Arguably the world’s most unfortunate billionaire-owned super-yacht was, for much of the past year or two, floating aimlessly in a boatyard an hour south of Amsterdam, brand-new and unsailed beyond its sea trial.

One hundred eighty feet long, the gleaming boat, named Reliance, languished, ready to party, with its marble floors pristinely polished and its state-of-the-art bridge looking out over a truck depot.

On board, multiple Bang & Olufsen sound systems and TVs were shrouded by the plastic in which they had been delivered. The Miele kitchen appliances in the silent galley, which should have been turning out gourmet food all summer for the ship’s complement of 12 guests and 13 crew, remained shiny and unused.

In the rankings for biggest yachts, this $58 million boat—which, in September of 2023, was at long last sold to a charter company—isn’t even among the first 700 boats on the list. But the sleek vessel would still cause most of us to stop and stare.

Why did this dream boat, shown to AIR MAIL while it was still marooned, spend nearly a year of its life in humdrum limbo rather than flitting between the most select Caribbean and Mediterranean harbors?

The Russian businessman who commissioned Reliance couldn’t collect the boat due to sanctions imposed because of the war in Ukraine.

The problem was that the purchaser, who had specified every inch of the lavish interior back in 2021, was a Russian businessman who was sanctioned after the start of the Ukraine invasion, so he couldn’t take delivery of the boat. And selling an orphaned super-yacht as new, yet still technically secondhand, proved a heavy lift for the shipyard, Heesen. Billionaires buying such craft new, rather than “pre-loved,” unsurprisingly like them to reflect their taste, however execrable it may be.

The story of Reliance, stranded mere yards from its birthplace thanks to the Russian buyer’s unhappy timing, might be emblematic of the super-luxury-boat industry, which might be expected to have hit hard times due to the paucity of acceptable Russians to sell to. Before the invasion of Ukraine, Russians were buying some 12 percent of the 100 or so new and used boats being traded annually.

But, in fact, Reliance was an anomaly. Dodgy Russians notwithstanding, the super-yacht industry—super-yacht being defined as anything longer than 100 feet, whether sail- or engine-powered—has, since the pandemic, been booming like never before. The global “fleet” of super-yachts amounts to some 5,500 boats—don’t ever call a yacht a “ship”—triple what it was 30 years ago, and orders have been running at the current record of 125-plus a year since 2021. Sales have plateaued this year, according to Boat International magazine’s authoritative annual market report, but are still far in excess of what they were just a few years ago.

If you commission a super-yacht, you get to determine the style, from gentle and curvy to something more “aggressive-looking.”

And while this may well be the ultimate First World problem, there’s a crisis of sorts if you want a new super-yacht quickly. Whoever you are, and even if you have the necessary $50 million to $400 million burning a hole in your pocket (plus 5 to 10 percent of that annually to staff and run the boat), you will have to either wait in line for up to four years or buy into someone else’s taste.

As for secondhand boats—in super-yacht-speak, “on the brokerage market”—you can set sail much sooner, and there are bargains to be had. A mere $25 million will get you something respectable. There are also more brokerage boats available. Super-yacht owners typically trade up, almost always for something bigger, after two or three years. One of the peculiarities of super-yachts is that more than 20 percent of the fleet is normally for sale at any moment.

Who is ordering super-yachts in place of the Russians? Europeans? Not in huge numbers, despite most of these boats being manufactured in Holland, Italy, Turkey, and Germany. Chinese billionaires? Barely at all. Arab potentates? A few.

No, the biggest market for giant private yachts is the United States, which accounts for almost 30 percent of ownership, including some of the biggest on the planet, such as Steve Jobs’s family’s 260-foot Venus; Jeff Bezos’s new, 417-foot, $500 million three-masted schooner, Koruwhich reportedly has a companion support yacht with its own helipad—and David Geffen’s 453-foot yacht, Rising Sun.

Jeff Bezos’s new, 417-foot, $500 million three-masted schooner, Koru.

Almost all of the U.S.’s biggest super-yachts are based in Florida, between Palm Beach and Miami, within reach of the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. California, those in the super-yacht business explain, lacks easy access to the particularly ostentatious harbors that are like catnip to yacht owners.

In a world seemingly gone mad, with the pandemic having been seamlessly followed by war in Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas conflict, and any number of other horrors, it’s not hard to see the attraction of taking to the sea and being able to spirit your family away to wherever is quietest and safest.

“Post-pandemic, there was quite a boost in yacht sales, both newbuild and on the brokerage market,” says Richard Lambert, the Monaco-based head of sales at Burgess, a leading broker. “Two thousand and twenty-one saw the largest-ever number of transactions. People were re-evaluating their lives, and yachting provides a great platform for spending time with friends and family in a very controlled and safe environment. The strong demand is continuing, especially in the $50 million–plus market.”

Nationality aside, what sort of people buy a commodity that even most of the extremely wealthy would regard as unattainably expensive?

“Almost 100 percent of our clients are male, mostly over 55,” says Heesen’s marketing director, Mark van Heffen. “But increasingly we have what we call the Google clients, who are younger.

Super-yachts like Bezos’s often have pools, helipads, stabilized wine cellars, onboard olive groves, and more.

“Sometimes they’ll have sold their company and want their boat the same year. But time is something you can’t buy, and our clients are not famous for their patience. Sometimes we have something off the peg, built on spec, if they’re prepared to have it without full customization.”

Ironically, as Van Heffen explains, these are people who want and feel they should have a fully customized boat, but they don’t have the time for the incredible amount of detail required. “But they do negotiate on price almost instinctively—or get people to negotiate on their behalf.”

What kind of detail is available on a fully customized super-yacht?, AIR MAIL asked in a meeting with the company’s designers.

It starts with the overall look of the boat. You might want gentle, curvy lines on a sober, white, stately craft, but some buyers favor an “aggressive-looking” yacht. One Heesen client requested a shark mouth, with physical teeth.

For major flourishes, you might choose from a helicopter platform, a glass elevator, interior waterfalls, a half-length soccer pitch, a stage with lighting for any rock-star friends who join you, an IMAX screening room, a submarine for a spot of underwater exploration, or a separate 40-to-50-foot chase boat with fridges and a bar.

When it comes to the mechanical details, gyro-stabilized features are common, since rough seas have no regard for wealth. So you can have stabilized beds, a stabilized wine cellar (to avoid disturbing the sedimentation in your better bottles), and Bugatti even makes a $300,000 stabilized pool table. You can have a super-loud hi-fi system to blast music when you’re out on the high seas, herb gardens, and even trees, although not an onboard olive grove, as the roots would be too big.

One thing that money—however unfeasibly rich you are—can’t buy on a super-yacht is a fish tank. Apparently, live fish being transported on a ship get seasick, so Heesen won’t let even the most insistent clients have an aquarium.

There are, after all, some things that money truly can’t buy.

Based in London and New York, AIR MAIL’s tech columnist, Jonathan Margolis, spent more than two decades as a technology writer at the Financial Times. He is also the author of A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book on the history of futurology