As Mexican billionaire Emilio Azcárraga Milmo lay dying aboard his daringly designed 75-metre Eco, the setting spoke volumes about one of yachting’s greatest-ever characters.
For one thing, it was the patrón’s stateroom, rather than the wheelhouse, that had the stellar views. “The pilot of my plane never looks out of the window,” Azcárraga had ruled. “I don’t see why the captain needs to.” But that night, 16 April 1997, the views would have been screened by curtains. The bulbous, curved-glass windows, which drew inspiration from 1950s Parisian buses and lent Eco her distinctively classic yet futuristic look, would have been shrouded by sumptuous, pale-coloured fabrics, muffling sound and cocooning the solemn scene.
That night, Eco was at rest in Miami Beach Marina. The vexing issue of mechanical vibrations – felt most acutely on the owner’s bed, caused by its famously powerful engines – had long since been resolved. Now, there was just the faint hum of the vessel’s “life support” systems. Otherwise, peace. The warm polished woods and buttery tones of François Zuretti’s interior design, fashioned in the spirit of the faraway art deco-themed Mamounia Hotel in Marrakesh, lent the scene a strange, intimate feel. It was an opportunity for Azcárraga to contemplate his final words and deeds – if he could only manage to quieten his mind.
Aged 66, Azcárraga, dubbed by many who knew him as El Tigre, had too much left to offer the world, particularly in the media (the primary vehicle for his wealth and power) and yachting (Eco being his fifth yacht; surely he dreamed of more). Somehow, the progress of his cancer – first presenting as melanoma or skin cancer, almost certainly exacerbated by time enjoyed on his boat’s decks – had proved unstoppable.
He was accompanied on Eco during those final six weeks by Adriana Abascal, his fifth companion and a 1988 Miss Mexico four decades his junior. It is unclear who was aboard Eco that night besides core crew, which included his English butler, dutifully spoon-feeding him. But it was to his older sister, Carmela, that he is believed to have spoken his final words, “Now I’m going to meet Gina.” María Regina Shondube Almada, “Gina”, was his first wife, who’d died in 1952.
In the weeks following Azcárraga’s death, obituary writers struggled to summarise his extraordinary, kaleidoscopically complex life. “He is a media mogul who shuns the press,” the LA Times had printed in 1991, in a rare in-depth profile, adding that even his age was kept secret.
During the later 1990s, English academic and author Andrew Paxman wrote what is regarded as the reference biography of Azcárraga: El Tigre. While it remains in print, it has only been published in Spanish. Paxman, now based at Mexico’s CIDE University, has kindly made available the original English draft for the purpose of researching this article.
Often described as Mexico’s Rupert Murdoch, Azcárraga would have bridled at that label. As Paxman recounts it, Azcárraga’s power was much further reaching: “The history of Mexican television is, effectively, the history of the Azcárragas.” His Televisa TV company virtually owned the free time of Mexicans, giving him unparalleled influence over their cultural, social and political views – via a continual supply of approved news, variety shows, football and bullfight coverage, plus, above all, soap operas or telenovelas.
A symbiosis had evolved between Azcárraga’s empire – a media juggernaut able to unseat political candidates or endorse rigged elections – and the Mexican government, formed by the world’s longest-ruling political party, the PRI, which had the power to revoke media licences, regulate monopolies or even nationalise television. The two united around a singular view of Mexican nationhood. Storylines of the telenovelas promoted socially conservative values that encouraged citizens to accept their lot in life.
“It was a very privileged monopoly position,” says Felix Cortés Camarillo, who worked at Televisa for 28 years, ultimately as a senior executive in charge of news programming, and is now a journalist in Monterrey, Mexico. “We had the cake to ourselves.”
Televisa became the largest producer of TV content in the Spanish language in the world. “We sold telenovelas to the United States, Russia and China. The stories always followed the same line – the Cinderella tale of rags to riches: the poor humble individual who, through luck or effort, transforms.”
For the thousands of actors and musicians on Azcárraga’s payroll, it was less straightforward. More than wealth, Azcárraga prized control and loyalty. Paxman recounts him reprimanding the Televisa star Lucía Méndez, when she informed him that she was to have a baby – midway through a soap opera. “Why didn’t you plan it?” he reacted, aghast. “How are we going to manage if you get very fat?” Méndez was reduced to tears. He later apologised; “I want to ask for your forgiveness and to tell you that you’re right: you’ve been working for many years, you’re at the perfect age to have children, I’m very happy for you...”
