Ship of Fools

In early January, fans and owners of ETAP yachts, one of the most revered brands in modern watercraft, noticed something peculiar on the official ETAP Yachting website. Although new ETAPs haven’t been produced or sold commercially in the U.S. since early 2009, when the Belgian yacht company that designed and built the classic ships for just under four decades declared bankruptcy, the site appeared to have been updated recently. First there was the theme music, “The Last Farewell” by Roger Whittaker, with lyrics about “death and darkness” and “guns on fire as we sail into hell.” Even more distressing, on the site’s front page, just below the photo gallery of ETAPs being enjoyed by their owners, there was an ominous paragraph that began with the headline “How to survive 2012?” The text warned of a “tidal wave” that could only be escaped if “present and future owners” of ETAP yachts worked together to save enough people “to start a new civilization.” (Last week, it was moved to the website’s news section.)

ETAP

On several yachting online forums, there was speculation and confusion over what had happened. Some wondered “whether the ETAP site had been hacked.” Others joked that “ETAP’s marketing department must be getting desperate in this recession.” “What do they mean?” one member asked on the ETAP Owners’ Association Forum. “Recession? End of the Euro? Armageddon? Some kind of Belgium Humour??” Those who delved deeper into ETAP’s revamped site found links to an even more disturbing website by Patrick Geryl, a Belgian author and doomsday proselytizer. By Geryl’s estimation, a reversal of the planet’s magnetic field should be happening right around the time that the Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012, leading to (in his words) “nothing but horror, pure unimaginable horror.” Horrors like a worldwide nuclear meltdown, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, and of particular interest to ETAP owners, a massive tidal wave and flooding of biblical proportions.

The paragraph featured on ETAP’s website was lifted verbatim from Geryl’s site. And it isn’t even the most flattering thing he’s written about the 40-year-old yachting institution. In his 2007 book How to Survive 2012, Geryl’s enthusiasm for all things ETAP reads suspiciously like a sales pitch. “ETAP is the only producer in the world of comfortable, unsinkable yachts,” he wrote. “Should my books finally succeed in inspiring the masses to take action, and if you have hesitated too long, you will never be able to get such a yacht.”

Geryl, who lives in Antwerp, Belgium and boasts of giving over 100 TV interviews about his apocalyptic theories last year alone, insists that he wasn’t paid for his promotion. “I only do it because they are the best and there are no alternatives,” he says. “This is for the survival of humanity, not to make a profit.” He admits, however, that he probably won’t be on an ETAP yacht during the calamitous events of this coming December. “I get very easily sea-sick,” he laughs. “Boats are not my cup of tea.” Instead, he says, he plans to ride out the storm in a small bunker in the mountains of Drakensberg, South Africa.

Geryl’s relationship with ETAP began several years ago, when he discussed the boats on several TV news shows in Europe (none of which he can recall) with representatives of MIC Industries, the Lokere, Belgium-based company that currently owns the ETAP brand. (Prior to getting into the yachting business, MIC specialized in the manufacture of compressors, generators, wind-turbines, and welding equipment, among other things.) Toni De Pape, the manager at MIC Industries, sees nothing unusual about featuring all ETAP endorsements on its website, even if they happen to be from survivalists. “Everybody who has something positive to say about ETAP, we will mention them,” he says. “It is a logical thing to do in companies.” He says that it was not MIC’s intention to make Geryl the new unofficial spokesperson for ETAP, but he concedes that “whatever helps our brand is okay with us.”

It’s a bizarre second chapter for one of the most acclaimed and beloved yachting brands in recent history. Founded in 1970 by Norbert Joris, a Belgian entrepreneur who also produced industrial lighting equipment, ETAP boats were universally praised as innovative and ahead of their time. (The company’s name dates back to its days as a lighting supplier and stands for, in English, Electro-Technical Apparatus.) They featured a unique hull-within-a-hull design; essentially, the boat had two skins, with the gap in between filled with a nonporous polyurethane foam, making it impossible for the inner hull to fill with water. It’s a design concept that won more than a few accolades, including Yacht magazine’s coveted Innovation Prize in 2006.

But as the company’s reputation grew, so did their ambition. “They started making bigger and bigger boats,” says David Morris, the director of yacht sales at Tollesbury Marina in Essex, U.K. and an ETAP agent for 12 years. “And the volume of sales started to decrease. They just weren’t able to cover the costs.” The company was bought by German yacht-building shipyard Dehler in 2008, who went bankrupt just eight months after the takeover. MIC Industries purchased the ETAP name in March of 2009 (for an undisclosed sum), including all the original factory molds and design instructions. Rebuilding the brand should have been easy, according to Morris. “The people at MIC are engineers,” he says, “so they were the perfect company to manufacture boats. The original ETAP builders were so meticulous, in terms of drawings and detailed instructions, right down to the exact number of washers that were needed to build the boats, that almost anyone could duplicate it.” And yet, he says, after several years of promises and encouraging emails, MIC has not built any boats, and Morris doesn’t expect them to begin anytime soon. “They’ve not filled us boat dealers with any confidence at all,” he says. “It’s really quite sad what’s become of the ETAP brand.”

