The Facebook memes, the editorial cartoons and the headlines from left-leaning publications all agree: Sen. Joe Manchin is living a lavish lifestyle while blocking Biden administration initiatives to relieve and comfort the ordinary folks of West Virginia and America in general. The evidence: Manchin drives an Italian sportscar and lives in Washington on a “luxury yacht.”
If nothing else this editorial cartoonist got the lines right, as well as the placement of the lifering.
Let’s examine the yacht part. In the American vernacular “yacht” implies luxury, so “luxury” here is redundant. Manchin’s critics are effectively condemning him for possession of a yachtie yacht.
Manchin’s 65-footer, built in 2001 by Custom Steel Boats of Merritt, N.C., is named Almost Heaven, a reference needing no explanation. The question is whether the vessel is really a yacht and whether ownership of this heaven-adjacent platform indicates a lavish lifestyle.
Not even almost, say the people that know yachts and yacht owners best—the designers, builders and the brokers in the yacht business. “It’s nicely appointed, and there’s a nicely rolled-on coat of paint,” says Ken Fickett, a boat builder in Florida specializing in trawler yachts, a slow-moving style of vessel to which Almost Heaven has been compared. “But it’s certainly a long way from being a yacht. That designation comes from what a boat looks like on the outside. I don’t think there’s anyone that I know in the marine industry that would say, ‘Yeah, that’s a yacht’.”
Call it adherence to tradition or just plain snobbery, but people in the yacht business expect a yacht to be elegant in her lines and to have a distinctive style (and if that style is quirky then it would be said to have character, as in, “That’s a character-boat.”).
Fickett says Almost Heaven has all the charm of a container ship. Others interviewed for this article describe the boat as “a shoe box,” “a double-wide” and “a point at one end filled with stuff.” Marine surveyor (appraiser) Dylan Bailey, whose family has built steel boats in Virginia for decades, dismisses Manchin’s boat as “hideous.”
This is the picture Dylan Bailey was looking at when he called the boat “hideous.”
Appearance counts, says veteran yacht broker Jeff Merrill. “A lot of boats just take up space at the dock and the common derogatory description is ‘Marina Queen’,” Merrill says. “Sedentary boats used as an on-the-water living platform have a niche, but they are rarely considered yachts regardless of their size or price point.”
So how should Almost Heaven be classified? Merrill and others interviewed for this article agree: The vessel would best be described as a houseboat, less a status symbol than a statement of pragmatism.
In 2004 the Washington Post newspaper profiled the boat, then named Jennifer Ann, and her original owners, David and Jennifer DeLancey. The Delanceys were unapologetic about the boat’s slab-sided appearance, explaining that she had been designed “from the inside out.”
You could call it a houseboat, but that would be like calling Air Force One a plane. Within the sunny, air-conditioned confines of the custom-built, 65-by-20-foot, three-story steel hull, David has packaged more space and amenities than most apartments and condominiums and many houses. The 1,500 square feet of interior living space embrace 3 1/2 bedrooms (including a 14-by-20-foot master suite), 3 1/2 bathrooms, and a bright and open living/dining area (complete with a granite dining table) where the DeLanceys have comfortably entertained as many as 50 people to watch a Blue Angels air show or the colorful start of major yacht races on the bay.
Canadian Tad Roberts has worked as a naval architect since the 1980s, responsible for some of the most iconic yacht designs of his generation. Roberts and Fickett both place the value of Almost Heaven at about $300,000, noting that unlike yachts whose furnishings are built into the boat, Manchin’s consists of freestanding household items (and a lot of throw pillows). The Delanceys told the Post they spent $900,000 building and outfitting the boat. The cost to build the boat new could be anywhere between one- and two-million dollars, according to the experts interviewed for this article.
The online fact-checkers at PolitiFact report that in 2014 Manchin purchased the boat for $220,000 from a bank using a liquidation company as a broker. The value for insurance purposes was reportedly $700,000.
Naval Architect Lou Codega has designed vessels for the Navy and Coast Guard as well as a popular line of sportfishing boats and a line of trawler yachts. Though no fan of the senator, Codega doesn’t see Almost Heaven as indicative of a lavish lifestyle. “As much as I'd like to pin this on him, $700,000 for a 1,500-square-foot “condo” in that part of D.C. is kind of slumming it. It’s well fitted out and all that, but I don’t think it qualifies as extravagant.”
This Kadey-Krogen 58 clearly has the styling that Almost Heaven lacks. (Kadey-Krogen photo)
This Florida Bay Coaster qualifies as a “character boat” in the trawler-yacht niche. (JMYS photo)
“Bottom Line, even if it’s worth a million dollars, what does a three-bedroom cost in waterfront Washington?” asks Reuben Trane, who once built a same-size, steel hulled “character boat” later owned by pop star Billy Joel.
To answer Trane’s question, Zillow reports that a three-bedroom, two-bath condo measuring 1,530 square feet and overlooking Manchin’s marina recently sold for $1.78 million.
Almost Heaven’s boxy hull lends itself to create high-volume interior spaces, ideal for Capital cocktail parties. (Walczak Yachts via YouTube)
“I think $220,000 is a hell of a buy. I would have bought it for 220 and put it down in Key West. I wouldn’t plan on going anywhere, and I don’t think Joe does either,” Fickett says. “My guess is that his slip is about $1,500 a month, and that won’t buy a couch to sleep on up there (in D.C.).”
Much of the news coverage of Manchin’s “yacht” over the years has centered on dock parties with his fellow legislators and other D.C. movers and shakers, a function for which Almost Heaven’s large, un-yachtlike open spaces are well suited. It could be argued that not only does the senator’s houseboat provide low-cost housing, but it serves as a venue for networking with colleagues. Almost Heaven is the kind of boat that the owner of a moderately successful car dealership or a mid-career surgeon might own, not a rock star or Silicone Valley whiz kid.
So, not a yacht and not particularly luxurious—more like cheap digs.
Now, about that Maserati…
Outtakes from the people interviewed for this story
Naval architect Tad Roberts:
It's definitely a houseboat, intended for sheltered water summer-weather use and not for open water passages. No recognized designer. Not even any enclosed pilothouse. Luxury yachts have something more (a lot more) than plain white walls and overhead, and home depot roll vinyl flooring. The builder Custom Steel Boats is not a high-end yacht builder, the boats are at the lower end of the luxury scale, currently they're building barges.
Naval architect Lou Codega:
I think I would call it a houseboat in the sense that a Trumpy was called a houseboat at the time. It can go places, but it would be very uncomfortable in a real sea, I think.
I would not call the exterior luxurious or elegant or anything else good. It was probably wrapped around an interior. The whole effect, to me at least, is a double wide with an expensive interior…L.F. Herreshoff said something like, "When garbage men can afford boats, we will have to design boats that garbage men like."
Boat designer and builder Reuben Trane:
It’s essentially the same concept that we started with the Florida Bay Coaster, which was to build a condo-quality boat not a yacht…For someone from West Virginia it’s a yacht. If you read the Robb Report, it’s not a yacht; it’s a big houseboat.
(This story was originally published earlier this week in the Times West Virginian newspaper, ably commanded by my friend Eric Cravey. To be sure, I am no fan of Sen. Joe Manchin, but words have meanings and, mindful of that, we should see the “yacht” attacks on the senator from the Mountain State for what they are—cheap shots.)