When the US targeted Russia’s oligarchs after the invasion of Ukraine, the trail of assets kept leading to our own backyard. Not only had our nation become a haven for shady foreign money, but we were also incubating a familiar class of yacht-owning, industry-dominating, resource-extracting billionaires. In the January + February 2024 issue of our magazine, we investigate the rise of American Oligarchy—and what it means for the rest of us. You can read all the pieces here.
The luxury yacht may be the world’s most exclusive form of transportation. But there are only a hundred-some that meet the definition of a gigayacht—a pleasure craft 295 feet or longer. Their opaque ownership records offer a glimpse of modern wealth and power: Over two dozen are linked to Gulf royals, businessmen, or states, and 20 to citizens (past or current) of the former Soviet Union. At least 23 have reportedly belonged to Americans, including founders of Microsoft, Netscape, Amazon, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. The widow of a German retailer who thrived under Hitler owned one; a UK tax exile and a Formula 1 dad still do. Yugoslav strongman Tito’s old yacht makes the list; Dominican dictator Trujillo’s does too. Take a cruise through the history of the vessels and their—somewhat—more modest sister ships.
1895: Nineteen years before World War I, the future King Edward VII of England punches his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II, in the face, after the German’s 121-foot yacht, Meteor II, defeats the royal Britannia in a race off the Isle of Wight.
1954: Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis ushers in an era of postwar one-upmanship with his 325-foot Christina O. It features a pool that converts into a dance floor, furniture made from whale foreskin, and pornographic carvings.
1963: During his final birthday party aboard the presidential yacht Sequoia, JFK chases future Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s wife, Antoinette, into the bathroom and gropes her. “I guess I was pretty surprised, but I was kind of flattered, and appalled, too,” she says later. The ship’s visitor logs are destroyed after Kennedy’s assassination.
1984: King Fahd of Saudi Arabia builds the record-breaking 482-foot Prince Abdulaziz.
1987: Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) drops out of the presidential race just before photos emerge of him with model Donna Rice aboard the yacht Monkey Business.
1988: Donald Trump acquires Nabila, which previously belonged to the Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and was featured in the James Bond film Never Say Never Again. He renames it Trump Princess, adds a disco, and changes the helipad’s “H” to a “T.”
1991: After one of Trump’s casinos files for bankruptcy, he sells Trump Princess to his bank—which flips it to a Saudi prince. A new yacht, the Trump Princess II, which he boasted would be “something in excess of 400 feet long, closer to 500 feet,” is never built.
British publisher Robert Maxwell’s body is found in the Atlantic Ocean, where he had been cruising on a 180-footer named for his daughter—the Lady Ghislaine. The vessel is eventually resold to Anna Murdoch, Rupert’s second wife.
1994: At a cocktail party on the oligarch Petr Aven’s yacht in the Caribbean, Boris Berezovsky meets Roman Abramovich, calling him a “nice boy who wanted to discuss commercial projects.” He and Abramovich begin working together to acquire Sibneft, a Russian state oil company.
1997: Construction ends on The Limited and Victoria’s Secret owner Les Wexner’s 316-foot Limitless. The project was overseen by his good friend Jeffrey Epstein.
1999: Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison buys the 191-foot Izanami from a Japanese seller. He changes the name to Ronin, he said later, after “the local newspapers started pointing out that Izanami was ‘I’m a Nazi’ spelled backwards.”
2001: Months before Enron files for bankruptcy, former CEO Jeffrey Skilling asks a company executive for advice on finding a yacht broker. “This industry is known for crooks and thieves,” he warns Skilling.
2002: House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) promises to strip “corporate kingpins of their ill-gotten gains,” after scandals rock Enron and WorldCom. “We’re coming after the yacht.”
2003: DeLay charges donors $500,000 a pop for tickets to a yacht cruise.
2005: Ellison shoots down rumors he issued orders midconstruction to have his newest yacht, the 454-foot Rising Sun, extended to outdo Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s recently launched 414-foot Octopus.
Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) pleads guilty to federal bribery charges after being caught living rent-free on a yacht, called the Duke-Stir, that was moored in Washington, DC, and owned by a defense contractor.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s 531-foot Dubai surpasses Prince Abdulaziz as the world’s longest yacht.
2006: Media mogul Barry Diller reveals the world’s longest sailing yacht, the 305-foot Eos, whose prow features a 9-foot-tall sculpture of his wife, Diane von Furstenberg.
2007: Diller opens a Manhattan corporate headquarters at a Frank Gehry–designed building that itself has been likened to a sailboat. It’s across the street from where Eos ties up.
2008: George Osborne, the No. 2 official in the UK’s Conservative Party, relaxes on Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska’s yacht while vacationing with his family in Greece. He denies an accusation that he solicited funds, explaining in a statement that they discussed “Russian history” and drank tea.
2009: As his marriage falls apart, Tiger Woods retreats to a 155-foot yacht called Privacy.
2010: Abramovich’s new ship, Eclipse, surpasses Dubai as the world’s longest yacht. The 533-foot vessel features a submarine, anti-missile systems, and lasers to thwart paparazzi.
2011: During an unsuccessful suit seeking $5 billion he believed Abramovich owed him from the sale of Sibneft, an exiled Berezovsky claims that his former partner helped purchase the yacht Olympia for Vladimir Putin. When the BBC publishes a supporting account from another Russian businessman five years later, Abramovich’s lawyers dismiss the allegation as “a rehash of speculation and rumours.”
2012: As GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney faces criticism for holding investment funds in the Cayman Islands, his campaign invites donors to party on Cracker Bay. The ship, owned by the founder of The Villages retirement community, flies the Cayman Islands’ flag.
2013: UAE leader Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan launches the 593-foot Azzam, surpassing the Eclipse.
2014: The Wall Street Journal reports that Ellison has basketball hoops on “at least two of his yachts” and had someone follow in a smaller boat “to retrieve balls that go overboard.”
2016: Allen’s Tatoosh drags its anchor through a protected zone in the Cayman Islands, destroying 14,000 square feet of coral.
2017: After leaving office, Barack and Michelle Obama retreat to the South Pacific aboard David Geffen’s yacht, where they’re joined by Oprah, Tom Hanks, and Bruce Springsteen.
Abramovich’s business partner, Eugene Shvidler, blocks views of the Statue of Liberty while anchoring his 370-foot Le Grand Bleu in New York Harbor for a month.
Addressing the national Boy Scout Jamboree, Trump tells an anecdote widely assumed to allude to sex parties on a yacht belonging to the developer of the Levittown suburbs. “You’re Boy Scouts, so I’m not going to tell you what he did,” he said. “But you know life.”
Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) buys a yacht and on the same day votes to cut taxes on yachts.
2018: Rupert Murdoch is airlifted to UCLA after collapsing on a yacht trip with his fourth wife, Jerry Hall. “He kept almost dying,” a source tells Vanity Fair.
Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott designates a billionaire donor’s marina as a special anti-poverty opportunity zone.
Someone unties Seaquest, a superyacht belonging to Trump administration Secretary of Education (and billionaire) Betsy DeVos, causing it to crash into a dock on Lake Erie.
Businessman Jho Low, who financed The Wolf of Wall Street, is accused of taking part in a $4.5 billion scheme to siphon Malaysian state development funds and using some to purchase a $250 million yacht.
2019: Actress Lori Loughlin is arrested in a college admissions bribery scheme. Her daughter, USC student Olivia Jade, is vacationing in the Bahamas—on a yacht belonging to USC board of trustees chair Rick Caruso.
Following an investigation into corruption in the Nigerian oil industry, the US government auctions off businessman Kolawole Aluko’s Galactica Star, six years after Jay-Z rented out the vessel for Beyoncé’s 32nd birthday. A former Enron unit attempts to claim a portion of the proceeds.
Clarence Thomas visits an Indonesian preserve for Komodo dragons with billionaire Harlan Crow on the conservative megadonor’s Michaela Rose.
