A 459-Foot Mystery in a Tuscan Port: Is It a Russian’s Superyacht?

From Germany’s North Sea ports to the French Riviera, open season has been declared on superyachts. Across Europe, authorities are hunting downluxury vessels tied to Russian oligarchs in the effortto inflict pain on President Vladimir V. Putin’s allies.

In Marina di Carrara, a small Italian town on the Tuscan coast, one of the world’s biggest, newest and most expensive superyachts — called the Scheherazade — is under scrutiny by the Italian police. Almost as long as a U.S. guided-missile destroyer, it dominates the waterfront.

The yacht, estimated by the website SuperYachtFan to cost about $700 million, has two helicopter decks and is studded with satellite domes. Inside, photos supplied by a former crew member show, is a swimming pool with a retractable cover that converts to a dance floor. Then there’s the fully equipped gym and the gold-plated fixtures in the bathrooms.

In the rarefied world of the biggest superyachts (only 14 that are at least 140 meters, or 459 feet long), the Scheherazade is alone in that no likely owner has been publicly identified. That has spurred speculationthat it could be a Middle Eastern billionaire or a superconnected Russian — even Mr. Putin.

The ship has two helicopter decks, a fully equipped gym and a pool with a retractable cover that converts to a dance floor.Credit…Tom van Oossanen

The ship’scaptain, Guy Bennett-Pearce, a British national, denied that Mr. Putin owned or had ever been on the yacht. “I have never seen him. I have never met him,” he said. He added, in a phone interview from the yacht, that its owner was not on any sanctions list. He did not rule out that the person could be Russian, but declined to say more about the owner’s identity, citing a “watertight nondisclosure agreement.”

Captain Bennett-Pearce said that Italian investigators had come aboard on Friday and examined some of the ship’s certification documents. “They are looking hard. They are looking at every aspect,” he said. “This isn’t the local coppers coming down, these are men in dark suits.” A person familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it, confirmed that the Italian financial police had opened an inquiry.

On Monday night, Captain Bennett-Pearce said he had “no choice” but to hand over documents revealing the owner’s identity to the Italian authorities. He said he would do so on Tuesday and had been told they would be handled with “confidentiality.”

“I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that this will clear the vessel of all negative rumors and speculations,” he wrote in a message to a New York Times reporter.

The mystery about the ship’s owner arose because — even for the hyper-confidential world of superyachting — there is an unusual degree of secrecy surrounding this vessel. Not only do contractors and crew members sign nondisclosure agreements, as on many superyachts, but the ship also has a cover to hide its name plate. And when it first arrived at the port, workers erected a tall metallic barrier on the pier to partly obscure the yacht from onlookers. Some locals remarked that they had never seen anything like it for other boats.

The Scheherazade dominates the waterfront in the small Italian town where it has been moored since September.Credit…Gaia Pianigiani/The New York Times

President Biden last week announced a joint task force with Britain and the European Union to hunt down assets, including yachts, that may be owned by oligarchs close to Mr. Putin and facing sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Sanctions have been imposed against hundreds of people, and the list keeps growing.

Last week, French authorities seized the yacht Amore Vero near Marseille as it was preparing to depart, claiming it was owned by a man on that list: Igor Sechin, the head of the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft. In Italy, police in Sanremo impounded Lena, a yacht belonging to Gennady Timchenko, a Putin friend who controls an oil exporting company. In nearby Imperia, police also impounded the Lady M, a yacht belonging to Alexei Mordashov, Russia’s richest man. The fate of the Dilbar, one of the world’s biggest yachts that the United States says belongs to the oligarch Alisher Usmanov, is unclear. It is in Hamburg, and German officials said the vessel could not leave without an export waiver, Bloomberg News reported.

Some of the biggest superyachts are owned by Russians who are not on the sanctions list. The world’s second-largest, Eclipse, which has a missile defense system and a mini submarine, is owned by Roman Abramovich, the billionaire who is selling his ownership stake in the British soccer club Chelsea. Andrey Melnichenko, a billionaire coal baron, owns Sailing Yacht A.

Determining the ownership of assets that the wealthy want to keep hidden is difficult, especially without a warrant, because they are often zealously guarded by private bankers and lawyers and tucked away in opaque shell companies in offshore secrecy havens. The Scheherazade is flagged in the Cayman Islands and its owner, Bielor Assets Ltd., is registered in the Marshall Islands. The yacht’s management company, which Captain Bennett-Pearce says is also registered in the Cayman Islands, works from the ship and uses his rental villa in nearby Lucca as its address.

French authorities recently seized the Amore Vero, which has been linked to Igor Sechin, a Russian oil executive and Putin ally.Credit…Bishr Eltoni/Associated Press

One trade website, which bills itself as “the global authority in superyachting,” claims that the vessel’s owner is “known to be a Middle Eastern billionaire.” The Scheherazade shares a name with the female storyteller in “The Arabian Nights,” and it made one brief foray into the Red Sea in September 2020, calling at the Egyptian port of Hurghada. But mostly it stays in Marina di Carrara, where it has been moored since last September.

