A Drop in the Ocean

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 27th June 2005.

I am reclining – floating – on a 25-ft long powder blue sofa, 25 feet above the Mediterranean Sea. Strewn with cushions, it is deeply comfortable. A feeling of blissful contentment steels over me as I bask – in a nonchalant, I-was-born-to-this sort of way, or so I hope – in the warmth of the noonday sun. Idly I twirl a flute of Gosset Cèlébris 1998 Rosé Champagne, while I watch Matt Wilkins, master sommelier, expertly decant the bottle of Sassicaia 2002 which I am to have with my lunch. Somewhere beneath us, Eric Chavot, master chef ennobled with two Michelin stars, is preparing a four-course meal for ten people, including me.

The sommelier is dressed in the traditional uniform of his trade: black shirt, black waistcoat full of useful pockets for bottle openers and such like, black jacket, black trousers. He looks very smart, if funereal, with one exception: his feet are bare. This is a yacht, after all, and rules are rules, even for top chefs and sommeliers: no shoes on board.

I am, temporarily, in another world and it is fascinating, even astonishing. I’m a guest on board Mosaique, a 164-ft (50-metre) motor yacht designed three years ago by top yacht designer Dubois. A crew of 13 – one more than the maximum number of guests – pander to my every whim; Eric Chavot, head chef at the Capital Hotel in London, is cooking my lunch; and Matt Wilkins, Group Consultant Sommelier at the Capital, has chosen the wines.

Mosaique is one of 55 or so private sailing and motor yachts – all over 130 ft (40 m) long – available for charter through Nigel Burgess, specialists in large (enormous to you and me) vessels that ply the world’s finest cruising grounds. To this charter company Mosaique is mid-sized and to them, this other world, the world they deal in every day, is normal; but to me the facts are staggering. Mosaique costs – wait for it – around £135,000 for a week’s charter, and that is without a single extra, including food and fuel. And yet she is fully booked for the season, as are all the other yachts on the company’s list.

“We’re in the business of exceeding expectations,” says Jonathan Beckett, managing director of Nigel Burgess, “And there are a lot of people to please. Not only must the charterers be kept happy, but so must the owners, who are, it goes without saying, some of the wealthiest and most exacting people you will ever meet”. Names are rarely mentioned – discretion is all – but owners on the Nigel Burgess books include Lebanese socialite and couture collector Mouna Ayoub with her 246 ft (75 m) sailing yacht Phocea, and shipping magnate Andreas Liveras with his 280 ft (85 m) motor yacht Annaliesse.

The holiday-makers who hire yachts such as Phocea, Annaliesse and Mosaique at such enormous cost must also have their every whim catered to by the crew, as long as it’s legal. Champagne arrives by the crate, and every food fad is indulged. If it’s a special caviar or a rare vintage that’s wanted, they must be sourced and supplied. And if their guests bring an extra 12 back to the boat for dinner at no notice, as they regularly do, chef and crew must not turn a hair.

But the crew need to be considered too. Bunked up together at the front of the boat (on Mosaique the crew quarters resemble a cosy London flat, cornflakes on the kitchen table, washing machine whirring comfortingly in the background) are a large and disparate group of people who must also be kept happy (the captain is instrumental) or they might just – and it has been known – mutiny.

One begins to see why Beckett talks about the world of the super yacht as being primarily a people business, and a diplomatic minefield. And yet, at the heart of the enterprise lies a love of sailing and the sea – as well as knowledge and expertise. These yachts may be mere playthings to some, but they are amongst the fastest, most elegant and most technically advanced craft ever created, built to cope with the sea at its cruellest. Nigel Burgess himself, a passionate sailor who started his business as a young man 30 years ago, was tragically lost at sea on the solo Vendée Globe round-the-world race in 1992. Ed Dubois, the charismatic designer of Mosaique, as well as of such luxury cruising yachts as Drumbeat and Tiara, which recently came first and second in their class in the Rolex Trans-Atlantic Race, likes nothing better than to sail his classic 44-ft (13 m) yacht Firebrand around Britain’s rugged coast. Jonathan Beckett keeps his yacht in St Jean-Cap-Ferrat, at 50 ft (15 m) a mere stripling compared to those on his company’ books.

Amongst the mega-rich, however, size is everything, and the race is on to be the billionaire with the biggest boat. At present the record is held by 525-ft (160 m) Platinum, but the time is fast approaching, says Beckett, when we will see private yachts the size of liners.

Who are all these staggeringly rich people? Most clients are families, say the crew, with the odd nanny and bodyguard thrown in. No one nationality predominates but they include plenty of Americans, more and more Russians, and a healthy proportion of British. “Not only are there more wealthy people than ever before,” says Brian Chick, the captain of Mosaique, “but it would seem their pockets are deeper than ever before. Money is not very often an issue for my guests”.

If you want to see the mega-rich at play, come to the Côte d’Azur, for that is where we are, anchored off Ile Ste-Marguerite, opposite Cannes. There are now so many pleasure yachts that the old cruising adage ‘go where you want when you want‘ no longer holds water: clients must decide at the time of booking exactly which hotspots they want to visit and on what days for a chance of a berth inside the harbour. It doesn’t put them off, though.

