TRINITY YACHTS: Come Hell or high water

Janie is a 157-foot aluminum yacht delivered by Trinity just before Katrina. The gleaming engine room houses Caterpillar 3512Bs with Reintjes reduction gears. (Photos courtesy Trinity Yachts)

Of all the survival stories that followed Hurricane Katrina, one of the most compelling is the saga of Trinity Yachts LLC. By the time the storm hit the Gulf in late August 2005, Trinity was the leading megayacht builder in the United States, turning out four or five vessels a year from its New Orleans shipyard on the Industrial Canal. Ranging from 120 feet to 180 feet, these yachts were the ultimate toy for the high achiever who already had everything else.

John Dane III, who made headlines this summer competing as a Star Class sailor in the Beijing Olympics, founded Trinity Yachts in 1988 as a division of what was then Halter Marine Inc. In 1995, Trinity joined forces with Victory Lane Enterprises, owned by Felix Sabates Jr. Two years later, when the company introduced a totally new design for a tri-deck megayacht, it was a huge hit at the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show.

That yacht, Noble House (now Magic), was 150 feet by 28 feet and had a top speed of 24 knots, driven by a pair of Caterpillar 3512B engines. Its range was 6,000 nautical miles, and it had four guest bedrooms and an owner’s suite. In the hull were five cabins for nine crew members. Noble House was a world-class global cruiser.

By 2000, Halter Marine Group had morphed into Friede Goldman Halter (FGH), and Dane retired and bought out Trinity Yachts with two partners, yacht pro Sabates and Billy Smith of FGH. The new company leased part of the shuttered Equitable Shipyard from FGH.

That all came to an abrupt end in 2005, when Katrina battered the shipyard and the rest of New Orleans with winds gusting over 100 miles an hour and a storm surge that reached 20 feet.

Katrina brought a 15-foot wall of water into the yard. The inundation blew out walls and ripped off roofs, destroying most of the manufacturing equipment and cutting off electricity and phone service. The biggest loss, however, was the company’s 300 employees and 120 subcontractors, all of whom scattered for hundreds of miles.

Three vessels were in the yard at the time. Two were about to be delivered; the third was Dane’s own yacht, Leda. All survived the storm, as did four hulls in the fabricating sheds.

Interiors from two 2007 Trinity deliveries, the galley aboard Lady Michelle (above) and the pilothouse of Mine Games (right). The interior designers were Dee Robinson and Patrick Knowles, respectively. Mine Games carries a crew of 10, in five cabins; Quantum QC 1800 ZeroSpeed stabilizers with two fins smooth the ride for the owner’s party of 11, in five staterooms. (Photos courtesy Trinity Yachts)

But there was little else left. To rebuild their company, Dane and Smith swung immediately into action. “It was obvious that we had to relocate our shipyard and start to contact our employees,” Smith said.

Dane picked up a shuttered VT Halter Marine shipyard in Gulfport, Miss., and acquired 104 large three- and four-bedroom mobile homes, which it placed at the new yard. Each employee was given $1,500 in cash; the local banking system was in tatters. The 90 salaried employees continued to receive their paychecks. Since its Web server and phone lines were out, the company used radio ads and word of mouth to contact employees. Within two weeks, 200 workers were ready to return to work.

The vessels at the old yard had to be moved at once. The two nearly finished yachts went to Pensacola, Fla., for final work and the four hulls in the fabricating sheds were towed to Gulfport; Dane’s yacht Leda was pressed into service in the unexpected role of towboat.

“When we moved to the Gulfport yard it was hardly ready to resume production. It needed about $4 million in work before the four towed hulls could be completed,” Smith remembers.

Room to grow

But the new yard gave Trinity the expansion room it had been looking for anyway. Now it had 58 acres with 550,000 square feet of space under roof.

In spite of having started over, Trinity made quite a splash at the October 2005 boat show in Fort Lauderdale. The two yachts that had been tossed around in the storm, but escaped unscathed, had been completed. These were the 161-foot Zoom-Zoom-Zoom and the 156-foot Lady Florence, and Zoom-Zoom-Zoom even won a best-of-show award. Zoom-Zoom-Zoom was the first yacht to be equipped with a pair of Caterpillar 3516B diesels, which enabled it to attain a speed of 26 knots.

Later that year the 181-foot Mia Elise was finished, the first yacht with a full-displacement steel hull built in the United States for more than 60 years.

“From that point on, we have forged ahead,” Smith said recently. “We reopened the New Orleans yard on July 5, 2006, using a crew of 20 and it took almost a year to get it up and running.”

The worker shortage that has hurt shipbuilding all along the Gulf Coast has also affected Trinity. “We are about 300 people short for the amount of work we have,” said Dane. The direct impact is a huge, 19-yacht backlog — enough work for three years.

“We will use a two-shipyard strategy for the foreseeable future,” said Smith. “Some yachts under 160 feet long will be built in New Orleans, and they can handle about four vessels a year.”

Smith thinks the market for megayachts is almost boundless: worldwide production can’t keep up with the demand for vessels worth $20 million or more, and other factors are at play — the weakness of the dollar, for example, which attracts foreign buyers to U.S. builders, and the strength of the rental market. “Vessels in the 160-foot range can rent for $150,000 a week and up,” says Smith. “And every renter is a potential buyer.”

Wanna sell me your yacht?

Demand is so high that yacht flipping has been commonplace. “A person will contract with Trinity to build a new yacht that will take at least two years,” said Smith. “A new client will come along who is not willing to wait that long. So the new client buys a yacht under construction for more than the original contract price.

“It is a win-win situation. The new client gets his boat months or even a year earlier, and the original owner makes a handsome profit and then starts over and orders a new yacht.”

“Often it is not just the money for these owners,” Smith added. “Technology plays a big part. A person who contracted for a boat a year ago may have seen other features and equipment he wants on his boat, but construction is too far along to incorporate them. So selling his boat for a profit may fit into his plans and he can add the additional features in the design of the new megayacht.”

Smith said one of Trinity’s clients has done this five times — “each time making a profit.” And the yard has a proud boast: “In all of our history, no Trinity yacht has resold for less than the contract price,” he said.

The yachts Trinity is currently building are getting larger. Of the 19 under construction or in the planning stages, seven are 183 feet or longer. The previous record was 181 feet.

New yachts recently delivered or due in the next two years include Unbridled, at 191 feet; TO40, at 196 feet; Mine Games, at 164 feet; Carpe Diem, at 189 feet; Lady Linda, at 186 feet, and the longest yacht Trinity has ever built, New Horizon, at a massive 242 feet.

While hundreds of dedicated employees and suppliers helped Trinity rebound from a storm that would have doomed most other companies, it was basically a tribute to Dane and Smith, who had the blend of management skills and mental attitude to make the impossible, possible. One can only wonder how much farther ahead the City of New Orleans would be today if they had headed up the rebuilding effort.

By Professional Mariner Staff