01 Mar 2013

Sea of Dreams

Building a $40 million toy


I've always loved boats. When I was just a few years old, my grandfather set me up in a small sailing dinghy and sent me on my way. I have no recollection of the instruction that must have come before, but the exhilaration that came from being in sole command of my little vessel is indelible. And today, almost half a century later, it has become perfectly obvious that this is a thrill that will never grow old.

While I've long preferred sail over power, my tastes have become somewhat ecumenical over the years. Nowadays, when I pass through a harbor or marina, I invariably take a close look at each and every boat. Very large power yachts have become a particular source of fascination. What are they like inside? Who owns them? Where do they go?

In 2007, Doug Von Allmen, a private equity investor I had met when I was a Wall Street Journal reporter, agreed to let me write a book about the creation of his 187-foot, $40 million yacht. Lady Linda would be extraordinary: Her interior walls would be made from rare species of burl wood, the floors paved with onyx, and the furniture custom made. The air-conditioning system would cool not just interior spaces but exterior ones as well.

Once I had secured a publisher, I started making regular trips to the shipyard in Gulfport, Mississippi, where Lady Linda would come to life, so I could get to know the shipfitters, plumbers, and cabinetmakers who would become some of the book's main characters. Having spent my professional life working as a journalist and real-estate developer in New York, London, and Hong Kong, the hour-to-hour realities of blue-collar life were a revelation. The open-air shipyard was painfully cold in the winter and unimaginably hot in the summer, and the work took a terrible toll on employees. A skilled shipfitter named Gale Tribble had been crouching and crawling in cramped spaces for 43 of his 62 years. His body was falling apart, but he could not afford to retire. Osly Heinandez, just 21 years old, knew the work he was doing would cause irreparable damage to his lungs because he wasn't given the proper safety equipment. But Heinandez was unable to complain or find alternative employment because of his legal status: He was an undocumented worker.

The financial crisis of 2008 added new dimensions to the story. Von Allmen found that his lifestyle was no longer affordable. Then it got worse: He fell for an audacious Ponzi scheme that swallowed up much of his fortune. A mild-mannered man who began his career as an accountant, Von Allmen was an unlikely victim, but as he told me a couple of years later, "I was blinded by the returns."

Meanwhile, the yacht market was imploding, and the shipyard where Lady Linda was coming to form was struggling to survive and shedding some of its employees. As the vessel's future became uncertain, the interdependence between the owners of yachts and the people who put them together came into perfect focus.

Do I think that yachts like Lady Linda are excessive? Absolutely. But I can't say that without thinking about the families who depend on the shipyard's wages. And I understand the desire to trade up to something bigger, as Von Allmen, who already owned a somewhat smaller yacht, was doing. Today I am the proud owner of a beautiful 28-foot sailboat named Glide. On most days, I do not feel a need to have anything more. Then again, while Glide spent the last several months in a frozen Long Island parking lot, Lady Linda, which was launched last summer, has been cruising the Caribbean. How she finally got there, and at whose pleasure she now sails, seems like a perfect parable for our changed times.

My Two Cents represents the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of HBS or Harvard University.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1986, Section B

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