Grand Ambition – Excerpt
The alarm clock next to Gale Tribble’s bed came alive with a blast of country music at 4:15 a.m. An ashtray holding the remains of the previous night’s final cigarette was balancing on top of the clock, so he was careful as he reached to turn off the radio. Then came a more insistent alarm, his cell phone, programmed to ring at 4:16. Hoisting himself from the bed, Tribble shuffled across the cluttered bedroom and opened a door that led directly into the kitchen, where he switched on a coffee machine he had loaded the night before.
It was a cold January morning, so he started to get dressed with a full-body layer of long underwear. Then jeans and a blue shirt that carried the name of his employer, Trinity Yachts, just above the left breast pocket, followed by wool socks and gray sneakers that were reinforced with steel to protect his toes. Returning to the kitchen, he reached into the refrigerator to remove a fried-egg sandwich his daughter had made, along with a Coke and a sticky bun. Once he had packed the food, his breakfast and lunch, into a cooler, Tribble filled a nonspill metal cup with coffee. His fire engine red pickup truck—a meticulously maintained eight-year-old Ford—was just a few steps away. Switching on the headlights, he commenced his twenty-mile commute by igniting a Camel Light and adjusting the volume of his radio, which was tuned to the same station as his alarm clock. He could shorten the travel time by taking the highway, but that would mean six additional miles and more gasoline, so he generally stuck to back roads.
Fifty-nine years old, Tribble is a wiry man whose five-foot-nine frame carries just 135 pounds, his weight ever since he graduated from high school. His black and silver hair is longish but neatly trimmed. His eyes are blue and deeply set, and his cheeks are also sunken, hollowed out because he had lost all his teeth many years earlier. He relies on dentures to eat.
Tribble lives in Pass Christian, Mississippi, a Gulf Coast community midway between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. He has never lived anywhere else, and his house, a compact, single-story, rectangular structure, is the one in which he grew up. Elevated above the ground by cinder blocks, it looks like a mobile home, but it was actually built by his father back in the 1940s. It is set on thirty-eight acres, most of which are overgrown, although Tribble had cleared out patches here and there to grow vegetables and raise chickens. He has never had much money, but his expenses are similarly modest. There is no mortgage on the house, and the annual real estate taxes are $659.
Back when he was in high school, Tribble wrote soulful songs that were inspired by the country ballads he started listening to with his parents. He also played the saxophone, and he sometimes thought about becoming a professional musician. But he ended up learning how to weld metals and went to work at the shipyard where his father had been employed for almost two decades. Tribble had been with several shipyards over the years, and he joined Trinity in 2006, not long after it moved from Hurricane Katrina–ravaged New Orleans to Gulfport, Mississippi. Forty years after he began his career, his hourly wage had gone from $2.50 to $18.50, but he said the buying power of his earnings was unchanged. “I used to be able to fill up the car with groceries for twenty dollars,” he remembered, “,and gas cost twenty-eight cents a gallon.”
Tribble is a shipfitter. He has helped build everything from barges and oceangoing cargo vessels to naval destroyers and aircraft carriers—more than one hundred vessels in all. He has always worked in open-air sheds where the conditions are often challenging, particularly in the summer when the temperature regularly rises above 100 degrees. But he almost never complains, not about the heat or the humidity, the early mornings or the tedium of his work, not even the gum disease that, by the time he was thirty, led to the loss of his teeth and the end of his saxophone playing. It just isn’t in his nature. Unlike many of his colleagues, Tribble has never seriously considered finding a different kind of job, and he was not eager to retire. “I like what I do,” he said. “And what would I do if I didn’t work?”
That morning, Tribble was about to begin the construction of Lady Linda, a 187-foot yacht. In a different era, this day—January 7, 2008—would have been one of special significance, witnessed by everyone who was playing a role in the massive project. But with many of the participants communicating with one another electronically from distant locations, the only people who would see the process get under way would be Tribble and another laborer, William Packer.
