Grand Ambition: An Extraordinary Yacht, the People Who Built It, and the Millionaire Who Can't Really Afford Itby G. Bruce Knecht
G. Bruce Knecht, former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and author of The Proving Ground and Hooked, describes the creation of an outsized yacht in a sweeping narrative centered on the men and women who made it happen.
DOUG VON ALLMEN, a self-made man who grew up in a landlocked state dreaming of the ocean, was/b>/b>/i>/i>/i>/i>
G. Bruce Knecht, former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and author of The Proving Ground and Hooked, describes the creation of an outsized yacht in a sweeping narrative centered on the men and women who made it happen.
DOUG VON ALLMEN, a self-made man who grew up in a landlocked state dreaming of the ocean, was poised to build a 187-foot yacht that would cost $40 million. Lady Linda would not be among the very largest of the burgeoning fleet of oceangoing palaces, but Von Allmen vowed that it would be the best one ever made in the United States. Nothing would be ordinary. The interior walls would be made from rare species of burl wood, the floors paved with onyx and exotic types of marble, the furniture custom made, and the art specially commissioned.
But the 2008 economic crisis changed everything. Von Allmen’s lifestyle suddenly became unaffordable. Then it got worse: desperate to reverse his losses, he fell for an audacious Ponzi scheme. Would Von Allmen be able to complete Lady Linda? Would the shipyard and its one thousand employees survive the financial meltdown?
The divide between the very rich and everyone else had never been greater, yet the livelihoods of the workers, some of them illegal immigrants, and the yacht owners were inextricably intertwined. In a sweeping, high-stakes narrative, the critically acclaimed author of The Proving Ground and Hooked weaves Von Allmen’s story together with those of the men and women who are building his yacht. As the pursuit of opulence collides with the reality of economic decline, everyone involved in the massive project is forced to rethink the meaning of the American Dream.
"Reads like a novel of suspense and financial intrigue, proving that fact is often stranger and more unbelievable than fiction. A great read and a cautionary tale for all of us whose ambitions exceed our means.”
"Bruce Knecht is my kind of reportera master storyteller with a great eye for the tales of our time. Grand Ambition is centered around the building of a huge yacht, but it is ultimately about our bipolar societythe rarefied lifestyles of the very, very rich and the day-to-day realities of blue-collar laborers who have never worked indoors or been paid more than $20 an hour."
"Knecht deftly tells a tale of craftsmanship and conspicuous consumption, and he challenges us to think about the boundary separating ambition and hubris, creativity and narcissism. Above all, he paints compelling portraits of the dedicated craftsmen who designed and built her."
"If this lively book doesn't 'lift your boat,' nothing will!"
- Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt
Give us the luxuries of life, and we will dispense with its necessities.
—JOHN LOTHROP MOTLEY,
AMERICAN HISTORIAN AND DIPLOMAT (1814–1877)
IN JUNE 2007 the Von Allmens and several executives from Trinity Yachts were among those who traveled to Monaco, the city-state synonymous with wealth and yachting, for a glittering celebration. They gathered in the Sporting Club de Monte Carlo’s ballroom—a large space best known for the way its retractable ceiling can be rolled back to reveal the sky—to honor the most noteworthy megayachts launched during the previous year. As waiters weaved through the room while balancing silver trays freighted with slender flutes of champagne, a powerful sound system pumped out the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ hit song “Can’t Stop.”
The evening resembled the Academy Awards, or even more, the Golden Globes, with guests sitting down to several courses of food and wine before the presentation of fourteen prizes. The Von Allmens would win one for the interior design of a yacht they already owned: Linda Lou, a 197-footer that Lürssen, a German shipyard, had delivered to them a few months earlier. They were standing near the center of the room, chatting with several friends who had joined them on the yacht for a cruise that had taken them from Barcelona to the French Riviera before they arrived in Monaco a few days earlier.
