The maiden voyage of the Tzara Princess III took place in late January. The launch went smoothly. Nothing quite like her had been seen in these waters before. The day was chilly but clear, with a gentle crosswind ruffling the surface of the water, and as she carved into the open waves, the winter sun painted her starboard side with gold. Six decks, a waterfall pool on the polished teak sundeck, four engines, an array of flags – and, of course, a helicopter landing pad. She looked magnificent. A faint, proud smile played across the lips of the ship’s owner, Knyazhich Alexei Petrovich Naryshkin, as he watched from the shore.
“Doesn’t it look nice?” His Excellency’s nanny cooed. “No, left a bit, dear. Those boys…” She grabbed the remote control from his hand and urgently adjusted course with her thumb. The Tzara Princess III went about, narrowly missing the edge of the Kensington Round Pond, and headed out for the safety of deep water. Through the winter air drifted the cry of a small boy, fishing out the wreckage of his paper boat with his soggy-gloved hands.
“His Excellency won’t be pleased if you crash your birthday present on its first outing, now, will he, your Excellency?” Alexei tetchily grabbed the remote control back and resumed his nascent career in piracy. It was the start of a love affair. All that spring, the boy’s devotion to the Tzara Princess III was complete. Come rain or shine, he paraded it across the pond with no less pride than his father paraded the Tzara Princess II in the Gulf of Saint-Tropez. And, for the most part – barring the odd disgruntled parent whose child’s toy boat had failed to navigate out of its way (the disgruntlement usually evaporated after a discussion with Alexei’s very courteous bodyguards) – it was all, so to speak, plain sailing.
But in early April, something unusual took place. Just as Alexei’s boat was chugging into open water, a colossal wave rocked it over nearly to its gunwales. Another superyacht, navy blue and white, its steering house taller by an inch, swept past. It had come out of nowhere, and now churned the water white as it turned in a huge arc at the far side of the pond (or, as Alexei liked to think of it, Cannes).
Alexei scoured the waterside. His rival was easily identified. A boy of about 10 carrying something the size of a backgammon set, from which protruded an aerial at least one-and-a-half times its owner’s height. He looked up. Their eyes locked. Alexei brought his ship around and gunned the engines for a straight run across the middle of the pond. The enemy ship, he realised soon after, was locked on what looked like a collision course, and closing fast.
His Excellency waved an imperious arm at the interloper as if to say, “Give way!” The other boy scowled at him and made a dismissive gesture with his free hand. The insolence! That boy should give way! Did he not know the rules of the sea?
There was not much longer to ponder the issue of precedence. The splintering sound the boats made as they collided was audible to nearby joggers, who slowed to watch his Excellency’s bodyguards in their sharp suits wade in, in their new maritime salvage role.
Alexei’s anger – and it was explosive – later turned to fear. His father – as his political opponents could testify, were they able – was known to be a stern man. So the weeks between the collision and his return from Dubai were fretful ones. But at their first audience that summer, in his father’s study – the man prided himself on a 19th-century parenting style – Alexei found not a stern tyrant but a twinkly-eyed patriarch.
As he stuttered his apologies, smiles wreathed his father’s face.
“Oh, Alexei,” he said. “I’m not angry with you at all. In fact, I’m very happy.”
“But – happy, father?”
“Do you know what marine insurance is?”
Alexei shook his head.
“It means that I made a bet.” He smiled. “I bet that your boat would meet with misfortune. And I bet heavily against the boat. Now, shall we choose you a new one? That perhaps comes with torpedoes?”