The hunt for connections between President Trump and a Russian billionaire has led to a little-known corner of the internet: websites that track the private yachts and jets of the rich.
News reports in recent weeks have highlighted some unusual patterns in the movements of a private jet and a yacht owned by the Russian fertilizer magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev.
The trips don’t prove any connection or relationship between Mr. Trump and Mr. Rybolovlev, of course. Mr. Rybolovlev — better known for his messy divorce and involvement in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit — may simply be a victim of the growing scrutiny of the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russia.
Yet during the presidential campaign, Mr. Rybolovlev’s plane and boat were in the same locations as Mr. Trump or members of his family, according to tracking data.
Mr. Rybolovlev’s private jet, for instance, landed in North Carolina last November less than two hours before Mr. Trump arrived for a campaign event, according to the McClatchy news service, which used flight-tracking data to locate the plane.
Mr. Rybolovlev’s yacht, named Anna, was also followed. The 220-foot ship was in Croatia last summer on the same days that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were vacationing there.
Mr. Rybolovlev said through Brian Cattell, a spokesman, that “Mr. Rybolovlev travels frequently to many different destinations, including destinations across the U.S. If Mr. Rybolovlev was physically in the same place as Mr. Trump at any time, this was pure coincidence.”
Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Rybolovlev’s paths have intersected before. A trust linked to Mr. Rybolovlev bought an estate in Palm Beach from Mr. Trump in 2008 for $95 million. Both men say that despite the transaction, they have never met.
What makes the stories surprising, however, is the amount of easily searchable data on the locations of Mr. Rybolovlev’s private jet and yacht. New technology, specialized websites and an army of amateur plane-spotters and yacht-watchers around the world have made it easier than ever for anyone to pinpoint a billionaire’s yacht or jet anywhere in the world and track their movements.
“It’s remarkable really,” said Jonathan Beckett, the chief executive of Burgess, a yacht brokerage and advisory firm. “Anyone can go to a website, type in a name and find an owner’s yacht. It’s a little scary.”
For the news media, wealth voyeurs and many of the rich themselves, the ability to track jets and yachts provides welcome transparency and safety benefits. But for the rich who look to their yachts and jets as cocoons of privacy, the mass of digital eyes following them represents an unwelcome intrusion and even a security threat.
“When owners step on their yacht, they want to feel totally safe,” Mr. Beckett said. “A lot of the wealthy prefer to stay under the radar.”
For the most part, yacht- and plane-spotters are more like bird-watchers — hobbyists on the lookout for rare or unusual species in unlikely locales. They loiter on marine docks, boat channels and airport access roads in hopes of spotting and photographing a yacht like Larry Ellison’s 288-foot Musashi or a jet like Paul Allen’s $70 million custom Gulfstream G650.
"Apparently there are a lot of people with nothing to do but hang out at airports and take pictures of planes and their tail numbers"
“Apparently there are a lot of people with nothing to do but hang out at airports and take pictures of planes and their tail numbers,” said Jay Duckson, a private-jet broker and adviser with Central Business Jets.
Yet the growing availability of location data has added a new level of detail to the hobby. Yachts and planes are both required by safety regulations to emit frequent location data. Increasingly, that data is aggregated by websites that let their users freely search for a particular plane or yacht by its name or registration number. The sites also upload up-to-the-minute photos of the vessels or planes that are sent in by amateurs. A quick search on Google can provide the name of a billionaire’s yacht or pictures of a plane.
Most yachts have transponders onboard that send out Automatic Identification System data, which gives the local authorities and other boats their location and navigation headings. Sites like VesselFinder.com and MarineTraffic.com ingest the data and let users type in a yacht’s name and see its most recent coordinates. For a fee, the sites will also send a history of a yacht’s movements going back years. Other sites like SuperYachtFan.comlet photographers send in updated photos and owner names for certain yachts.
Yacht owners are increasingly asking websites to remove information about their boats to protect their privacy. Some are turning off their transponders when they are onboard, according to industry experts, even though it is illegal.
“They tell us it’s a security risk,” said Demitris Memos, the chief executive of MarineTraffic. “But we’re not really giving more than what’s available to someone with a pair of binoculars.”
The Daily Kos, citing data from VesselFinder, reported that Mr. Rybolovlev’s yacht was off the coast of Croatia last August at the same time that Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner were in the country vacationing. (A spokeswoman for Ms. Trump, Risa Heller, declined to comment.)
In March, Anna was moored in the British Virgin Islands, right next to a yacht owned by Robert Mercer, a major financial contributor to the president’s campaign.
Mr. Rybolovlev’s plane has gotten even more attention. His Airbus A319, which can seat more than 150 passengers when in use by the airlines, is a favorite of plane-spotters around the world for its size and swirling silver-and-black paint scheme. Its tail identification is also memorable — M-KATE — making it easy to search for on flight-locator sites.
Using FlightAware, the flight data website, McClatchy, along with blogs and other sites, reported that Mr. Rybolovlev’s jet landed at Charlotte Douglas International Airport just five days before the November election. Less than 90 minutes later, Mr. Trump’s campaign jet landed on the same tarmac before a rally scheduled in nearby Concord, N.C. FlightAware confirms the flight data.
Mr. Cattell said that when Mr. Rybolovlev was in North Carolina, he visited a company, Alevo, in which his family trust has a holding, and “did not have any contact with Mr. Trump or his advisers.”
Unlike yachts, owners of private jets can’t turn off location data or flight paths. They can ask the Federal Aviation Administration to block their planes’ data from public view for security reasons. Wealthy travelers can also charter jets or buy fractional ownerships in part to avoid public disclosure.
“More and more private-jet owners don’t want to publicly be on the internet,” said Daniel Baker, the chief executive of FlightAware.
Mr. Baker said he gets frequent calls from jet owners around the world asking to be removed from his site, which the site honors. FlightAware also sells a special service that lets jet owners and certain members of their families track their planes, while barring the broader public from seeing the plane’s location or trip plans.
“What’s surprising is that more jet owners don’t opt out,” Mr. Duckson of Central Business Jets said. “It’s not that hard to do. Maybe after the Rybolovlev news, they will.”