When Von Allmen spotted John Dane III, Trinity’s president and primary owner, he waved him over to talk about Lady Linda’s construction schedule. Von Allmen knew the $10,000-a-day delay penalty was almost impossible to enforce. Just before the party, he explained why: “Every time you make a design change, they say, ‘That’s going to add another two weeks to the completion date.’ You can say to them, ‘Hold on: you’re saying that if we change one faucet, it means that it’s going to hold up the whole job for two weeks?’ They say, ‘Yeah, well, there’s a lot more involved with that faucet than you think.’ So every time you sign a change order, they get another two-week extension.” Von Allmen also knew Trinity was under tremendous pressure because of the number of yachts it had agreed to build and also because of its move to Gulfport, where it was struggling to reassemble its workforce.
“Listen, I know how many boats you have going,” Von Allmen said to Dane, “and I don’t know how you’re going to do it!”
“We’ll be okay—”
“I’m sure you will be, but let’s come up with a schedule for my boat that’s realistic, so we don’t end up playing the game.”
“Yeah, I know what you’re saying,” Dane said. “Let me take a look at it and get back to you.”
THE IMPORTANCE of the awards that would be distributed reached beyond their recipients. This was reflected by the audience of more than five hundred, which included members of the megayacht economy’s vast supporting cast: designers, builders, brokers, bankers, insurers, and lawyers.
Between two large round tables that were covered by royal blue tablecloths and an array of glasses, Ron Holland, a veteran designer, was marveling at the industry’s globalization. He had begun his career designing small sailboats in his native New Zealand but was now based in Ireland, creating plans for vessels many times larger. One was Mirabella V, a 247-foot sloop that had been the world’s biggest privately owned sailboat until venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who was also in the room, built an even bigger one. Holland had just returned from China, where several new yacht builders had sprung up almost overnight and where he was overseeing the construction of a 150-foot boat for a German client. “The quality of the work there is very good,” he told David Ross, the president of Burger Boat Company, a builder located on the shore of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin.
Ross said the market was growing so rapidly that he was not worried about competition from China. “I was just in Dubai, where they are going to build docks for forty thousand yachts over the next few years,” he said. “If just one percent of them are for 150-footers, we’ll be in great shape. And then there’s the Russians: five of the seven boats we’re building right now are for Russians.”
Near the back of the room, Jim Herman, an owner of an Australian yacht builder, Warren Yachts, was complaining about how the falling value of the American dollar was making it difficult to sell boats in the United States, but he was bursting with optimism nonetheless. “The industry is just exploding,” he declared. “There are more orders—and the boats are getting bigger and bigger. Is it a bubble? I don’t think so. I think the market is only going to get stronger.”
Following dinner, Jill Bobrow, the editor of Show-Boats International, the glossy magazine that sponsored the night’s festivities, stepped onto the stage to present the awards. The first, for “Outstanding Achievement in a Motor Yacht,” which was considered a lifetime-achievement award, went to Lady Anne, the ninth in a series of ever-larger yachts owned by Jerome Fisher.
Fisher had made his fortune after he identified a huge source of unfulfilled demand in the women’s shoe market back in the 1970s: the shoes that appeared on the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar—the ones the fashion czars praised and to which many women aspired—were so expensive as to be out of reach for most consumers, and there were no low-cost alternatives. Setting up manufacturing facilities in Brazil, Fisher began producing fashionable footwear at radically lower prices. He later founded Nine West, a retailer that was soon selling one out of every five pairs of women’s shoes in the United States.
When it came to building his latest yacht, Fisher had not taken a low-cost approach. The 225-foot vessel had a crew of twenty-two and eight different areas where as many as a dozen people could sit down for a meal. The interior spaces were inspired by the grand salons of the great transatlantic liners of the 1920s and 1930s.
Before they accepted the prize, Fisher and his wife, Anne, invited close to twenty people to join them on the stage. Then Anne, an architect who had planned the interior with the help of an Italian designer, went to the lectern, put on a pair of glasses, and began reading from typewritten remarks to describe the contributions of each member of the assemblage. By the time she got to the lawyer, the audience broke out in laughter. Looking up from her papers, Anne spoke sternly: “No no, the lawyer is very important—really.” That was as specific as she got, but several people in the audience thought they understood the reference: in spite of what Von Allmen said about the unlikelihood that a shipyard would pay a penalty for a tardy delivery, the Fishers’ lawyer apparently had extracted a substantial settlement from the shipyard that built Lady Anne.
