Inside San Diego’s super-glitzy world of superyachts

The 145-foot superyacht Dumb Luck, center, is docked in Shelter Island basin.
The 145-foot superyacht Dumb Luck, center, is docked in Shelter Island basin.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

For superyacht owners, no extravagance is too extreme, no port too glamorous

If you doubt that the super-rich are a different breed, tour their superyachts.

Take, for instance, Golden Shadow. Launched in 1995 by San Diego’s Campbell Shipyard, the 219-foot vessel has luxurious staterooms for 16 guests, more modest quarters for 22 crew members, a 50-square-foot dive chamber and an exterior elevator platform, powerful enough to hoist aboard a seaplane and spacious enough to set down a helicopter.

Impressed? Don’t be. Golden Shadow was built as a floating garage for Golden Odyssey, a Saudi prince’s 404-foot superyacht.

“These big yachts have so many helicopters and toys aboard,” said Neal Esterly, a San Diego salesman for Fraser, a premier superyacht broker. “They are building 200-foot shadow boats to carry the submarine, the helicopter, the dirt bikes.”

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In the world of superyachts, no extravagance is too extreme, no port too glamorous. These palatial vessels anchor off Cannes, roam the Windward Islands, explore Norwegian fjords, wander across the Pacific. The owners — Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern sheikhs, American tech titans — travel in royal splendor with Cordon Bleu-trained chefs, masseuses, dive masters, pilots, tutors for the kids. On board, they are surrounded by African hardwood cabinets, spas fed by waterfalls, herb gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, basketball courts, hot tubs, Dale Chihuly glass chandeliers and Keith Haring originals.

Size alone doesn’t define a superyacht, but everything in this category is at least 75 feet from stem to stern. The largest, the 600-footer REV Ocean, is almost 100 feet longer than a U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.

“They are very much for the 1%,” said San Diego’s Kate Pearson, chair of the U.S. Superyacht Association. “Well, the .1%.”

During a leisurely voyage — from Alaskan glaciers to Costa Rican rainforests, say — these vessels often need to pause in a safe harbor for repairs and replenishment. That’s San Diego’s role in this glitzy world, offering shipyards, sheltered dock space and an army of woodworkers, welders, engineers, sailmakers, even specialists in the surprisingly delicate task of on-board carpet cleaning.

All of this, fans note, pumps money into the local economy. So do the live-aboard crew members who take advantage of our waterfront’s proximity to bars, restaurants, nightclubs.

“Most of them are 35 and younger. They pay no rent, no monthly bills, they’re not paying for food,” said Steve Brownsea, captain of the 145-foot Dumb Luck, moored at Shelter Island. “All they do is go and party.”

Like all industries, this business is sensitive to the market’s ebbs and flows. Orders for new vessels slipped during the Great Recession and brokers like Esterly keep a wary eye on signs that the global economy is weakening. As the gap between the .1% and everyone else widens, some superyachters fret about the “optics” of their seagoing displays of super-wealth.

Perhaps the greatest hazard, though, is also this lifestyle’s greatest attraction: the beautiful and unforgiving sea.

Port for all reasons

San Diego arrived late to the party. Massive pleasure yachts have been enjoyed by European royal families for centuries, while the ostentatious vessels of 19th century American tycoons commonly cruised near the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, R.I., and Long Island, N.Y.

In 1947, David Fraser founded a yacht brokerage house in Newport Beach. About 20 years later, he opened a branch office San Diego. Despite these deep Southern California roots, Fraser now has an Old World feel — in the 1990s, it merged with Europe’s United Yachting, and the company’s headquarters moved to Monaco. With Burgess and Y.Co, Fraser is one of superyachting’s Big Three brokers.

While Fraser maintains an office here, San Diego is home port for only a handful of superyachts.

“We don’t have the cruising grounds like you have in Florida, the Bahamas, the Caribbean or Europe,” Esterly said. “From San Diego, Cabo and Seattle are each 1,000 miles away. Between those two, there just isn’t any place to go cruising. You can only go to Catalina Island so many times.”

To this super-wealthy crowd, though, San Diego markets itself as the destination between destinations.

“We are not Monaco or the Bahamas,” said Todd Roberts, president of Fifth Avenue Landing, the superyacht anchorage south of Seaport Village. “We are effectively a transit port. But we are doing a pretty good job of giving the superyacht the whole package.”

The landing’s 12 slips can accommodate mid-size superyachts, up to about 300 feet in length. Vessels that moor here can hook up to shore power, pump out “blackwater” — yachtspeak for sewage — unload food, drink and other supplies straight off the dock. Fifth Avenue also owns the Marine Group Boat Works, which operates shipyards in National City and Chula Vista.

San Diego’s naval heritage guarantees plenty of people trained in ship maintenance. Brownsea, the captain of Dumb Luck, recalls the dismay of another superyacht’s owner, when he learned his vessel needed new parts that were only available in Europe. His sailing date would have been delayed — if he hadn’t stumbled upon a San Diegan able to machine the parts.

“They were delivered within 24 hours,” Brownsea said. “The owner couldn’t believe it.”

Geography, too, works in San Diego’s favor. For southbound sailors waiting for the Mexican hurricane season to blow itself out, this bay is a comfortable place to spend days or weeks while monitoring satellite weather maps.

