“Not my yacht” – how sombre structures cloud ownership of oligarch toys

As tourists in Antigua last week marveled at some of the world’s oldest sailing yachts during the island’s classic yacht race, local authorities were fixated on two thoroughly modern vessels.

Antiguan officials were working to determine if the ships Garçon and Halo belonged to Roman Abramovich, according to the Financial Times revealed that the two yachts appeared to be linked to the sanctioned oligarch.

After appealing to British diplomats for assistance, the Antigua government received a definitive response on Thursday: authorities in the British Virgin Islands confirmed it Abramovich was the owner.

However, the following day, law firm Ince Deutschland sent letters to Antigua customs officials stating that “Roman Abramovich is neither part of the ownership structure nor a beneficiary” of the two boats that are moored in Antigua’s Falmouth harbor.

While Antigua has said it still stands ready to impound the vessels if the UK government makes a request under its legal assistance agreement, the conflicting claims on the yachts’ ownership highlight Byzantine offshore structures complicating the authorities’ efforts , to enforce sanctions against Russia alleged pioneer of President Vladimir Putin.

The presence of Garçon and Halo on Antigua’s shores is also a clue to how these sunny island getaways have benefited from the Russian oligarchs’ giant superyachts, especially after the pandemic choked tourism and hit their local economy hard.

The FT has been able to identify six other yachts linked to prominent businessmen who were born in Russia or former Soviet republics – including an oligarch who is also under sanctions – that moored in the same port last weekend as the suspected Abramovich- Ships.

Antiguans have grown accustomed over the years to the presence of these huge boats, which provide work for the local maintenance crews and also serve the beachside restaurants when the ship’s crew takes their days off.

But locals can’t recall ever seeing the oligarchs themselves or their guests coming ashore to experience the island.

“These are multimillion-dollar yachts with million-dollar chefs,” said a local restaurateur. “They never leave the world of their yacht – that’s the point of them.”

Super yachts in Falmouth Harbour, Antigua

Super yachts in Falmouth Harbour, Antigua. The Antiguans have grown accustomed to the presence of these huge boats over the years

Financial Metaverse

If BVI records are to be believed, Abramovich is now the billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club as Putin’s emissary all over the world in peace talks with Ukraine, lives in The Great Gatsby Building in Switzerland.

This building, whose existence could not be confirmed, was listed as the oligarch’s address in a letter from the British Virgin Islands Financial Intelligence Agency to their British counterparts, which was viewed by the FT and confirmed that Abramovich is the owner of the company that made the two yachts owned in Antigua.

Law firm Ince’s statement to the contrary is based on the argument that BVI records have not kept pace with a change in ownership, according to a person familiar with the boats’ ownership structure.

At least once in the weeks before he was sanctioned by the UK and EU, Abramovich appears to have shifted assets to trusted partners, with UK company filings showing it was one of his key investment vehicles transferred to Israeli collaborator David Davidovich on February 24th.

Tom Keatinge, director of the Center for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, described the tangle of nominees and shell companies that obscure ownership of oligarch fortunes as a “financial metaverse.”

A lawyer representing wealthy individuals who buy private jets and superyachts said oligarchs and billionaires never directly own their planes or ships.

“They’re usually owned by a special purpose vehicle, where the shares in that company are usually owned by the very wealthy person themselves,” he said. “But if you have someone like me involved, those shares will be owned by a trust instead.”

Last Friday, a small armada of Russian superyachts moored at the Antigua Yacht Club marina, just across from the historic harbor that was once home to Admiral Nelson’s fleet.

The vessels included the imposing black-hulled Alfa Nero, which is more than 80 meters long and is valued at between US$85 million and US$95 million, according to VesselsValue. The maritime data service identified the boat as belonging to Andrey Guryev, the CEO of Russian fertilizer company PhosAgro, who was there last month added to the EU sanctions list by Kremlin-related businessmen.

The superyacht Alfa Nero docked in Antigua last week

The superyacht Alfa Nero docked in Antigua last week. It has since been tracked to nearby Anguilla

Three people with knowledge of the superyacht industry also said that the superyacht was owned by Guryev. The boat’s owner is listed as a BVI company called Flying Dutchman Overseas Limited in the Equasis maritime database, although a search of BVI records offers little clue as to the company’s ultimate owner.

In 2015, a spokesman for Guryev said the New Yorker that the oligarch does not own the boat, but “regularly charter the Alfa Nero”. Guryev declined to comment to the FT.

Alfa Nero has since left the Antigua coast, and VesselsValue tracked it to nearby Anguilla on Monday.

ghost ships and skeleton crews

Garçon and Halo, who are collectively worth less than $60 million, are a rounding error in the $1 billion fleet of five yachts the FT identified last week as being linked to Abramovich.

But a person who was aboard several sanctioned oligarch yachts said the two boats moored in Antigua both acted as support vessels for the much larger Eclipse superyacht, with Garçon containing extensive medical facilities should the oligarch’s guests require treatment .

“I know the people who manage Abramovich’s boats and they’re all upside down, there’s only one emergency crew left, enough to move them,” he said. “Even the guys who are not sanctioned, their boats are effectively frozen because they are also struggling to pay the crews – the correspondent banks are refusing all payments from Russia.”

Halo and Garçon, superyachts associated with Roman Abramovich, moor in Antigua

Garçon and Halo, who are collectively worth less than $60 million, are a rounding error in the $1 billion fleet of five yachts the FT identified last week as being linked to Abramovich

Crew members of one of the Russian-owned yachts in Antigua told the FT they were stuck on the island for weeks and didn’t know when to leave.

“Our man still has access to money, but the money has been cut off for these other boats,” said a crew member. “Nobody could or wanted to send money. Entire teams have not been paid and now these huge boats are being run by a few management people trying to keep things running.”

It’s a far cry from the years when few oligarchs were sanctioned, when Antigua locals say that superyacht crews often emptied entire supermarkets to stock up onboard vast pantries, leaving behind the “out of stock” signs, which indicated that a new yacht had docked.

Even more sinister were the sightings of automatic weapons being carried by security forces and even gunfire being fired over approaching local boats. Now locals are instead talking about unpaid fuel bills from some boats stretching to hundreds of thousands of pounds.

“Look, the world is going crazy right now, people are dying as we speak,” said one of the crew members of the Russian yacht, who gathered to watch the sunset from the jetty last Friday. “For a long time these oligarchs had what they wanted. But that has now changed.”

Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya “Not my yacht” – how sombre structures cloud ownership of oligarch toys

Adam Bradshaw

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