone else is left with only two pitches: obsequious admiration – or writing with a clenched fist.
A more important problem than envy is injustice. After all, freshly laundered money also has a real origin. And while the rich set sail liberated, others usually remain significantly less rich and free – and not only in petro dictatorships. “Yachts are standing,” said the former CIA officer Alex Finley tweeting under the hashtag “YachtWatch”.in the New Yorker, “For a Faustian capitalism – for our willingness to sell democracy for short-term profit. They are offshore registered. They use all tax havens and black money loopholes. Thus they play a role in the titanic struggle between autocracy and democracy.”
“If the rest of the world finds out what it’s like to live on a yacht, they’ll get the guillotine out again.”
Ultimately, the veiled inequality can only be fully consumed and enjoyed on board. Many crew members, who have almost no rights, fulfill every wish, no matter how outrageous, of a few passengers who own almost everything. “If the rest of the world finds out what it’s like to live on a yacht,” fraud-convicted corporate attorney Bill Duker once quipped, “they’ll get the guillotine out again.”
Marie Antoinette in front of a Caribbean backdrop – is that all? No: apart from envy and injustice, there is a third and most important reason to be outraged: rust. It is not enough that happiness on board is unattainable for most of us, nor that it is mostly paid for with the misfortune of many others. Even worse is the actual revelation about yachts: They are, at their core, a perpetually decaying, rusting, dwindling nothingness. Humid sea air from above, salt water, algae and mold from below – “super yachts”, she wrote Financial Times once, “are a terrible investment” – “like holding 10 stacked Van Goghs over your head as you wade through the water to keep them dry”.
That is meant literally. In large yachts, it is now considered good manners to distinguish floors based on their art treasures – and these are of course also particularly endangered by the climate. Keeping a yacht afloat costs the owner about 10 percent of the production costs per year – the cumulative annual expenditure for the approximately 6,000 superyachts in operation, a journalist calculated in 2018, could pay off the debt of all developing countries.
So that’s the real shocker: For the “flash tide that carries everything to the richest,” yachts are the drain. They do not represent a bet on a better future, an investment in education, health, or enduring beauty – rather a cigar rolled from old masters and lit by an exploding oil well. The “will to the yacht” (Wolfgang Kemp) is one of ostentatious waste and destruction – in this respect the roaring diesel engines and the atolls, coral reefs and seagrass banks devastated by yachts are no regrettable coincidences, but the actual goal of the exercise. Anyone who has fought their way to the top with hard bandages ultimately only respects themselves – the rest of the world should burn.
The size of an object is not important in history, the Swiss historian Sigfried Giedion once wrote, even in outwardly modest things such as “a coffee spoon reflects the sun”. You have to correct the man: What is reflected in the outrageously large hulls of the giga yachts is the distorted image of a society whose elites fly too close to the sun.