On a corner of the Monaco Yacht Show, a group of Dutch people are amused to watch a two-seat submarine sink into the harbor. Bert Houtman, owner of manufacturer U-Boat Worx, watches as potential buyers marvel at this toy for the rich. Houtman, who made his fortune by selling shares in software company Exact, has been working in ‘maritime entertainment’ for over two decades now. He is a regular exhibitor at the prestigious boat fair in the principality. On the quay in Monaco, employees of U-Boat Worx help interested parties with a test dive. The interest in Houtmans vessel, which should cost 6 tons, is considerable. However, there are no buying Russians this year. “They are not there,” Houtman laughs, “because I don’t see any prostitutes.” Bert Houtman is not only in Monaco to sell his boats to wealthy individuals, underwater film makers and maritime researchers. He is also looking for investors for another “insane undersea adventure”: an ‘underwater restaurant’ for luxurious parties. He estimated the cost of that project at 23 million euros. And partners are needed to realize this ‘Jules Verne dream’. Then you will soon be able to eat with a hundred people while sailing at a depth of 200 meters. Houtman: “If Ringo Starr also comes to perform, that would be the ultimate.” The ex-Beatle performed the famous song Yellow Submarine . Ukraine taboo The fact that Houtman dares to make a joke about Russians makes him an exception on the stock exchange. Many of the yacht builders who have moored their showpieces in Monaco are wary of criticizing a group of people who have proved to be good customers over the years. Journalistic snoopers are not wanted everywhere anyway, but talking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine is really taboo. Spokespersons and salespeople at the stands do not or hardly want to elaborate on ‘the issue’. Interview requests are rejected due to ‘lack of time’. Dutch yards have been under fire for some time because they build or have built yachts for Russian oligarchs on the European sanctions list. Yard umbrella organization Feadship (about 700 million euros in turnover in 2020), Heesen Yachts in Oss (233 million euros), Oceanco in Alblasserdam (293 million) and Damen Yachting in Vlissingen (418 million) built according to the American business magazine Forbes and research site Follow The Money in recent years yachts for various Russian clients – often registered with a company in tax-friendly, sunny places such as Cyprus, Malta or the Cayman Islands. Heesen in particular clashed with the anti-Russian mood. Until this summer, the shipyard was in the hands of Russian oligarch Vagit Alekperov, owner of energy group Lukoil and mainstay of Putin. Because of those ties to the Kremlin, the British already placed him on a sanctions list. The superyacht Galactica, under construction at Heesen for a Russian customer, encountered an export ban. Heesen responded by placing the yard under the statutory management of a Dutch foundation board, but it is unclear whether Alekperov transferred ownership. Shipyard Heesen was in the hands of Russian oligarch until July Arthur Brouwer, chairman of the board of Heesen, now calls Heesen at least “100 percent” Dutch again. The yard is still building for Russians, he said at the start of the fair in Monaco, but no deliveries will take place as long as the sanctions are in place. The situation at the yard is ‘almost back to normal ‘, according to Brouwer. “We’re dealing with a little slowdown , but not hanging off the cliff.” According to the director, the yacht market is good, and the group of potential buyers is still increasing. The number of billionaires has increased by 8 percent annually over the past twenty years. The increase in the ultra-rich in the United States also offers perspective: 140,000 people now live there with a wealth of more than 50 million. ‘There is an abundance of wealth,’ Brouwer analyzed. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, the richest man on earth, has meanwhile built a futuristic sailing ship of 127 meters at Oceanco. Cost: half a billion dollars. Director Steven Spielberg has also placed an order with the shipping company from Alblasserdam. Also read: Battle for possession of Russian oligarchs erupts Optimism about orders Even without the Russian demand, there is optimism among yacht builders on the stock exchange. Heesen is building thirteen yachts according to his own specifications. The Lusine, a 60-metre yacht that slipped from the dock last year, is bobbing in front of its stand in Monaco. Visitors are allowed to look around the sleekly designed ship. At Amels, the yacht division of Damen Shipyards, the Russian affair is also ignored and the atmosphere is friendly. “It’s going well, we have hardly any problems,” said the spokesman. CEO Rose Damen, daughter of founder Kommer Damen, recently stated that there are orders for twelve boats. Amels also supplied ships to Russian oligarchs, including Oleg Tinkov, sailing and cycling fan and avowed opponent of Putin. Damen built La Datcha for Tinkov, a sporty superyacht with which ‘the Russian Richard Branson’ can make trips to the North and South Poles. Damen is still doing maintenance and repair work on La Datcha. This is not contrary to the sanctions regime. Megayacht Silver Wind in Port Hercules during the Monaco Yacht Show. Photo Valery Hache / AFP By the way, yards do not have to sit up with mega yachts that are not allowed to go to Russia. There is always a destination to be found. For example, Icon Yachts from Harlingen focuses on conversion and renovation. Operations director Sikke Jan Wynia: “You could take some ships to the scrap heap, but we are trying to rehabilitate them for a new owner. For example, they get a second life as an expedition ship.” Sustainability becomes an issue Icon Yachts, which had a Russian owner, has been owned by Swiss businessman Micca Ferrero since last summer. He has great ambitions, he says in a fleeting rendezvous at his stand. “Right now, reuse and sustainability are an issue.” Perry van Oossanen, owner of Van Oossanen Naval Architects from Wageningen, also expresses this view. He designs ships, including for Heesen, and has a lab for digital testing to reduce the energy consumption of yachts. “The plea for energy-efficient sailing fell on deaf ears for a long time. The story was always: those yachts are not sailing, because they are floating apartments.” But now it’s tipping: “Owners are finally taking responsibility.” That can go a long way. For example, a Swiss customer recently canceled his order because Van Oossanen could not guarantee that the 55-metre yacht could sail energy-neutral. “We have to start drawing again and again. You end up with longer and slimmer boats.” But yacht building is far from being a green paradise, says Van Oossanen. Attempts to use alternative ‘clean’ motor fuels often fail, as a result of which ship owners are often forced to rely on polluting diesel. Van Oossanen: “We can run a ship on hydrogen, but there is no hydrogen available.” German nerds The fact that there are more incentives for more sustainable yacht building can also be seen in Monaco. In a display case at the Yacht Show, the emission-free e-motor that engine manufacturer Freudenberg from Munich is developing with the German yacht builder Lürssen. Freudenberg is experimenting with the e-motor in Flix buses, which maintain a European long-distance network. The engine builder hopes to equip yachts with such an e-motor in the foreseeable future. “We’ve been working on it for 20 years,” said Michael Milch, director of strategy for the consumer market. “But we’re decent German nerds, aren’t we. It takes a while.” Peter Lürssen, owner of the yacht builder, is also a prominent member of the Water Revolution Foundation: a club of international yacht builders who want to make the industry more sustainable. Its chairman is a Dutchman, Henk de Vries, from Jachtbouw De Vries from Aalsmeer. And Peter Lürssen also owns the company that built a yacht for Putin – as many Russians were good customers of European yacht builders. “Let’s be honest, we looked away a bit,” says Bert Houtman, while he surveys the harbour. Putin also had to deal with U-Boat Worx. About five years ago, the Russian president inspected a sunken 19th century Russian naval ship with a submarine owned by Houtman. A video of this recently surfaced after the explosion of the Nord Stream gas pipeline. “We had nothing to do with that, of course,” says Houtman. “But then we already knew it wasn’t quite kosher.” A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 8, 2022