Grand Ambition Q&A

Where did you get the idea for Grand Ambition?

This is my third book and the sad truth is that none of them resulted from my own ideas.  The Proving Ground, the first one, was about the tragic 1998 Sydney to Hobart sailing race.  That was my agent’s idea.  That book was a #1 bestseller in Australia and my publisher there had the idea for my second book–Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish.  My German publisher came up with the idea for Grand Ambition.  He talked about House, Tracy Kidder’s book about the building of a small house.  The concept was that if the building of simple wood-frame home could be turned into a very successful book that the creation of a large, technologically complicated and expensive yacht would lead to an even more compelling narrative.  I agreed.


Did you always plan on writing about the blue-collar laborers who built the yacht as well as its owner?

Absolutely.  I did not want the focus to be on Doug Von Allmen, the owner, or the lifestyles of the very wealthy.  Nor did I want the book to be a social commentary about income inequality or illegal immigration (some of the guys who worked on the boat were undocumented workers).  What I wanted to do was to describe the lives and work of some of the hundreds of people–shipfitters, welders, plumbers and cabinetmakers–who came together to build a 187-foot, $40 million vessel.


How did Gale Tribble end up becoming such a major character?

The Von Allmens yacht was built in Gulfport, Mississippi.  It’s a part of the world that’s full of colorful characters.  Gale was one of the first people I met at the shipyard.  He had spent 40 of his 59 years working as a shipfitter and he was the guy who put together the very first pieces of the hull.  I liked Gale from the moment I met him and he invited me to his home for after-work afternoon beers and conversation.  His life could not be more different from the Von Allmens–or mine–and he had a great story to tell.


How did Doug Von Allmen make his fortune?

He came from a family that never had enough money.  He was so physically frail that his mother didn’t expect him to survive childhood, but he ended up becoming one of the early pioneers of what we now call private equity.  He bought 52 companies and sold every one of them for more than he paid for them.  They were small companies when he bought them, but he turned some of them into very substantial operations.


Did you start working on the book before the financial crisis in 2008?

Yes.  I left the Wall Street Journal, where I had been a reporter for many years, to start following the design and building process in 2007.  It was a time of seemingly unstoppable economic growth and a time when shipyards couldn’t begin to keep up with the demand for extraordinarily large yachts.


So that means you started working on the book not knowing that Von Allmen would lose $100 million to a Ponzi scheme?

That’s right.  Doug, by the way, was an unlikely victim.  Before he was a private equity investor, he was an accountant with Peat Marwick.  But Scott Rothstein–the guy who created the Ponzi–was diabolically clever.  In retrospect, the tales he spun out to Von Allmen might seem incredible; but when you read my description of how Rothstein worked, I think you’ll see how even a very experienced investor could fall victim.


Did Von Allmen have any particular goals for his yacht?

He had owned several yachts before.  When he and his wife Linda–their yacht would be called Lady Linda–started planning this one, their goal was to create the best yacht ever made in the United States.  Most people believe the best yachts are made in Europe.  The Von Allmens wanted to prove them wrong.


Did you always plan to include history about very large yachts?

The richest members of societies going back to the Pharaohs have been building yachts.  I didn’t include a lot of history–I didn’t want to slow down the narrative–but I did want to include stories about some of history’s most colorful yacht owners:  Cleopatra, European kings and queens, Chinese emperors, Greek shipping magnates, oil rich Arabs and Russians as well as Americans such as J.P. Morgan, Malcolm Forbes, Henry Ford II, Paul Allen, and Larry Ellison.


Are people like Gale Tribble and Osly Heinandez bitter that they devoted their days to doing back-breaking and sometimes dangerous work to build what’s basically a plaything for a very rich man?

Not at all.  By the time Lady Linda was completed, Tribble’s body was literally falling apart.  Working in a shipyard takes a much greater toll than, say, sitting at a desk writing a book, but he couldn’t afford to retire and he still loved his work.  Osly Heinandez is a 21-year-old illegal immigrant from Honduras who did some of the most difficult work there was and the work damaged his lungs.  But he and Tribble never expressed any bitterness.  On the contrary, they were quick to say that they were grateful to have a job and that they were proud to work on Lady Linda.


Did you enjoy writing the book?

Totally.  I loved the people I got to know and I enjoyed watching the process evolve from tentative sketches in a London design studio to a 487-ton yacht.  The only part I didn’t like was worry about whether Lady Linda actually would be completed.  Given the financial crisis and the Ponzi scheme, there were times when it looked like it wouldn’t happen and it ended up taking two years longer than it was supposed to.  If Lady Linda didn’t make it across the finish line, I’m not sure I would have had a book.