RICH PICKINGS: The have and have-yachts

Whatever the motivation, be it privacy or a primal attraction to the ocean, billionaires seem to love their yachts. And Australia's rich listers are among the keenest of sea dogs.

Is it the fact we are an island nation? Is it the fact that our ancestors arrived here as boat people? Is it some sort of deep, spiritual connection to the sea?
Whatever the reason, Australia’s rich list members love boats. Big, expensive, floating-palace-of-the-high-seas boats that cost a large fortune to own and a smaller fortune to run.

But owning a big motor yacht or super yacht isn’t always smooth sailing (don’t worry, I’ve got a million of them), as Noosa-based millionaire Paul McDonald found out this week.

McDonald struck trouble of off the coast of Canada as he was attempting take his super yacht Fortus through the Northwest Passage, part of a circumnavigation of North America.

While the Northwest Passage, the sea route through the Arctic Ocean that skirts the top of Northern America, is famous for claiming the lives of early arctic explorer such Sir James Franklin, McDonald’s expedition wasn’t exactly a rugged trip into the wild.

The 34-metre Fortus has seven staterooms, a jacuzzi and a crew including a private chef. In this sort of environment, it’s not hard to imagine the McDonald and his passengers would enjoy a party or 29 as they cruised around North America. But it’s these parties that landed McDonald in hot water.

McDonald has been charged with one count of providing liquor to a minor and one count of being in unauthorised possession of liquor by authorities in Cambridge Bay, a small town located deep in Nunavut territory in Canada. The locals have strict rules about the possession of alcohol and what has been reported to be a "wild” party on board Fortus did not go unnoticed.

McDonald is a notoriously private entrepreneur whose empire spans building products, resource and agribusiness and who rose to prominence last year when he sold a quarry in the Queensland town of Gympie to Boral for more than $80 million.

So far, his statements on the incident have been limited to a release through his lawyers expressing regret and saying that McDonald "regrets he was not familiar with the local laws or the restriction on fireworks or liquor at the time of the alleged incident”.

McDonald’s lawyers denied reports that a cheque used to pay $10,000 in fines had bounced and says the fines will be paid in full by November 15.

The fact that McDonald remains on a boat thousands of kilometres from Australia means he doesn’t need to answer the questions from pesky journalists. And of course, that’s one of the key attractions of a super yacht.

For the super rich, being able to get away from the pressures of work – and least some of the interruptions of modern communications – in a luxurious environment is one of the big attractions of owning a super yacht.

The privacy offered – at least when you’re on the open sea and away from paparazzi and peeping locals in port – must also be extremely attractive.

But at least part of the allure of the big yacht must be its power as a status symbol. Nothing says you’ve made it in quite the same way.

Firstly, there’s up-front cost. To play in the real big leagues of the super yacht world, your floating place needs to be at least 70 metres long – in a list of the top 100 super yachts produced earlier this year by, the smallest boat was 76 metres long, but increasingly the biggest yachts are more than 100 metres long.

The biggest – and most expensive – yacht ever built was made for Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, whose 164-metre monster called Eclipse was built in 2009 for somewhere between $600 million and $1 billion. But even smaller boats – take Frank Lowy’s 73.6-metre Ilona – can cost more than $100 million and lot more depending on how expensive the owner’s taste is.

But the purchase price only gets you into the super yacht money pit. The industry rule of thumb says that annual running costs for a yacht is 10 per cent of the purchase price; for owners like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who owns the $200 million yacht Octopus (which includes its very own recording studio) it can cost up to $20 million a year to keep his palace afloat.

Fuel is a major expense (depending on the size of your boat, it can cost up to $2000 an hour just to go anywhere), staff are expensive (a big boat like Octopus could have as many as 50 staff at the height of summer) and just parking the things can cost a small fortune.

At the recent Olympic Games in London, for example, prime berths in central London – where’s Frank Lowy’s boat was stationed – were going for as much as $13,500 a day.

So at the end of the day, the message is simple: If you are looking for a great investment, steer well clear of a super yacht.

But if you are looking for a status symbol that screams "here’s how rich I am” then get your lifejacket and head for the nearest marina.

Here are five rich list boat lovers:

Solomon Lew

Solomon Lew’s has not one super yacht but two: the 54-metre super yacht Maridome and his other boat Texas. The former – which reportedly sleeps 10, has a dancefloor and once sported a mini submarine – hit the headlines after a crash with another wealthy entrepreneur's boat in a Florida shipyard. Wendy McCaw, a mobile phone billionaire turned media mogul, has sued Lew over the crash which allegedly left a damage bill of $US500,000.

James Packer

James Packer has bought a sold a few super yachts in his time, but the family favourite remains the Artic P, a former ocean-going tug boat that was purchased by James’ late father Kerry. The Artic P was reported to have been docked in Auckland last week, but the St Tropez and Sydney Harbour are more regular haunts.

Frank Lowy

The Lowy family’s vessel Ilona was last spotted at the Olympics, but has travelled the world from Europe to Asia and all points in between. The boat has some nifty features, including a helipad that converts to a hangar a special expandable table that accommodates up to 14 diners and technology that allows the boat to be refuelled by helicopter.

Reg Grundy

Reg Grundy’s 70.5-metre super yacht Reborn (formerly known as Boadicea) has five decks and can accommodate up to 14 guests. Clearly Grundy loves to entertain – the yacht features a 14-seat cinema, a stage and a piano bar. When the boat was built in 1999, it even features a real grass lawn where the Grundy family’s dogs could lounge in comfort.

Clive Palmer

Like most things in Clive Palmer’s life, super yachts have caused him a bit of controversy. In 2009, he was roundly criticised for buying a $5 million yacht for his daughter as a 15th birthday present. Still, Palmer could end up dwarfing the likes of Lowy and Packer – the Titanic 2 ocean liner he plans to build would be the ultimate marine status symbol.

James Thomson is a former editor of BRW’s Rich 200 and the publisher of SmartCompany and LeadingCompany.

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