The busy British investor tells Stewart Campbell about the many boats he’s loved and lost, and why there’s more to come
Of all the boats Peter de Savary has had over the years – and there have been at least 30 – the one he’s sitting on in the middle of London is perhaps the most unlikely. There have been converted tugs, gorgeous Gilded Age sailing yachts and even the boat Richard Burton gifted Elizabeth Taylor, but never before a barge. And not just any barge, perhaps the only “superyacht barge” in the world, a 30-metre Hakvoort he’s named Savvy. He has a house in Chelsea, a stone’s throw from his mooring at Cadogan Pier, but he’d rather be on the water. “My housekeeper keeps asking me when I’m coming to the house,” the experienced entrepreneur, now 75, says. “I always say I’m coming soon, but why would I go and sit in a bloody house?”
Boats, for de Savary, are the ultimate de-stressor, and a necessity for a serial investor whose business is built on risk. Within five minutes of arriving on board he takes a call that makes him visibly tense, and his fingers curl tightly around his ever-present cigar. “I’m selling a couple of businesses,” he explains as he puts the phone down. “It’s been a torturous procedure.” Today his interests run from shipyards – he has owned or managed 18 around the world – to pubs, clubs, restaurants, hotels, resorts, car parks and manufacturing, but he says hospitality is his forte, “because I can relate to people from all walks of life, from bus drivers to billionaires. I am able to interpret what they want.”
He started out in the import/export business in the 1960s, sending goods such as wheat flour, cement and steel to Africa and bringing out cocoa beans, soya and timber. “We also supplied all the foie gras, caviar and smoked salmon to the Emperor Haile Selassie, who would have huge banquets for 800 people.”
Peter de Savary and his ubiquitous Cuban cigar
But his first big business success was in oil. In the early 1970s, a barrel of crude cost a few dollars; by the end of the decade the price had blown to nearly $40 a barrel. Even adjusted for inflation, it was a massive hike – and it made a lot of oil traders very, very rich, including de Savary, then in his 30s. “You’d have to be a bit of an arse not to make money in that situation,” he says. “I wouldn’t put it down to brilliance and skill – it was more being in the right place at the right time.”
He has a thousand stories like this from a wildly varied career that has included developing high-rise New York apartment buildings and going toe-to-toe with Donald Trump, to buying a prestige funeral business in London. “This company buried Churchill. It’s a very good cashflow business and you get no bad debts. But I went to my first board meeting and everyone’s in a black suit and black tie and no one’s smiling and they’re talking about forecasts: ‘Lady So-and-So was pencilled in for a big funeral in October, but she has made a good recovery. Lord Whatever, meanwhile, has taken a turn for the worse and it looks like he’ll come into December sales.’ I’m sitting there thinking, Christ, what am I doing here? Thank God I found another buyer. It was the most depressing thing.”
All his investment decisions are based primarily on instinct, he says, but he never enters a deal without a clear exit strategy. Naturally, this approach attracts a lot of stress, for which he has found the perfect solution. “The ultimate drug for me to deal with it is a combination of three things: a good Havana cigar, an excellent Armagnac at the right temperature, and thinking about the wonderful boats that I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy and the stories and the history that go with them. It’s the best medicine of all. I don’t want to watch a movie on Netflix; I don’t want to read a book; I don’t want to go to a bar and get drunk, and I don’t need a psychiatrist. I just think about the boats.”
His current fleet comprises the barge, a Fairey Swordsman he keeps on Hayling Island on the south coast of England, a classic Riva that he uses in Newport, Rhode Island, where he also has a home, and Hush, a 20-metre Royal Huisman motor yacht that he bases in Mallorca and which once belonged to his good friend Ed Dubois. “I bought it after he died. I liked it and thought every time I’m on it I’ll think of him.” His days in bigger yachts are long gone, he says. “When you have a big boat, there’s this constant pressure to use it, even if you want to do something else. And then you’ve got the irritation of the crew and then God forbid something doesn’t work on the yacht and the captain says, ‘I’m sorry, Mr de Savary, but we won’t be able to leave port today.’ And you think, ‘Hang on, I’ve put a fortune into this bloody boat and the damn thing isn’t working!’”
Savvy's Master is elegant and minimalistic, adhering to a monochromatic colour scheme
He's much happier nowadays cruising around Narragansett Bay in his Riva or pottering up the Beaulieu River in the Fairey. Savvy, meanwhile, he has taken all over the rivers and canals of Western Europe – and is thought to be the largest private boat to navigate the Canal du Midi in the South of France. “I had never dreamed I’d own a barge. But then my broker Peter Insull called me and told me about it and it sounded quite fun. The minute I walked on it in Amsterdam I saw its potential, so I bought it and spent two years doing the inland waterways of Europe. I probably saw a fraction of it. You could easily spend years doing different areas, and the best thing is you’re never far from an airport. I never thought I would enjoy more than a week on the barge but I was wrong. It’s a whole different experience.”
