Bridgeport, Conn. — The shipyard hard by the wastewater treatment plant here offers a feast of nautical spectacles: Rusting ferries beached like whales, a barge split in half, a riverboat-like vessel in red and white bobbing by the dry dock.
Since opening in 2001, the Connecticut operation of Derecktor Shipyards has built, repaired or upgraded tugboats and lobster boats, fireboats and ferries, sailing yachts, motor yachts and catamarans.
But one vessel overshadows all the others.
At 281 feet, Cakewalk is the longest yacht built in the United States since the 1930s, when Bath Iron Works of Maine delivered J.P. Morgan Jr.'s 343-foot Corsair IV, a vessel that spent its final years as a commercial cruise ship and ended up a shipwreck.
And at nearly 3,000 gross tons (a measure of volume, not weight), Cakewalk is believed to be the most spacious yacht ever built in America. It cost more than $82 million.
Next month, after nearly four years of construction, the six-deck maritime marvel will cruise away from its Long Island Sound birthplace for a public debut at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.
Charles Gallagher, the Denver private equity investor who hired Derecktor to build Cakewalk, said size was not his main concern.
"There's no such thing as having the largest yacht in the world," he said from Denver. "But it is important to us to have the finest-quality yacht in the world. That's what I set out for."
Gallagher, Derecktor and others in the U.S. yachting industry view Cakewalk as more than a uniquely grand vessel. They see it as an assertion of American prowess in large-scale luxury-yacht construction, an act of daring even for a firm as celebrated as Derecktor, which built Stars & Stripes '87, the 1987 America's Cup winner.
Cakewalk — Gallagher's fifth yacht by that name — features a spiral central staircase with ivy-like wrought-iron balusters, a formal dining salon (with chandelier), a fireplace, an elevator and "Versailles-patterned woodwork." There are six staterooms for guests and separate quarters for captain and crew.
The master stateroom has a separate sitting room, dual baths and walk-in closets. There's a grand piano on board, original art and a walk-in cooler just for fresh flowers.
With a range of 5,000 nautical miles at 15 knots, the ship can easily cross the Atlantic. Its belly will hold three custom-built tenders for ferrying guests to and fro, along with recreational craft, including two "underwater scooters."
"This is a go-anywhere boat," said Bill Zinser, the Connecticut native who is captain of Cakewalk and its full-time crew of 25.
Despite the size, splendor and cost of the new Cakewalk, it is not the world's largest yacht, or even close to it: On Power & Motoryacht magazine's 2010 list of 100 largest yachts, Cakewalk ranks No. 38.
The reigning champion is the 557-foot Eclipse, built in Germany for Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. Eclipse has features that Cakewalk's designers left out — helipads, for example. Two of them.
Gallagher, an experienced leveraged-buyout engineer who remains involved in companies bearing the family name, expects Cakewalk to inspire awe and respect all the same.
"I think it will surprise a lot of people that feel only the Dutch and Germans can do this," he said, noting that he hired the Dutch company Feadship for his previous two yachts and settled on Derecktor only after "an enormous amount of due diligence."
Gallagher, 72, said he visited the Bridgeport yard "many times" before and during the ship's construction.
"We picked the location to build the boat because of the unbelievable skill sets that are available in the northeast part of the United States. We being me," he said. "I wanted to be the first one to demonstrate to the yachting industry that the U.S. shipbuilding capability can produce quality that meets or exceeds the quality standards of the large yachts that are built in Holland and in Germany. And for your information, the largest and the best yachts have been built in Holland and Germany."
For all his confidence in Derecktor, Gallagher recruited renowned British yacht designer Tim Heywood and Dutch naval architects for the team that produced the latest Cakewalk.
Joe Foggia, president of Christensen Shipyards of Vancouver, Wash., which has built luxury yachts of up to 164 feet, agreed that Derecktor's delivery of Cakewalk could boost the global yachting industry's esteem of American luxury-boat builders.
"It could be the start of something," he said, adding that high domestic labor costs and certain Coast Guard regulations would continue to hinder mega-yacht construction here.
Gershon writes for the Hartford Courant.