From grandstands to grandeur

By Times Staff
Published April 4, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Strolling down the floating docks across from Turn 10, I stopped behind Roger Penske's 153-foot mega yacht.

"Big boat," I said to my guide, Farrukh Quraishi.

"The one we are looking for is even bigger," he answered.

"Bigger, eh ... " I said. "Cool."

Quraishi, publicist for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, tried to get me aboard the Detroit Eagle. Penske's people, however, politely declined.

But like any good journalist, I refused to take no for an answer.

Our readers were dedicated race fans and deserved a view of the action from the deck of a luxury yacht, I insisted. How could Penske, or any other self-respecting multimillionaire, deny the common people a peak into the lifestyle of the rich and famous?

So Quraishi, eager to please the press, gained access to a $25-million, 157-foot Christensen, Liquidity.

The yacht, moored a few slips away from Penske's pride and joy, looked like it was built for a king.

"Welcome aboard," the owner said graciously. "I'm Henry Luken."

Luken ... Luken ... the name rings a bell, I thought to myself.

"Not the Lord Luken?" I asked.

The infamous Englishman, on the run since 1974 when police appeared at his London flat to question him in connection with the death of his nanny, is one of the world's most wanted men. Three decades after his disappearance, his whereabouts are still unknown.

What a scoop, I thought.

"Different guy," Quraishi said. "That Lucan has a "c" and an "a" in his name."

Innocent mistake. In most countries, only royalty would be able to afford a fine vessel such as this. But not in America, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave.

Luken, who hails from Chattanooga, Tenn., made his fortune in the communications industry. "This boat isn't related to anything that I do now," he said. "But it is related to what I've done."

Luken had another Christensen before he bough t Liquidity, which is three months out of the shipyard. "The other boat wasn't as big," he said. "It was 2 feet shorter and 2 feet narrower."

Unlike many mega yacht owners, the 46-year-old serves as his own captain. "It takes a crew of seven, including myself, to run this thing," he said.

The yacht has a top speed of 17 knots, but Luken said it cruises best at 10. He's usually not in a rush to get anywhere. The Liquidity has several state rooms, an elevator, hot tub ... all the luxuries of a five-star resort.

Luken worked his way up the boating food chain, owning Bayliners, Sea Rays and Bajas to name a few, before finally graduating to mega yachts.

"We have about 300,000 man hours in each boat," said Joe Foggia, president and chief operating officer for Christensen Shipyards. "Each boat takes about two years to make, so we start one every four months on speculation, so nobody has to wait."

Luken, an avid angler, usually packs several smaller watercraft aboard Liquidity. Tied up behind the boat on Sunday was a 24-foot, twin-engined catamaran, a 15-foot ribbed inflatable and four Sea Doo personal watercraft.

"I have got to admit that I don't get down here much," Luken said. "I spend most of my time in Alaska, the prettiest place on earth."

After the race, Luken will fuel up (the yacht carries 15,800 gallons) and head home.

"We'll go across the Gulf of Mexico, up Mobile Bay, into the Tom Bigby Waterway and then down the Tennessee River," he said. "It is a tough trip because there is one stretch where you don't get any sleep for 40 hours."

But the Liquidity's wheelhouse has the latest in marine electronics mounted over a marble dash.

"I had the first stone dash in yachting," he said. "Now, lots of people have them."

Luken, who after owning his first Christensen became a major investor in the shipyard, said what makes him most proud is the fact that Liquidity is "American made, American owned and American flagged."

A straight talker, Luken said that even though he'd be hosting a party for the Grand Prix's sponsor, Japanese auto/engine maker Honda, he wasn't much of a race fan.

"I'm from Tennessee," he said. "Up there, we play football.'