The lower deck corridor of Savvy
None of his boats have been what you’d call conventional, starting with the first one he loved – a dinghy owned by an old West Indian fisherman. It was 1952 and he was on holiday in Grenada with his parents, and the fisherman would ferry them each day from their hotel to Grand Anse Beach. “I asked him if I could drive the boat and he said, ‘With pleasure, but I have to teach you.’ So he taught me about the sea and I fell in love there and then.” At the time he was living in Venezuela with his mother and stepfather, in whose own story boats play a central role. They had met just once, on a blind date in London soon after the Second World War, before he was posted to South America by Shell to explore for oil. He proposed by letter and de Savary’s mother made the long journey with her young son to Venezuela on a banana boat. When they arrived, de Savary’s stepfather rowed out to meet them in a dinghy filled with flowers.
Savvy boasts its own deckside pool
There’s a healthy dose of romance in all his yachting decisions; he’s drawn to yachts with great stories. One of the more famous was Kalizma, which he had in the 1980s, at the height of his front-page fame as one of Britain’s best-known entrepreneurs. The boat was given to Elizabeth Taylor by Richard Burton as a present in 1967. “That was a great boat,” says de Savary. “[Taylor’s] suite was all pink – the bathroom, the bedroom, everything was hot pink. It was definitely an acquired taste but I didn’t touch it – it was part of the history. It had the original engine from 1906 and it would get her to 15 knots at 160rpm. You could watch the pistons going up and down and we always had to have two men in the engine room at all times running around squirting oil. Every guest that I took on board was complimentary about the boat, but seeing the engine room while under way was always the highlight. It was like something from the previous century.”
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton once owned de Savary's old Yacht Kalizma
Kalizma was used as de Savary’s flagship as he contested the 1983 America’s Cup in Newport. He led the British bid by Royal Burnham Yacht Club to try to secure the Auld Mug. Despite getting into the finals of the Louis Vuitton Cup, his team was beaten by Alan Bond’s Australian syndicate, which went on to make history by defeating the New York Yacht Club to wrest the Cup away from America for the first time in 132 years. Eventually de Savary sold Kalizma – he never holds on to a boat for too long – but not before taking a souvenir. “I have a painting Burton gave Taylor – it’s a very nice oil painting that hung in the saloon over the sofa. It’s now in my house and every time I look at it I think of the boat and that little bit of history.”
He can reel off the names of a dozen other boats he’s loved with similarly incredible stories. There was the classic Herreshoff-designed sailing yacht Vagrant that was built for Harold Vanderbilt in 1910; the 1916-built schooner Silver Spray, which was designed using the lines of the original America, the yacht after which the America’s Cup is named; a Norwegian rescue boat called Fredrikstad that he converted into a superyacht in his Penzance shipyard and eventually sold in New York by covering its decks in a huge “for sale” sign that could be seen by the monied bankers in Manhattan’s skyscrapers; and Lands End, a 48.5-metre motor yacht modelled on a whaling boat that was built in 1965 for the “king of Dutch porn”, which de Savary cruised all over the Mediterranean.
One of the few new boats he has owned was Taramber, a 37.4-metre sailing boat designed by Dubois. He built it at Pendennis, which he founded. At the time he owned the docks in Falmouth and was making around £10,000 a year renting out a huge shed for grain storage. “As a yachtsman, I said, ‘Let’s get rid of this grain and build yachts.’ I thought we couldn’t do any worse. The headland there is called Pendennis so we named the yard after that.” The first job the company secured was building Oyster yachts, but de Savary had bigger ambitions so commissioned his friend Dubois to design Taramber, which launched in 1991. “We used it to get the Pendennis name out there. I sent it off to the Caribbean, to the Bahamas, and used it as a promotional tool. Of course I sold it, but it was really the first bit of credibility that the yard got and the orders started coming in.”
The Cary Arms and Spa in Torquay, one of de Savary's UK establishments
Back on Savvy, cigar almost extinguished, de Savary leans back and gestures happily around the main saloon of his 30-metre barge. Even this boat, despite being only 15 years old, has an impressive backstory. It was built for an investor in The Body Shop, and is utterly unique – the only one superyacht yard Hakvoort has ever built. He thought about selling it last year and moving on to something new, but he’s simply enjoying it too much. “It’s the ultimate pied-à-terre! It’s fantastic at night, with the lights of London all around.” But rest assured, it will be back on the market before too long. Restless as ever, de Savary is hungry for his next adventure.