Grand Ambition: An Extraordinary Yacht, the People Who Built It, and the Millionaire Who Can't Really Afford It

Grand Ambition: An Extraordinary Yacht, the People Who Built It, and the Millionaire Who Can't Really Afford It

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by G. Bruce Knecht
     
 

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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

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With a love for the sea and sailing, Knecht, a former senior writer and foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, tells the story of tricked-out yacht Lady Linda, a gigantic ship which cost a fortune to build and controlled the fate of the rich man who loves it. The lavish construction of such a yacht required the dream of big-spender Doug Van Allmen, a wealthy private equity investor, and a colorful cast of characters such as Evan Marshall, the influential Brit yacht designer; Gale Tribble, the prideful shipfitter; and Mitch Davies, the steady New Zealand builder. Knecht reveals the demands of high society and luxury, where Van Allmen's big losses amid the recent economic downturn opened him up for a corrupt Ponzi scheme. Regardless of the challenges presented by the cost and construction of Lady Linda, Van Allmen's grand vision comes true, with all of its custom-made treasures and accessories, and the result of its well-earned triumph makes the book required reading for those who dream big with the grit and persistence to make it happen. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“Illuminative and utterly engaging.”

"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 reporter—a 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 society—the 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!"

Nelson DeMille

"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.”
Tom Brokaw

"Bruce Knecht is my kind of reporter--a 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 society--the 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."
Steve Forbes

"If this lively book doesn't 'lift your boat,' nothing will!"
Kirkus Reviews
A meticulous account of the building of one of the largest American-made yachts since the Gilded Age. Royal families have long enjoyed large pleasure vessels, writes former Wall Street Journal senior writer Knecht (Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish, 2006, etc.). In modern times, yachts have been the playthings of Russian oligarchs, Greek shipping magnates and Arabian sheiks. In the United States, the leisure vessels became a hallmark for a new kind of nobility, including J.P. Morgan, in the gilded 1890s and remain so for today's self-made entrepreneurs. This readable account tells the story of a former milkman's son, Doug Von Allmen, now a successful private equity investor in his late 60s, and his experience building a mammoth $40 million, 187-foot yacht. Knecht vividly renders the construction process. He describes the work and lives of the shipfitters, welders and others who joined thousands of pieces of metal in a noisy Gulfport, Miss., yard; the yacht owner's dealings with the boat designer and builder; and the complex steps required to install air conditioning, finish surfaces, create a huge mural for the stairwell, etc. Beyond his tale of luxury shipbuilding, the author provides an intriguing study of the wealthy and overreaching Von Allmen, who hoped to make the Lady Linda the "best-ever American-built yacht" and the "ultimate embodiment of his success." As the investor contemplated interior designs two years into the project, the 2008 financial meltdown imposed serious new constraints. While cutting expenditures in his Manhattan and Florida residences, Von Allmen tried to overcome losses by investing (and losing) more than $100 million in an elaborate Ponzi scheme. He now hopes to sell or charter the yacht, delivered three years late. Revealing and well-written.
author of A Man and His Ship - Steven Ujifusa
"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 Lady Linda."
Houston Chronicle
“The pacing and the narrative hold your interest, and you find yourself engrossed.”
The Wall Street Journal
“Illuminative and utterly engaging.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781416576006
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
03/05/2013
Pages:
244
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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.

Read an Excerpt

Grand Ambition


  • THE ALARM clock next to Gale Tribble’s bed came alive with a blast of country music at 4:15 a.m. An ashtray holding the remains of the previous night’s final cigarette was balancing on top of the clock, so he was careful as he reached to turn off the radio. Then came a more insistent alarm, his cell phone, programmed to ring at 4:16. Hoisting himself from the bed, Tribble shuffled across the cluttered bedroom and opened a door that led directly into the kitchen, where he switched on a coffee machine he had loaded the night before.

