G. Bruce Knecht
Simon & Schuster, 244pp, $26.99
I'm probably not an appropriate person to review this book. For instance, my favorite boat is a Beetle Cat, a 12 foot, gaff rigged wooden sailboat. I could go on, but just let's leave it at that. I am, however, very much a fan of the author, former writer for the Wall Street Journal and author, G. Bruce Knecht--particularly his 2007 book, Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish (see this column January, 2008).
The subject of Grand Ambition is another big fish: the 400-ton, 187' (modest by today's standards) Lady Linda. Her keel was laid in 2007 at Trinity Yachts in Gulfport, Mississippi. She would be the largest American built yacht since the Gilded Age. In the last months before the "correction" the "luxury" yacht market was a "red hot…, running on steroids" according to Lady Linda's London-based designer, Evan Marshall.
Of modest proportions for her type of vessel, her cost would run in the 40 million dollar range. No expense would be spared for the design and accouterments of the interior of the four passenger decks. No detail was spared in the design and building of all the usual salons and dining rooms and pools and spas and garages for water toys like speed boats and wave runners. Exotic wood would be imported from around the world for custom furniture, hand rails, wall coverings. Pushing the palace along from one party season, say, in Monaco to the next in Fort Lauderdale would be two 3,384-horsepower Caterpillar engines costing two million apiece. Her fuel capacity (diesel) was 17,600 gallons, enough to get across the pond from Florida to Monaco (Of course the owners of such a craft don't stay on board for those tedious crossings of, say, an ocean, but fly and take up residence again when and its next itinerary is decided.)
It's never clear just how the owner, Doug Von Allmen, made his money-- just that he's a "private equity" guy--a very successful one who lived with his wife (Linda) in an immodest little duplex in the Time Warner Center in New York City and got away to a waterfront home in Florida where he planned to keep his new boat.
With the admittedly very handsome yacht on the book's cover and half a dozen glossy pages of photographs of the finished "LL" in company with other extraordinary vessels of the same ilk (Stavros Niarchos's Creole and Onassis's Christina) I assumed on initial perusal that the book would be little more than a catalog of nauseating extravagance. Not so. Author Knecht's basic humanity led him to a broader and far more balanced and enjoyable treatment of his subject.
The book opens with Gail Tribble whose alarm clock goes off at 4:30 AM. Mr. Tribble is 59 years old, a native of the Gulf coast who lives in the house his father built in the 1940s in Pas Christian, next door to Gulfport, Mississippi. His daughter and two grandchildren live with him. His ten hour shift at Trinity Yachts (Lady Linda's birth place) starts at 6 AM but Tribble is there at 5:35. He is a shipfitter, a welder. In the forty years of his career he has worked on more than 100 vessels in all. In that time, his hourly wage has risen from $2.50 to $18.50.
Hecht largely maintains a socially even keel throughout the book, focusing on the multitude of diverse individuals and small companies who contribute to the building of Lady Linda. From locals like Tribble, to Australian furniture makers, and undocumented Hondurans who work applying the fairing compound to Lady Linda's shapely hull. (DuPont acknowledges the toxicity of the material, noting that "irreparable lung damage could result from exposure" and suggests that applicators wear masks.)
Of course, the Von Allmens experience a little hiccup or two in their plans. A year into Lady Linda project, the financial meltdown was well under way. The VanAllmens sell their New York apartment. And then there is this little side deal which goes sour and costs them a considerable additional unspecified amount--but by cutting a little here (a $10,000 painting replaces a $100,000.00 relief installation, for instance) the vessel is delivered to the dock behind the Von Allmen's Florida house in June of 2012. She was still not quite finished. A mad scurry ensued. The hope is that the brokers who have been invited will either sell the boat for "something approaching" the asking price of $49.8 million or find charters for $500,000 a week. Von Allmen admitted that his feeling for yachting had changed. "The magic has worn off a bit; we have been to so many places already.. I still like looking at the water and the service you get on board, but there's a bit of 'been there, done that.'''
In the face of remarks like that, Knect has written an incredibly non-judgmental, highly detailed, masterfully organized story. I don't usually expect nonfiction works to be page turners but this book certainly was. I was luke warm about the Von Allmens, what can I say, but Hecht follows many of the workers in the shipyard and several subcontractors as progress on the boat, making the entire enterprise immediate and meaningful. There's a heck of a lot of talent out there and Hecht spends time with these people and pops them right out of the background which almost justifies the enterprise.