The Other Side of Cannes, Exposed: Debauchery, Danger and the Dirty Secrets Aboard the Super-Rich's Superyachts

Dark_Side_of_Superyachts - S 2015

Dark_Side_of_Superyachts - S 2015

Jealous of those out on the sumptuous floating party palaces? "Don't be," says one power publicist, as insiders reveal the entitlement and inappropriate behavior that goes on inside the luxury boats.

This story first appeared in the May 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Just a few years ago, a young steward working on one of the glossiest superyachts anchored at Cannes for the film festival threatened to call the police on a well-known movie producer who was badly beating two prostitutes during sex in the master stateroom.

"He couldn't believe I'd actually do it," said the man, who no longer works on yachts but signed a confidentiality agreement that precludes him from being identified. "But it was the only way to stop him. He was violent and out of control. The girls were screaming, and he didn't care. He did care about the cops being called."

That incident, says a former chief stewardess, is not atypical of the behavior aboard some of the world's multimillion-dollar mega yachts, a global armada that recently has exploded with bigger, even more opulent vessels being launched on the seas — or into Cannes — every year.

At a 2012 charity event, Alec Baldwin was flanked by wife Hilaria and Denise Rich.

"I could tell you stories that would make your head spin and make you reach for the Dramamine on dry land," says Elizabeth Moore, who was based in Nice and worked on mega yachts in the Mediterranean and Caribbean for 11 years before quitting the lucrative but stressful business and moving to Australia last year.

The average have-not gazing out at the sumptuous floating party palaces from the Croisette only can imagine the luxury aboard these vessels, the most expensive of which cost up to $400 million. Amenities include movie theaters, wine cellars, gyms, detachable "beach clubs," helipads, storage for Jet Skis and submarines, anti-paparazzi shields and jellyfish aquariums.

"Jealous? Don't be," says power publicist Peggy Siegal, a Cannes veteran. "Here's the dirty little secret about the parties on the yachts. People don't want to get stuck on them. Then there's the shoe problem. They make you take your shoes off. Nobody looks good without their shoes. Then you've got the weather. The tenders [which transport guests to the yachts] are a real pain in the ass because you get wet. You've got to bring shawls and sweaters and wind­breakers and you're still freezing. Black tie in early May on a boat is not a good combination."

Even Paul Allen's annual party aboard his yacht Octopus, once the festival's hottest ticket, has lost its allure. "Nothing but hookers on that boat now," says one longtime attendee. Then again, the ambiance aboard a yacht at Cannes can be so magical that the stars become secondary to the experience. "Diane [von Furstenberg] and Barry [Diller] threw a famous party for Madonna a few years ago on their boat Eros," says Siegal. "It's a fantastic 300-foot sailboat with computerized sails and a beautiful green hull. Madonna never showed up, but it was such a gorgeous night, nobody cared. They barely noticed she wasn't there."

Quai Albert Edouard has Cannes' most sought-after berths.

The silent army keeping this glamorous world afloat are the crewmembers, whom Nice-based yacht broker Valeria Alekhina calls "the world's most discreet people because they have to be." They often work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, scoring tips that can average $5,000 a week — a reward for the unique challenges of serving the world's wealthiest and most entitled.

"Some of the celebrities who are guests on the boats are fantastic," says Moore. "We had Tom Hanks and his family on board. Nicest people you will ever meet. Meg Ryan was a doll. The only star I ever remember having a problem with was Sigourney Weaver, who refused to take off her stilettos and left marks on the deck."

It's not the guests but rather some of the owners — and the megarich who charter what top boat designer Dickie Bannenberg calls "the sexy trophy yachts" — that are the problem, say past and current crewmembers and brokers.

For Moore, the final straw came during a cruise on the Amalfi Coast on a yacht chartered by a Russian billionaire who brought two prostitutes with him but proceeded to hole up alone in his stateroom, almost drinking himself to death. After coaxing him out, says Moore, "I spent about an hour in there, scrubbing vomit off the walls and sheets, picking up the broken glass and pulling out all the bottles rolling around in the drawers. He apologized to us in the end, but it was too late for me. It was time to get out. The tips weren't worth it."

Geffen bought his 138-meter (453-foot) Rising Sun from Larry Ellison in 2010 for a reported $300 million. 

Moore earned her skeptical view of superyacht enthusiasts: "All you really need to know is that it's not about the boats and the sea for these guys," she says. "They're out to one-up each other, and they can be awful to work for. The yachts are just extensions of their dicks; it's a big status game."

No wonder superyacht websites are all about measurements, listing the world's 100 biggest yachts in descending order with little more than their names and length. Azzam, owned by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the secretive emir of Abu Dhabi and the UAE president, is No. 1 at 180 meters (590 feet). Roman Abramovich's much-chronicled Eclipse — with its reported three-man leisure submarine, two swimming pools, a dance floor, six tenders, three helipads and an exterior fireplace — comes in second at 162 meters (553 feet). The only American in the top 20 is David Geffen, whose Rising Sun, a regular at the festival, is a relatively puny 138 meters (453 feet). (For context, Titanic was 269 meters, or 882 feet.) Yachts longer than 60 meters have to anchor outside the harbor and send tenders that are, according to Siegal, "bigger than my apartment."


But the larger the yacht, the larger the target — and casting a pall over this year's floating fetes will be an added layer of security that would have been unthinkable just five years ago, according to boat owners, captains and maritime security specialists. "There's a real threat in the Med now, and yachts are a high target," says Tony Sparks, who spent 10 years as a U.S. Army Special Operations officer and now runs Phantom Services, a maritime security company that was based out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but is moving permanently to the South of France this year. Sparks is in charge of security for three yachts coming to the festival this year, which means his team has trained the crew and will be stationed incognito aboard the vessels.

Diller and von Furstenberg's sailing yacht Eos.

"Superyachts have always been a target for thieves because of the jewelry and cash people often have aboard, but now we're on alert for terrorists as well," he says. Some yachts now have security systems that rival the White House's, with anti-aircraft weapons, rocket launcher systems, lethal and nonlethal pepper guns and radar "geo-fences" that extend for up to 3,000 yards around the vessel.

Crews are trained, but they are the "weakest link," says Sparks. Because of that, superyachts, especially those owned by Saudis and Russians, have security teams on board masquerading as guests.

"I never know who they are when they come on board," says veteran captain Ovidiu Serbanescu, speaking to THR via Skype from a mega yacht cruising off Genoa, Italy. "But I know they're there, and it's a big relief."