    It was a cold January morning, so he started to get dressed with a full-body layer of long underwear. Then jeans and a blue shirt that carried the name of his employer, Trinity Yachts, just above the left breast pocket, followed by wool socks and gray sneakers that were reinforced with steel to protect his toes. Returning to the kitchen, he reached into the refrigerator to remove a fried-egg sandwich his daughter had made, along with a Coke and a sticky bun. Once he had packed the food, his breakfast and lunch, into a cooler, Tribble filled a nonspill metal cup with coffee. His fire engine red pickup truck—a meticulously maintained eight-year-old Ford—was just a few steps away. Switching on the headlights, he commenced his twenty-mile commute by igniting a Camel Light and adjusting the volume of his radio, which was tuned to the same station as his alarm clock. He could shorten the travel time by taking the highway, but that would mean six additional miles and more gasoline, so he generally stuck to back roads.

    Fifty-nine years old, Tribble is a wiry man whose five-foot-nine frame carries just 135 pounds, his weight ever since he graduated from high school. His black and silver hair is longish but neatly trimmed. His eyes are blue and deeply set, and his cheeks are also sunken, hollowed out because he had lost all his teeth many years earlier. He relies on dentures to eat.

    Tribble lives in Pass Christian, Mississippi, a Gulf Coast community midway between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. He has never lived anywhere else, and his house, a compact, single-story, rectangular structure, is the one in which he grew up. Elevated above the ground by cinder blocks, it looks like a mobile home, but it was actually built by his father back in the 1940s. It is set on thirty-eight acres, most of which are overgrown, although Tribble had cleared out patches here and there to grow vegetables and raise chickens. He has never had much money, but his expenses are similarly modest. There is no mortgage on the house, and the annual real estate taxes are $659.

    Back when he was in high school, Tribble wrote soulful songs that were inspired by the country ballads he started listening to with his parents. He also played the saxophone, and he sometimes thought about becoming a professional musician. But he ended up learning how to weld metals and went to work at the shipyard where his father had been employed for almost two decades. Tribble had been with several shipyards over the years, and he joined Trinity in 2006, not long after it moved from Hurricane Katrina–ravaged New Orleans to Gulfport, Mississippi. Forty years after he began his career, his hourly wage had gone from $2.50 to $18.50, but he said the buying power of his earnings was unchanged. “I used to be able to fill up the car with groceries for twenty dollars,” he remembered, “and gas cost twenty-eight cents a gallon.”

    Tribble is a shipfitter. He has helped build everything from barges and oceangoing cargo vessels to naval destroyers and aircraft carriers—more than one hundred vessels in all. He has always worked in open-air sheds where the conditions are often challenging, particularly in the summer when the temperature regularly rises above 100 degrees. But he almost never complains, not about the heat or the humidity, the early mornings or the tedium of his work, not even the gum disease that, by the time he was thirty, led to the loss of his teeth and the end of his saxophone playing. It just isn’t in his nature. Unlike many of his colleagues, Tribble has never seriously considered finding a different kind of job, and he was not eager to retire. “I like what I do,” he said. “And what would I do if I didn’t work?”

    Gale Tribble, a shipyard laborer for forty of his fifty-nine years.

    THAT MORNING, Tribble was about to begin the construction of Lady Linda, a 187-foot yacht. In a different era, this day—January 7, 2008—would have been one of special significance, witnessed by everyone who was playing a role in the massive project. But with many of the participants communicating with one another electronically from distant locations, the only people who would see the process get under way would be Tribble and another laborer, William Packer.

    Lady Linda was to be one of the largest American-made yachts since the Gilded Age, a gleaming symbol of its owner’s participation in a quarter century of unprecedented wealth creation. The owner, a private equity investor named Doug Von Allmen, had committed himself to its building in 2006, not long before the boom’s peak. By global standards, Lady Linda would not be among the very largest of the burgeoning fleet of seagoing palaces, but Von Allmen had vowed that it would be the best of those made in the United States. He wanted to disprove the conventional wisdom that America did not know how to build things anymore, as well as the long-held orthodoxy that domestically built yachts are necessarily inferior to those from Europe. Nothing would be ordinary: interior walls would be made from rare species of burl wood, floors would be paved with onyx and unusual types of marble, the furniture would be bespoke, and artworks would be commissioned on the basis of the spaces they would fill.

