As tourists in Antigua last week gazed at some of the world’s oldest sailing yachts during the island’s classic yacht regatta, local authorities were fixated on two thoroughly modern vessels.

Antiguan officials were working to establish if the ships, Garçon and Halo, belonged to Roman Abramovich, after the Financial Times revealed that the two yachts appeared to be linked to the sanctioned oligarch.

After requesting assistance from UK diplomats, the Antiguan government received a definitive answer on Thursday: authorities in the British Virgin Islands confirmed that Abramovich was the owner.

The following day, however, the law firm Ince Germany sent letters to Antiguan customs officials declaring that “Roman Abramovich is neither part of the ownership structure nor is he a beneficiary” of the two boats moored at Antigua’s Falmouth Harbour.

While Antigua has said it is still willing to seize the vessels if the UK government makes a request under their mutual legal assistance treaty, the conflicting accounts of the yachts’ ownership highlights the byzantine offshore structures that are complicating authorities’ efforts to enforce sanctions against Russian president Vladimir Putin’s alleged enablers.

The presence of Garçon and Halo on Antigua’s shores is also indicative of how these sunny island getaways have benefited from Russian oligarchs’ hulking superyachts, particularly after the pandemic throttled tourism and hit their local economies hard.

The FT was able to identify six other yachts linked to prominent businessmen born in Russia or former Soviet republics — including one oligarch also under sanctions — moored in the same harbour as the suspected Abramovich vessels last weekend.

Antiguans have grown used to the presence of these huge boats over the years, which provide some work for local maintenance crews and also custom for the beachside restaurants when the ships’ staff take their days off.

But locals cannot remember ever seeing the oligarchs themselves or their guests come ashore to experience the island.

“These are multimillion-dollar yachts with million-dollar chefs,” said one local restaurateur. “They never leave the world of their yacht — that’s the point of them.”

Financial metaverse 

If BVI records are to be believed, Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club now criss-crossing the globe as Putin’s emissary in peace talks with Ukraine, lives in “The Great Gatsby Building” in Switzerland.

This building, whose existence could not be confirmed, was listed as the oligarch’s address in a letter from the BVI’s financial investigation agency to its British counterparts, seen by the FT, which confirmed that Abramovich is the owner of the company that held the two yachts in Antigua.

Law firm Ince’s declaration to the contrary is based on the argument that BVI records have not kept up with a change in owner, according to a person familiar with the boats’ ownership structure.

On at least one occasion, Abramovich appears to have shifted assets to trusted associates in the weeks before he was sanctioned by the UK and EU, with British corporate filings showing that one of his main investment vehicles was transferred to Israeli associate David Davidovich on February 24.

Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, described the tangle of nominees and front companies that obscure the ownership of oligarchs’ assets as the “financial metaverse”.

One lawyer who represents wealthy individuals buying private jets and superyachts said that oligarchs and billionaires never own their planes or ships directly.

“They’re usually owned by a special-purpose vehicle, with the shares in that vehicle typically owned by the very rich person themselves,” he said. “But if you have someone like me involved, those shares will be owned by a trust instead.”

Last Friday, a small armada of Russian-linked superyachts was moored in the marina at the Antigua Yacht Club, just across from the historic harbour that was once home to Admiral Nelson’s fleet.

The vessels included the imposing black-hulled Alfa Nero, which is more than 80-metres long and valued at $85mn-$95mn, according to VesselsValue. The maritime data service identified the boat as belonging to Andrey Guryev, the chief executive of Russian fertiliser group PhosAgro, who was last month added to the EU’s sanctions list of businessmen close to the Kremlin.

Three people with knowledge of the superyacht industry also said that the superyacht belonged to Guryev. The owner of the boat is listed as a BVI company called Flying Dutchman Overseas Limited in maritime database Equasis, with a search of BVI records offering little clue to the entity’s ultimate owner.

In 2015, a spokesman for Guryev told the New Yorker that the oligarch did not own the boat, but “charters the Alfa Nero on a regular basis”. Guryev declined to comment to the FT.

Alfa Nero has since departed Antigua’s shores, with VesselsValue tracking it to nearby Anguilla on Monday.

Ghost ships and skeleton crews

Collectively valued at less than $60mn, Garçon and Halo are a rounding error in the $1bn five-yacht fleet that the FT last week identified as linked to Abramovich.

But one person who has been aboard several sanctioned oligarchs’ yachts said that the two boats moored in Antigua both acted as support vessels for the far larger Eclipse superyacht, with Garçon containing extensive medical facilities if the oligarch’s guests needed any treatment.

“I know the people who manage Abramovich’s boats and they’re all upside down, there’s just a skeleton crew left, enough to move them around,” he said. “Even the guys who are not sanctioned, their boats are effectively frozen too, because they’re struggling to pay the crews as well — the correspondent banks are rejecting any payments from Russia.”

Crew members from one of the Russian-owned yachts in Antigua told the FT that they had been stuck on the island for weeks and did not know when they would leave.

“Our guy still has access to money, but the money got cut off for those other boats,” said one crew member. “No one could or would send money. Whole teams didn’t get paid and now these huge boats are being run by a few guys from management trying to keep things ticking over.” 

It is a far cry from the years when few oligarchs were sanctioned, when Antiguan locals say that superyacht crews would often empty entire supermarkets to replenish huge onboard larders, with the “out of stock” signs left behind indicating that a new yacht had docked.

More sinister were the sightings of automatic weapons carried by security guards and even shots fired over approaching local boats. Now, locals instead talk of unpaid fuel bills from some boats stretching into the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

“Look, the world is crazy right now, people are dying right now as we speak,” said one of the crew members of the Russian yacht, who had gathered to watch the sunset from the jetty last Friday. “For a long time these oligarchs had whatever they wanted. But all that’s changed now.”

Additional reporting from Nastassia Astrasheuskaya

​Letter in response to this article:

How could I possibly have mislaid my megayachts? / From Stephen Horwitz, Bethesda, MD, US

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