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Setting Sail with the Big Boys

With New Technology and New Money, Majestic Sailing Ships Are Back
Marc Wortman
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 1)

Like most passionate sailors, Johnson has cruised and raced boats most of his life. In 1995, at age 37, he'd amassed enough money to retire from his job as a currency trader, manage his educational charities and put together a team of some of the best naval architects, project managers and boat craftsmen around to build what would be the perfect boat for him and his family. "What I wanted," he says, "was a boat that was aesthetically pleasing but didn't compromise on speed."

That's a tough mission for one boat to fulfill. Naval architect Bill Tripp designed the Shaman and has also designed many world-class championship race boats. "Rob told us, 'Make it art for art's sake,'" Tripp recalls. "He didn't set a finite value on this boat. For him, the better the boat is, the more it's worth to him." The result is a boat that is a cross between a Grand Prix racer and a suite at the Ritz.

Historically, a boat as big and as luxurious as the Shaman has been a lumbering tub weighing more than 100 tons and digging a deep hole in the water. Jacuzzis, trash compactors and hardwood headboards add pounds. Using carbon fiber, Kevlar and other ultralight, ultrastrong materials for hull and mast, along with such tricks as cherry veneer on honeycombed cores for the interior woodwork, the Shaman was trimmed back to a downright anorexic 48 tons. The amazing thing is that shaving all those pounds--a practice more typical for a bare-bones race boat--didn't cost anything in luxury and comfort. In fact, reducing the weight allows the ship to slide over waves, making it less subject to pitching and rolling.

The ship's interior, designed by London's Andrew Winch, has an elegant 1930s feel, with elaborate polished woodwork, as well as all the amenities of home, including a washer and dryer, a big-screen TV, state-of-the-art electronics and a combination pilothouse and salon with 360-degree views that make riding out a storm a pleasure.

The exterior and guts of the ship, on the other hand, are all space age. The Shaman has a number of special, hidden features. These include ballast tanks that automatically fill with water to flatten the ship when it heels over in a strong wind, and a hydraulic keel that drops 14 feet into the water to ensure stability at sea, but lifts to permit passage into the shallowest reef lagoons nestled within uncharted Pacific islands. Johnson's ship can sail seas anywhere in the world, at speeds seen more often in championship racing yachts, yet make the trips in great comfort. Best of all, it can be operated by a crew of four.

Creating such an exquisite vessel wasn't cheap. Johnson won't say how much he spent on the Shaman. A more typical 100-foot sailing cruiser, purchased used, runs from $5 million to $7 million, for starters. Figure a minimum of $300,000 just for annual upkeep and operation, and it's not all that different from owning a jet. It'll take you wherever you want to go, but make sure your pockets are plenty deep to keep it afloat. "Sailing," says Bucket organizer Goldstein, "is like standing in a shower and tearing up $10,000 bills."

Unlike other means of global transportation, however, a sailing yacht is also a combination home and source of adventure. "It's more fun to travel with your own hotel and first-class restaurant," says Gosnell of life aboard his cruising yacht.

"What's unusual are the places you can go," adds naval architect Tripp. "Unless they're picking up passengers, these boats avoid like the plague anyplace with an airport. You can't get into the anchorages where they go." For instance, Johnson's itinerary for the Shaman for this summer includes the fjords of Norway, then into the Mediterranean, followed by a passage to the Galapagos Islands. A year from now he plans to pull his children, ages nine and 11, out of school for a year and a half of circumnavigating the globe. It'll be a family adventure they'll never forget. "I'd rather have my kids inherit experience than money," he says.

Why not just get a motor yacht? "In a motor yacht," says Tripp, who has designed several, "you have a chauffeur and they take you around. A sailing boat asks for your participation. There are times when everybody on the boat has to pitch in."

Cruising, even on the scale and luxury of the Big Boys, is a challenge--a challenge that requires experience and forethought. It's not for everyone. A boat heels over in the breeze and pounds through the sea. It's hard to stay dry. The wind screams, the boom can whip the sails at terrifying velocity across the deck, and when you're in the middle of the ocean and a storm front hits, you can't stop and ask for a quick lift home. "The scale of forces on a boat this size is nothing to laugh at," says Johnson. "You have to take precautions." Failure on a sailboat can be catastrophic. Every passage-making sailor remembers Mike Plant, then America's foremost single-handed sailor, who disappeared two summers ago during a transatlantic crossing. His boat lost its keel and was found turtled. Plant's body was never recovered.

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