    But the creation of Lady Linda would be far from glamorous, and the uncertainties that lay ahead would affect hundreds of people whose lives and livelihoods were bound up in the project: Von Allmen and Tribble, as well as a former army sniper who was now working as a pipefitter, and an illegal immigrant from Honduras who would give a lustrous finish to the yacht’s exterior by sheathing it with an array of poisonous compounds. For Von Allmen, Lady Linda was supposed to be the ultimate embodiment of his success. Instead, he would come to question whether he could actually afford to be its owner. For Tribble and many others, the impact of the changed world—and the construction itself—would be even more profound.

    WHEN TRIBBLE reached Gulfport, he turned onto Seaway Road, a heavily trafficked thoroughfare where the air smelled of petroleum. Signs pointed to a variety of manufacturing and distribution operations as well as A-1 Bailbonds and a prison. Trinity was the only one of Seaway Road’s businesses that had a Help Wanted sign out front, evidence of the still-soaring demand for very large yachts.

    Once he parked his truck, Tribble added two additional layers of clothing: Carhartt coveralls and a jacket. It was 5:35 a.m., well before the 6:00 start of his shift. After sliding his time card through a machine to register his presence, he entered a partially enclosed metal structure that covered almost a dozen acres and the bulk of Trinity’s production facilities. Like everyone, Tribble called it “the yard.” Eleven vessels were at various stages of development, although some of the constructions did not look like boats. One of the largest forms, an almost completed hull, was inverted. Its disconnected bow section, which was upright, stood nearby.

    Tribble found his way to a jig, a 120-foot-long steel-beamed platform on which the first phases of Lady Linda would be built. Three feet above the floor, the jig was surrounded by piles of recently cut pieces of aluminum of various shapes and sizes.

    In traditional boatbuilding, the first step would be the assembling—or laying—of the keel: the foundation upon which everything else was built. But the order of things was different at Trinity, which, like most contemporary shipbuilders, broke the fabrication process into units. In another departure from traditional boatbuilding, most of the hull would be built upside down. It was easier—and less time consuming—for laborers to work that way. Rather than having to aim their welding torches upward, they could look down at their work.

    Tribble and Packer, who got to the jig a few minutes after Tribble, would start with the engine-room module, one of four large assemblies that would compose the hull. The very first piece of the puzzle was the centerboard longitudinal, a strip of aluminum that was forty-five feet long, the full length of the module, and twenty-three inches high. Like a keel, it would run along the middle of the hull; but while keels protrude from the bottom of the hull, the centerboard would be inside. (Eventually, Lady Linda would also have a keel, but it would be added much later.)

    The first task was to erect a pair of braces that would hold the centerboard above the jig. Once that was done, Packer manipulated the controls of the overhead travel lift—a chain-bearing crane that ran on tracks ninety feet above the floor—to deliver the centerboard to the braces. Then he climbed up onto the jig and held the center-board firmly against one of the braces. Just after ten in the morning, Tribble used a tape measure and a level to confirm that the center-board was in the correct position. He then lowered the face mask of his helmet and joined the centerboard to one of the braces with four small welds. Once it was attached to the other brace, the next job was welding fifty-two yard-long frames to the centerboard so that they extended from it like ribs.

    When a whistle sounded at four thirty to signal the end of the workday, Tribble was in an excellent mood, for two reasons. First, the satisfaction that always came from starting something new. In addition, it was Monday, the day that always ended with his favorite meal: red beans and rice. It was a southern tradition that went back to preelectricity days when laundry was done by hand, and usually on Mondays. Since the work tied women to the house, it was the best day for them to watch over a pot of simmering beans.

    The product of Tribble’s labor did not look like much. He and Packer had connected twenty frames to the centerboard, ten on each side. The shiny silver assembly appeared to be flimsy, more like a supersized version of a child’s Erector Set than the beginnings of a 487-ton yacht that would be formed with more than thirty thousand pieces of aluminum and cost $40 million.

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