Grand Ambition – Bonus Excerpt 3

No one did more to spread the word about the benefits of big-boat ownership in the United States than Malcolm Forbes. For more than fifty years, the flamboyant publisher entertained corporate chieftains and advertising executives during cruises in New York Harbor and elsewhere. He employed a succession of five yachts, all of them named Highlander, each one larger than its predecessor. The first, which went into service in 1952, was a 72-footer. The last, a 151-foot green-hulled Feadship designed by Jon Bannenberg, was launched in 1985. From May until November, drinks and dinner were served on board to 120 people three times a week. When the Forbes family put the 151-footer up for sale in 2011, it was said to be a sign of the changed times and an inevitability, given the decline of traditional media; however, some said the sale would not have happened if Malcolm Forbes were still alive.

Outsized personalities have often been the driving force behind exceptionally large yachts. Levittown creator Bill Levitt, one of the best known businessmen of his time, was one of the pioneers of the postwar period. Having mass-produced thousands of cookie-cutter houses that he sold for less than $10,000, he was called the father of the modern American suburb and featured on the cover of Time magazine. Levitt was happy to admit that ego fueled his ambitions. “There’s a thrill in meeting a demand with a product no one else can meet,” he once told the New York Times. “But I’m not here to just build and sell houses. To be perfectly frank, I’m looking for a little glory.” Levitt bought a 250-foot yacht shortly after he sold his company in 1967. Because of the vessel’s size and the celebrities who came aboard for the Levitts’ parties, it received widespread media attention during his ownership—and all over again after Levitt lost most of his money and had to sell the boat.

The other big-boat pioneer in the United States was Charles Revson, who started out selling nail polish in the 1930s and went on to create Revlon, the staggeringly profitable cosmetics-industry powerhouse. Aside from his company, he was best known for his difficult personality, his insistence on perfection, and his extravagance. In the 1960s, his lifestyle  cost a then-unthinkable $5,000 a day, in part because of his 257-foot yacht, which had a thirty-person crew and a fuel tank that cost $20,000 to fill.

It would take another quarter century before American big-boat standards began to ratchet upward substantially. Paul Allen’s 414-foot yacht Octopus set the standard. The $250 million vessel had an ice-rated hull to facilitate Antarctic explorations and a sixty-person crew that included several former Navy SEALs. Its garage had room for seven smaller vessels, one of them a tender so large—63 feet—that it might be considered a yacht in its own right. There were two helicopters and as many helipads, one at the bow and one near the stern, and a pair of submarines that could submerge through an unseen underwater hatch. One was capable of taking up to ten passengers for underwater explorations over extended periods of time; the other could be operated remotely in extreme depths. Reflecting the range of Allen’s interests, Octopus also boasted a basketball court, an extensive collection of memorabilia from Ernest Shackleton’s voyages to Antarctica, and a commercial-quality recording studio.

While Octopus became America’s largest yacht when it was launched in 2003, another high-tech multibillionaire, Larry Ellison, had already taken steps to ensure that its reign would be brief. When Octopus’s construction was past the point where it could be altered, Ellison instructed Lürssen, which was building both yachts, to stretch the length of his Rising Sun from 393 feet to 452. Launched in the late 2004, it had more than 85,000 square feet of living area and carried more than a dozen smaller boats, including a jeep-bearing landing craft. The mother ship was powered by four engines that together produced an astonishing 48,000 horsepower.

Ellison admitted that his creation was a great indulgence. “It’s absolutely excessive,” he told Vanity Fair magazine. “No question about it. But it’s amazing what you can get used to.”

By 2005, Americans owned five of the world’s twenty largest yachts, up from just one in 1985. The next tier down, propelled by people like Doug Von Allmen, included an even greater US representation. Most members of the new generation of American yacht owners were self-made entrepreneurs who were not inclined to adhere to yachting traditions. Jacuzzis and gyms became standard, and elevators, movie theaters, discotheques, and playrooms for children were regularly part of the mix. One of Lürssen’s yachts had a “snow room,” a compartment in which passengers could leap into machine-made white stuff following their saunas for a Nordic chill even as they cruised the tropics. Charles Simonyi, the Microsoft alumnus who created the company’s flagship Office software applications, had his 233-foot yacht Skat painted with the battleship gray of a warship. Apple’s Steve Jobs, during the months just before he died in 2011, was finalizing plans for a large Feadship that, in common with his retail stores, would have sleek, minimalist lines and very large panels of glass.

Even before the economic crash of 2008, there were some indications that the galloping advance of expectations was beginning to falter, and not just for financial reasons. Larry Ellison was annoyed that Rising Sun could not be accommodated in recreational marinas. In 2007, it went to Valencia, Spain, where he was attempting to wrest the America’s Cup from Ernesto Bertarelli, an heir to a Swiss pharmaceutical fortune. Ellison’s yacht was relegated to a commercial dock where it was surrounded by rusting freighters and stinking fishing boats. Meanwhile, Bertarelli’s relatively modest 155-foot Feadship shared a dock with other yachts and within shouting range of the racing machines that would compete for the Cup.

Rising Sun had another flaw. Because of its size and minimalist interiors, Ellison said it did not have enough intimate spaces. One of his guests put it more bluntly, saying, “It’s like walking in an empty mall.” Not one to live with a mistake, not even a vastly expensive one of his own making, Ellison sold Rising Sun to his friend David Geffen, the billionaire music and media entrepreneur. Although Ellison already owned a smaller yacht, a 192-footer that sometimes anchored within swimming distance of his beach house in Malibu, California, he contracted with Feadship to build a new yacht that had the same look and expansive windows as Rising Sun but was substantially smaller. Launched in 2011, Musashi was 288 feet long—by every standard but his own, enormous, but for Ellison, a significant downsizing.