Never one to follow convention, Richard Branson has created a superyacht like no other. He tells us what he loves about being on the water and what’s next for him. By Hugo Andreae
For a man who made his first million in 1973, topped a billion in the early 1990s and spends most of his spare time breaking records in all manner of air and waterborne craft, the most surprising thing about Sir Richard Branson is that he didn’t buy a superyacht sooner. He finally put that right two years ago when he purchased Lady Barberetta, the 32-metre sailing catamaran, built by the CMN shipyard in France, for a reputed £5.3 million. Needless to say this is no ordinary sailing yacht. Made entirely of carbon fibre composites, she is one of the fastest lu xury cruising yachts on the planet with a top speed under sail of well over 20 knots. Recently refitted to Sir Richard’s own taste, including the addition of submarine Necker Nymph, she has been renamed Necker Belle in homage to his other favourite possession, Necker Island, his luxury Caribbean home.
It’s here where I finally get to speak to the man himself, fresh from competing in his first yachting regatta. Given his reputation as one of the ballsiest entrepreneurs the business world has ever seen, taking on megaliths like British Airways, Coca-Cola and Vodafone at their own game, he is disarmingly softly spoken with an occasional stammer that makes him far less daunting than his enormous wealth and fame would suggest. Despite his confident public persona and uncanny knack for high profile publicity stunts, he seems to have that classic English trait of being slightly embarrassed by the extent of his success.
When I ask why it took him so long to get into superyachts despite breaking the Transatlantic record for a motor yacht in Virgin Atlantic Challenger II way back in 1986, his answer is typically frank. “I’m not really into motor yachts. We had great fun breaking the record on VAC II but I’d get bored cruising on a motor yacht. I sold it the day after we broke the record and have never had another one since.”
Instead he satisfied his taste for adventure by breaking yet more records with fellow adventurer Steve Fossett, crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific by air balloon and only narrowly losing out on the race to be first balloonists to circumnavigate the globe. Not that Sir Richard lost touch with boating altogether. In 1999 he tried to add the transatlantic record for sailboats to his existing motor boat one by joining Steve Fossett on board his 32-metre maxi-catamaran Playstation (the attempt was aborted after high winds damaged the yacht). He’s also a dab hand at sailing the small fleet of Hobie Cats he keeps on Necker Island. So perhaps it’s no surprise that it was another big cat that finally seduced him into superyachting.
“I love the platform of a big catamaran. There’s tonnes of space on board and it’s so much more stable than a conventional monohull, so it’s great for guests who sometimes feel queasy afloat,” says Sir Richard. “And of course it’s great for attracting beautiful women on board,” he adds with a laugh.
In fact, the famously flirtatious Virgin boss has been with his wife Joan for 35 years, who must have long since got used to seeing Richard surrounded by beautiful women on some or other photocall. “I know this sounds like name-dropping but Kate Winslet was on board recently and we couldn’t resist re-enacting the scene from Titanic. We were standing on one of the bows, arms outstretched as we screamed along.”
I ask if it was Necker Belle’s speed that enticed him back into yachting and he responds as only a true adrenaline junkie could. “She’s not an extreme racing boat, she’ll do 25-28 knots in the right wind, but she’s also secure and comfortable – you can still enjoy cocktails on board!” Of course, by any normal superyachting standards, 25 knots is still exceptionally quick for a sailing yacht but for someone used to ripping across the Atlantic at speeds of up to 45 knots in maxi-yachts, it must seem like a walk in the park.
So what does he use Necker Belle for? “I love to have friends on board to explore the nearby islands, and of course the submarine adds another whole dimension to cruising the Caribbean. It’s like flying a mini fighter jet under water. Just yesterday we were cruising under water alongside spotted eagle rays. It’s an incredible experience.” This ability to experience wildlife in their natural environment is an increasingly important goal. “I was on the lookout for a suitable yacht. I love unusual things but eco credentials should also play a part in yachting, and a sailing yacht like this is just as fast and pleasurable as a motor yacht but burns less fuel.”
