Intrepid freeloader sizes up the yacht Highlander

July 14, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

On Board the Highlander -- Capitalism is a gorgeous thing, all 151 feet and 477 tons of it.

There, hogging dock space at the Annapolis Yacht Club yesterday, was Malcolm Forbes' Highlander, the yacht for CEOs with the urge to merge. With its dollar-green hull, carpet swatches from the Titanic and enough caviar and Dewars to impress Donald Trump, the Highlander parted the Bay to arrive for Forbes' three-day conference for corporate leaders in Annapolis.

Yesterday afternoon, the spouses were on board and the ship actually took a cruise. Last night, the CEOs were on board but the ship stayed put. But what presence! In this neck of the Bay, sometimes the biggest and baddest boat wins. And the Highlander did some serious keel kicking yesterday. Forbes' floating museum and "great capitalistic tool" made the nearby 60-foot Hatterases look like LEGO boats.

"Whose boat?" a tourist asks at the dock, where it's hotter than Florida asphalt.

"Forbes."

"Figures," the man says, leering at the Highlander.

"That's not a boat. That's a city," says Alicia Booth of West Virginia as she wanders the docks. She isn't wearing a special Forbes name tag, so she won't be going to the 6:15 p.m. reception for the CEOs.

We have a name tag. So we get a special tour of the reportedly $5 million ship, where most of us couldn't afford the rope. Our tour guide is chief steward Phil Alia, who used to work at Disney World, of all places.

First rule on board the Highlander is don't talk money. And don't touch anything. But it's sure fun to look around. The sofa pillows say: Age and Treachery will Overcome Youth and Skill. Forbes magazines are everywhere, naturally. The boat boasts champagne buckets from the liner Normandie, stained glass from Queen Victoria's yacht and framed newspaper clippings from the Titanic disaster. (The late Malcolm Sr. was fascinated with the Titanic.)

The Highlander's greatest strength is its AC. This baby stays cool.

As the ship's full-time bagpipe player walks by, Phil tells us the Highlander entertains about 150 corporate folks just about every week. Then, he mentions the two key words necessary for any maritime experience. The Highlander features an OPEN BAR.

Although no wake in the Western World could stir this docked boat, Phil reminds people that the Highlander can meet rough seas as it goes "Trans-Pacific" thanks to a 20,000-gallon gas tank. It goes anywhere it wants, thank you. When the seas get mean, the 14-member crew wraps the good crystal in diapers. Seriously.

Phil starts to mention how fast the yacht goes (17 mph) when he stops suddenly. "I got a light bulb out. I hate that," he says, scurrying off to replace it.

He takes us down into the master stateroom, where Colin Powell and perhaps every living president has stayed. Phil shows off off the master bath. Ton o' marble here and all the ceilings are leather. Jumping on the master bed, we discover firm mattresses and that jumping on the bed is probably a no-no.

Just then, the yacht does a very strange thing. It moves slightly, reminding us that, yes, we are on the water and not in the Waldolf Astoria.

In the back lounge, bartender Lee Haislip sets up. He got called two days ago. Wanna work on the Highlander? Sure, he says. "What is it?" Big boat and good pay day. By day, Lee works here at Chesapeake Marine Tours. Yesterday, he worked on the most famous yacht in the world.

"I never worked for someone this high up the food chain," he

says.

At 6:15 p.m., the bagpipe player starts blowing his mournful song up top the Highlander -- near the two cigarette boats, two BMW motorcycles and Bell Jet helicopter, with its landing pad the size of a big desk. A Forbes tradition is to have bagpipe music welcome arriving guests to the yacht. The shuttle bus from the Loews Annapolis Hotel, where the CEO conference was held, dutifully dropped off all the name tags.

We need a name tag that reads WE ARE POOR or WE ARE SADLY UNDERDRESSED. The guests are greeted by a fan of beautiful waitresses, each balancing five glasses of champagne on a silver tray -- near a Henri De Toulouse Lautrec original. Also near a nasty little spear called a Boarding Pike.

"Designed so that the boarder trying to climb over the side gets it right in the chest," reads the cheery plaque. The place is packed with plaques.

The 10-year-old Highlander quickly fills with CEOs, their spouses and other business leaders. Ed Harshfield is here from California. In the banking business. It is his first time on the Highlander. But he met The Man once, a long time ago.

"You know, for a Scotsman, he sure knew how to spend money," Ed says.

We search for famous people: James Carville, George Stephanopoulos and Gov. Parris Glendening might show. No sight of them. But we do spot Donald Fehr, head of major league baseball's union. Most of the men on board look like Gregory Peck, which is as close to celebrity as we get.

Next we eavesdrop on conversations. People are wheeling and dealing and think-tanking and brainstorming. Words such as "leadership" and "courage" and "entitlements" are exchanged. We consider attaching a final sign to ourselves: WE DON'T SHAKE OR MOVE.

"I think we should be invited back here for a week," says Diane Dammeyer from Chicago. Her husband, Rod, is a CEO for a network systems provider. They both think the ship is swell.

"My wife kids me that I should make more money," he says.

They return from touring the master stateroom, a hot spot. People loiter in the master bath, contemplate the gargantuan master tub, and stare out the portholes at the puny, passing sailboats and all the common folk waving up at the mighty Highlander, which leaves Annapolis today, leaving us all in its rich wake.

As one CEO said yesterday after exiting the master stateroom:

"Gee whiz!"

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