Iconic American yacht, Forbes' The Highlander, for sale

Published: 04/25/2011

When The Highlander, the 151-foot Feadship owned by the Forbes family, was mothballed in January 2009, the yachting industry already knew the recession was bad, but few questioned the need to pull the iconic yacht off New York Harbor. 

But the yacht, which entertained 9,000 clients and guests a year, was too much a part of business to be gone for long. Some saw it as a symbol of the recession, and waited patiently for her to be called back into service, sure that would signal its end.

“We aren’t going to see a huge recovery until Steve Forbes puts his boat [M/Y The Highlander] back on the circuit,” a captain said at captains roundtable lunch in December 2009.

As months stretched into years, however, insiders began to worry that day would never come. 

Now the industy has its answer: The Highlander is for sale.

“I’ve been involved with the boat my whole life,” said Whit Kirtland, a broker with Bradford Marine Yacht Sales who has the central listing. His father, Fred Kirtland, sold Malcolm Forbes the yacht in the mid 1980s. “When they made the decision to sell, I’m glad they called me.”

In addition to her manic corporate schedule, The Highlander -- at least this one, the fifth in a series of yachts owned by Malcolm Forbes -- was known for her long-term crew, some who were with her more than 20 years.

“I love this boat,” said Eng. Gene “Gino” Fittery, who has worked onboard almost 20 years. “Even though she’s …, well, 1985 isn’t old, she still has the same charm she did when she launched.”

Fittery was the sole crew member kept on that fateful January day when the rest of her crew were let go. He’s been doing his routine maintenance and trying to keep up with problems as he sees them, but the big stuff scheduled religiously every winter has been on hold.

A recent visit had the doors open, new potted plants around the stairwells and a day worker painting the bilges. A few weeks ago, Fittery got the call to pull the yacht’s legendary artwork out of storage and re-display it on the yacht.

Fittery joined the boat in 1991 or 1992. He can’t quite recall since his first six months were part-time.

“When I think about how long I’ve been here,” he said, losing his gaze across the main salon as his thought drops off. “I’ve been here so long I know it so well.”

Fittery was running his own business in Cape May, N.J., when an old Coast Guard buddy who was the engineer on The Highlander called him one cold, snowy day and asked if he wanted to go to Florida to help him on the boat.

It didn’t take long to make that decision, Fittery said, and the next thing he knew he was tossing a duffel bag aboard as she made her way south.

When asked why he stayed so long, he smiled.

“Everything was all hands,” he said. “We were a well-oiled machine. We served 120 plates, three times a week. Guests board at 5:45, we were under way at 6:30, dinner was at 7, dessert at 8, we were docked at 9.”

Those dinner cruises were for 120 people, three nights a week, every week from May to November. 

“That was not catered,” Fittery said. “Every meal was prepared on this boat for these guests.”

Add to that schedule the springtime trip to the Bahamas for family and the occasional overnight summer trip up to Maine or over to Nantucket. A lot of work, yes. But no burn out.

“I absolutely loved it,” said Bosun Jim Taylor, one of the long-time crew who was let go when the yacht was mothballed. “It was a routine boat. The schedule would come out in January for the year. We had weekends off. We knew when we were going to have overnight guests. There were no surprises.

“The schedule allowed everyone to breathe,” he said. “You never felt you needed a break. You were excited to go to work. Even when it was mundane, I never felt like I couldn’t do this anymore.

“If you ask them, everyone who stayed will tell you that’s why they were in so long.”

Mate Chris McKenna served two stints on The Highlander, first as a deckhand from 1993-95, then as third mate in 1998, moving up to mate and staying until the end.

When asked why he came back and why he stayed so long, he credited the schedule.

“We had our schedule laid out for the whole summer when we left Florida,” said McKenna, now the captain of M/Y Making Memories, a 100-foot Tarrab. “It was very organized. Everything had its place, the way the food came out, how it was served. You knew. It was regimented and I liked that.”

The tenure of the core crew -- Capt. Bill Boone, Chef Paul Acken, Eng. Gino Fittery, Mate Chris McKenna and Bosun Jim Taylor; none less than 10 years, two more than 20 -- turned them into a family.

“We all watched out for each other and took care of each other,” McKenna said. “If there was a death in the family, there was not even a question that you would go home. 

“I remember when we were in Panama and my dad had a heart attack,” he said. “It was three days before I could call home to find out about it and he was fine, but Bill was already making arrangements for me to fly home. 

“Bill was good at giving people time off, and we got to go home and see our families,” he said. “We had a job to do and we did it very well. They didn’t look over our shoulder all the time.

“The main thing, when we got older, we all got married and had kids,” McKenna said. “Getting families wasn’t a bad thing. The Forbes family wasn’t discouraged by that.”

He said he always looked for other jobs, opportunities to move up, but nothing ever compared with that time off for family.

A big part of that was the Forbes family dynamic. Built under the leadership of Malcolm Forbes the company and the yacht carried much of his personality, even after his death in 1990.

