For the first time in several years, Ben, a 36-year-old machinist in Michigan, hasn’t been pulling up Twitter first thing in the morning. Instead, he’s been checking MarineTraffic.com — an open, community-based website that tracks the real-time movement and location of ships — to see which yachts belonging to Russian billionaire oligarchs have been seized as a part of the economic sanctions placed on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. “I catch up on everything else later in the day,” he tells me. “But ever since they announced the sanctions, I can’t take my eyes away from #YachtWatch and MarineTraffic.”
To be sure, a desire to know intimate details about billionaire yachts is nothing new. Within niche communities of maritime enthusiasts and professionals, these extraordinary yachts have always been followed and discussed in great detail. In fact, many yachts have their own Wikipedia pages, and websites like SuperYachtFan.com and SuperYachtTimes.com thrive on outlining the design, specs and ownership of these multi-million dollar vessels. But for the general public to become interested in the intricacies of billionaire yacht ownership and tracking is certainly new.
To that end, Alex Finley, a former CIA officer turned author, had been researching oligarch yachts for her upcoming novel long before they caught the public’s eye. “I was already in tune with how the yachts and other assets play a role in Putin’s wider agenda,” she tells me. “But when I was kind of shitposting about Russian yachts on Twitter, no, I didn’t think it would turn into a crowdsourced global hunt for super yachts.”
Since creating the #YachtWatch hashtag, Finley says she’s seen the number of people like Ben who regularly check in on her updates of yacht seizures grow exponentially. “I’ve gained something like 20,000 followers in just a few days, and judging by the number of media inquiries, yeah, I guess people are interested,” she explains.
And more than merely observe, certain people have made contributions that help improve the public’s ability to track and absorb complex maritime information. “Some mariners have helped explain some of the more technical aspects regarding AIS [automatic identification system] and navigation and facility infrastructure, for example,” Finley says. “Others have provided great encouragement, or remind me to sleep and hydrate, which I love.”
Elsewhere, members of the #YachtWatch community have created makeshift “BINGO” cards that show pictures of yachts along with the name of the Russian billionaire to whom they belong. Others, like Jack Sweeney, a college student who recently gained notoriety for tracking Elon Musk’s private jet, created their own Twitter accounts dedicated to the pursuit. In just over a week, his @RussianYachts account has amassed over 22,000 followers after posting information about yacht ownership and location updates.
Finley reckons that there’s a sense of “heightened” schadenfreude driving the massive public interest in superyacht seizures. They’re not just watching bad things happen to bad people, they’re watching people who “supported a dictator who started a totally unprovoked war” lose their toys. “These oligarchs have supported Putin’s efforts to destabilize the West and our democratic institutions, while at the same time taking advantage of those very same democratic institutions,” she says. “Seizing the yachts feels like a little bit of justice. It sends the message that these oligarchs have to pick a side: Support the dictator or support democracy. We won’t let you do both anymore.”
With that in mind, Finley argues that a lot of people “are getting into the hunt because they feel like they’re helping a just cause.”
Plus, unlike most white-collar crime that gets prosecuted over the course of lengthy, closed-door legal battles, the seizure of superyachts has been swift and public. On March 3rd, French authorities took to Twitter to announce they had seized a 281-foot-long yacht belonging to Russian oligarch Igor Sechin. The $120 million vessel was in breach of the law after having attempted “to leave French territorial waters,” and was therefore seized and “immobilized” by French customs.
But of all the major governments cracking down on Russian yachts so far, Ben says he’s rooting for the Italians the most. “It seems like they’re the ones who aren’t pussyfooting around, pardon my French,” he says. “I don’t know what happens to the seized properties after the fact, but I feel like the Italians could end up with an army of superyachts when this is all said and done.”
So far, Italian authorities have officially seized at least two yachts belonging to Russia oligarchs Gennady Timchenko and Alexei Mordashov — Timchenko’s Lena, a 126-foot, $55-million beast, and Mordashov’s Lady M, a 213-foot, $71-million luxury monstrosity.
According to the Washington Post, MarineTraffic.com “has seen a ‘huge spike’ in interest,” with traffic reaching “a level not seen since a massive ship got stuck in the Suez Canal one year ago.” Ben says he checks the site several times a day, working his way down the curated list of oligarch yachts he’s created there. “Right now I’m watching Clio, Tango, Palladium, Nirvana and Le Grand Bleu,” he tells me. “Le Grand Bleu has been spinning in circles outside St. Martin for a few days now, so hopefully he runs out of fuel and is forced to make a decision soon.”
That’s when he’ll get the payoff he’s been waiting for: “The day I check my phone during a break and see one of my yachts being chased down or seized by government agents… I can’t even begin to imagine what that’ll feel like.”
Ultimately, though, when it comes to social media-driven justice, particularly involving the rich and powerful, it’s nearly impossible to not be cynical. Is #YachtWatch just another fleeting #ResistanceTwitter saga, yacht seizures being the latest carrot dangled in front of a terminally logged-on population fruitlessly grasping for control as the world spirals toward nuclear war? Or, could the growing interest in tracking billionaire’s yachts actually lead to systemic change?
For her part, Finley is hopeful that it’s the latter. “We arrived at this point in history partly because we in the West allowed a system that’s fueled both inequality and authoritarianism, all because businesses, politicians and the West in general were getting rich from it, too,” she explains. “I hope the mega-yacht hunt might be a wake-up call that we need to reform the system and make it more transparent.”
It’s certainly opened Ben’s eyes to the idea that wealth disparity isn’t merely a flaw in the system. “I’m not naive enough to think we don’t live in a world of haves and have-nots, but the sight of all those yachts, crowding around islands in the Caribbean like mayflies to a street lamp stopped me in my tracks,” he says. “It really struck me how they live in a different universe, where laws don’t exist.”
Ben has “read everything about the tax-dodging leaks and money in the Cayman Islands,” but if it doesn’t go over his head, it just makes him feel powerless. “There’s nothing I can do about billionaires cheating the system — all these guys have gotten away with crimes because they’re billionaires,” he concludes. “But now that I know what can happen with transparency, I like to think this is the beginning of the end for them.”