Some yachts just can't seem to stay out of the headlines. Phocea, aka La Vie Claire and Club Mediterranee, is one of those and it's no different today, creating much controversy on the wharves and in the corridors of power in Vanuatu.
Phocea at her grandest
Phocea was built in Toulon in 1976 for the well-reputed, single-handed yachtsman Alain Colas, who called her Club Mediterranee. Even her launching was spectacular. As the largest sailing boat in the world at the time, they had no way of turning her, so she started life with a bang/splash, upside down. She was given four masts, each Bermuda rigged, and was made so long in an effort to give her more speed.
She competed in a Trans-Atlantic race for Colas, coming disappointingly second. As punishment, she was fitted out with an interior and banished to the other side of the world, to sail around French Polynesia as a charter yacht. Then, dramatically, her owner Alain Colas disappeared at sea in 1978 just off the Azores whilst racing in the Route du Rhum aboard another sailing vessel.
But her glamour was only increased by these bizarre events. In 1982 French business man Bernard Tapie bought her and had her converted to a private yacht at great expense. Tapie christened her Phocea, in honour of the Phoenicians who founded Marseilles where she was refitted. During the refit, the hull was extended to 74.20 metres and the masts by 6 metres. Interior designer Jacques Pierrejean decorated the Phocea in a strong, bold 1970’s design with a lot of colour and incorporated nine guest areas, including an owner’s suite, a hairdressing salon, a dining room, an office and accommodation for a crew of 18.
So far so good - she's still in the headlines as the largest yacht in the world, now a luxury yacht, sailed by the high profile charismatic businessman and politician, Tapie, who was also and occasional actor, singer, and TV host. For a time she was known as La Vie Claire, after his chain of health clubs. But Tapie was to become even more high profile - in the worst possible way - when his star was exploded by allegations of corruption and fraud and he went to jail for a time. Later he also lost most of his money.
However, Phocea's star was still rising, because in 1997 her allure was enhanced when she was bought by none other than Mouna Ayoub, ultra-glamorous French socialite, made rich by her divorce from a high-born adviser to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Nasser Al-Rashid.
To renovate the boat she had to sell one of her diamonds, the largest yellow diamond in the world, and several other lesser jewels to pay for the $17 million refit. The builder modernized the yacht and sail systems and upgraded the engineering to become state of the art. In 1999, a refurbished Phocea left the yard with a rigging that had no equal in the world.
But bad times were coming. In 2004, the Athena was launched by American billionaire Jim Clark, longer, newer, smarter, more high tech.
Obviously devastated about her fall from the pinnacle, in 2005 Phocea wasn't watching what she was doing and crashed into rocks off Sardinia while the Prince and Princess Michael of Kent were aboard. Three people were seriously injured, and the yacht was damaged below the waterline.
Obviously Mouna Ayoub would have been seriously distressed by the shock to her famous guests, but there's no record of whether that is the reason that she sold the yacht soon after.
Now Phocea's story becomes a little darker, because exactly who bought her from Ayoub is not clear. Although she remained formally flagged to the land-locked Duchy of Luxembourg, she was reputed to be owned by a Thai national, Anh Quan, who, this year, became a Vanuatu citizen.
As for Phocea, she sailed from Italy through the Panama Canal, to Tonga and arrived in Vila nearly in July.
Then the plot thickened, and the Phocea was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Questions were raised about what the Phocea had on board, with dark implications about drugs and illegal arms.
In August she was raided by Vanuatu authorities on suspicion of drug smuggling and passport fraud and 13 of her crew members arrested. Owner Pascal Anh Quan Saken, at the time on the way to becoming Vanuatu's Honorary Consul to Vietnam, left the country just before the raid, but the vessel was impounded and has been in Vanuatu ever since.
Then the policeman who started the investigation was suspended, and it was reported in the local Vanuatu press that two ministers of the government went on board the vessel without customs clearance.
The story then degenerates into claim and counter-claim of fraud and deception by both police and local politicians.
This week sources close to Vanuatu's Ports and Marine say $40,000 has been set aside in an out-of-court agreement for the yacht to be allowed to leave Port Vila harbour.
Yachting experts say if Phocea is put on sale, Vanuatu could get more than six million dollars, a paltry sum, given the amount spent on the yacht.
Vanuatu authorities have already spent more than $200,000 in their investigations into the super yacht, which is expected to sail shortly to beat the cyclone season.
The Prime Minister Sato Kilman has instructed that Anh Quan's diplomatic passport be cancelled.
So Phocea is still gorgeous, still dragging in the headlines, and maybe, just maybe, for sale!
Phocea dining 2
About the Phocea:
Phocea is a 75.15m (246'6'ft) sailing yacht. She was last refitted in 2000, but her interior was designed by Beiderbeck Designs.
This luxury yacht has a steel hull with a aluminium superstructure, a beam of 9.57m (31'4'ft) and a 6.13m (20'1'ft) draft. She features bow thrusters to assist manoeuvrability at low speeds. Phocea is built to comply to MCA and ABS standards.
Phocea offers accommodation for up to 12 guests in 6 suites comprising 1 owner cabin, 1 VIP cabin, 2 double cabins, 2 twin cabins. She is also capable of carrying up to 15 crew onboard to ensure a relaxed luxury yacht experience.