“Malcolm was bigger than life,” said Rusty Allen, who served two stints on the yacht, including as her captain in 1991. “Malcolm made the boat and made Forbes what it was. When Malcolm was alive, everybody would do anything to get on The Highlander as a guest.”

Those legendary corporate trips were broken into three types, he said: Advertising trips, cultural trips and West Point trips. Most were the normal advertising trips, where sales executives had a quota of invitations they were to extend to the magazine’s advertising clients and potential clients

.And while those were busy and productive, the gold mine as far as magazine content came from the other two.

“Those two were the meat and potatoes of Forbes,” Capt. Allen said. “When you accepted an invitation on a trip, you understood that whatever you said was fair game.”

Once aboard, Forbes executives would divvy up the guest list and each go talk to guests about their area of expertise, Capt. Allen said. Then they’d go to the bridge and dictate what they had just discussed. Many times, those snippets became the insight and perspective Forbes offered in the “Fact and Comment” column in the front of the magazine. 

“If you make widgets and someone else sells widgets, it was arranged that you would meet on that trip,” Capt. Allen said. “A lot of business deals were initiated and closed during trips on The Highlander.

The Highlander yachts touched many crew over the past five decades. 

Paul Engle, president of Bradford Marine in Ft. Lauderdale, was her captain from 1988-91. Joined as a mate for a trans-Pacific trip, he was given the captain job six months later while halfway across on the way home.

Unlike her more recent, long-term crew, Engle left after three years.

“That boat was a busy boat, a real pressure job,” he said. “I got a little tired.”

But there was more to it, he said. The family started to treat him well, giving him gifts of appreciation. He knew the longer he stayed, the harder it would be to leave.

“If I wanted to do something else with my life, I knew I was going to leave,” he said. “I knew a lot of captains had made a career being on that boat. Then Steve [Forbes] called me to New York. I knew that if I went up and talked to Steve, I would have stayed.”

Instead, he wrote a letter of resignation.

“It was the hardest thing I ever did,” Engle said. Working on The Highlander “was the experience of a lifetime. It was the highlight of my career.”

But Engle did something else for The Highlander before he left. He hired a mate named Bill Boone who would eventually be her captain to the end.

But first Allen would take command. He had been first mate when the boat launched in 1986, and was asked back as captain when Engle left. Like Engle, the busy schedule was not what he signed into yachting for and it didn’t keep him long. Still, the experience was memorable.

“I had a good time, enjoyed myself, met a lot of good people,” he said. “It was time to move on.”

His fondest memories, however, are from his first stint, when Malcolm Forbes was aboard.

“He would just come up to the bridge and sit down and talk to us,” Allen said. 

As first mate, it was his job to stand on the gangway as guests left and he saw Forbes shake hands with everyone, thanking them for coming, and saying something personal about them that he had learned on the cruise.

“He might not have known you when you boarded, but he knew you as you left,” Allen said. “People were always impressed that he not only remembered their name, but said something warm about them.”

Perhaps the strongest tie he has to the yacht is simply that he worked on her.

“You look at the industry now and the number of us who have a tie to the Highlander and it’s unbelievable,” he said, ticking off names of former crew, including Capt. Olav Hinke of the 164-foot Feadship M/Y Iroquois who was a deckhand, and Capt. Nick Murphy of the 115-foot M/Y Cortina, who was also a deckhand. Allen is captain of the 194-foot Feadship M/Y Calixe.

When it all ended on The Highlander in January 2009, Mate Chris McKenna said he sort of knew. 

“We kind of saw the writing on the wall,” he said. “When we headed back to Florida, usually we got started on our maintenance and the yard period but we sat at the dock for a month. That was kind of weird. 

“In January, the head lady from HR was coming down; we knew we were done,” he said. “I saw her walking up to the boat. She looked at me and stared to cry. I felt bad for her. It was something they had to do.

“It was sad to watch all those years end,” Bosun Jim Taylor said. “We all became like family. It felt so right with those guys. For yachting, it was an amazing experience.”

A few interesting facts about The Highlander V
Five staterooms (white, blue, gray, maroon and burgundy), six salons, six crew staterooms (for a crew of 14), 14 heads.

She carried a Bell Jet Ranger III helicopter, two tenders (19-foot Cigarette, 23-foot Donzi), and two BMW motorcycles.

Home ported in Manhattan, but has been across the Atlantic, the Pacific, through the Great Lakes and up the Amazon.

Famous art decorates the yacht, including Andy Warhol’s "Hamburger" in the forward observation deck, a stained glass door from Queen Victoria’s cabin on the royal yacht Osborne (ca. 1870).

Liz Taylor was aboard from Singapore to Bangkok with 22 pieces of luggage. 

The yacht’s 21-day crossing from Tokyo to San Francisco was the fastest ever for a Feadship at the time.

In 1986, when the Statue of Liberty was rededicated, Ron Reagan Jr. did “Good Morning America” from her deck.

When Israel’s government changed from Yitzhak Rabin to Shimon Peres in 1995, a conference was held aboard.

SOURCES: The Highlander web site, brochures, former crew