Not so long ago, yacht owners were the moghuls of the industry sector — Vijay Mallya, Gautam Singhania, Anil Ambani.

Not any more. Today, the yacht-owning class has expanded considerably with a much broader class of wealthy people acquiring the new must-have status symbol: the yacht. In Mumbai alone, where rows of these vessels can be seen bobbing in the waters off the Gateway of India, the number of yacht owners is nudging 150. While Mumbai, with its islands and its coastline, is ideally situated for yachting as a leisure activity, the culture is slowly taking root in other coastal cities and regions such as Goa and Kochi as well.

“The yacht is the new second big car,” says Ashim Mongia, Managing Director of West Coast Marine Yacht Service, who gets calls from aspiring buyers with budgets ranging from five lakhs to five crores. “Today, all kinds of people want one.” Ashish Gupta, Managing Director of Beyond Design, a yacht design house, sings a similar tune. “Regardless of who one is, today everyone wants his name on the water.” He qualifies that the desi definition of yacht is somewhat inclusive, as some customers are strictly looking for large sailboats, racing boats and other smaller craft.

Down south in Kochi, George Pottamkulam, Director of Indmerc, has been marketing American-made boats (under 40 ft) that can navigate the backwaters and canals, where depths are uneven, for the last three years. “Fancy cars are passé. These are the Lamborghinis of the water — fast, good looking and comfortable.” Arun Mookken, of Matrix Marine, a dealer for Mahindra Boats and supplier of 22-ft and 33-ft yachts adds: “When the boys are done with their Benz and BMWs, and the jets are still logistically unviable, the next best thing is a boat.”

Making it big

Owning a yacht is one way of being counted among the rich and famous. Inquiries from prospective owners have been on the rise. “Three out of 10 don't really know what they want,” says Beyond Design's Gupta. “They have dreams of owning a yacht built in Germany or the Netherlands but come with budgets that can only get them a Turkish or Chinese creation.” He adds: “The truth is, some of them don't know what to do with them once they make the acquisition.”

But there are many who know exactly what they want from a boat and get it. Sailing on weekends with the family and friends far away from the noise and pollution of the city is an important reason for many. Yacht owners also believe that sailing with people they are close to promotes greater bonding and intimacy.

Take the case of Chennai-based S.V. Balachander, who bought Frama, a 45-ft monohull in Croatia, along with with Antony Daimon and Mohith Oberoi. “I was sailing a dinghy for five years, but you couldn't take passengers on it. That's what pushed me into purchasing a yacht. I can now share the experience with my friends and family,” he reasons.

In Goa, Ceasar Menezes, Managing Director of Wallace Pharmaceuticals, Goa, recent past President of the Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry is the proud owner of the 33-ft Sea Breeze WA33 Cruiser manufactured by G C Marinem Dubai. He paid Rs. 65 lakhs for the boat three years ago, which he takes on weekend fishing trips with friends on Goa's backwaters and up the coast to Vengurla. One of the sleekest yachts in Goa is owned by Chetan Timblo, a businessman who deals in the Sunseeker brand of yachts and himself owns a Sunseeker 37 M Tri Deck. Anchored in the Mandovi near Panaji, it sails the ocean three to four times a year, sometimes up to the Maldives.

In Kochi, Jose Thomas of Choice Group was one of the first in the city to buy a yacht, which he describes as “a three crore hobby”. Why? “I simply love the water, he says.”

Ajit Kelachandra, a businessman, uses his seaworthy 36-footer, equipped with a lounge, home theatre and a deck to seat 12 as a party zone. Out in the water on weekends with family and friends, he talks of how his friends from Bengaluru and Hyderabad wish to own yachts here.

But what if you can't afford a boat? The option, for those like middle-level executive Sandeep Sharma, is to charter one. “I charter one every time I want a weekend out at sea. The credit card takes care of it and the cost is not more than that of a flight out of town for a short getaway.” Charters have become cheaper now with increased demand and a sailing trip in the afternoon can come for Rs. 5,000 or less for the use of a power boat. The thrill, casual sailing enthusiasts swear is worth the money.

In Kolkata, the growing popularity of sailing is even compelling corporates to hold a high-level board meeting or an annual party on board. Young couples who don't mind the pocket-pinch, often end up chartering a boat for their pre-wedding cocktails.

