The yacht owners saving the seven seas

Yacht owners are now joining forces to combat the environmental challenges facing the world’s oceans – and unleashing the potential of their own vessels for humanitarian aid. Claire Wrathall reports

Ascension Island, where the Blue Marine Foundation has helped fund British government plans to create a marine reserve almost the same size as the UK
Ascension Island, where the Blue Marine Foundation has helped fund British government plans to create a marine reserve almost the same size as the UK | Image: Paul Colley/ Blue Marine Foundation

Oceans cover 72 per cent of the earth’s surface and support life in all its forms. They produce more than half the oxygen we breathe and absorb half the carbon dioxide we produce. An estimated 1bn people rely on fish as their principal source of protein and 200m make their living from fishing, so humanity suffers directly as fish stocks are depleted. Yet 90 per cent of oceans are already suffering from a combination of overexploitation, pollution, acidification and climate change.

“It is a problem on a planetary scale,” says the film producer George Duffield, co-founder of London-based environmental charity Blue Marine Foundation. “But it’s fixable.” Unlike global warming,  he continues – the solution to which requires “asking people to change their lives, and that’s not going to happen” – the challenges facing the world’s oceans are not yet beyond hope. Rather they are “the biggest thing we can fix without really changing society. They’re a solvable problem. Overfishing is something we can put right.”

Members of the University of Miami shark research and conservation programme, onboard Fleet Miami’s D/Y Shredder and supported by the International Seakeepers Society, prepare to tag a shark
Members of the University of Miami shark research and conservation programme, onboard Fleet Miami’s D/Y Shredder and supported by the International Seakeepers Society, prepare to tag a shark | Image: Frank Gibson

For every major organisation working in the field of marine conversation – Greenpeace, for example – there is an innovative start-up. Take Project Eyes on the Seas, a new technology system developed by British company Satellite Applications Catapult and funded principally by Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts. In the words of Professor Callum Roberts of the environment department at York University, it stands to become “a game-changer in ocean conservation” insofar as it has the potential to end illegal fishing by detecting, tracking and monitoring activity via satellites. There’s also Delft-based The Ocean Cleanup, founded by a young Dutch aeronautical engineering student, Boyan Slat, who has designed what he calls “the world’s first feasible method to rid the oceans of plastic”. The system involves floating barriers that capture some of the 8m tonnes of plastic debris that ends up in the sea each year, allowing it to be removed and recycled or disposed of to prevent harm to wildlife. So far the company has raised almost $10m towards funding the pilot phase, which Slat hopes will be deployed off the South Korean coast late next year.

In its efforts to transform the oceans so that marine life may thrive, Blue, as the Blue Marine Foundation tends to be known, aims to bring together governments, scientists and the sort of entrepreneurs who have excelled in business, rewarded themselves with a yacht, and whose motivation to support the improvement of marine environments is driven, not least, by a desire to ensure they have somewhere pleasant to sail.


The Swiss businessman and philanthropist Ernesto Bertarelli is one such figure. He and his wife Kirsty have provided significant funding for the creation of the Chagos Marine Reserve in the Indian Ocean, in partnership with the British government, a collaboration brokered by Blue. Covering an area of 640,000sq km, the sea surrounding this remote archipelago of 58 mostly uninhabited islands, 1,800km south of India, contains more than 310 species of coral and at least 821 species of fish – from Nemo-like orange-and-white striped clownfish to over 150 types of shark, whose populations have been depleted by intensive fishing. This is now banned and, thanks to a patrol boat, numerous vessels have been apprehended in these “no-take” waters since the reserve was created. Even tourism is forbidden, though some designated moorings are still accessible by yacht as long as you have permission from the government of the British Indian Ocean Territory, as Chagos is officially known, making it perhaps the most exclusive tropical holiday destination on earth, and certainly the most private.

That the Bertarellis should be founder members of the Blue Marine Yacht Club, membership of which starts at £25,000 a year, rising to £250,000, comes as no surprise. Founded four years ago under the patronage of Prince Albert II of Monaco, it’s a super-exclusive community of yacht owners, brokers and builders such as Princess Zahra Aga Khan, Olivier de Givenchy, US west region head and a managing director at JP Morgan, Simon Le Bon, lead singer of Duran Duran, and Guy Weston, chairman of Wittington Investments.