Steve Rattner, the forty-six-year-old head of the merchant banking group at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, won the award for the best “refit” of a yacht. To better meet the needs of his young children, he had rebuilt a yacht that was originally launched in 2002. The “swimming platform” at the stern had been expanded, as had storage compartments for the “toys”: Jet Skis, kayaks, and a pair of small sailboats. Rattner was obviously thrilled with the result: the 168-foot-long Helios 2. “We love the lifestyle,” he declared from the stage, “and we love the people you meet, everyone from the nineteen-year-old Australian deckhand to the billionaire. I can’t imagine living without it.”
The biggest winner of the evening was Tom Perkins, who was honored for his Maltese Falcon, the largest of the yachts being celebrated and the only one powered by sail. Inspired by nineteenth-century clipper ships, “the Falcon,” as Perkins called it, carried three carbon fiber masts, each of them close to twenty stories high. But its size was not the boat’s most remarkable feature. In his professional life, Perkins had provided start-up capital to several companies that had transformed their industries—among them Genentech, Netscape, Google, and Amazon.com—and his yacht was also revolutionary. Unique among large sailing vessels, its enormous masts rotated to harness the wind more efficiently. That meant the masts were not supported by any kind of rigging. During the design phase, many had pronounced that impossible, and Perkins, a self-described “tech nerd,” had played a central role in developing technologies that proved the skeptics wrong.
Perkins had taken an equally untraditional approach to the yacht’s interior, insisting that it be sleekly modern and have an “open plan” and walls expansive enough to display large contemporary paintings. With glass panels that revealed the base of the masts and polished stone and metal floors, the vessel’s interior looked less like a sailing yacht than something out of Star Wars.
Show-Boats is an industry publication, the cheerleading kind that inevitably focuses on the positives, but it was clear that Jill Bobrow, who had been editing yacht magazines for thirty years, was genuinely impressed. When Perkins made his way to the stage to pick up his fourth prize of the evening, she declared, “The Maltese Falcon is, quite simply, the most extraordinary yacht I have ever seen.”
A few minutes later, a band that had been flown in from California began to play, and someone pressed a button to retract the ceiling. The group played an evocative blend of rock, jazz, and blues, and had a name that seemed completely out of sync with the rest of the festivities—“Big Dume”—but as the guests tilted back their heads to see the stars, it seemed, at least for the yacht owners and their facilitators, like the sky really was the only limit.
THE AWARDS made up just part of four days of celebration. One of the other highlights was a “yacht hop,” a kind of progressive cocktail party during which owners and other guests wandered among the several hundred million dollars’ worth of vessels docked along the eastern edge of Monte Carlo’s main harbor. While not every owner joined the fun—Lady Anne was situated at one end of the pier, and a uniformed crew member was stationed at the head of its gangplank to make it clear that the Fishers had other plans—most did.
The crew at the yacht next to the Lady Anne, a 270-foot-long monster called Floridian, were particularly welcoming. Built by Greg Norman, the Australian pro golfer, the yacht was originally named Aussie Rules, and it carried a 42-foot sport-fishing boat called No Rules, along with a fleet of smaller recreational vessels and more than two hundred fishing rods. Norman had paid $70 million for the yacht and sold it for $90 million a few years later. Wayne Huizenga, the new owner, had founded three companies that became the dominant force of their industries—Waste Management, Block-buster Video, and AutoNation. Huizenga renamed the yacht, painted the hull green, and replaced the platform that held the fishing boat with a landing pad for a twelve-seat helicopter. The helicopter was also green, and its tail carried the logo of the Miami Dolphins, which Huizenga co-owned. He was not on board for the party, but his son Wayne Jr. was a gracious host, pointing the way to the bar and a seafood buffet where the crab cakes were particularly popular.