The tradition of chartering goes back well before the acquisition of their own yachts by some big industrialists. Sucheta Potnis and her Dutch husband Hans Tuinman's yacht Solita, which has been plying in Goa for 19 years, has sailed for people such as Amitabh Bachchan and Kokilabhen Ambani. When Solita was acquired in 1993, Potnis says “there were just 10 others, nine of them from Mumbai, who owned yachts in India. It remains a favourite with celebrities for overnight cruises.

For some, a boat can be a source of both income and pleasure. Harshvardhan Neotia of the Ambuja group uses his luxe cruiser along the Hooghly, targeting holidayers at Raichak on Ganges and Ganga Kutir (both hotel properties owned by him). But Neotia also uses his cruiser, which boasts of an air-conditioned lower deck which can accommodate 50 guests for a board meeting or for a small cocktail event, for his own pleasure now and then.

Similarly, Anubhav and Mamta Sharma purchased Lady M four years ago because of a passion for the water. But since September last year, he has been leasing it out very selectively for Rs. 25,000 per hour for a minimum of two hours. Docked at a small fishing ramp in picturesque Aldona in Noth Goa, the French made luxury catamaran yacht can accommodate around eight overnight guests and 20 day guests on the decks.

Chilling out at sea and entertaining on the water are what yachts are used most commonly for. But other excitements, such as fishing and diving, are also gaining currency. For some in Mumbai, it is not much more than a taxi service to their second home in Alibaug. But the super rich are the ones who can afford to make the most of it by sailing to such places as Dubai, Singapore, Thailand and even China.

Using a owned craft as a taxi service to a second home in Alibag is one way some owners make do, but the super rich are the ones who really know how to get the best out of what they own. The new rich however revel in their new-found ability to sail away to Dubai, Singapore, Pattaya or even China on their own — for a holiday where the journey is as exciting as the destination.

For those who can afford it, customised yachts are the norm. Beyond Design's Gupta says that customers seek such things as taps in solid gold, gold master keys, to antiques and paintings in every room. “Big yachts are meant to impress,” he says.

Of course, all this costs a lot of money. And owning a luxury craft is not a one-time expense. It means constant expenditure on maintenance. The paintings need to be heavily insured, more than 10 times what they would be if on land, because of the moisture they are exposed to. The crew on board needs to be paid for — a 95 ft can require up to 35 crew members. Boats are kept on land during the monsoon o prevent damage and for maintenance; Ashim Mongia's facility in Belapur near Mumbai charges up to Rs. 25,000 a month for a small boat.

Lack of infrastructure

Despite having miles and miles of coastline, the rapid expansion of the yachting culture is inhibited by the lack of facilities. Mumbai may be the country's yachting capital, but it does not have a Marina — or a docking facility for pleasure boats. This has led some rich owners to park their boats overseas. The lack of a Marina in Chennai is coupled with other drawbacks such as the absence of a backwater like in Kochi or placid waters to park yachts is a huge disadvantage, says Ashok Thakkar, who co-owns three Swedish-made, 26-foot keel boats along with his friends. He says a proposal for a Marina has been presented to the government and that he is keeping his fingers crossed. In other places too, people are pushing for a Marina — for instance, Umaji Chowgule, Director of Chowgule Mining and Industries, an ardent sailing enthusiast, in Goa. Says Shantha Ravikumar, who took to the water only in 2004: “In countries like Singapore, the yachts just have to dock at the Marina and the tourists can get their visa on arrival. Here, permissions are a cumbersome process.”

Inaugurated in 2010, the Kochi Marina is the only one of its kind in the country. Built with a vision to have a forest of moored yachts and cater to traffic to the Mediterranean and South-east Asia, it has found few takers. Says Jose Verghese of Ocean Blue Pvt. Ltd., which was contracted to run the Marina: “The berths are empty.” The situation is a result of the recent incidents of piracy as well at the high mooring and maintenance rates. Moreover, most Kochi yacht owners have their own waterfront properties or choose to moor at yards of boat companies. Varghese adds that the Marina does not have a slipway or a boat lift to pull the yacht out of water. “Many here think it's the name of a girl,” he adds humorously.

Still, there is plenty of optimism among enthusiasts who say it is only a matter of time before venturing into the sea becomes as common as driving. Having moved out of being the preserve of the super rich, yachting in India seems set to grow. Big cars, second homes, and now yachts…in this case, the sea is the limit.

With inputs from Pamela D'Mello in Goa, Nandini Guha in Kolkata, Madhumitha Srinivasan in Chennai and Priyadarshini Sharma in Kochi.

This article has been corrected for a factual error

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