G. Bruce Knecht considers his new book, “Grand Ambition” (Simon & Schuster, $27), to be a water-based companion to Tracy Kidder’s “House.” Like that classic work of nonfiction, “Grand Ambition” focuses on all the aspects of building, and all the people involved, only instead of a house the subject is a $40 million yacht called Lady Linda.
“With a yacht, the backgrounds are so much more disparate,” said Mr. Knecht, from the billionaire owner to the pipe fitters to the onboard staff. “You’re not just talking about the top 1 percent, but the top, top 1 percent. At the same time, I also write about an illegal immigrant from Honduras working for 10 bucks an hour.”
Doug Von Allmen, the private equity investor who commissioned Lady Linda, had the outsize desire to create the best American-built yacht in history and the terrible timing to begin a year before the 2008 financial crisis. In sympathetic prose, Mr. Knecht chronicles the yacht’s complex nuts-and-bolts construction, as well as the larger financial and interpersonal dramas that threatened its completion.
Mr. Knecht, a New York-based author who sails in his spare time, spoke to a reporter about the ostentatious world of yacht design and why even billionaires feel the pinch.
Q. Given the money involved, it’s interesting that Doug Von Allmen likens yachts to a mobile home.
A. He told me: “Some people have houses in the mountains, some have houses on the beach. I like the idea that if I don’t like the scenery I can move.”
These yachts can go anywhere in the world. They have freezers with enough food that you could survive for months. But they often go the same places everyone else goes: the Mediterranean in summer, St. Barts at New Years, runs up the East Coast in June. The owners sometimes act like they’re moving to a series of mobile home parks.
Q. How is yacht design different from designing a home?
A. Yachts are different than homes in the sense that people who live in grand apartments are O.K. with plaster walls or wood floors. On yachts, everything has to be extraordinary. The walls are wood paneling, and not just any wood but exotic burl wood. The floors are going to be made of marble and onyx. The person who designs a boat like this is going to be comfortable in the rarefied and exotic.
Q. What about the furniture?
A. Every piece of furniture is custom designed. Nothing comes out of a furniture store. And there won’t be one kind of wood in a table or a cabinet, there will be half a dozen. It took 50 hours of labor to build an interior door on the Lady Linda.
Q. Have yachts always been so opulent?
A. A hundred years ago, James Gordon Bennett Jr., the publisher of The New York Herald, carried a cow on his yacht because he wanted to always have fresh milk. On Aristotle Onassis’ yacht, the pool went up and down so the bottom of the pool became the dance floor. Onassis also used the foreskin of whales to cover the barstools, and of course he would enjoy telling his guests.
Q. And yet writing about the 2008 financial crisis, you almost make us feel bad for yacht owners.
A. Von Allmen suffered in the same way as everyone else in the sense that the fixed costs of his lifestyle were static but his wealth and income declined. In his case, his fixed costs were extraordinary. Operating and maintaining a yacht is at least 10 percent of what the thing cost. So in the case of Lady Linda, the operating cost per year is $4 million.
Q. Is Lady Linda the best American-built yacht?
A. In the end, the final product was pretty close to what was designed just before the economic crisis. But Von Allmens’s passion for creating the best yacht ever built in the U.S. waned when he suffered through the 2008 economic crisis and lost $100 million in a Ponzi scheme. He was worn down by the process.
On the other hand, the Lady Linda has proven popular as a yacht that people charter. People are paying half a million dollars a week to charter it.
(Source: Google News: The New York Times. View the original story here.)