Lady Linda was to be one of the largest American-made yachts since the Gilded Age, a gleaming symbol of its owner’s participation in a quarter century of unprecedented wealth creation. The owner, a private equity investor named Doug Von Allmen, had committed himself to its building in 2006, not long before the boom’s peak. By global standards, Lady Linda would not be among the very largest of the burgeoning fleet of seagoing palaces, but Von Allmen had vowed that it would be the best of those made in the United States. He wanted to disprove the conventional wisdom that America did not know how to build things anymore, as well as the long-held orthodoxy that domestically built yachts are necessarily inferior to those from Europe. Nothing would be ordinary: interior walls would be made from rare species of burl wood, floors would be paved with onyx and unusual types of marble, the furniture would be bespoke, and artworks would be commissioned on the basis of the spaces they would fill.
But the creation of Lady Linda would be far from glamorous, and the uncertainties that lay ahead would affect hundreds of people whose lives and livelihoods were bound up in the project: Von Allmen and Tribble, as well as a former army sniper who was now working as a pipefitter, and an illegal immigrant from Honduras who would give a lustrous finish to the yacht’s exterior by sheathing it with an array of poisonous compounds. For Von Allmen, 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. For Tribble and many others, the impact of the changed world—and the construction itself—would be even more profound.
When Tribble reached Gulfport, he turned onto Seaway Road, a heavily trafficked thoroughfare where the air smelled of petroleum. Signs pointed to a variety of manufacturing and distribution operations as well as A-1 Bailbonds and a prison. Trinity was the only one of Seaway Road’s businesses that had a Help Wanted sign out front, evidence of the still-soaring demand for very large yachts.
Once he parked his truck, Tribble added two additional layers of clothing: Carhartt coveralls and a jacket. It was 5:35 a.m., well before the 6:00 start of his shift. After sliding his time card through a machine to register his presence, he entered a partially enclosed metal structure that covered almost a dozen acres and the bulk of Trinity’s production facilities. Like everyone, Tribble called it “the yard.” Eleven vessels were at various stages of development, although some of the constructions did not look like boats. One of the largest forms, an almost completed hull, was inverted. Its disconnected bow section, which was upright, stood nearby.
Tribble found his way to a jig, a 120-foot-long steel-beamed platform on which the first phases of Lady Linda would be built. Three feet above the floor, the jig was surrounded by piles of recently cut pieces of aluminum of various shapes and sizes.
In traditional boatbuilding, the first step would be the assembling—or laying—of the keel: the foundation upon which everything else was built. But the order of things was different at Trinity, which, like most contemporary shipbuilders, broke the fabrication process into units. In another departure from traditional boatbuilding, most of the hull would be built upside down. It was easier—and less time consuming—for laborers to work that way. Rather than having to aim their welding torches upward, they could look down at their work.
Tribble and Packer, who got to the jig a few minutes after Tribble, would start with the engine-room module, one of four large assemblies that would compose the hull. The very first piece of the puzzle was the centerboard longitudinal, a strip of aluminum that was forty-five feet long, the full length of the module, and twenty-three inches high. Like a keel, it would run along the middle of the hull; but while keels protrude from the bottom of the hull, the centerboard would be inside. (Eventually, Lady Linda would also have a keel, but it would be added much later.)
The first task was to erect a pair of braces that would hold the centerboard above the jig. Once that was done, Packer manipulated the controls of the overhead travel lift—a chain-bearing crane that ran on tracks ninety feet above the floor—to deliver the centerboard to the braces. Then he climbed up onto the jig and held the centerboard firmly against one of the braces. Just after ten in the morning, Tribble used a tape measure and a level to confirm that the centerboard was in the correct position. He then lowered the face mask of his helmet and joined the centerboard to one of the braces with four small welds. Once it was attached to the other brace, the next job was welding fifty-two yard-long frames to the centerboard so that they extended from it like ribs.
When a whistle sounded at four thirty to signal the end of the workday, Tribble was in an excellent mood, for two reasons. First, the satisfaction that always came from starting something new. In addition, it was Monday, the day that always ended with his favorite meal: red beans and rice. It was a southern tradition that went back to preelectricity days when laundry was done by hand, and usually on Mondays. Since the work tied women to the house, it was the best day for them to watch over a pot of simmering beans.
The product of Tribble’s labor did not look like much. He and Packer had connected twenty frames to the centerboard, ten on each side. The shiny silver assembly appeared to be flimsy, more like a supersized version of a child’s Erector Set than the beginnings of 487-ton yacht that would be formed with more than thirty thousand pieces of aluminum and cost $40 million.