Sightlines - August 2017
A billionaire finally gets his yacht.
Offshore powerboat racing has always had its share of mysterious people of questionable backgrounds, so I took it in stride that Kjell Røkke’s story sounded too incredible to be true. By the time I met him in the early 1990s his claim to fame was that he started out on the back deck of an Alaskan fishing trawler cutting bait and ended up buying the boat, on his way to owning American Seafoods, one of the world’s largest fishing fleets. While not quite yet a billionaire by his mid-30s, he had done all of this, suffering from dyslexia and without finishing high school.
He was racing under the banner of KR Racing in 1994 when he asked me to design a pair of advanced composite offshore racing catamarans to be built by Tencara, in Italy. One was to be named Helly Hansen , after one of his companies and the other Spirit of Norway , built for his childhood friend to race. At an offshore race in Key West, Kjell had invited his parents and some of his old fishing buddies to join him. After meeting his very humble parents and listening to the tales from his old crewmates, it became obvious the unlikely stories of his rise to wealth were true.
During this same period, while operating his growing business empire from the Seattle area, Kjell commissioned Benetti Yachts in Italy to build its largest yacht ever: a 230-foot, seven-deck megayacht named Reverie , which was launched in 2000. By the time of the launch Kjell had returned to his native Norway as a wealthy man and began acquiring several companies, including Aker Shipyards. His return was not without notice as he was making headlines with his racing exploits and megayacht lifestyle. He was also making headlines with his hostile corporate takeovers and layoffs, not a good move in a socialist country like Norway.
After a few years things got a bit tough, and while Kjell continued to play, Norwegians didn’t take kindly to his wealthy lifestyle, while at the same time laying off thousands of his fellow citizens. He received death threats and was blasted continuously by the press. Public pressure finally forced him to sell his giant yacht and abdicate his offshore racing pursuits to his old friend Bjorn Gjelsten. Bjorn would later go on with Steve Curtis to win five UIM Offshore World Championships piloting my Tencara and Victory catamarans, spanning the years from 1998 to 2006. Bjorn accomplished all this while Kjell sat it out, in an attempt to stay out of the news.
I hadn’t heard much about Kjell for the last several years, but knew he had become one of the world’s 500 wealthiest people. He made worldwide news again recently when he announced the commissioning of the world’s largest exploration yacht, to be built in Norway and launched in 2020. At 596 feet, REV , which stands for Research Explorer Vessel, can accommodate up to 40 crew and 60 scientists from around the world. One of REV ’s stated missions, while working in cooperation with the World Wildlife Fund Norway, is to collect plastic waste from the ocean floor. Not incidentally, it will also have yacht-style accommodations for the owner and up to 36 of his guests.
So finally Kjell has come up with a politically correct way to own a megayacht in Norway. Call it a yacht posing as a research ship that can do good environmental work, and they will grant you permission. If only he had stayed in America, he wouldn’t need such an elaborate disguise. Americans respect a rags-to-riches story and don’t resent a man who rises above the crowd. I for one am happy to see my old friend become so successful through his shrewdness and hard work, but what struck me first when I read about the yacht was the irony of the name REV . It seems to be an obvious tip of the hat to his old yacht Reverie . But knowing Kjell the bit that I do and the socialistic problems he has had to endure in Norway, it seems more likely that REV is actually an abbreviation for revenge. Perhaps his countrymen will give him a pass this time around, and he will get to keep this one.
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.