Katrina vs.the Superyachts

The most destructive hurricane ever meets American icon Trinity Yachts in an epic battle for survival.

Over the past decade, Trinity Yachts has become perhaps the largest builder of megayachts in America, from its 38-acre base on the Industrial Canal in east New Orleans. When Katrina roared ashore on Sunday, August 28, however, many feared that Trinity would be dealt a body blow from which it would be difficult, if not impossible, to recover. That didn't happen. But for a few days, the company, like the rest of the region, stared into a black hole of an uncertain future….

Trinity is no stranger to hurricanes-Ivan and George were recent visitors-so when Katrina passed across southern Florida into the Gulf of Mexico there was little concern that this would be more than just another one. Forecasters predicted a path more to the east; therefore, when it turned toward New Orleans on Friday and was upgraded to a Category 4 storm, the company began to execute a well-practiced hurricane preparedness plan.

In the yard at the time were seven boats: the 161-foot Zoom Zoom Zoom, the 157-foot Lady Florence-both virtually complete and ready to be delivered-four hulls in the enclosed outfitting bay, plus Leda, one of the company's first yachts, now owned by John Dane III, the company's president and CEO. Workers stowed all loose items, threw out ten lines each from Zoom and Lady Florence, both floating dockside, and even threw chains on the four incomplete hulls inside for good measure.

Before they closed the yard Saturday, Dane, COO Wayne Bourgeois, and William "Billy" Smith III, vice president of the company, found six volunteers to stay in the yard during the storm. Two each were on Zoom and Lady Florence, while the third pair was stationed in the company's guard shack. By Saturday evening preparations were complete and Dane and Smith left to prepare their homes 60 miles to the east in Pass Christian, Miss. Felix Sabates, the company chairman, was in Italy and would soon return to the U.S.

On Sunday afternoon the first rainbands scoured the coastline and the storm began its inexorable crescendo into Monday morning. Oddly, the volunteers' cell phones worked sporadically, and one of them managed to phone his supervisor to give a status report. As they were speaking, the guard yelled that the roof was blowing off the shed over his head, then the line went dead. The supervisor feared the worst for the two in the guardhouse.

Meanwhile, Zoom and Lady Florence were faring better. Wind gusts would send the yachts heeling over 10 to 15 degrees, but inside it was comfortable. "One-hundred-fifty-mile-an-hour winds are not going to blow a welded aluminum boat apart," Smith said later. "It may break loose from its moorings, it may go aground, and if the boat goes aground you aren't going to drown. It's a very safe place."

The storm surge continued to rise until finally one of the pilings holding Lady Florence pulled out and ripped a dock away. The yachts swung around on the stern lines but didn't touch each other, held apart by another loose piling. On Zoom the engines were started and revved up to half speed, which held the yacht in place for several hours until the winds abated. The surge, which Dane estimated to be up to 14 feet, flooded the yard and the hulls in the outfitting shed. The hulls rose on their chocks a few inches, held in place by the storm tethers. "We debated whether we should send launching invoices to each of these owners," Dane joked afterward.

One of the volunteers on Lady Florence, John "Wheels" Neal, recalled looking over at Zoom and marveling at the strange, surreal beauty of the maelstrom. "The whole boat was just encapsulated in water between the wind and the rain. It was an awesome sight, really beautiful, but it was bad, really bad." Neal and another volunteer re-mained on deck outside in the lee of the wind, finding it hard even to peer around the corner without being blown away.

Suddenly the lines started snapping "like cannons." Fearing the yachts were coming loose and in danger of sinking, Neal jumped overboard and swam through the flood to an open door in one of the buildings. He remained there for six hours, until the storm subsided and he returned to the yacht.

As far as the others were concerned, however, Neal, and possibly the two in the guardhouse, were gone. Incredibly, a slim cell-phone connection remained, and one of the volunteers managed to get a connection to a friend in Boston, who then called Sabates and set up a conference call during the height of the storm. That's when Sabates found out Neal was missing and presumed dead.

The Boston connection provided Sabates with the cell-phone number and two days later he dialed that number. John Neal answered.

"John, you're alive?" he asked.

"Yeah, I'm alive," Neal calmly replied.

"Well, hell, I thought you were dead!"

"Well, I ain't dead."

Sabates asked where the other volunteers were. "They're all here," Neal said.

"Everybody?"

"Yeah, we're all here." Neal laughed. "We just had some barbecued ribs," he added. It turned out Zoom was provisioned for its maiden voyage to Florida, and those on the boats had been feasting in air-conditioned, electricity-laden comfort.