Thirty years ago, a suite at the Carlton in Cannes was the ultimate holiday for a millionaire, but now that everyone and anyone stays in palace hotels and luxury resorts, a private yacht has taken its place. In many ways it’s the perfect answer, allowing you absolute privacy and the chance to show off at the same time, while keeping you nicely aloof from the hoi polloi along the teeming coast. Though undeniably as scintillating and raffish as ever, anyone flying into Nice or anchored offshore can see that the Riviera has spawned a thick, unattractive brown and grey crust of cheek-by-jowl villas and apartment blocks, threaded with infuriating bumper-to-bumper traffic. Take to a yacht, as large and luxurious as you can afford, and you can cherry-pick the best bits and turn your back on the worst.

Mosaique is a classic example of the type. Step inside and she conspires not to be a yacht at all, but an Edwardian country house, complete with imposing curl mahogany dining table, wing chairs, wood panelling and oil paintings. The lavish bedrooms drip with satin, and the bathrooms groan under the weight of swirling marble and onyx, with basins hewn from single pieces of stone, their taps encrusted with semi-precious gems. Lights dim and blinds draw at the press of a button on your remote control, which also operates your music, TV and just about everything else. The whole yacht is a Wifi hotspot for wireless internet connection. Her bridge is worthy of a liner, and indeed it needs to be: Mosaique cruises much further afield than just the western Mediterranean. She’s off to Turkey and Greece in a day or two and last season in the Indian Ocean she witnessed the tsunami.

Inside you may feel you are in the shires, or perhaps a gentlemen’s club in St James’s, but step outside and you are most definitely on a yacht, with one of the most admired rooftop sun decks, the one I’m sitting on now, in the business, at once intimate and glamorous, complete with circular bar and Jacuzzi.

Down in the galley (if you can call the state-of-the-art kitchen that) Mosaique’s excellent resident chef John Harris, who has cooked on round-the-world voyages, has a store cupboard filled with interesting ingredients culled from his travels. Even Eric is impressed. He also approves of the galley. And why is he there? Nigel Burgess is offering its charter clients something new: a top chef, such as Eric, and his sommelier, will fly to your yacht and cook you and your guests a celebration dinner. The cost? A drop in the ocean compared to the charter fee.

First Eric needs to do the shopping, and he’s happy for guests to join him. In old Nice’s atmospheric Cours Saleya markets he’s in his element, back on home ground (he was born in Juan-les-Pins, but left for England at 18, rising to the top via the likes of La Tante Claire and Chez Nico). A lean fellow in baggy cut-offs and sunglasses, he darts about, sniffing, prodding, chatting. He quickly susses the best stalls, and picks out fish, meat, fruit and vegetables. He’s funny, driven and a good sport: it isn’t every top chef who would take on such a challenge (“’ow am I supposed to cook on zees tub?”) you can hear them cry, and “where is my équipe?”.

Then it’s back to the boat. While Eric is flashing round the galley (the speed with which he works is mesmerizing) our sommelier, a born communicator, is treating us to a light-hearted but inspiring wine tasting. And then it’s time for lunch.

The menu matches the location and starts with Eric’s wonderfully inventive take on Salad Niçoise, using red mullet because he didn’t fancy the tuna in the fish market. We drink a relevatory Reisling: Kabinett Scharzhofberger Egon Müller 2003. Next comes loin of Pyrenees lamb with flashes of sundried tomato rolled in a herb crust and served with a tian of aubergine, accompanied by the Sassicaia. The savoury is a baked crottin de Chavignol with chive oil and balsamic dressing, and the dessert a mouthwatering vanilla and rum panacotta with strawberries, raspberries and strawberry jellies, and sorbet with espuma. A fragrant Tokaji Cuvée Istvan Szepsy 2002 makes its ideal partner. The food is quite wonderful, each flavour separate yet complimentary. It’s as good as anything I have eaten in the Capital’s restaurant, if not better, and certainly more memorable. Four courses for ten people, produced single-handed in an unknown kitchen in the space of a couple of hours.

By now it’s well into the afternoon. Time for a little siesta in my cabin, then perhaps I’ll try out a jet ski. Evening approaches and the coast, as we glide back to our berth, is slowly lighting up for the night ahead. I could get used to this. Someone make me rich, quick.

Essentials

Yachts over 130 ft (40 m) can be chartered from Nigel Burgess (020 7766 4300; www.nigelburgess.com) who are offering a new concierge service to their clients by supplying a Michelin starred chef and a sommelier such as Eric Chavot and Matt Wilkins, head chef and sommelier at the Capital Restaurant, Capital Hotel, Basil Street, London SW3 (020 7589 5171; www.capitalhotel.co.uk).

Other charter companies specialising in large luxury yachts are Edmiston (0207 495 5151; www.edmistoncompany.com) and Camper and Nicholson (020 7491 2950; www.cnconnect.com).

To charter an affordable yacht all over the world, crewed or bareboat, from 32 ft (9 m) in length upwards, contact The Moorings (01227 776677; www.moorings.com) or Sunsail (0870 777 0313; www.sunsail.com).

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