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Planning for Doomsday with an Escape by Boat

The Royal Norwegian Navy Skjold-class are Surface Effect Ships.

The Royal Norwegian Navy Skjold-class are Surface Effect Ships.

Michael Peters

Sightlines - May 2017


Getting the hell out of dodge.

We were just approached by one of our commercial builders for a getaway boat proposal in case of an all-out attack on New York City. The venture is being set up by an ex-Navy SEAL who is looking to provide an escape plan for wealthy elites, in case all the major roads and airports are shut down for the rest of us less fortunate, taxpaying slobs. The escape by boat would apparently whisk these lucky few away to the safety of an underground bunker or secured offshore island. I couldn’t resist the temptation to put a snake logo on the house side, in honor of Kurt Russell’s character in Escape From New York. This proposal brought to mind one of the most bizarre projects I have ever been involved in.

In 1982, at the height of the Cold War, with Leonid Brezhnev still in power and Vladimir Putin working at his post in the KGB, a request came for a doomsday yacht to escape Europe in case of war. This was years before Mikhail Gorbachev with his glasnost and perestroika, and Europeans were living under the very real threat of invasion by Soviet forces. Amidst these tensions, I was contacted by former associates at Bell Aerospace to put together a proposal for a Swiss client.

I had recently left Halter Marine to set up my own design office and I had previously gotten to know the principals at Bell through the Bell-Halter SES joint venture. Surface Effect Ships are essentially fixed catamaran hulls supported by a pressurized air cushion; Halter had built a few 110-footers by that time. Quite notably, one of the 110s was cut just forward of the engine room bulkhead and a 50-foot-long-by-40-foot-wide section was added to the vessel for the U.S. Navy. The new 160-foot SES, with the same exact drive train, only reduced its speed by one knot, thanks to the added area of the air chamber.

Bell had received a $1 million deposit from the Swiss client and I was quickly briefed before diving into the proposal. The client had clearly stated that it was a matter of when, not if, the Soviets would invade Europe with their massive army of tanks. His plan was to escape his Swiss estate by underground tunnel and drive to the south of France, where his vessel would be waiting for him. The yacht was to be fast, completely self sufficient, and capable of reaching halfway around the globe without refueling. Project name: NonStop.

The 160-foot Bell-Halter SES had just proven its ability to reach 45 knots and carry an increased payload with the larger pressure chamber, so the decision was made to build a yacht version of the 180-foot U.S. Navy minesweeper being developed at the time. At light load the yacht was being designed to run 50 knots, but with the vessel full of fuel for long range, cruising speed would be reduced to 20 knots. The range was a really big issue, because we simply couldn’t fit the required fuel capacity in the catamaran hulls. I vividly remember the very serious discussion about making the staterooms watertight and flooding them with fuel for the inevitable escape. All mattresses and fabrics would have to be tested for compatibility to make sure they didn’t clog the fuel-filtration system. Imagine discussing this as a serious solution with top Bell Aerospace engineers—and yet flooding the cabins with fuel became the final solution. Our client obviously wasn’t taking many friends with him on his final trip.

Time moved on, Brezhnev died later that year and the Soviet threat eventually disappeared. I think the client eventually asked for his money back from Bell and NonStop never got off the drawing boards. This was several years before the onslaught of megayachts and gigayachts, but certainly a precursor of things to come, where many of the world’s wealthiest people are capable of national autonomy if war breaks out. The way things are going today, it may be an American client next time who wants the ability to escape by boat when the shit hits the fan and it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge. With the nuclear threat on the rise, our old proposal from the Cold War days doesn’t seem so freakish anymore.

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.