By Timothy K. Smith, senior features editor
FORTUNE -- Sea-struck readers enduring the long winter ashore will want to pick up Grand Ambition, the latest maritime volume from G. Bruce Knecht. And the minute they do they'll likely start scratching their heads, bemused by the engagingly frank subtitle on the cover: "An Extraordinary Yacht, The People Who Built It, And the Millionaire Who Can't Really Afford It."
Knecht knows his boats. He is the author of two previous, well received sea stories, one about the deadly 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race, and one about poached fish -- the kind served in restaurants, and also the kind taken illegally by pirates. He was also, it happens, aboard the schooner Mari Cha IV in 2005 when it broke a transatlantic sailing record that had stood for 100 years.
This time Knecht has written a soup-to-nuts account of the construction of a modern superyacht. The vessel is the dream boat of a private equity investor, Doug Von Allmen, and his wife, Linda, who have a problem with one of their current yachts: at 197 feet, with a draft of eleven and a half feet, it is too big to keep at the dock behind their house in Fort Lauderdale. They decide to commission a slightly smaller one, to be called Lady Linda, 187 feet long with an eight-foot draft. They want it to be made in the U.S.A., so as to prove that an American-built yacht can be just as good as one built in the fancy shipyards in Holland and Germany.
Knecht is a former writer for the Wall Street Journal, and it shows. He has done a splendid job of reporting. He takes the reader to Gulfport, Miss., where the aluminum vessel comes together at Trinity Yachts; to London, where the designer Evan Marshall draws the interior; to Australia, where the cabinetry and other woodwork is done; and to Monaco, for a gathering of yacht owners so ostentatious that, in a properly ordered universe, it would have sparked a revolution.
Knecht does a first rate job with the big picture, and boy is it big. Lady Linda costs $40 million to build -- and who knew that people who commission boats like this generally expect to sell them at a profit? It's constructed of more than 30,000 pieces of aluminum and weighs 487 tons. Knecht deftly describes the pressures on builders, brokers, and owners when the financial crisis hits -- and how they are amplified in Von Allmen's case when he is tricked into investing in a Ponzi scheme. The author meticulously paints the small picture, too, zooming in for closeups of people working on the sprawling project: a shipfitter, a pipefitter, a carpenter, an illegal immigrant doing toxic work without proper safety gear. Knecht's voice is earnest and empathetic, and he studiously avoids nautical cant. What a sea-struck reader really wants from a book like this, though, is briny escapism combined with scenes of jaw-dropping excess. Maybe the best of the genre is Mine's Bigger, by David A. Kaplan (a Fortune contributor), which chronicles the creation of Tom Perkins's square-rigger, the Maltese Falcon. In Grand Ambition there are some astonishing scenes, as when the owner, inspecting his nearly completed yacht for the first time, declines to visit the crew quarters, saying "I don't need to go there." But in the end one gets the sense that the material is letting the author down.
Yes, it's a big, expensive vessel, but it still looks like another giant, white, basketball shoe. What the Von Allmens appear to care about most in this project, besides the money, is the interior decorating. They take great care selecting the burlwood for their bedside tables and the light honey onyx for the floor of the main salon. But there is little sense that they long to be at sea, even aboard a sumptuous palace with a large crew to serve them. In the book's final chapter Doug Von Allmen tells Knecht: "The magic has worn off a bit; we have been to so many places already. I still like looking at the water and the service you get on board, but there's a bit of 'been there, done that.'"
It's often said that however vulgar an over-the-top yacht may appear to some people, its construction is a good thing because it keeps skilled artisans at work in boatyards. In the same spirit, you should go buy this book, to keep Knecht at work so that he'll write another.
Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers' and contributors' takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We've invited the entire Fortune family -- from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers -- to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities.
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