The owner of Kalizma, Shirish Saraf, details the extensive refit that brought the classic superyacht (once owned by Richard Burton) back to life...
“When I sit on the sandbanks and watch the Kalizma, I could spend hours just staring at her,” explains businessman Shirish Saraf of his newly acquired yacht, while reclining on his sofa in London. “It’s like she grows on you... she almost talks to you. I’m in love with her,” he laughs.
A significant investor, Saraf is currently the founder and vice chairman of Samena Capital, whose investments include Bloom Hotels, Virtus Medical Holdings and Softlogic Holdings in Sri Lanka, among others. He has previously been named one of Asia’s Top 25 most influential investors, and is a frequent speaker at conferences, including the World Economic Forum.
For a person who has made his fortune by following his head, not his heart, it seems strange to hear him talk about the yacht in such emotional terms. And yet, Saraf is not the first man to have fallen under the spell of this bewitching 46-metre beauty. Those who have spent time on board claim she has a soul – a spirit that’s easy to sense but hard to describe. “I have dreams of living with Elizabeth [Taylor] on the Kalizma,” imagined former owner, the actor Richard Burton, “and never living on land again.”
Her story is certainly an intriguing one. “This was the most famous yacht in the world in the 1970s and 80s – more so probably than even Onassis’s Christina!” Saraf exclaims with incredulity, recalling the many Hollywood stars who have come aboard in the past – from Clint Eastwood and Rex Harrison to Brad Pitt, who reportedly tried to buy her for himself – not to mention royalty such as Prince Rainier III of Monaco and Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh.
Yet when Saraf came to buy her, it was at a poorly attended auction. She was in a sorry state – uninsurable, out of class, “a dead ship”, recalls project manager and managing director of West Coast Marine Yacht Services Aashim Mongia – and it would take two years to restore her to her former glory.
“Here is a boat that has been through two world wars, has had anyone and everyone stay on it, has survived everything, when not one other yacht of that pedigree has managed to. And you have to think: why?” asks Saraf. “There must be some soul, some energy that’s different.”
Certainly, her life began with much fanfare. She was commissioned in 1906 as the private steam yacht Minona, by Scotsman Robert Stewart. He needed a vessel to travel around his land – the Kinlochmoidart Estate on the North West Coast of Scotland – and something that was sturdy enough to withstand the punishing weather.
He sought out the esteemed naval architect GL Watson to design her. One of the first steam boats to have electric lighting, she went on to serve in both world wars as part of the Royal Navy, and was converted from steam to diesel between 1945 and 1955. She also became known as Cortynia and Odysseia, and passed through numerous different owners, including self-made millionaire and former chairman of Millwall Football Club, Peter de Savary, who used her as his floating headquarters during the America’s Cup in the early 1980s. He regarded the classic yacht as a “sensible purchase”, and hosted numerous business events on board. He also decreed that Prince Phillip was the only guest allowed to grace Kalizma’s pristine deck without removing his shoes.
Kalizma’s most legendary owner is Burton, who bought her as a gift for the beautiful – and tempestuous – actress Elizabeth Taylor, when she won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It is said that Burton paid $220,000 (£166,000) for Kalizma in 1967, and spent twice as much on her refit, which took place during the filming of Where Eagles Dare in London. The charismatic couple were forced to charter a smaller yacht while work was underway, simply to house their dogs, which would otherwise have had to undergo a six-month quarantine. Burton and Taylor themselves stayed at the Dorchester Hotel.
On board Kalizma – renamed after the Hollywood couple’s daughters, Kate, Liza and Maria – is also where Burton presented Taylor with the world-famous 69.42-carat diamond, now known as the Taylor-Burton diamond. Burton reportedly lost out on the jewel during an auction, in which he was bidding via a remote payphone at the Bell Inn in Buckinghamshire, England, while the Sultan of Brunei and Aristotle Onassis also placed bids. In the end, he bought the diamond directly from Cartier for a record- breaking $1.1 million. “I wanted that diamond because it is incomparably lovely. And it should be on the loveliest woman in the world,” he said of the purchase. “I would have had a fit if it went to Jackie Kennedy or Sophia Loren or Mrs Huntingdon Misfit of Dallas, Texas.”
Kalizma’s most recent owner prior to Saraf had been Vijay Mallya, the former owner of the Formula 1 Sahara Force India team, and a man reportedly referred to as “the King of the Good Times” by those who were often his guests.