“The captains that go down to the Sea of Cortez, they all stop in San Diego,” said Scott Whittaker, the Puget Sound-based skipper of Gayle Force, a 99-foot expedition boat. “Everybody does.”

Changing trends in sailing also benefit San Diego, as long voyages — to Costa Rica and Peru, say, then across the Pacific to New Zealand, Tahiti, Fiji, Micronesia and finally back to the U.S. — appeal to a certain class of well-heeled wanderer.

“The boats we get in San Diego, the vessels you see on our waterfront that blow your mind, that owner is more adventurous,” said Fifth Avenue’s Roberts. “The yacht owner who wants to sit on the deck with a margarita and wave at his friends, those aren’t the owners we get. We get the more expeditionary owner.”

Expeditionary or sedentary, owners value their privacy. Typical is Robert Mercer, a New York tech millionaire and major financial contributor to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. On Sept. 11, his superyacht tried to enter San Diego Bay incognito, with tarps draped over her name.

Might as well put sunglasses on the Mona Lisa. One of the world’s most photographed vessels, this 203-foot floating mansion is instantly recognizable, thanks to her forest green hull and cream-colored decks. Few, though, have been invited aboard to marvel at the carved mahogany “tree” rising through four decks, the frescoes saluting Darwin and Newton, the hand-knotted carpet of Nepalese wool and silk.

During Sea Owl’s eight-week stay at Fifth Avenue, a sign dangled over her gangway: “Private yacht — no boarding.”

Peril on the sea

Like a garage full of Maseratis or a closet full of Valentino gowns, superyachts are a sure sign of wealth. TV’s Judge Judy owns a 152-foot cruiser, Triumphant Lady, while Tiger Woods’s Privacy is slightly larger, 155 feet. Steven Spielberg’s Seven Seas is grander still, a 282-foot home-away-from-his-other-homes-away-from-home, with crew of 23, flotilla of tenders and on-board movie theater.

San Diego has enjoyed occasional visits by ocean-going glitterati, such as Luna, the 377-foot vessel owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, and Tatoosh, a 303-foot wonder built for the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The latter’s five decks house a cinema, gym, massage room, swimming pool, 11 staterooms and a crew of 35. Fraser now charters Tatoosh — a week in the Caribbean this winter will run $650,000.

Attessa IV also made a big splash here, mooring in San Diego Bay often between 2016 and 2018. Her most recent visit ended in tragedy — while cruising off Imperial Beach on Oct. 26, 2018, Attessa IV slammed into the Prowler, a 65-foot sportfishing boat. One passenger, Richard Neff, was killed and another, John Schmit, critically injured.

Schmit, who suffered a fractured skull, vertebra, rib and sternum, sued the owners of Attessa IV and Prowler. A hearing in this case is scheduled for Dec. 6.

Both vessels reported poor visibility due to heavy fog, just one of the many hazards superyachts must navigate. A partial listing of recent victims: in 2015, Hurricane Carlos sank the 127-foot Bellissima near Acapulco; in 2017, Hurricane Irma sank the 131-foot Sierra Romeo in the Caribbean; and in 2018, heavy seas capsized the 124-foot Suegno off the Italian port of Genoa.

Some danger can be avoided by staying in port. Dumb Luck, the 145-foot tri-level motor yacht skippered by Brownsea, rarely leaves her Shelter Island dock. Even so, the usually absent owner is hit hard in his pocketbook.

“Just to keep her in port costs about $750,000 a year,” said Brownsea, citing the crew’s salary, docking fees, fuel, insurance and property tax, the latter levied on vessels that remain here at least six months a year. “If we were active, going more places, it would be about $1.5 million.”

That’s a lot of money — unless you are a superyachter. Fifth Avenue’s Roberts once priced repairs for an owner. The job wasn’t cheap, and Roberts advised the owner that expenses would climb astronomically if had to be done quickly.

“I’m old, Todd,” the owner responded. “I have way more money than time. Just make it happen.”

Super budget

If superyachts are for the .1%, the Nerissa is for the other 99.9% — or at least those with a decent amount of disposable income. A 73-foot motor yacht going to seed on the Gulf Shore, Nerissa was purchased by San Diego’s Shari and Amos Zolna, who restored it as a party vessel with a well-stocked bar and a hot tub.

Now docked on Shelter Island and Coast Guard-certified for 49 passengers, Nerissa specializes in day cruises on San Diego Bay. Summer is her high season, but year-round she is booked by bachelor and bachelorette parties, sightseers, sunset cruisers and others. Two hours on the water for 40 people, with a caterer and an open bar, runs about $5,000, or $125 a head.

The experience, Amas Zolna said, is priceless: “There’s nothing like sitting out there in the hot tub with a cold beer or a glass of wine.”

The true superyacht experience will always be far out of reach for most people. Kate Pearson, the U.S. Superyacht Association’s chair, laughs when asked if she owns one.

“No,” said Pearson, who is vice president of Safe Harbors Marina, the world’s largest owner and operator of marinas. “We are a boating family, but on a much more subdued level.”

While she has been a guest aboard numerous superyachts, she views them the way most people view the stars — something beautiful, magnificent and unattainable. When Pearson is sailing with guests and they see a superyacht, she quickly alters course.

“We take them up close,” she said.