Odyssey of Opulence: The Call of the Sea to the Wealthy Traveller

Tuesday, 22 June, 2021

Since time immemorial humanity has been drawn to the sea. In fact, there is archaeological evidence to suggest that our genetic forebears, Homo Erectus, built the first seaworthy ships nearly 800 000 years ago. It is rather perplexing as to why our species has heard the call of the sea because, anatomically speaking anyway, we are so woefully unprepared to thrive in its environment. We cannot cope well with pressure, our limbs are unsuitable for aquatic propulsion and, perhaps of paramount importance, we cannot breathe underwater. Yet humanity has sought to conquer and thrive upon the world’s oceans. Despite our maritime history being vast it is, at least relatively speaking, a recent development that humans have sought to travel the waves for pleasure rather than for reconnaissance or war. While royalty and nobility have enjoyed the deep blue since ancient times, it was not until the 18th and 19th century that wealthy commoners could also indulge in this experience.

        Humans have used the seas to conquer and settle much of the world. They have functioned as a crucial utensil with which to build nations and economies. But to use them for the purposes of pleasure is an altogether different parameter. This natural wonder that covers most of our planet has always, and continues to, entice us to its domain. While cruises and river boat trips are a popular pastime for many, those with financial means can undertake this experience as the kings and queens of old once did. Thanks to companies such as Fraser and Princess, it is possible to buy, charter, or even build your own pleasure yacht. An odyssey of opulence awaits those with the means to seize it and continue the tradition of humanities fascination with the sea.

Pleasure yachting was for centuries reserved for the royalty of empires, not in the least because of the vast expense it incurred. Perhaps one of the most famous examples comes from Ptolemaic Egypt where Cleopatra dazzled both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony with her royal barge. It is an instance that has been romanticised by history time and time again. The seductive and exotic queen, with all her charm and grace, showing two of the most powerful men of the ancient world the wealth that was at her disposal. A description from Plutarch, writing not long after the events he portrays, gives a vivid description of this pleasure boat:

“Crossing the Mediterranean to Cilicia… She came up the River Cydnus in a vessel, the stern whereof was gold, the sails of purple silk, and the oars of silver, which gently kept time to the sound of music.”

It is important, of course, to consider the possibility of exaggeration. However when considering the $1.5 billion super yacht Roman Abramovich had built for himself in 2009, it stands to reason that one of the wealthiest monarchs of the time would be as frivolous in their expenses.

        Then there is the infamous Roman Emperor Caligula. He constructed at great expense not one, but two extravagant pleasure boats for himself and his entourage. For centuries the Nemi Ships, as they have come to be known, were thought to be a legend invented by subsequent writers to chastise the Emperor’s decadence. Yet under the reign of another megalomanic, Benito Mussolini, these ships were pulled from the bed of lake Nemi. The largest, Prima Nave, was 36 feet long and gave credence to the stories of boats filled with baths, mosaics and golden taps. Both examples show the heritage of taking to the water for comfort and pleasure, but neither ships could be, nor have they ever been, dubbed yachts. This is because the word we now use to describe such opulent luxury on the waves is Dutch in origin.

        The word “jaght” roughly translates as “to hunt.” This is due to the fact that these smaller vessels were nimble enough to chase down the pirates that menaced Dutch merchant shipping in the 16th century. However, rich ship owners and merchants subsequently began to use these small boats to greet and celebrate their returning merchants. It then quickly became chic to use these “jaghts” to take friends out for the singular purpose of pleasure. The word became anglicised as yacht and thus the phrase synonymous with luxurious travel we know today was born.

         Soon the sight of these yachts began to become a presence in England as well. In 1604 Phineas Pett, a member of the distinguished ship-building family, received instructions from Lord High-Admiral Howard to “build in all haste a miniature pleasure ship” for Prince Henry, the eldest son of King James I. The monarch’s grandson Charles II similarly saw the appeal of luxury aquatic endeavours. Having spent 10 years of exile in Holland, following the devastating English Civil Wars, he retuned with expected overstated pomp to be crowned in 1660. The effect of Dutch sailing evidently made an impression upon the young, hedonistic monarch as he brought with him a 60-foot yacht named Mary. Soon the site of this majestic, floating palace became a regular occurrence down the river Thames.