ArtNet reports that a $450 million (reputed) da Vinci that was supposed to be in an Abu Dhabi museum has been spotted hanging in Mohammed bin Salman’s personal yacht, Serene.
Kylie Jenner holds her 22nd birthday party on Low’s yacht, now under new ownership.
2020: “[I]solated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus,” Geffen writes on Instagram from Rising Sun, which he purchased in 2010. “I’m hoping everybody is staying safe.”
Steve Bannon is arrested off the coast of Connecticut by US Postal Police while aboard the fugitive Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui’s 150-foot Lady May.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. dresses up as a character from the TV show Trailer Park Boys for a costume party aboard a NASCAR mogul’s yacht. He later posts a photo of himself to Instagram with his fly unzipped and his arms around his wife’s assistant.
2021: NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre testifies that he took refuge on Illusions, a Hollywood producer’s yacht, after the Newtown and Parkland mass shootings. “I remember getting there going, ‘Thank God I’m safe, nobody can get me here.’”
During a bitter divorce, the Daily Mail reports that Tatiana Akhmedova, wife of the Russian Azerbaijani billionaire Farkhad Akhmedov, hired a team of British special forces veterans to seize his yacht, Luna, in an effort to enforce a Marshall Islands court ruling. They settle instead, and he keeps the boat.
Port Azure, dubbed the world’s first harbor designed exclusively for megayachts, opens in Gocek, Turkey. It bills itself as a place where “problems big and small go away.”
2022: Amid reports a historic bridge will be dismantled so Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ newly built Koru can leave Rotterdam’s shipyards, residents threaten to pelt the sailboat with eggs. The city changes plans.
A Ukrainian mechanic is arrested in Mallorca for attempting to sink a vessel owned by his boss, a Russian arms dealer.
Biden promises oligarchs he’s going to “take their ill-begotten gains” after the invasion of Ukraine. “We’re going to seize their yachts.”
Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder avoids a congressional subpoena on the team’s misogynistic culture while cruising the Mediterranean on his yacht, Lady S.
Missing Russian superyachts are spotted waiting out sanctions at Port Azure.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) criticizes Joe Biden for vacationing in Delaware while vacationing on a luxury yacht in Italy.
After sailing through Fiji on his yacht Aquarius, briefly retired Disney CEO Bob Iger tells friends he misses his wife and is bored with life.
New York Republican congressional candidate George Santos brokers a $19 million deal to sell a superyacht called Namaste to a Long Island car dealer.
2023: Bezos takes possession of Koru. The $500 million, 417-foot sailboat comes with a bust that resembles his fiancée Lauren Sánchez—and its own second, 246-foot “shadow” support yacht with crew quarters and a hangar for the helicopter she pilots.
After divorcing Jerry Hall, Rupert Murdoch vacations on the Christina O with Abramovich’s ex-mother-in-law.
As TV and movie writers and actors strike, the Wall Street Journal reports that Iger, now back at work, has been regaling visitors to his Burbank office about the new, longer yacht he’s building.
Iconic gigayachts through the years
1931: Sea Cloud, Marjorie Post: 359 ft.
1981: Atlantis II, Stavros Niarchos: 380 ft.
2003: Octopus, Paul Allen: 414 ft.
2005: Rising Sun, Larry Ellison: 454 ft.
2010: Eclipse, Roman Abramovich: 533 ft.
2013: Azzam, Sheikh Khalifa: 593 ft.
Illustrations by Anthony Calvert
The Few, The Loud
Some famous faces aboard gigayachts
Steven Spielberg reeled out his anchor off Cannes.
A part of Katy Perry got stuck exiting a dinghy on her way to Barry Diller’s yacht.
Mohammed bin Salman purchased his yacht, Serene, just hours after he saw it.
Jerry Jones made a draft pick aboard his Bravo Eugenia to deepen the Cowboys’ bench.
Mariah Carey was engaged to a gigayacht owner, before the fantasy ended.