Katrina's fury had made access to the yard virtually impossible. As the storm subsided, one of the Leda crew who had remained at the yard discovered he could use Leda's satellite phone. The yacht had been floating in a covered shed, but the shed roof had blown off, enabling the satellite connection. His calls to Dane brought the first word of the yard's fate: It had survived well. Most of the yard's buildings were intact, except for the roofs on Leda's shed, the guard gate and some other minor damage. The finished yachts were also virtually undamaged save for some slight chafing. Leda, which was being refitted, had rain damage through exposed openings and some modest surface damage from blowing debris. And there was a four-inch layer of mud everywhere.

A day later, Sabates sent his helicopter to Louisiana. It took until Friday to obtain a special permit to fly into the restricted zone, and on Saturday, five days after the storm, Dane and Smith made their first visit to the yard. All the volunteers wanted to remain where they were. "They were dedicated employees and said that they'd gotten this far, they aren't leaving these babies," Dane said.

Looting remained a worry. As New Orleans descended into anarchy, Neal saw a group of looters take over a nearby funeral parlor, commandeering a mail truck to haul their goods. When a group of surveyors with a police escort appeared on the bridge next to the yard, a brief but fierce firefight ensued. Trinity was ignored by the looters.

Meanwhile, the owner of Positive Carry, another Trinity yacht, offered the use of his own Sikorsky helicopter. On Wednesday, nine days after Katrina, the Sikorsky arrived with two crew and a mechanic. Boat and helicopter were the only way to get to the yard for two weeks after the event.

Trinity's 360 employees and 120 subcontractors had been literally blown away with the winds. Many had lost their homes and were among the thousands of evacuees. With the company's telephones and Web site out of commission (the server was in the powerless yard) the company used radio announcements and word of mouth to try to get them back. One was found in Nashville, where he had been quoted in the local newspaper saying he was looking for a job there because he didn't know whether Trinity still existed.

Trinity pulled out all the stops to help its employees. A sum of $1,500 was handed out to every employee for seed money. The 90 salaried employees continued to receive their pay throughout. The volunteers who stayed at the yard each received new cars or pickup trucks to replace the ones they had lost. In Mississippi, the company found 100 new trailer homes and purchased them on the spot. Two weeks after the storm at least 200 employees had re-established contact and were waiting to begin work again. "We've been a very successful company," said Dane, "and what we're trying to do is help those who have helped us make money survive this disaster."

The yard moved its accounting office to Baton Rouge, its administrative office to Gulfport, Miss., and its engineering to Covington, La., thereby enabling the company to continue operations. On Tuesday, September 13, a convoy of trucks laden with generators and equipment arrived at the yard to begin the laborious cleanup.

Meanwhile, the outpouring of support from the marine industry overwhelmed Trinity. "We have over $75,000 donated by suppliers to an employee-relief fund," said Dane two weeks after Katrina. In Ft. Lauderdale, the owner of Zoom Zoom Zoom and his captain spearheaded a drive for donated generators, power cords and other equipment necessary to rebuild the yard. Over a dozen companies responded, and every two weeks a 20-foot container of donated equipment was shipped to the yard. Even shipyard competitors offered temporary work for Trinity workers. "We've had customers calling and saying, 'As soon as you get going, we're going to give you that order,'" said Dane. "Other customers say, 'I know your boat is going to be a little late; Is your family OK?; Who cares about the boat?' It brings tears to your eyes how unbelievable this industry is. It's a very small fraternity of a lot of good people."

When the storm subsided, Billy Smith and John Dane went to their homes to see what had survived. Smith's home was intact, as was his Mainship 34. (He later used it to scout a route to the gulf for the two finished yachts. "It was like Lewis and Clark, trying to find a deepwater route to the gulf," he recalled.)

Dane wasn't as lucky. All that was left of his home was the slab, and four other homes belonging to him or his family had also disappeared. He spent half a day searching through the rubble for the remains of his life, ending up with only two boxes. "We literally now have zero pictures, zero memorabilia; we have none of that saved," he said. After the hurricane, Dane and his family moved into his 86-foot houseboat.

Dane remains undaunted. "What drives me is, number one, I love the boatbuilding business. And I want to get my businesses going." (Dane's other yard builds Navy patrol boats.) "Between my two companies, I have 700 people depending on me to get going again. I'm not a quitter. We're going to get this company going."