        The experience of yachting was still reserved for those of the upper classes and this continued into the subsequent 1700’s. Exquisite boats of comfort and luxury facilitated the grand tours of Europe undertaken by young members of the gentry. But change was on the way. Britain had seen the emergence of a prominent middle-class. Through industry and entrepreneurship, those of humbler origins found themselves with vast amounts of disposable income and sought out the finer means of travel. They were joined by the great romantic writers such as Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, and John Keats. Soon the Mediterranean waters were awash with exquisite crafts boarded by the many seeking the cultural splendour of classical Europe.

        By the time the RMS Titanic, then the most luxurious pleasure liner for those who could afford it, made its tragic maiden voyage in April 1912, many of the most expensive suites were occupied by wealthy businessmen and their families. While the pursuit of sumptuous comfort upon the waves was, and still is, restricted to the wealthiest of people, it had now become a popular pastime for those outside the royalty and the nobility.

The history of pleasure yachting is a long and rich one. It would be impossible to do it proper justice within the confines of one article. * What has, hopefully, been conveyed is that throughout history people with the appropriately enormous funds have sought out the sea to indulge their tastes for the exquisite. The world we live in today is no different and there are ways in which the affluent can seek out this experience. Two of the behemoths of the yachting industry are undoubtedly Fraser Yachts and Princess Yachts. Each provides a variety of services to cater to the specific needs of each client. From managing, purchasing, selling, building and chartering yachts for their customers. Thanks to the digital age in which we live, companies such as these two are easily available to contact and facilitate the desires of those with millions in the bank.

        While there is a difference in the products and services they provide, what both share in practice is a commitment to sustainability. Despite both corporations dealing in a business that many would argue harm the oceans, the opposite is in fact the case. We now, thankfully, live in a world where more of the population are addressing the catastrophic impact humanity is inflicting upon the oceans and seas. It is a crucial time in our species history. Whereas the wealthy kings and queens of yesteryear had no concern for the fragility of the waters they depended on, more and more are looking into the possibilities of simultaneously enjoying the majesty of the seas and preserving them.

        For example Princess yachts describe themselves as “custodians” of Eddystone Reef. 19km from their base in Plymouth, they have donated money to various causes that protect this ecosystem from damaging fishing practices. In conjunction with this they are partners with the Marine Conservation Society, a charitable organisation that has, to date, removed 6 million pieces of litter from the Uk’s beaches. Fraser yachts have made a commitment to offset all their corporate travel through its wind farm project in Aruba. The park is achieving annual greenhouse gases emission reductions in excess of 150,000 tonnes of CO2e per year. They are also partners with Plastic Oceans which, unsurprisingly, work around the globe to educate people about the dangers of plastic in our oceans and prevent its further damage. Before embarking upon the journey that is luxury yachting, anyone should investigate these initiatives further. It will make anyone with a moral compass more comfortable in engaging, and enjoying, in this most historic and sumptuous means of pleasure.

The principle of luxury yachting is nothing new, but its endurance is fundamentally down to our fascination with the sea. Writers and artists have long sought to capture and conjure within our minds its exquisite beauty, its secretive mystique and paid homage to the unpredictable wrath it can yield. The oceans are as unpredictable as human nature and so, it could be said, we find within this strange place a certain affinity. It has been a tool for both exploration and commerce. Empires have risen and fallen because of it, often as unpredictably as the waves which have rocked many a mariner.

        Perhaps it is only natural then that, due to its vital importance to so many of our civilisations, the wealthy have sought to master it in their own way. To appreciate its raw majesty, but from a more comfortable distance. To experience it with class, sophistication and a bon vivant attitude. It is demonstrably true that humanity has left a poisonous stain upon this most vital of ecosystems, but there is change in the wind. If corporations which specialise in enjoying the beauty of the sea are working to preserve it, then there is certainly some hope for the future. Luxury yachting will always be a pastime that is exclusive to the rich, but if it can be sustainable as well then it is another piece in the jigsaw of protecting our environment.

         The sea will always sing a siren call and tantalise us to its mystery and beauty. Those with the right means can answer it with an odyssey of opulence.

*For those interested in reading further into this subject, Arthur Hamilton Clark’s The History of Yachting is a recommended read. Although written in 1905 it provides in depth research into this subject. I for one found it particularly useful when writing this article.

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