And yet, for all her illustrious history, Saraf had never heard of Kalizma until he first stepped on board as a 30-year-old banker. During a golf tournament in Dubai, he’d bumped into the yacht’s captain, who had invited him to come back to the Creek Marina and visit the famous boat. At the time, “there was nothing in my mind about buying it,” he recalls. “I had no money, so there was no question, and I’d never even been on anything apart from some houseboats in Kashmir.” Nonetheless, she was sufficiently beautiful to prompt his father to comment, “she looks like the Orient Express of the seas” and that she was “a yacht to treasure”. Yet it would be some years before Saraf become interested in superyachts.
In 2003, he invested in a business founded by Italians Alessio and Riccardo Tumbiolo, who had taken a fleet of Azimuts to Dubai. Back then, Dubai had little infrastructure for yachts, but Saraf shrewdly spied a business opportunity in the new development and was keen to get involved. “I said to my partner, ‘Listen, we can sell a lot more than two Azimuts,’” he recalls. Together, they bought the agency, and Dubai duly exploded in popularity. “It was a case of right place, right time,” says Saraf, and it was also how he began to charter and enjoy boats. “I took an Azimut, a small one, and an Atlantis, which I used to use for day trips, and started loving it. Then by 2007 I started going to the Med for annual holidays – the South of France, Capri, Amalfi,” he says. “Then it became Corsica, Lakshadweep, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Burma.”
As the charters became more frequent and the yachts more significant, Saraf met Mongia, who had arranged last-minute charters for him on more than one occasion. “He asked me, ‘would I consider possibly buying the Kalizma?’” he recalls, noting that, at that point (April 2019), the boat was about to be taken over by the insurance company due to unpaid bills. “I said, ‘Just take it,’” he remembers, asking the team to act on his behalf at the auction, which was poorly attended. “I guess when someone advertises a 1906 yacht in Sri Lanka over monsoon and it’s in a bad state, who’s going to come and see it?” he remarks.
In the end, he spent around four times more on the yacht’s refit than on the boat herself. Perhaps it’s funny, given that he hadn’t set his heart on winning the auction in the first place. “I’m not one of those guys that admires cars and boats every day, and says, ‘Ah, look at my beauty!’” Saraf says, “but Kalizma has this old-world charm. I see her as a piece of art.”
And so work on restoring Kalizma began – and there was plenty of work to be done. “Apart from one watch sleeper on board, there was nobody else. The boat had been laid up for almost two years, or three years prior with practically zero maintenance,” recalls Mongia. Her steel was in a reasonable condition, but the engines, generators and stabilisers all needed work. Mongia and the yacht’s captain, Surender Saini, began the painstaking process of assessing what needed to be done.
“We literally got down on our hands and knees,” recalls Mongia, whose team back at West Coast Marine in Mumbai had worked on another major refit of the yacht back in 2006. “Seeing the Kalizma in the condition it was in broke my heart.”
For a year, Saraf, who was based in London at the time, got up for 1am WhatsApp summits in order to make the call on major decisions. Work on the yacht originally began at a small boatyard in Colombo, Sri Lanka, but “they have no infrastructure for yachts there per se, and they then went into liquidation, so we were left fending for ourselves”, Mongia explains.
Hiring individual craftspeople, one by one, made progress painfully slow and, by October of that year, Saraf and Mongia made the expensive decision to fly in a full team of carpenters and painters from Bombay. The team had worked on the yacht previously and had the knowledge and expertise to do the work to a high enough standard. They were duly set up with two apartments and two cars between them.
“We had 40 people working from the October of 2019 to the beginning of the pandemic in February/ March,” recalls Mongia. “And on the last flight before the pandemic set in we flew everybody out of there. But we had finished 95 per cent of the boat. Had we delayed our decision to bring in the manpower, the boat would probably not be finished to this day.”
In addition to the carpenters, there were 42 other workers on the project, from Spain and Portugal, focusing on the mast and woodwork; Italians from interior designer Alessandro Ortenzi’s team; Indian workers focusing on the polishing and high-end finishing; and a handful of remaining Sri Lankan contractors. Due to the pandemic, workers had to apply for a new pass to access the port every two days, while quarantining was still in force.
The main structural changes to the yacht involved opening up the galley to make it more spacious, and creating a proper crew mess. The top deck spa pool was also removed at Saraf’s request and replaced with a large lounge area, while the full complement of toys – two tenders, two jet skis, a wakeboard and waterskis – is now on board.