Paxman saw the episode as pure El Tigre: first a mauling, then the “licking better” of the wound. His intimidation of businessmen, notably at the negotiating table, resulted in them leaving meetings struck by his charm and generosity.
Key to his way of being was his physical presence: powerfully built and well turned-out. An imposing aura and a full head of dark hair featuring a dramatic white stripe only burnished his reputation as El Tigre – a tiger attired in only the best suits.
El Tigre had always cut an imposing figure. Back in January 1952, Heine Shondube hosted the wedding reception for his beloved daughter Gina and 21-year-old groom Emilio Azcárraga Milmo in Mexico City’s elite, leafy Polanco district. In the garden, the cream of local society enjoyed a buffet of prawns, caviar and other delicacies, plus 80 cases of champagne. Emilio looked athletically tall and slim; Gina glowed with unusual beauty.
Azcárraga had needed all of his incipient wiles and charm to fight off other, older suitors and be able to wed the woman he loved – his avowed partner for life. As Teddy Roosevelt had put it, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.” By extension, nobody becomes a billionaire without collecting enemies or at least detractors along the way – with the possible exception of those inheriting such wealth, and the latter have their own crosses to bear, as Azcárraga was finding out. For it was Azcárraga’s father, “Don” Emilio Azcárraga Vidaurreta, who had amassed the family fortune. Starting out with a single radio station in 1930 (the year his son was born), Don Emilio would go on to acquire monopoly TV privileges via political shrewdness.
Don Emilio sent his son to military academy in the US – an environment only rivalled in terms of discipline by the more austere British boarding schools. Military academy interrupted Azcárraga’s courting of Gina, of which Don Emilio initially disapproved. By Emilio Jr’s age, Don Emilio said that he was founding auto-dealerships and dodging bullets in the Mexican Revolution. Azcárraga would complain, “If I do something well, people think it was my father’s idea. And if I do something badly, it’s because I’m an idiot.”
Worse was to come. Gina, soon pregnant, had developed a brain tumour. The pregnancy seemed to be exacerbating her condition; her headaches worsened and her physical functions gradually shut down. Emilio refused to leave her side. She managed to give birth only for the baby to die the next day. When her condition became critical, Don Emilio chartered a plane, rushing her to a New York hospital, but she didn’t regain consciousness. Azcárraga became a widower aged barely 22, just eight months married.
His grief was likely compounded by convulsive guilt. While it is now understood that a pregnancy does not worsen a brain tumour, he thought that his haste to have children contributed to her demise. He was inconsolable, retreating from society. When he re-emerged, he was less trusting – less willing to rely on other people. As he drew lessons from Gina’s death, his playboy persona emerged. Why invest in intimate relationships if they can be so cruelly, unpredictably snatched away from us?
From then on, he sought relationships on his terms. The role of the patrón came naturally, but his father was determined not to make life too easy for him. In a classic succession scenario, the patriarch identified various contenders – mostly rival in-laws – as potential candidates for taking over the family empire. Azcárraga would have to fight for his birthright.
He bided his time. The scores of attractive starlets arriving through the doors of the television centre were one distraction. These dalliances only worsened his relationship with his father, who would brutally, loudly denounce him as a lazy playboy with a short attention span, before settling on the most injurious of nicknames for him: the idiot prince.
Emilio Jr distracted himself on projects where he believed he could prove himself on his own terms. Pivotal among these was the building of the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City as a graceful structure able to seat 100,000 – the largest such stadium in the world. It would later turn into a major money-spinner for the Azcárraga family. But not before Don Emilio needed to step in to cover loans when the stadium build ran into financial difficulty.
For Azcárraga, it established a pattern. There would be the North Cove Marina in Manhattan, of which George Nicholson (of Camper & Nicholsons renown) was a stakeholder: it would launch during the late 1980s economic downturn and struggle for years to fill its expensive berths. Then there would be The National, the critically acclaimed US sports newspaper that ended up folding with losses of $100 million.
