Lord Beaverbrook always pronounced it ‘yat’. He said, ‘Let me give you some good advice, Mr Johnson. Hesitate a long time before you buy yourself an expensive steam yat.’ There are at least 40 different ways of spelling the word, from yeagh, holke, yuath, yought, yott and yuacht, to jact, zeaghr, yoathe and zoughe. ‘And all of them expensive,’ said Lord Curzon who, like his enemy the Beaver, had burnt his fingers with these millionaires’ toys. Yet I have a hankering to own one. ‘The great thing about a yacht,’ said old Aristotle Onassis, sitting on his boat the Christina in Monte Carlo harbour nearly half a century ago, ‘is that you raise anchor and then you tell the entire world to bugger off. It’s pure freedom.’ Oh yeah? Taki says that all yacht crews are spoiled, difficult, selfish and unreasonable: ‘Nothing but trouble.’ Rothermere, not the present one but his grandfather, also gave me a lecture on not acquiring a yacht. ‘It’s much simpler,’ he said, ‘to take 100,000 in Treasury notes and just set fire to them. That way, you get rid of the money at approximately the same speed, but have none of the anxiety.’ ‘But what about the pleasure?’ ‘Pleasure? Whatever made you think that yachting is about pleasure? It’s an ingenious way in which rich men punish themselves for having too much money.’
John Evelyn recorded in his diary, 1 October 1661: ‘I sailed this morning with His Majesty in one of his yachts (or pleasure boats), vessels not known among us till the Dutch East India Company presented that curious piece to the King.’ The Dutch certainly popularised the yacht, but I doubt if they invented it. An early example from European history was the White Ship, built by Henry I (an unusually rich sovereign) to his own specifications for pleasure trips, and fitted with all the latest gadgets. It was built for speed, as a court vessel, for transporting noblemen. On 25 November 1120 the court had been in France for four years and was going back to England. Henry I went with the main fleet, but his son and heir William went later on the White Ship, together with two bastard half-brothers, seven earls and barons and the chief household officers. The grandees, perhaps not liking the look of the weather — late November is a bad time for the Channel — got drunk. They got the sea-officers drunk too, and the mariners, and then urged them to put on speed to overtake the fleet. The yacht foundered on a reef off Barfleur and went down with all hands save one, a butcher from Rouen, who lived to tell the dreadful tale. King Henry never smiled again. No wonder he founded the Exchequer and invented the first pipe roll in 1130. As Henry had 30 male bastards, the dreadful Gordon Brown may well be one of his grasping descendants.
Charles II’s yacht, on which Evelyn sailed, was not enormous — 20 metres or 60 feet long — with a maximum width of 18 feet. He called it Mary. The first really big pleasure yacht, capable of ocean voyages, was built by the American millionaire George Crowninshield in 1815. It was baptised Cleopatra’s Barge, and he sailed it from New England across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, where it set new standards of luxury and pretentiousness. It put ideas into the head of Lord Byron. Hence his boat-building activities in Genoa, which produced the Bolivar, and led in turn to Shelley’s disastrous design for a super-fast and unstable yacht of his own, which foundered in a storm. It did not stop his own son, Sir Percy, from building and sailing a luxury yacht, described in William Allingham’s diaries. But by then, the mid-19th century, it was common for the English gentry and nobility to have designed and built such craft and go about their pleasures afloat. A typical example was ‘Jim’ Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, who commanded the Light Brigade in the cavalry division led by his hated brother-in-law, Lord Lucan, in the Crimea. Cardigan, a selfish man spoiled by his seven doting sisters, sailed to the war in his luxury yacht (he had £40,000 a year) and berthed it in Balaclava harbour so that he could dine and sleep on it each night. By contrast, Lucan lived with the men and horses and shared their discomforts. On the day of the disastrous charge, Cardigan behaved characteristically, leading his men with conspicuous gallantry but failing to collect them after the action or get them back to the lines in order. Instead he went back to his yacht, had a champagne dinner and was soon fast asleep. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert did wrong to treat him as a hero. Thank God he is not around today. He would be on the telly every night, along with the football managers and showbiz ruffians who now constitute our ruling class.
There ought to be a book about the large steam-powered yachts developed in the last decade of the 19th century, especially by the rich men of the New York gilded age. They lived on Long Island or up the Hudson, and sailed to Wall Street every morning, parking their yachts at the nearby piers. A typical vessel was the Mayflower of 2,690 tons, with triple-expansion engines, twin screws and a compartmented iron hull. It had a crew of 150. Built in 1897, it was taken over by the US navy and eventually became the official yacht of the US president, until turned down in 1929 by Hoover, who thought it old-fashioned.
Private steam yachts of great size and luxury were common in those days, but it was also possible for enthusiasts of relatively modest means to acquire a taste for living on the sea. In the late 1920s D.H. Lawrence, as his letters reveal, developed a passionate desire to acquire or share a yacht with some of his literary friends, and spend his life with Frieda chugging or sailing gently from one Greek or Italian port to another. And why not? I don’t know exactly when the inflation in sailors’ wages and the demand for preposterously elaborate equipment and accommodation first took yachting out of the range of all but the super-rich. It must have been in the late 1940s. Nowadays comparatively few billionaires own yachts because year-round huge bills make them too burdensome. They charter their boats instead. A typical monster on offer is the Annaliesse, which has five decks and formal dining for 36 people, an eight-person Jacuzzi, a spa with sauna, steam-room and massage parlours, high ceilings, marble fireplace and gigantic mirrors, with 180-degree panoramic windows in the master suite. This boat, by no means the largest or most expensive on offer, is 85.3 metres long, has a crew of 34, and can accommodate three dozen guests. The hire price is 661,500 euros a week, well over half a million pounds. Moreover, for your money, you don’t get much beyond boat and crew (plus 23 flat-screen TV sets, a wine cellar, a cinema, helipad, elevators, beauty salon and gym which you may not want). You have to pay, in addition, for all the food and booze, all the fuel — at astronomical 2005 prices, bumped up in Mediterranean ports — and docking fees, which in smart harbours run at $5,000 a day or more. But as Rothermere said, ‘If you need to know how much it costs, you can’t afford to run a yacht.’ In any case, the yacht I want does not exist. I can do without Jacuzzis and all the other colour-supplement tackle: what I insist on is a library capable of carrying 10,000 volumes.