The Ocean Cleanup founder Boyan Slat
The Ocean Cleanup founder Boyan Slat | Image: Michel Porro/ Contour by Getty Images

As another member, Peter Lürssen, CEO of German superyacht builder Lürssen, puts it: “My family’s livelihood has been built around the oceans for generations, so I can’t think of anything more important than keeping them alive and beautiful for generations to come.” The Blue Marine Yacht Club “allows people with power and influence to use this collectively to reverse the ocean’s crisis. It’s the only yacht club that enables you to turn the tide.”

Sir Charles Dunstone, the telecoms tycoon and owner of the 1938 65m classic motor yacht Shemara concurs: such is the calibre of those involved that Blue is able to “make a real and vitally important difference to the health of the ocean”. Also among the perks of membership is a natty burgee designed by Ralph Lauren that one can fly and be recognised by fellow members.

The pilot phase of the organisation’s system of floating barriers designed to clear plastic debris
The pilot phase of the organisation’s system of floating barriers designed to clear plastic debris | Image: Erwin Zwart/ The Ocean Cleanup

Following on from last year’s commitment by the British government to create the world’s biggest continuous marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific, in January it announced that it would designate another marine protected area of just over 236,000sq km – almost the size of the entire United Kingdom – around Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, due to be formally designated as early as next year. Again this was thanks in part to the generosity of another Blue supporter, Louis Bacon, founder, chairman and CEO of hedgefund Moore Capital Management. “Those of us lucky enough to venture offshore on boats understand what a privilege it is to live and play in the marine environment,” he says. “But instead of the inexhaustible resource we thought it to be, we have come to learn first-hand how fragile an ecosystem the oceans have become due to human abuse. As fortunate first observers, we need to be responsible first responders, which is why when Blue proposed the private funding of a reserve around Ascension Island, I was eager to lend my support.” His £300,000 donation will cover, said the MP James Duddridge, then minister for UK Overseas Territories, “the costs of enforcement over the coming fishing season and will contribute to surveillance, science and management for the next 18 months”.

Indeed, one can’t help discern a certain escalating competitiveness in the funding of new reserves. (In 2010, they formed just one per cent of the global marine environment. By 2030, Blue hopes almost a third of the world’s water will be protected.) This March, it was announced that the actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s foundation, along with that of Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham, Alan and Jette Parker’s Oak Foundation and others, had donated $5m towards protecting a 400,000sq km stretch of the Indian Ocean – an area larger than Japan – around the Seychelles. More than simply contributing to the cost of surveillance, however, this was part of a $26m impact investment made by US charity The Nature Conservancy that has enabled the island nation to restructure its national debt and divert the money it would have spent on servicing loans to nurturing its marine environment. As the Seychelles’ president James Michel said at the time of the announcement: “Our future is only as healthy as the ocean that surrounds us.”

A clownfish that lives in the coral reefs around Chagos
A clownfish that lives in the coral reefs around Chagos | Image: Alasdair Harris/ Blue Ventures

DiCaprio was more specific in his observations: “This deal will enhance food security for the local people, help mitigate the effects of climate change on their low-lying island home and protect the surrounding rich ocean ecosystems for future generations,” not just of the Seychellois but holidaymakers and visiting yachts.

But it isn’t only about money. Increasingly it is the donors’ yachts themselves being deployed to do good. (According to last year’s Crew Report – a survey of 644 superyachts published by Superyacht Group, which gathers industry intelligence – 62 per cent of owners use their boats for less than three months of the year, and 20 per cent spend less than four weeks aboard.) Just as the Bertarellis made their 97m Vava II available to marine scientists and PhD students from institutions including the Zoological Society of London for use as a research vessel to study shark behaviour and monitor the reefs around Chagos, so other owners are following suit.