Locals have their own theory about the ship’s ownership. Some have heard people onboard speaking Russian. And Scheherazade is also the title of a symphony by the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

“Everybody calls it Putin’s yacht, but nobody knows whose it is,” said Ernesto Rossi, a retired clerk who was taking a walk along the marina’s promenade on Friday. “It’s a rumor that’s been going around for months.”

In Italy, the phrase “Putin’s yacht” has become shorthand for a mysterious and ultra-luxurious ship. It’s also a joke among the dozens of crew members, Captain Bennett-Pearce said. “I’ve heard the same rumors.”

Another, smaller vessel, the Graceful, has long been tied to the Russian president and is known as “Putin’s yacht.” It was tracked leaving Germany for the Russian port of Kaliningrad just weeks before the invasion of Ukraine. (U.S. government officials point out that Mr. Putin owns little outright; many of the luxurious homes or ships he uses are owned by oligarchs.)

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to Know

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A humanitarian crisis. Increasingly indiscriminate Russian shelling has trapped and traumatized Ukrainian civilians, leaving tens of thousands without food, water, power or heat in besieged cities of southern Ukraine and elsewhere.

A third round of talks. Ukrainian and Russian delegations met for another negotiating session and agreed to try again to open humanitarian corridors for civilians leaving Ukrainian cities under attack, but made no progress on ending the war.

The key cities. Russian artillery struck residential areas in Mykolaiv but Ukrainian forces said they maintained control after another day of fierce fighting. In Kyiv, a Ukrainian commander claimed that two Russian planes were shot down. Here’s where the fighting stands in other cities.

Economic fallout. Global stocks slid and energy prices jumped as U.S. officials in Congress and the Biden administration weighed a ban on Russian oil imports that could further punish President Vladimir V. Putin but exacerbate already-high gas prices.

Mr. Putin appears to have a penchant for big pleasure boats. During his time as Russia’s leader, he’s been photographed on yachts from Russia’s northern reaches to the Black Sea in the south. Last May, he and Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, took a cruise on a yacht at the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

The Scheherazade’s builder, Lurssen Group,whose website promises customers “complete confidentiality,” declined to comment about its ownership. Until June 2020, when the completed ship left the pier in Bremen, Germany, it had the code name “Lightning.” The same company built the even bigger superyacht the Dilbar. A similar gigantic yacht, code-named “Luminance,” is now being built at Lurssen, scheduled to be completed next year.

Mr. Putin aboard a yacht last May around the Russian resort city of Sochi.Credit…Sergei Ilyin/Kremlin, via Reuters

“Of course, all orders and projects of the Lurssen Group and its subsidiaries are treated in accordance with the applicable laws and regulations,” said Oliver Grun, a company spokesman.

About 70 percent of the Scheherazade’s crew is Russian, Captain Bennett-Pearce said. And during each of the past two summers, it has sailed to Sochi, the last time in early July 2021, according to MarineTraffic, a top maritime analytics provider. The ship’s construction was managed by Imperial Yachts, a company in Monaco that, Reuters reported, manages the Amore Vero, Mr. Sechin’s seized yacht. Nick Flashman, who oversees construction of large vessels at Imperial Yachts, declined to comment.

One former crew member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nondisclosure agreement, said that shipmates called it “Putin’s yacht.” The person said the ship was manned by an international crew during “boss off” times; when it was “boss on,” the crew was replaced by an all-Russian staff. In the weeks before the Scheherazade’s 2020 trip to the Black Sea, the foreign crew was dismissed, the person said.

The former crew member supplied photos of rosters of both international and Russian crew members. The Times reached out, via social media, phone or email, to at least 17 of them. Few responded.

One of the Russians said only that he had worked on the Scheherazade, citing a nondisclosure agreement.Another person said it would be dangerous to talk. One man denied serving on the vessel; another said he hadn’t worked at sea in 25 years.

Captain Bennett-Pearce said “categorically there is not a European crew that comes on and a Russian crew that comes on.” Many of the ship’s senior officers are from Britain, New Zealand and Spain. Many international crew members were dismissedin 2020, replaced by Russians who didn’t demand the high salaries and benefits that their predecessors had, the captain said. “It came down to economics,” he said.

Given the antipathy that people outside of Russia have toward Mr. Putin, if the Russian president really were the owner or principal user of the yacht, keeping non-Russian senior crew members like him on staff would make no sense, Captain Bennett-Pearce said.

“If there’s a European crew onboard it’s the biggest smoke and mirror and the biggest risk I’ve ever heard of,” he said.

Reporting was contributed by Dmitriy Khavin, Christoph Koettl, Julian E. Barnes, Jason Horowitz, Rebecca R. Ruiz and Eric Schmitt.

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