Toni De Pape tells a very different story. “We are continuing,” he says of the company’s ETAP production. “Never have we thought anything about stopping.” He claims that the delays in ETAP availability was the result of a factory roof collapsing under heavy snow in Poland in 2010, which forced them to put production on hold. But, he says, ETAPs are back on the market, and currently available throughout Europe, India, China and, he promises, in the United States and other parts of the world “in the next weeks or months.”

If ETAP yachts are available for sale, it isn’t information they’ve shared with many of the official dealers listed on the ETAP website. Captain Jean “John” De Keyser, the owner of Yachting Vacations, a yacht brokerage in Punta Gorda, Florida, says that he’s met with representatives of MIC Industries in Belgium “on two occasions and it doesn’t look as if there has been any progress with new construction.” When David Morris, a ETAP agent in the U.K. for over a decade, hears that MIC is or will be building new ETAP boats, he just laughs. “No, I’m afraid that’s a lie,” he says. He also suspects that reports of delays because of a factory roof collapse in Poland is an exaggeration. “I know guys that went to see their factory,” he says, “and they said it never had a roof in the first place. Nothing collapsed because they never built a roof.” In his estimation, the boating side of MIC Industries is, at least at the moment, “one part-time employee in an office in an empty building in the middle of nowhere. They have nothing going on, except for that very strange website.”

And the strange website may just be the beginning. Long before anybody at MIC consented to be interviewed for this story, Geryl served as their media middleman. “I have a meeting with the people from ETAP to make the final decision,” Geryl explained in an email. “This is a serious matter and I want everything on paper before we go worldwide.” He wanted to be sure, he wrote, that they were willing “to make a serious effort” towards using their yachts for the survival of humanity. If not, he said, then they would promptly remove his quotes and ideas from their website.

The next day, another email from Geryl. “They will do it!” he wrote. Geryl had somehow convinced MIC to act as a global database, posting information on their website about dozens of ports across the world — including Holland, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Japan, Spain, Italy, and India — where current or future ETAP owners could meet and form alliances with would-be passengers to prepare for the end of the world. In a subsequent phone call, Geryl emphasized that this was in no way a marketing ploy to promote the ETAP brand. “It’s not a sales pitch to sell boats,” he said. “Only the boats that have already been sold can participate. You can also come to a port and buy a new boat, I suppose. But that depends on what ETAP has available to sell.” He laughed at the absurdity of it. “They can’t make that many boats between now and December, can you?”

According to De Pape, they anticipate a production of 200-to-300 yachts this year. And that number, he says, could increase depending on demand. The doomsday ports, he says, are just “something for our customers that could be of interest. We have a database of around 8000 customers, so it would be very easy to inform them of this.” Later, he backtracks in a follow-up email trying to distance himself and MIC from Geryl. “EtapYachting has never sponsored, nor is connected in any sense to (Patrick Geryl’s) book and publications,” he insists. As for these survival plots involving ETAP ships, De Pape writes that ETAP “has never been part of or engaged, not financially or morally.”

Geryl admits that he’s received no money from MIC, but doesn’t agree that the company is completely uninvolved. When Geryl recently produced and funded a commercial for ETAP yachts, which premiered on YouTube this month, touting an “exclusive offer” from a “company dedicated to ensuring the survival of our civilization,” he did consult with De Pape. “I asked what to put in it and which changes he wanted,” Geryl says. Two updates were made to the video before De Pape signed off on it. The finished product, which features photos from the ETAP website, provides vague instructions for avoiding the cataclysmic tidal wave in late December. “When you see the sun brightening up far more the usual,” the video scroll warns, “immediately set course to the open sea.” With the ships provided, which can comfortably hold four persons per boat, they propose to save 10,000 people, or roughly 0.00014% of the world’s population (according to 2010 World Bank estimates.) Not a lot, but according to the video, “more than enough to start a new civilization.”

The morning after Geryl insisted that the ETAP port initiative is nothing more than selfless humanitarianism, he writes another email admitting that “Maybe I am a bit naive. They must have had inquiries for these boats concerning a possible survival, and maybe even sales.” Geryl may still be finding his sea legs as a survivalist corporate shill, but MIC’s De Pape apparently has no moral dilemmas with his company’s strange bedfellows. “It is a very logical thing,” he insists. “Our boats are unsinkable. They will always stay on top of the water. This is for sure. If you want to stay afloat, you need something that stays afloat.” As for whether De Pape personally believes that the world will come to a violent, crashing end, perhaps by a gigantic tidal wave, he’s hesitant to answer. “Let me be frank,” he says. “I am no specialist in that. Even if it was 95% certain that the world could collapse next month, I think for myself, I would just be practical. You continue to come to work every day. You work today and tomorrow. There is the long term and the short term. Today is the short term. You work tomorrow and then the next day and then the next week. What comes after that is not mine to say.”

As for ETAP dealer De Keyser, he’s not holding his breath, either for the end of the world or new ETAP boats. But he still has one used ETAP for sale on his lot, originally listed at the low price of $119,000. After viewing the ETAP commercial on YouTube, De Keyser says he’s reconsidering his options. “If anyone takes this seriously,” he laughs, “then mine is for rent for $250,000 in December. Charter fee payable in gold ingots.”

(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the February 23rd, 2012 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.)