The next yacht, Alysia, was even bigger. The 279-footer had eighteen guest cabins and a crew of thirty-six. Andreas Liveras, a Cyprus-born shipping magnate, had built Alysia, as well as an almost identical sister ship, Annaliesse, with the idea that he would then be able to charter each of them for $900,000 a week, exclusive of fuel and food, or sell them to someone who did not want to wait to have a megayacht built from scratch. He hit the jackpot with Annaliesse, which he sold to the ruler of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. The sheik already owned the world’s largest yacht, a 532-foot vessel that was originally commissioned by the younger brother of the sultan of Brunei, Prince Jefri Bolkiah. Sheik Mohammed had bought that vessel when it was still under construction in 2001, renamed it Dubai, and redesigned its interior so the top two of its seven decks would be reserved for his personal use. The other decks contained fifty guest suites and space for a crew of 115. Dubai was still being refurbished when the sheik bought Annaliesse. According to Billy Smith, Trinity’s top salesman, who was participating in the yacht hop, “The sheik didn’t want to wait, so Andreas earned a very substantial profit”—at least $30 million.
Farther down the dock sat Ambrosia, a 213-footer that belonged to Ambrose Young. The Hong Kong–based businessman stood out from the other owners, and not just because he was the only Asian among them. The contrast was particularly apparent when Von Allmen stepped on board wearing pale yellow pants and a lightweight checked jacket over a blue dress shirt—about the norm for most of the yacht hoppers. Ambrose was in all black, from his snug-fitting T-shirt to his stocking feet.
“Hi, I am your neighbor,” Von Allmen said to Young, explaining that he owned Linda Lou, the next yacht down the dock.
Ambrosia’s owner, preoccupied by a discussion with a member of his crew about the need for a lamb—a whole lamb—that he wanted to procure for a dinner he was planning, managed only a half-hearted handshake before turning away.
ONE DAY after the yacht hop, Jim and Nancy Baldwin were aboard their yacht, Triton, and sitting at a banquette that was adjacent and open to the galley. While most owners strove to create an upstairs-downstairs-like distance between themselves and their crew, the Baldwins had designed theirs to make it easier to chat with crew members, two of whom were then preparing a lobster salad.
Triton was a 163-foot “expedition yacht” outfitted with equipment for every imaginable type of adventure. Because Baldwin was an avid deep-sea fisherman, a crow’s nest, the kind of open-air platform that was usually found on fishing boats, towered above the rest of the yacht. Reached by a small, unenclosed elevator, it could be used to spot fish, and it contained a helming station from which the yacht could be steered toward targets. On the main deck, a pair of fish-fighting chairs were mounted near the stern. If Baldwin hooked a big one, a 24-foot boat could be launched even as Triton was under way, allowing Baldwin to move from the mother ship to the more agile smaller craft without ever losing possession of his rod, a requirement under the rules of the International Game Fish Association.
Triton also carried a helicopter to facilitate onshore adventures. During a recent trip to Alaska, Baldwin told his guests to be on deck at seven o’clock one morning because they would be “going out for breakfast.” Flying to a high-altitude meadow, the guests discovered that the crew had set up a table and chairs in a field of blooming spring flowers. After they enjoyed their bacon and eggs, the helicopter hauled the guests—and several kayaks—to the side of a fast-moving river. From there they paddled their way downstream to the bay, where Triton was anchored.
After lunch, Baldwin went to Triton’s main salon and switched on a television. He wanted to play the video that had been shot during a chopper trip to another Alaskan river. “We read about it in National Geographic—it’s supposed to have more grizzlies than just about anywhere else,” he explained. Once the video got going, it became apparent that some of the adventurers, including Nancy, who was operating the camera, had been on one side of the narrow river while others were standing on the opposite bank when five bears, including a mother trailed by her cub, loped down the middle of the river. “One false move, and it could have been all over,” Baldwin said with a laugh. “I couldn’t breathe.”
Even Triton’s Mediterranean cruises contained elements of adventure. On the way to Monte Carlo, the helicopter had been in action almost every day, taking the Baldwins to mountains for high-altitude walks and to vineyards for tastings. But the Mediterranean was not the Baldwins’ favorite cruising ground, and Monaco was far from their favorite port. They preferred places where theirs was the only yacht.
