Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich got his start in business by selling plastic ducks. These days, he has a new floating toy — the 533-foot yacht Eclipse, which boasts bulletproof windows, a military-grade missile defense system and an escape submarine. Upon its debut, Abramovich's vessel became the largest privately owned yacht in the world, surpassing Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's Dubai.
From Russian oligarchs to Middle Eastern oil barons to American movie stars, having a yacht seems de rigeur for the super-rich, even in the current economic climate. But the phenomenon of outsized personalities buying bloated boats is nothing new.
"Yachts have been around as long as people have been on boats, just in different forms," explains Michael Breman, sales director at Lürssen, the German shipbuilder that crafted Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen's Octopus. "Owning one becomes possible when large amounts of wealth are created. There were large amounts of wealth created a few years ago, and many people spent it on yachts. It's a matter of relative wealth."
The world's finest yachts often reflect the personalities of their owners. Whereas Abramovich prioritizes security and size above all else, for instance, fellow oligarch Andrey Melnichenko prizes unique design. His new yacht, called simply A, looks like something that should belong to a James Bond villain. Designed by Philippe Starck and Martin Francis, the 390-foot craft's bow is angled inward, resembling a submarine or a sleek locomotive; the control center soars from the stern rather than the middle of the boat.
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Not all the yachts of the rich and famous have a futuristic look to them. Johnny Depp's is one of many that aims for a more classic style. The 156-foot Vajoliroja, whose moniker is an amalgam of his family members' names, was refitted to resemble a 1930s steam yacht when Depp purchased it in 2007. Perks include a formal dining room and a wood-paneled library in addition to all the modern amenities one might expect. The actor sometimes rents out the ship for $130,000 per week.
For boating enthusiasts without that much money to throw around, Yachts Galapagos offers weeklong cruises for less than one-tenth the price someone might pay for the honor of borrowing Vajoliroja. On the Grace, which was constructed in the era in which Depp's pretends to have been made, guests can cruise the Galapagos from the comfort of the same decks once graced by the likes of Aristotle Onassis, Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco.
"The Grace is not the biggest boat ever, but it's very personal and private," says Daniel Játiva, director of operations for Quasar, the company that owns the vessel. "It's very modern on the inside."
Owners of classic yachts tend not to worry about losing size-related bragging rights, something likely on the mind of Roman Abramovich. His Eclipse is reportedly on the verge of having its title as world's largest yacht stripped — Sheikh Mohammed is in the midst of extending his Dubai to surpass the Russian oligarch's boat.
For the true connoisseur, however, it's not just the size of the boat that matters.
"Each and every boat is very special for the owner," says Breman. "They are all singular bits of achievement, and they are everything the owner wants. Whether it's a 200-footer or a 500-footer, they're equally important."
© 2012 Forbes.com