A lower carbon footprint isn’t the only benefit of a fast but silent cruising catamaran, as Sir Richard is keen to point out: “Dolphins adore the boat. They love playing between the hulls.” Now that his appetite for close encounters of the cetacean kind has been whetted, Branson is planning to cruise Necker Belle down to Silver Bank off the Dominican Republic where 70,000 humpback whales gather every February for the mating season. He’s invited renowned marine biologist Tom Conlin to join him on board to explain the unique behaviour of these giant mammals and arrange for guests to swim alongside the whales.
This will be the precursor to an even more ambitious project to explore hidden depths. Virgin Oceanic is a new scientific project dedicated to plumbing the deepest points of the world’s five oceans in a new one man mini-sub sharing much of its design ideas with Necker Nymph. Started by fellow explorer Steve Fossett prior to his fatal air accident in the Nevada desert in 2007, it is now being sponsored by the Virgin Group and a team of scientists. “It seemed only right to take on the baton from Steve and help turn his dream into reality.”
The first and most dangerous of the dives will be to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on the planet at 11km below sea level, where the glass dome of the sub will be under almost 6,000 tonnes of pressure. This feat has only ever been achieved once before when a static bathyscaphe briefly touched the bottom in 1960. The Virgin Oceanic submarine is a very different beast that will cruise to the bottom of the trench under its own power then ‘fly’ along it for up to 10km before gradually ascending back to the surface. Fellow entrepreneur, sailor and pilot Chris Welsh will be at the helm for this first dive, while Sir Richard will take the controls for the second solo mission to the bottom of the Puerto Rico trench, the deepest point in the Atlantic Ocean at over 8km.
This obsession to visit the most extreme echelons of our planet will shortly reach new heights when Sir Richard’s most ambitious project to date, Virgin Galactic, achieves its long-standing goal of putting leisure tourists into space. While no date has yet been confirmed for the first commercial flight, Virgin’s spaceport in New Mexico is in build and both parts of the spaceship have successfully completed their initial flight tests. Needless to say Sir Richard plans to be on its inaugural space flight despite the obvious risks. “I’ve booked a return flight,” he says with a smile. “So I’m determined to come back and tell the tale.”
Assuming all does go to plan, he hopes that fellow superyacht owners will also be among his 430 customers. “Yacht owners are exactly the type of people who would love to become astronauts,” insists Sir Richard. “Imagine being able to look back on our planet from space and enjoy a view that only a handful of people have ever seen before.” There is also the small matter of buying the tickets, which at £200,000 a seat, means superyacht owners are a prime target.
You’d think that with so many achievements already under his belt Sir Richard might be tempted to slow down, but he’s quick to refute the suggestion. “I still love facing new challenges, learning new things and testing people’s expectations. There are so many challenges facing the world today. We are developing a new sugar-based fuel which all our planes will be using within three years.”
This isn’t the only initiative Sir Richard is backing for a cleaner future. He has also put up a $25 million prize for the first person who can “demonstrate a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of the earth’s climate.”
It’s a brave statement of intent but for the moment I am interested in a less significant but much more personal challenge. In 2005 I stole one of Sir Richard’s records from him when I was part of a small team on board a Sea Legs RIB, which beat his time for crossing the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle. I can’t resist reminding him of this fact, and his reaction is to rise to the challenge like a salmon to a fly. “I know,” he replies, quick as a flash. “And I have every intention of stealing it back!” SyW
Necker Belle is available for charter through Virgin Limited Edition. She is based in the Caribbean but in February and March 2012 will be whale-watching off the Dominican Republic with Tom Conlin of Aquatic Adventures as a guide. Prices for the whale-watching experience start from around $130,000 a week for seven nights exclusive use of the yacht. Visit www.neckerbelle.virgin.com for more information.
This feature is taken from the September/October 2011 edition of SuperYacht World. Click here to buy the issue for your iPad.