Grand Ambition Reviewed in the Wall Street Journal

A Hole in the Water You Fill With Money
Should your 187-foot yacht have one garage or two?

Back in the 1960s, it would not have been uncommon to find aboard even the most modest of cabin cruisers a needlepoint pillow inscribed with the weekend sailor’s lament: “A boat is a hole in the water you pour money into.” G. Bruce Knecht’s illuminative and utterly engaging story of the three-year building of the luxury yacht Lady Linda is a reminder that the axiom remains an immutable law of the sea—no matter how much you supersize the vessel.

“Grand Ambition” follows the boat-owning adventures of Doug Von Allmen, a self-made tycoon, and his wife, Linda. As they conceived it a few years ago, their 187-foot dreamboat—to be built at Trinity Yachts in Gulfport, Miss.—would weigh 400 tons and be propelled by two 3,384-horsepower Caterpillar engines costing $2 million each. Lady Linda would have four lavish decks, 10 bathrooms and 2½ miles of pipes and would cost $40 million. Like other yachts of its kind, it would eventually employ hundreds of people to complete—electricians, pipe fitters, fine artists. As Mr. Knecht writes of the boat’s living space: “With wood harvested from Eastern Europe and cabinetry designed in London and built in Australia before it was shipped to Mississippi, Lady Linda’s interior was a global enterprise.”

Mr. Knecht, the author of two earlier books about sailing and a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, follows the lives of a few of these workers and craftsmen as they labor on the Von Allmens’ dream. Among them: a Gulf Port shipyard welder who has spent a career on his knees in the cramped spaces of ships; an Australian cabinetmaker who creates shimmering burl-wood paneling; and an illegal Honduran immigrant whose unenviable job involves applying the toxic fairing compound that constitutes the smooth skin of the vessel.

But the focus of “Grand Ambition” is on the “owner class,” as exemplified by the taciturn Mr. Von Allmen, now 71, a high-school dropout who did some youthful bumming around before finding his calling in accountancy and eventually becoming a private-equity mogul. From the living room of his $18.5 million duplex in New York’s Time Warner Center, Mr. Von Allmen and his wife alternately cajole and torment Lady Linda’s patient yacht designer, Evan Marshall, with questions that may strike the reader as strictly the problems of the idle rich. Should the yacht have built into it one garage or two for storing smaller craft? (Securing speedboats and wave runners on deck is viewed by the yachting community as déclassé and a sign that the owner can’t afford a garage.) How will guests in the sky lounge be able to view underwater scenes sent from video cameras mounted beneath the yacht’s hull? And what is the best way to air-condition the outdoor decks during those sweltering Mediterranean cruises?

The Von Allmens order up Lady Linda at an inauspicious time—in early 2008. The dark clouds of economic ruin are already gathering. No one in the owner class seems to take notice, however, even after the collapse of Bear Stearns in March. The Von Allmens were fortunate to have their other yacht to use while construction of Lady Linda was under way, the 197-foot Linda Lu. They boarded her to attend conclaves of mega-yacht owners in Monaco and at the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show.

If a word could describe the yachts that skim into harbor at these events it might be “glimmering”: pearlescent hulls, onyx floors and marble staircases, exotic woods varnished to a fare-thee-well. Bold-face names from the world of business—Wayne Huizenga Jr., Tom Perkins, Steve Rattner—jockey for coveted berths. The art of their one-upmanship involves outspending a rival, often in small but cutting ways that suggest an effortless superiority.

Mr. Knecht, without being in any way judgmental, catalogs the jaw-dropping excesses. One owner has a room onboard that makes snow. Another built a concert hall large enough to fit a 50-member orchestra. Yet another has an onboard runway where models show off the newest fashions in a room with only two seats. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s 414-foot Octopus boasts a basketball court and a commercial-quality recording studio. No one, however, goes over the top like the Russians, the “oligarch-yachtsmen,” as the author calls them. Roman Abramovich, the owner of Britain’s Chelsea football club, also owns the Eclipse. At 533 feet, she is nearly as long as two football fields. Stored below decks is a submarine protected by a missile-defense system.

By the end of 2008 and into 2009, the financial world was foundering in an economic typhoon. Lehman Brothers had folded, Merrill Lynch was on the shoals and the market had tanked. The Von Allmens, too, had taken a massive hit. Completing the politically conservative couple’s misery, writes Mr. Knecht, was the fact that the “Obama administration had announced plans to increase taxes and government spending.”

With money tight, many potential yacht owners couldn’t secure loans or had second thoughts about buying a yacht in the first place, which meant that Trinity Yachts was having a hard time meeting its payroll and paying suppliers. Projects like Lady Linda, now half-built, became stalled.

It was then, just when Mr. Von Allmen was at his lowest ebb, that he met a flamboyant, pistol-packing Fort Lauderdale lawyer named Scott Rothstein. The man struck Mr. Von Allmen as “a little weird,” but his gallery of photographs posing with luminaries like John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger won Mr. Von Allmen over.

When Mr. Rothstein offered Mr. Von Allmen a chance to make a quick bundle “selling structured settlements”—that is, buying out people who had won court settlements but didn’t want to wait for their money—Mr. Von Allmen succumbed. Mr. Rothstein ultimately swindled an estimated $500 million out of a number of investors—$100 million of it Mr. Von Allmen’s—before fleeing to Morocco, a country that has no extradition treaty with the United States. Unlike Bernie Madoff, Mr. Rothstein sent a note to the victims of his Ponzi scheme, saying that he was sorry. It would be unfair to Mr. Knecht’s fine reporting to give away more of the story. Let’s just say that further complications ensue, though Lady Linda is eventually launched.

Mr. Knecht breaks up the story of Lucky Linda’s construction by salting in some rather fun history of yachting though the ages, beginning with Pharaoh Ptolemy IV, who ruled Egypt 200 years before Christ and built a 400-foot vessel powered by several hundred oarsmen. We meet Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Morgans boozing it up beyond the three-mile limit during Prohibition. A 281-foot yacht built in the 1970s by Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi arms dealer, makes an appearance in “Never Say Never Again,” the James Bond film that opened 30 years before “Skyfall.”

One might think that the ordinary laborers who worked on Lady Linda for three years would harbor class resentments toward the Von Allmens and their showboating ways. But the opposite is true. They view the couple as job creators. They are grateful to be employed and proud of the work they have turned out. “I’m glad Doug Von Allmen is rich,” says Mitch Davies, the Australian cabinetmaker. “But it’s not a goal of mine. I don’t think it’s worth the stress. And I think that if you want to be rich, you never have enough.”

That observation is very much at the heart of “Grand Ambition,” though not overtly stated by Mr. Knecht. One wonders how Doug Von Allmen, who began life in poverty, working as a window washer and factory grunt, became a man intolerant of any “creaking” on his yacht, irritated by the slightest whooshing of the air-conditioning system and concerned with the placement of gold-plated toilet-paper dispensers.

There is a scene toward the end of “Grand Ambition” where the author accompanies Mr. Von Allmen on a tour of Lady Linda. The owner is in a rotten mood. As he glumly surveys each luxurious deck, “there was not a flicker of excitement.” He looks instead like a man staring down into a hole in the water that just swallowed a fortune.

—Mr. Cooke is a writer in Pelham, N.Y.
A version of this article appeared March 16, 2013, on page C9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Hole in the Water You Fill With Money.