Yachting with the next Gen

Owners interview

It’s uncommon to be granted access to a yacht owner’s travel photos and even less common to be able to chat casually with him and his children about those travels or about yachting in general. When it comes to the Amels 180 GENE MACHINE, it’s all about the kids.

Story by Marilyn Mower for Damen Yachting

I expected the interview to focus on GENE MACHINE’s 9,000 nautical mile journey last year from the French Riviera to Svalbard, Norway, but that turns out to be starting the story in the middle. Dr. Jonathan Rothberg is an American chemical engineer and biologist, inventor and entrepreneur. The fact that his yacht is named GENE MACHINE provides a clue about the direction of both his science and his business. He developed a high-speed “Next-Gen” DNA sequencing 

process, motivated by the opportunity to impact the lives of the people he loves.

Immersing himself in genetics and computers, Dr. Rothberg invented an entirely new way to rapidly sequence genomes. He founded 454 Life Sciences and brought to market the first new method for gene sequencing since the 1980s by unlocking a massive parallel DNA sequencing process capable of cataloguing whole human genomes for the first time.

“ My children are incredibly close and being together on board is part of that. I love giving them unique experiences. ”

– Dr. Jonathan Rothberg –

Owner of GENE MACHINE

A taste for yachting

“My mother bought her first yacht when my first company, CuraGen, went public.” That yacht, LUCKY SEVEN (named for his mother’s seven children), was where Dr. Rothberg’s children got their first taste of the yachting lifestyle. “I thought I was on top of the world with CuraGen,” he laughs.

In 2010, with a new company called Ion Torrent, he was able to continue to advance DNA sequencing allowing an entire human genome to be decoded on a semiconductor chip for $1,000. When Ion Torrent was acquired for $725 million, Dr. Rothberg set about developing his own yacht experience. 

With Noah and younger sister Elana often in tow – they are fascinated by yacht design and have put in more than 1,000 hours of research and study on the subject according to their proud papa – they visited many of Europe’s top yards discussing custom builds. In fact, they did decide on a project at AMELS, “but by the time the yard could start the build, the delivery date would mean we would miss three summers. To me that was unacceptable.” 

It’s uncommon to be granted access to a yacht owner’s travel photos and even less common to be able to chat casually with him and his children about those travels or about yachting in general. When it 

comes to the AMELS 180 GENE MACHINE, it’s all about the kids. Immersing himself in genetics and computers, Dr. Rothberg invented an entirely new way to rapidly sequence genomes. He founded 454 Life Sciences and brought to market the first new method for gene sequencing since the 1980s by unlocking a massive parallel DNA sequencing process capable of cataloguing whole human genomes for the first time. 

Summers for the Rothberg family – mother Bonnie is an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) – are devoted to time with the children, who now number five. “My children are incredibly close and being together on board is part of that. I love giving them unique experiences,” Dr. Rothberg says.

The search switched to the brokerage market for a yacht that would allow them to cruise anywhere regardless of weather. At this point in the conversation Noah vividly recalled “getting beat up” when trying to get to St. Barths in a 40-metre semi-displacement yacht.

THE NATIONAL MEDAL OF TECHNOLOGY AND INNOVATION

Dr. Jonathan Rothberg receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama at a special White House ceremony in 2016.

“ For summer 2018 GENE MACHINE will mix pleasure with business ”

So what brought the family to GENE MACHINE, a full-displacement 55-metre AMELS 180 from the AMELS Limited Editions range? 

“We had actually seen this very boat, it was called ENGELBERG at the time and it had been designed for a European family with children,“ Dr. Rothberg continues. “But it was under contract. I was trying to figure out what our next step would be when we received a call that the sale had fallen through and that the yacht was available after all.” 

“I think my daughter Elana was really happy with that. She liked the boat and she told me she wasn’t sure she trusted my taste with a new build,” he says laughing. 

And so a deal was struck. 

“I understood that the family would be spending a lot of time aboard,” says Captain Fraser Gow. “What he meant was five and a half or six months of the year! He likes the boat so much we have to kick him off for maintenance periods.” Captain Gow had been second captain on a sistership to ENGELBERG when two of the Rothberg children happened to meet him while looking at sister ships. “They checked him out first and then recommended him,” says the owner.

“We spent the first summer with them in the Med,” says Captain Gow. “Then the owner asked me for cruising suggestions. I put together a proposal to visit London and for a month’s cruising in the northern latitudes. I was a bit ambitious I guess, sometimes we were steaming all night to our next destination.”

Norway

Captain Gow calls Norway the most underrated, magical place you can take a superyacht and it’s just 5 hours by jet from New York. “We spent 2 weeks there covering every vein of every fjord. With a string of islands offshore, it is much like the Inside Passage to Alaska. The vast majority of our cruising was in flat calm water.”

Captain Gow equipped the yacht for the trip so that the family could continue to enjoy all the water sports they enjoy in warm water. “We just went from nylon skins to wet suits to dry suits.” Paragliding above glaciers, watching polar bears, reindeer, Arctic foxes, beach cookouts, Northern Lights and Midnight Sun, swimming with whales… It was a special time. “Most people on boats take pictures of whales swimming at a distance,” said Noah. “We took pictures of ourselves swimming with them.”

Svalbard, just 650 miles from the North Pole and the northernmost year-round settlement on Earth was a personal favorite for Captain Gow.

“A local food co-op delivered fresh produce to the boat and there are three excellent restaurants for dinners ashore.”

Dr. Rothberg, who holds over 100 patents himself, now heads a biotech incubator firm called 4 Catalyzer formed with the aim of transforming 21st-century medicine. One of its inventions, the world’s first hand held whole body scanner from Butterfly Network that displays real-time images on a smart phone, has just launched. He tells me several other projects are in the wings but he is not a liberty to divulge them.

For summer 2018, GENE MACHINE will mix pleasure with business, and no surprise, it’s a family project. Elana is studying earth’s smallest self-replicating organism, bacteriophage, which is densely concentrated in seawater. Phages are viruses that live in bacteria, some helpful and some are harmful. Identifying and manipulating their genome could have a monumental medical impact and serve as a canary in the coal mine for global warming.

“One of the very few changes we have made to GENE MACHINE is to set up a lab bench for her in the Sky Lounge to test the samples she will be collecting. She’s going to be testing out my latest machine,” Dr. Rothberg said with a wink.