Part of the Pitcairn Islands, where the British government has committed to create the world’s biggest continuous marine reserve
Part of the Pitcairn Islands, where the British government has committed to create the world’s biggest continuous marine reserve | Image: Andrew Randall Christian - Pitcairn Island Tourism

Making possible such projects is one of the objectives of the International Seakeepers Society, a nonprofit organisation based in Coral Gables, Florida, that supports marine-science expeditions, whether it’s tagging tiger sharks in the Bahamas, studying the behaviour of harbour porpoises in San Francisco Bay or analysing the water in Florida’s Biscayne Bay. As its director of programmes and policies, Brittany Stockman, explains: “By providing scientists in need of a research platform at sea with the opportunity to work off a privately owned vessel at little or no cost, Seakeepers helps remove one of the most expensive aspects of data collection: access to the water.” Among the yachts that constitute Seakeepers’ distinguished “current discovery fleet” are Silvio Berlusconi’s sublimely elegant Perini Navi-designed 48m ketch Morning Glory and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s 126m megayacht Octopus.

Seakeepers has also used a superyacht to deliver aid during a tsunami, the sort of disaster relief championed by YachtAid Global, a charity founded by former superyacht captain Mark Drewelow. As such he was always, he says, “concerned with corporate social responsibility and how I could give back to the communities I’d visited. And so I thought: why not use [yachts] to move supplies and aid around the world and into isolated coastal communities as the boats travel.”

Leonardo DiCaprio, whose foundation has helped fund ocean protection around the Seychelles
Leonardo DiCaprio, whose foundation has helped fund ocean protection around the Seychelles | Image: Getty Images

Based in San Diego, California, YAG has sent dozens of vessels as far afield as Easter Island and Komodo in Indonesia. Among the most distinguished have been Richard Branson’s 32m catamaran Necker Belle, which was used to deliver aid to St Maarten and Antigua in the Caribbean when Hurricane Gonzalo struck in October 2014; and Big Fish, a 45m expedition yacht designed for long voyages, hence her capacious stores for fuel, water and food. This allowed her to deliver two tonnes of aid – from portable generators and mattresses to food, clothing, toys, tools and medical supplies – to Lautoka in Fiji in the wake of Cyclone Evan in December 2012. As her then owner, the Hong Kong-based co-founder of international retail marketing company TCC, Richard Beattie, said at the time: “Yachts are conspicuous for their size and beauty, but we must also help make them equally conspicuous for the benefit they can provide to the remote populations they visit. Just as we experience joy from yachting, we must also leave joy in our wake.”

Beattie has since sold Big Fish, but she remains available to charter through Y.CO, a yacht brokerage with a developed sense of social responsibility that has raised and donated more than €1.5m to good causes such as Turn to Starboard, which runs sailing courses and outings for armed-forces personnel affected by or injured in military operations, and encourages crews on the yachts it manages to donate a day’s pay per month through their payrolls to charities engaged in relief work.

A YachtAid Global-affiliated vessel helps deliver water to Vanuatu
A YachtAid Global-affiliated vessel helps deliver water to Vanuatu | Image: Peggy and Sue/ YachtAid Global

Y.CO also provides practical help in the form of ground support, encouraging the boats it oversees to “give back”. When Cyclone Pam made landfall in Vanuatu last year, Y.CO-managed Dragonfly was first on the scene with aid. It had been more than 2,500km away when its captain, Mike Gregory, realised the danger the islands were in. It was in port and no guests were expected. “So I phoned the owner,” he told me. “And we spent the next day loading supplies from the local hardware store, buying what we could do in the way of food, and off we went.”

Three-and-a-half days later, the yacht arrived in the remote Melanesian archipelago. Among the crew, all of whom had first-responder training at the very least, were a qualified doctor and five further paramedics Gregory had recruited for the mission. Over the next week, they treated more than 250 casualties and facilitated three medical evacuations by helicopter. They also had pumps and 37 1,600-litre tanks, which meant they were able to use the yacht’s onboard desalination plant to produce and deliver more than 60,000 litres of drinking water in a week, as well as provide six tonnes of food, all paid for – as was the fuel that got them there – by the yacht’s owner, who prefers anonymity and to let his skipper speak for him. “As crew, we’re incredibly fortunate representing the wealthiest one per cent as we do,” he says. “With just a little effort we can make a huge difference. There is so much good you can do!”