Part of the logic behind removing the spa pool – alongside Saraf’s love of swimming in the ocean – was to try and help make the yacht more stable, so that she could regain her RINA classification. It was incredibly hard to adapt this 1906 yacht to modern regulations, the team found, and it became an infuriating experiment of trial and error, adding more and more ballast, consulting the yacht’s former captain and undergoing various tests, until the requirements were met.
In addition to this, “it was a massive task to try and get the insurance companies on board – because of her age, nobody wanted to touch her”, says Mongia. A pair of lingering insurance claims on her didn’t help. One was due to a rope getting stuck on a propeller as the yacht tried to dock under her former owner. Another was from an incident when the yacht was struck in the side by a Chinese fishing trawler, on the eve of the court inspection. Nonetheless, today she is one of the world’s oldest RINA- classified yachts and her insurance premium has tumbled.
The main post-refit difference to Kalizma, however, is her interiors, which have been lifted, brightened, freshened and modernised, while still retaining an overriding sense of old-world glamour.“I wanted a look that was also something we could live with,” says Saraf. “It was very staid, and very dark because of all the mahogany. So we cut out a lot of the dark wood to give it a little more light, and now it’s beautiful.”
Ortenzi used “grey shades, champagne white and neutral tones”, mixed with modern colour accents throughout, to create a softer, more feminine scheme. In the outdoor areas, deep blue accessories punctuate fresh white, while indoors, violet – inspired by Taylor’s famously unusual violet eyes – adds an element of interest.
The master cabin has been completely refreshed with custom-made furniture, and a new lighting system has created a more relaxed, intimate mood on board. Meanwhile, beautifully detailed and sophisticated pieces from Italian artisans and brands such as Palazzo Morelli have elevated the look, and have been chosen in keeping with a classic nautical theme. So you will find brass details, handmade ropes and beautifully textured fabrics on the cushions, sunbeds and sunscreens sitting alongside the ship’s original surviving brasswork and brass bell.
Some of Ortenzi’s favourite areas are a custom bar counter, with the yacht’s coat of arms proudly displayed on the front; the master cabin with its television and audio equipment, masterfully disguised behind a sleek structure built in to the bed; and a gallery wall of black-and-white portraits of Burton and Taylor, “because the legend is always alive”. New teak decks throughout – completed in separate works over the summer – are the icing on the cake.
“I think there’s a responsibility that comes with owning something like this, and that responsibility is to really keep the soul the same,” explains Saraf, something which he believes the team has managed to do. More than the decking, the mast or the interiors, however, Saraf is most proud of Kalizma’s crew, who have helped to bring “a sense of warmth and a family feel” to the boat that wasn’t there before.
The future looks rosy for Kalizma. Since her refit, there’s been a never-ending stream of guests on board. “Between November and April I had more than 100 people come to stay,” says Saraf. “There’s never a time I’ve got fewer than 11 or 12 friends [there].” Life on board, however, is a relaxed affair. “I’m not there so much for throwing cocktail parties in marinas – I’m not that person,” he explains, instead recalling a recent trip to the Maldives. Waking up every day and swimming alongside pods of dolphins or admiring prehistoric-looking whale sharks with his young daughter, Aria, is more his speed than frantic partying.
Saraf likes to match the pace of life on board with the destination – so, in Sri Lanka, that means “history, exploring the tea trails, blue whale watching, playing golf, cricket and everything else that comes with it”, while in the Maldives and Seychelles, he’ll happily spend a day doing nothing but diving.
“I think there are certain types of places the yacht lends itself to,” he explains. “For example, the Amalfi Coast, Palma, maybe the Greek Islands would be lovely... but Saint-Tropez or Ibiza don’t do anything for Kalizma.”
His plan is to spend summers in the Mediterranean and the winter touring Asia, and Kalizma is now available for charter with Morley Yachts – that is, if you’re one of the lucky few that manages to book a rare opening. “I used her for six months last year, and I chartered her for two weeks,” laughs Saraf. “She’s come along just at the right time, because before Covid-19 I was travelling 25 days a month, and would have probably managed only five days on the boat.” Even if he didn’t have time to spare, “the Kalizma simply leaves one spellbound”, he smiles. Despite her transformation, the charms of this iconic yacht clearly live on.
This feature is taken from the February 2022 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.shop now