Grand Ambition – Bonus Excerpt 2

Wayne Frierson was working in a corner of Lady Linda’s engine room, two steps up a ladder so he could reach the ceiling. It was hot and incredibly noisy. High-speed electric saws were severing metal pipes and plates, and other pieces of metal were being hammered almost constantly, so it was like being inside an oversized drum. Several other men also were at work there. All of them were wearing earplugs, but conversation was virtually impossible even if they were not.

The engine room would be the beating heart for all of Lady Linda’s mechanical operations. The air-conditioning system’s five compressors, each with fifteen tons of cooling capacity, were lined up next to each other near the front. Frierson was getting ready to connect them to inch-thick copper-nickel pipes that would carry chilled water to thirty-six “cold coils”: tightly wound swirls of pipe that would be positioned strategically throughout the vessel. Fresh air would be blown through the coils to produce cool air. Another set of copper pipes would recycle the no-longer-so-cold water back to the compressors. Lady Linda would ultimately have two and a half miles of pipes, amounting to seventy times its length, but the air-conditioning system would require more of Frierson’s time than anything else.

Frierson was a pipefitter. At thirty-nine, he was a square-jawed, sturdily built man with a head of thick dark hair and a slender moustache. At the moment, he was rigging hangers that would hold the copper pipes until they could be connected permanently. Precision was critical. He needed to leave enough space for the insulation that would be wrapped around the chilled-water pipes to prevent them from dripping with condensation. But he could not let them take up too much space. Other kinds of pipes also had to be packed tightly near the ceiling to avoid intruding on the space below, and it seemed like the engineers who laid out the plans for the pipes never left enough room. Every half hour or so, he shot a laser beam near the ceiling to ensure that everything was high enough to provide the six feet ten inches of headroom required by Von Allmen’s contract.

Before he started on the air-conditioning system, Frierson had worked on several other kinds of pipes, beginning with the ones that would remove water from the bottom of the hull and carry it overboard. After that, he installed a system that would take water in the opposite direction: from a pair of eighteen-inch-diameter holes that had been cut through either side of the hull about two feet below what would be the water line, Frierson arranged pipes that would bring seawater to cool the giant diesels and their exhaust. He also created a network of stainless-steel pipes linking the engines to five fuel tanks. Their combined capacity of twenty-two-thousand gallons was enough to fill an average-sized swimming pool.

Installing the air-conditioning system’s pipes would consume several weeks. Once they were done, he, with help from other fitters, would arrange pipes that would carry various types of water: potable (to faucets), “black water” (away from toilets), “gray water” (from sinks, showers, and washing machines), fire-protection-system water (to sprinklers and hoses), and the water that would be evacuated from deck drains. Still other pipes would carry lube oil, hydraulic fluid, and engine exhaust.

On commercial and military vessels, pipes are left exposed and clearly labeled according to their purpose and the direction of flow to facilitate maintainence and repairs. The priorities are different for yachts. One way to think about their interior is as unobstructed volumes of space, so hiding pipes from view—and minimizing the space they took—is paramount. This was reflected in Trinity’s engineering documents: areas given over to pipes and other systems were described as “negative space.”

The engine room was the hub for most of the pipes, and it was where Frierson spent most of his days. He was in a corner Doug Von Allmen was unlikely to ever see, but Frierson recognized the ultimate value of his work. “Space is what you’re buying in these boats,” he said during a break. “The better I am at my craft, the more space the owner can have.”

Frierson could not remember a time when he wasn’t working. He grew up in Picayune, Mississippi, on a large farm that belonged to his grandfather. When he was very young, he carted feed to cattle and chicken. Later on he cut hay and timber, and butchered cattle. “The work never stopped,” he said. “By the time I was eighteen, I was ready to retire.”

Sports were his only relief and the only excuse from work his parents would accept, so he signed up for almost every school team: track, baseball, basketball, soccer, football. In 1986 he played receiver when Picayune High School’s football squad won the state championship, and the University of Southern Mississippi gave him an athletic scholarship.  But Frierson was unprepared for campus freedoms: after his girlfriend became pregnant, he lost his scholarship. They later married, but divorced after he joined the army and it became clear that he would be stationed in Germany.

Having always been good with guns—he tried to pick acorns off fence posts with a BB gun when he was just five and later won marksmanship contests—Frierson was trained as a sniper. During the months leading up to the first Iraq War, he was sent to Saudi Arabia. From there he made regular forays into Iraq to help guide cruise missiles to their targets. The method was outlandish but effective: a Chinook helicopter carried Frierson and a Datsun sedan into the desert. He could not speak Arabic, but he had grown a beard and dressed like the locals. Once he found a preassigned target from a map, he “painted” it with a laser beam and used an encrypted radio to signal the launch of a missile from a US Navy destroyer in the Persian Gulf. After the missile latched onto the laser and detonated into the target, generally just ten or fifteen minutes later, he called for a pickup, and he and the Datsun were lifted to safety.

A couple of years later, in 1993, he was sent to Somalia, where he was part of the disastrous military campaign in Mogadishu that was later described in Mark Bowden’s book Black Hawk Down. Until then Frierson had claimed that butchering cows had desensitized him to death and killing, but his experience in Somalia was so horrific that he was unwilling to talk about what happened beyond saying, “It was a total mess.”

After leaving the army in 1997, Frierson returned to the family farm with his second wife, a German woman he had met while stationed there. Rather than working as a farmer, he decided he would rather have a job that involved welding, a skill he had learned while repairing farm equipment. He worked for a shipyard in New Orleans for several years but left when he was asked to work the night shift, because the hours would have made it difficult to spend time with his now teenage daughter from his first marriage. In July 2006 he went to work at Trinity.

Frierson saw a connection between his work as a sniper and as a pipefitter: “I have always liked precision work. And when you organize pipes,” he explained, “you have to have a plan. You need to know where you’re going to enter, exactly what you’re going to do while you’re there, and how you’re going to get out. It’s the same thing with being a sniper.” Frierson’s insistence on precision was also apparent in his personal grooming—his moustache, a sliver of hair just above his lip, was trimmed immaculately—and his aesthetic sensibilities. “I’m the kind of guy,” he said, “who will walk into your house and start moving around the pictures if they aren’t hanging straight.”