GRAND AMBITION: An Extraordinary Yacht, the People Who
Built It, and the Millionaire Who Can’t Really Afford It

“Bruce Knecht is my kind of reporter – a master story teller with a great eye for 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.”

–Tom Brokaw

When construction of the 187-foot megayacht Lady Linda began in January 2008, the demand for very large yachts was so great that new ones regularly sold for double what they cost to build.  By the time Lady Linda was completed in 2012, it was virtually impossible to sell a big yacht at any price.

This is the time span of GRAND AMBITION: An Extraordinary Yacht, the People Who Built it, and the Millionaire Who Can’t Really Afford it, by G. Bruce Knecht (Simon & Schuster/March 5th, 2013/$26.99 hardcover).  More than a tale of the hubris of the super rich, this is a global story of 21st century shipbuilding—and the blue-collar workers who make it possible.

At the center of the story is a self-made man, private equity tycoon Doug Von Allmen, who commissioned a 487-ton floating palace that would cost $40 million and be formed from more than 30,000 pieces of aluminum.  Nothing would be ordinary.   Lady Linda‘s 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.    “For Von Allmen,” Knecht writes, “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.”

As a child growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Von Allmen had been so frail that his mother did not expect him to survive, and she told him as much.  Although a high school dropout, he eventually became accountant and was hired by Peat Marwick where he discovered that one of the firm’s wealthiest clients had built his fortune by buying companies with borrowed money.  Striking out on his own, Von Allmen set out to do the same thing.  Acquisition followed acquisition, and every one of his 52 companies turned out to be a profitable investment.

As his wealth accumulated, Von Allmen acquired a taste for yachts.  He bought a 55-foot motor cruiser that he kept in Florida, and a couple of years after that, he traded up to a 76-footer.  “Each boat whetted his appetite for more,” Knecht writes.

In 2006, Von Allmen hired Evan Marshall, one of the world’s most sought-after yacht designers, to create schematic drawings of what would become Lady Linda.  In Grand Ambition, Knecht follows the London-based designer’s roller-coaster ride as he balances his client’s over-the-top desires with economic reality.

In addition to Von Allmen and Marshall, Knecht describes the building of Lady Linda through some of the laborers and artisans who actually put it together.  They include:

  • Shipfitter Gale Tribble, who had helped build everything from barges and oceangoing cargo vessels to naval destroyers and aircraft carriers.  Having spent 43 of his 62 years crouching and crawling in cramped spaces, his body was literally falling apart, but he could not afford to retire.

  • Wayne Frierson, a pipefitter who saw a connection between his current work and his former life as an army sniper.  “I have always liked precision work,” he told Knecht.  Lady Linda required more than two and a half miles of pipes, more than seventy times the boat’s length.

  • Mitch Davies, who was working in Australia to create wood paneling and built-in furniture for Lady Linda’s interior.  A New Zealander who not many years earlier had ranked as the country’s best eighteen-and-under surfer, Davies loved his work and was unmotivated by money.  “If it wasn’t for rich people, I wouldn’t have my job. But it’s not a goal of mine. I don’t think it’s worth the stress.”

  • Osly Heinandez, a 21-year-old from Honduras who knew the work he was doing to give a lustrous finish to Lady Linda’s exterior surfaces would do irreparable damage to his lungs but who was unable to complain or find alternative employment because of his legal status:  he was an undocumented immigrant.

In July 2008, a year and a half after construction had begun, Von Allmen told Marshall that he wanted to add a garage, a $3 million concealed compartment that would house the two smaller boats that Lady Linda would carry.  Von Allmen had come to believe that it would be unseemly to store the boats on an exterior deck.  Although Bear Stearns, the big financial firm, had collapsed four months earlier to foreshadow the economic storm that was by then gathering force, Von Allmen was unconcerned.  “He believed that he—and most owners of the very largest yachts—were still flying above the darkening clouds.”

On October 7, 2008, Von Allmen met with Evan Marshall to finalize plans for Lady Linda’s interior.  It was also the day when the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted by more than 500 points and when Von Allmen began to wonder whether his lifestyle was unsustainable.  Eighty-five percent of his total expenditures went to his yachts, but he was contractually obligated to follow through with Lady Linda’s construction.

By the summer of 2009, Trinity Yachts, the shipyard in Gulfport, Mississippi where Lady Linda was coming to life, was struggling to survive and work hours were being curtailed.  Wayne Frierson and Mitch Davies were so concerned about their employer’s prospects that they were looking for new jobs.  Gale Tribble’s health was continuing to decline.  Meanwhile, Von Allmen was buoyed by the partial recovery of the stock market and what appeared to believe an astonishingly lucrative investment opportunity.  He poured much of his net worth, more than $100 million, into the investment, and he thought the profits would be so substantial that they would cover almost the entire cost of building Lady Linda.  It turned out to be a classic Ponzi scheme.

The story of Von Allmen, Lady Linda, and the yacht builders offers a perfect parable for our changed economic times.  Bestselling author Nelson DeMille says GRAND AMBITION “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.”