Billionaire Superyachts Beset By Drones & Spies Hunting Business Secrets And Corporate ‘Money Shots’

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Billionaire Superyachts Beset By Drones & Spies Hunting Business Secrets And Corporate ‘Money Shots’

Image: FreshYacht

Superyachts are the ultimate symbol of wealth, but they’re increasingly attracting attention from jealous business rivals and hungry paparazzi who are employing hi-tech methods to get their scoop.

You’re not really a billionaire if you don’t own a superyacht — just ask Jeff Bezos, Rupert Murdoch, or Vladimir Putin. In fact, sales reached record levels in 2021 and, though there was a slight dip in 2022, they still exceeded that of any year prior to 2021, according to data from Yacht Harbour.

And yet, what actually happens on superyachts has long been shrouded in secrecy, a never-ending subject of rumour and speculation. Staff on the boats are made to sign comprehensive non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) preventing them from publicly discussing what happens on board.

Even the identity of the owners of many of the vessels is unknown — take the recently abandoned Alfa Nero as an example, though to be owned by a Russian oligarch but never definitively proven — with the boats often bought through a complex network of offshore companies instead of in the owner’s name.

WATCH: Jeff Bezos’ $720m superyacht is one of the biggest around.

The Billionaire Superyacht Community

A recent article from Insider explains why superyachts represent such an irresistible appeal for the super rich, even if they remain just as confused as the rest of us as to what actually takes place on board… An anonymous source told them this:

“[The billionaire superyacht community are effectively] the smallest country in the world. Depending on whose perspective you take, there are 2,800 to 3,000 billionaires, and you have more in common with your fellow billionaires than your fellow countrymen.”

Anonymous Source

The level of wealth of superyacht owners vastly exceeds that of sports stars, celebrities, and other wealthy types that often take up the most cultural limelight.

In contrast, superyacht owners own properties, businesses, and other assets in a range of countries that superyachts give them seamless access to. However, with such massive wealth and portfolios comes outsider intrigue that’s becoming harder to avoid…

Spies, Drones, and Bugs

The inherent privacy of the vessels and the wealth, fame, and power of their owners and passengers inevitably draw unwelcome attention. That’s where Simon Rowland — a former UK Royal Marines soldier whose company, Veritas, provides security for superyachts — comes into the picture.

He says that among the most frequent challenges he has to tackle is handling spy drones sent by news outlets to photograph the boats and their passengers: “Drones are increasingly a concern for superyacht owners,” he said, adding that tabloids and the superyacht press liked to get the overhead “money shot” of the boats.

A surveillance drone.
The kind of surveillance drones commonly deployed to spy on superyachts. Image: Getty

Some vessels have even started to deploy counter-devices to scramble the navigation systems of drones and take them out of the air, but there are question marks over the legality of this practice. An easier solution, says Rowland, is an alarm system alerting passengers to the presence of drones, allowing them time to get off the deck and away from invasive airborne cameras.

Drones aren’t the only form of covert surveillance Rowlands has to be vigilant of. Spies could try to infiltrate superyachts through phoney crew members or by installing surveillance bugs to steal sensitive information on business deals or politics:

“You would expect a yacht that looks after the ultra-high wealthy or very high profile people well to engage a company like me to come along and sweep that yacht prior to the occupation to ensure that there’s nothing being left on board.”

Simon Rowland

Invasive or accountable?

Despite the many irritants, the seclusion enjoyed on board a boat far from the shore is set to continue to be a powerful lure for those who have everything money can buy — except the privacy many of us take for granted. However, I think it’s fair to ask the question of whether this kind of surveillance is, in some specific cases, actually quite justified.

Rupert Murdoch and Tony Blair together at an awards ceremony
Best of friends: Murdoch and Blair together at an awards ceremony. Image: The Independent

While I’d never advocate for the invasion of somebody’s personal space or property in the context of them wanting to take some time away from the spotlight to relax and unwind — say for a family holiday — when matters of wider political significance are at play, I feel rather differently.

Some issues deserve to be discussed in a public forum and should be available for the intense kind of scrutiny that the global press is designed to offer. For example, the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair famously met with Wendi Deng — Rupert Murdoch’s wife — aboard Murdoch’s private yacht.

While we’ll never know what they discussed for certain, it seems to me that a national leader speaking to the owner of the largest news organisation on earth — who holds a special sway over the UK and USA’s political landscapes — should be a public affair, reported openly, and not squirrelled away on a yacht somewhere.

But maybe that’s just me, and I should take my drone and paddle on back to shore…