There were, Baldwin admitted, risks to his style of yachting. They had cruised through the Indonesian archipelago, where machine gun–wielding pirates were common. The Egyptian navy once fired shots across Triton’s bow because it had inadvertently entered a military zone. But Baldwin was undaunted. From Monaco he was making plans to head to Turkey, through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea, and around the Arabian Peninsula to enter the Persian Gulf. Asked if it made sense to sail through a body of water that was close to a war zone and ridden with pirates, Baldwin waved his hand dismissively. “We don’t have time to wait,” he said. “There is no dress rehearsal for life.”
LATER THAT AFTERNOON, Von Allmen was sitting in Linda Lou’s sky lounge. It was a stifling summer day but cool and absolutely silent on board. Looking across the harbor, he could see the promontory on which the royal palace was situated and the standard that was flying to indicate that Monaco’s crown prince was in residence. He could also see Ambrosia. Obviously miffed by the short shrift he had been given by its owner, he claimed to be unimpressed by the yacht. “They were obviously working to a tight budget,” he said. “There are a lot of things that are just not right.”
Opening his laptop computer, Von Allmen examined the latest drawings of Lady Linda’s exterior profile, which Evan Marshall had sent the day before. He was pleased to see his swooping windows but troubled by a decorative protrusion from the superstructure that started near the bow and ran toward the midsection of the boat, where it curved upward and disappeared. Sweeping his finger across the computer screen in a more extended arc to indicate what he believed would be a much better course for the curved protuberance, he said he was surprised that this was not obvious to Marshall. He was also frustrated because Marshall’s drawings did not incorporate the large windows that Von Allmen had wanted for the master stateroom. “It looks to me like the top of the windows he’s drawn would be at my eye level when I stand in the cabin. That’s no good!”
Meet the Author
G. Bruce Knecht is a former senior writer and foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Author of The Proving Ground: The Inside Story of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race and Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish, he has also written for The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, and Conde Nast Traveler. An avid sailor, Knecht raced across the Atlantic in 2005 on the yacht that broke the 100-year-old transatlantic race record. He lives in New York City.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This is a very interesting look into the construction of the mega-yacht Lady Linda constructed at the Trinity ship yards. Written in a chronological order, the story follows a variety of people involved in the construction. As I read the first couple of chapters, I was concerned this book might turn into a social expose on the differences between a rich owner and the poor downtrodden workers who toiled to build him his toy. In reality, this book painted a very real perspective of the challenges that faced everyone involved without making any value judgments or painting with bias. But this isn't written like a documentary - it is a well written story that flows like fiction but with real-world facts and events that make it compelling. Though not a "who done it" kind of mystery, there is definitely a sense of "what is gonna' happen next"... which makes this book for a fun read. I pushed through this in a couple of days and really enjoyed the story. If I were considering building a super-yacht or mega-yacht, I would read this book... and then reach out to a professional project manager to ensure my build doesn't encounter what Von Allmen went through on this project. For those of who will never build a $40M yacht, this book is a great way to live the process without the pain.
Doug Von Allman wants to build a yacht—not necessarily the biggest one ever made, but definitely the best one ever made in the US. In an era when the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, having a yacht was freedom, privacy, and most of all a status symbol. Yachts cost millions of dollars. The BEST yacht, in this case, is projected to cost $40 million. The people working on the yachts are comprised of union metalworkers, mural artists, marble importers, custom furniture makers, rare woods workers. The people involved in the yacht industry include the builders, the yacht salespeople, and most of all the owners. This book reads like a story! Here is what I liked about it: 1) I learned a lot about yachts. I always love it when a writer can make a subject that I know nothing about, fascinating. The cost to maintain a yacht each year is roughly 10% of it's purchase price, who knew? There are multiple yachts bigger than 400 feet. Many yachts have garages with other, smaller, boats inside them! 2) I learned a lot about the work that goes into building a yacht—the weeks of work that goes into painting murals, or selecting expensive sections of exotic woods for walls and furniture. There were several portraits of the unique craftsmen as well as the laborers. 3) Doug Von Allman was scammed into a Ponzi scheme—this was really interesting. I've already ordered 2 more of the author's books—which is pretty much the best kudos I can give an author!