Don Emilio would not be available for further bailouts; he died in 1972, and Azcárraga took the helm. Upholding political bargains with governments, his stewardship of the family empire would prove astute and effective.
There was one milieu away from the family business and other travails where life proved plainer sailing: the commissioning and enjoyment of superyachts. Martin Francis, Eco’s designer, remembers Emilio Azcárraga Milmo extremely fondly. “He was a one-off client,” says Francis. “He goaded us to rethink the parameters of superyacht architecture.”
Francis, 44 at the time, had been invited to advise on the design of the North Cove Marina. There, he met and impressed yacht builder George Nicholson, who was running the contest for Azcárraga’s new 55-metre-plus superyacht. The key desired attribute? She should be fast.
Francis had not designed a motor yacht before. Originally a cabinet maker and one-time set designer for The Rolling Stones, he’d worked in an engineering capacity for leading architects including Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, specifically with glass, fashioning the glass pyramid for the Louvre museum in Paris.
He’d also designed and made sailing vessels, but now found himself in deeper waters, driving to a sizable chalet on the outskirts of Gstaad during the winter of 1986, where he was to present his ideas for the new yacht to Nicholson and “The Tiger”. Also in the running: Jon Bannenberg, Feadship chief designer Frits de Voogt, and legendary automotive designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. “I was petrified,” recounts Francis. “To big myself up, I rented a top-of-the-range Mercedes and a room in the best hotel in Gstaad, neither of which I could afford at that time.”
The superyacht scene had first seduced Azcárraga in 1972, in Seville, where he’d met Nicholson and subsequently bought a 36-metre CRN, Caribe III. He graduated to a pair of Bannenberg-designed, Feadship-made superyachts, 46.6-metre Azteca and Paraiso, one kept ready for him in the Mediterranean, the other in the Caribbean.
Bannenberg was the perfect foil for Azcárraga: expansive, theatrical, a performer as well. The two Bannenberg yachts were rule-breakers. Dutch outfitters struggled with the interior specifications that included butter-soft kid leather panels and kilometres of thick polished Perspex. The upholsterers couldn’t accept that they needed to leave creases in the leather to achieve a quilted effect, rather seeking to pull them tight for a customarily smooth finish. There were so many handrails, door handles and other details specified in Perspex that a notation arrow on one of Bannenberg’s drawings accidentally turned into an oversized Perspex object.
And yet Eco was to be so much more revolutionary. It stood for Empresa de Comunicaciones Orbitales, the Spanish-language news channel that Azcárraga went on to set up in 1988. It means “echo” in Spanish, and the design was to be a ping or reverberation from some future beyond most people’s imagination. No convention would be taken for granted with this boat.
Back in the theatrically lit Gstaad chalet, Francis watched the imposing Mexican paw through his notepad of plans, head bowed. The patrón’s stony silence grew more ominous. Francis’s eclectic background facilitated a form of lateral thinking that led him to include not only a classical monohull design of the Feadship variety, but also ideas for catamarans, SWATHs (small waterplane area twin hulls), even a hovercraft, in order to attain the desired 25-knot speed. Finally, after 30 torturous minutes, Azcárraga ruled: “Your proposal is shit. But I like your work methods.”
Francis left the meeting amid falling snowflakes, his mind whirling with the understanding that he was to explore the proposals further. It would take another two years, and Azcárraga’s threat to buy Bannenberg’s Carinthia (which wasn’t for sale), before Francis arrived at the approved plan: a longer, battleship-styled beauty capable of carrying a fixed-wing seaplane on her aft deck (a helicopter would have been far simpler, but Azcárraga didn’t trust them). The patrón advanced Francis $5 million. “I don’t want to take on the entire German army,” he said, in an apparent reference to the nationality of the shipyard selected. “Let me know when you need more.” In other words, Francis was to run the project himself with Blohm+Voss of Hamburg.
Various design elements proved controversial from the start – famously, the moving of the wheelhouse from the upper to main deck level (in fact, visibility was never a problem). Then there were the curved windows. Nicholson, who was Francis’s sounding board throughout the project, told BOAT International in 2017: “At that stage we did not know if the hull and superstructure would be really stiff, and were afraid that these large and special windows would crack. It was a work of art to get them right.” (Only two of the 68 curved units have cracked; both more than 25 years after the yacht was built).
