Your bog-standard superyacht now costs between £40 and £70 million depending on the interior specification. The running costs tend to be about £5 million a year for the bigger vessels. “It's roughly £1 million a metre,” says Jamie Edmiston, of Edmiston & Co. “For that you get helipads, swimming pools and spas as standard.” The oligarchs want more. “They don't just want a slide for the children, they want a submarine,” says one broker.
Seduced by the jet-set glamour of it all, it looks as if those smart political operatives George Osborne and Peter Mandelson failed to spot the obvious danger signs. As anyone who goes to the cinema could have told them, only Bond villains own that sort of floating lair and people who are unsuspectingly lured on board inevitably find themselves getting hurt. George and Mandy really should have listened to Shirley Bassey.
You said it, girl.
Of course, like most ordinary people, I have nothing to do with big vessels like that. Well, that's not strictly true. Most of the stuff I've ever bought has come here on board something even bigger than an oligarch's yacht. I'm talking about container ships, which have been in the news recently because the shipping lines, like everybody else, are sailing into an economic storm:
Late last year, users of major European container ports kept complaining about one problem. Volumes of containers arriving at ports such as Rotterdam and Antwerp from Asia were rising so rapidly that ports were struggling to cope.
This year, ports can only wish for such problems. Drewry is predicting growth of only 4.1 per cent, and Eivind Kolding, chief executive of Maersk Line, the world's biggest container shipping line and part of Denmark's AP Møller-Maersk, says that volumes are currently shrinking against the same months of last year.
It's strange how invisible these fleets of vast container ships are, especially as the ships are among the biggest vessels on the planet. Consider the Emma Maersk, pride of the Maersk Line and the largest container ship in existence. 397 metres or 1,300 feet long, powered by the world's largest single diesel unit (the ship's engine alone weighs 2,300 tons). Yet I was hardly aware of the ship's existence. She's not to, my eyes, at least, a particularly beautiful ship and the photographs I've seen hardly convey an impressive sense of scale, but how can you not be aware of such a colossus? Especially as it was built in little Denmark, known to the rest of the world for beer, bacon, Sandi Toksvig and open sandwiches (although not necessarily in that order) - you'd think if they'd built the biggest object of its class in the world, they'd be shouting their achievement from the rooftops.
A book called How To Avoid Huge Ships recently came third in The Bookseller magazine's recent competition to find the oddest book title of the last 30 years (first place went to Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers) and most of us, it seems, avoid them by not giving the subject a moment's thought. Yet the container ships and their sisters, the oil tankers, which can get even bigger, are the largest self-propelled objects ever constructed by the human race and play a vital role in keeping our civilisation going. There's no practical reason for me to know that the tanker Knock Nevis is the biggest ship in the world by length (the Batillus class supertankers, which have now all been scrapped, beat it in terms of tonnage), but I just feel it's the sort of thing anyone who takes an interest in the world around them ought to at least be aware of.
Maybe it's just me - obscure and perhaps irrelevant facts often delight me, especially as distractions from harsh and uncertain times. I did come across details of another class of vessel this week, which has no relevance to anything in the news, but they just looked so weird I felt I had to share the discovery. Re-reading Neal Ascherson's book Black Sea recently I came across a reference to the Russian Tsarist navy's circular ironclads, shallow draft vessels developed to defend coastal waters around the Crimea in the nineteenth century. They sounded rather extraordinary, so I looked up some details on the Internet and they look as every bit as strange as they sound - flat as pancakes, chugging through the shallows like steam-powered lily pads - see for yourself here and here.