The real drama revolved around the propulsion configuration, which comprised three water-jets. To attain the desired speed, the LM1600 marine gas turbine was introduced. “It was the first production turbine for civilian use,” recalls Nicholson. “I had to sign an official secrets paper in order to buy it. The Aga Khan bought the next three engines for his transatlantic record-breaker, Destriero.”
The resulting speed caused Eco’s stern to squat, so Francis affixed a never-attempted-before hydrofoil beneath the water-jets, which reduced trim variation to just 1.5 degrees between zero and maximum speed while actually improving hydrodynamic efficiency at lower speeds – but not before the engines blew up and the exhaust system ejected dark smoke and metallic debris during trials on the Baltic Sea. “Remember,” a Blohm+Voss representative reassured Francis, “we built the Bismarck.” Countered Francis, “we all know what became of the Bismarck!”
Francis’s loyalty and service were rewarded. During Eco’s maiden voyage, he noticed some dirt on a section of carpet and felt Azcárraga’s gaze dwell on him as he picked it up. That same trip, he was given the VIP suite. FIFA president and soccer mogul João Havelange was also aboard when a plant-sprinkler mechanism on the deck above malfunctioned, flooding Havelange’s cabin. (Francis gave Havelange the VIP suite thereafter, moving to a standard cabin).
The narrow beam and expansive aft deck meant the accommodation needed to be cosy, but it was never exactly informal – at least, not while the patrón was aboard. Around an intimate dinner table, he would upbraid the Thyssen steel company president about a stainless-steel panel that had acquired some barely discernible scratches. Another time, he ordered up Dom Pérignon from the 3,000-bottle cave, rejecting two opened bottles in favour of an identical third one. He could equally be spectacularly generous, asking Francis to acquire Rolex watches for each place setting before another dinner, or gifting a sports car to each of Julio Iglesias’s three children after the singer broke off a performance to praise Azcárraga’s support for the Spanish language.
“Azcárraga was unpredictable in a magical way – the sort of client you only maybe meet once in a working lifetime,” summarises Francis. “For a short while during that stage of my life, it felt like anything was possible.”
Azcárraga had good reason to be pleased with Eco. She wildly exceeded expectations, reaching 36 knots when her fuel tanks weren’t full. Three decades on, she remains one of the fastest yachts in her class.
No longer would Azcárraga need to keep two yachts in different seas. Thirsty though she was, Eco would make six Atlantic crossings with the patrón aboard and total 225,000 nautical miles of cruising during his six years of ownership. One season he took her from Hamburg to St Petersburg, then across to the UK, next down to the Mediterranean – the Balearics, Greece and Turkey – before crossing the Atlantic to the Caribbean and through the Panama Canal, finally ending up in Los Angeles. Nicholson had sourced a tanker that could refuel her in two hours, mid-Atlantic. “It was the smallest tanker that I could buy at 1,000 tonnes. We called her Eco Supporter. We used to send the tanker way ahead of Eco and make a rendezvous somewhere at sea,” he remembered.
Rumours surfaced that just before he died, Eco had slipped into international waters to avoid the legal requirement of a US death certificate specifying cause of death – that he died by euthanasia, exercising a final act of control. But this was not true, according to someone with first-hand knowledge of the situation: Eco remained peacefully in port, while the patrón sadly succumbed to a more protracted and less peaceful natural ending.
“The paradoxes in Azcárraga’s behaviour and fluctuations of his moods mean that a dozen people who met him might well give a dozen contradictory opinions of the man,” concludes Andrew Paxman. “Each will swear that his or her opinion is correct. El Tigre’s character was so strong and his physical presence so commanding that he made an indelible impression on almost everyone he met, leaving each of them sure that the way he behaved towards them was evidence of the one true Azcárraga, when in fact there were many.”
That chameleon-like quality is reflected in Eco, which equally defies any easy categorisation: battleship-fortress; ultra-de-luxe superyacht; timeless floating court; otherworldly, futuristic speed machine; and yet also now a true classic – a three-decade-old totem of which a special commemorative model is soon to be unveiled at the Yacht Club de Monaco. Just like Eco (now Zeus), the man who commissioned her remains a giant of the yachting world.
First published in the August issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.SHOP NOW