The Oil Man and the Sea

KJELL INGE ROKKE amassed a $1.7 bil­lion for­tune by strip­ping the oceans of oil and fish. Now he says he wants to clean up the mess—from the deck of the world’s largest su­pery­acht. Meet the big­gest con­tra­dic­tion on wa­ter.

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OOff the coast of Brattvaag, Nor­way, just a few hun­dred miles be­low the Arc­tic Cir­cle, the 600-foot Rev looms in the North At­lantic. It is the shell of a ship: forged but not yet out­fit­ted, with a tan-and-black hull that makes it look like a dredged-up wreck. “I see my­self spend­ing two months of the year on the boat,” says its owner, the Nor­we­gian bil­lion­aire Kjell Inge Rokke.

Rokke stoops to in­spect a blueprint. Each de­tail of the ves­sel re­quires his sign-off: the sub­ma­rine, the he­li­pads, the three pools and hot tubs. But this is not your typ­i­cal bil­lion­aire play­thing. Also on­board are eight lab­o­ra­to­ries and a re­mote

op­er­at­ing ve­hi­cle that can de­scend to a depth of 19,000 feet.

Rev is a float­ing con­tra­dic­tion. On one hand, it is the largest su­pery­acht in the world—the apex of self-in­dul­gence— at a cost of about $350 mil­lion. Yet Rokke prefers a dif­fer­ent fram­ing.

Rev, he in­sists, is a re­search ves­sel.

The plan is sim­ple. Rokke, 61, will let sci­en­tists use the yacht for free to plot oceanic garbage patches, as­sess fish stocks and test wa­ter acid­ity lev­els. When they aren’t on­board, he’ll use it him­self for plea­sure, or rent it to the world’s glit­terati and do­nate the pro­ceeds to con­ser­va­tion projects.

Rokke, like the yacht, is a con­tra­dic­tion. He amassed his $1.7 bil­lion for­tune by ex­tract­ing from the seas, from trawl­ing to off­shore drilling to com­mer­cial ship­ping. “I’m part of the prob­lem,” he ad­mits. Now, he says, he wants to clean things up. But not enough to di­vest him­self from his port­fo­lio of pol­lut­ing com­pa­nies.

“We don’t need any credit,” Rokke says. “We only want the sat­is­fac­tion from be­ing a part of [the so­lu­tion].”

Rokke grew up in Molde, Nor­way, in a fam­ily with mod­est means. His fa­ther worked as a cab­i­net­maker; his mother was an ac­coun­tant who sold wash­ing ma­chines and dry­ers on the side. Bur­dened by dys­lexia, Rokke dropped out of school in the ninth grade. “The teacher said to me in front of the class, ‘The day you get your­self a driver’s li­cense, you should con­sider your­self a suc­cess,’ ” he re­counts.

Rokke took a job as a deck­hand on a Nor­we­gian fish­ing boat, stay­ing at sea for ten months of the year. Then, in 1980, when he was 21, he moved to Seat­tle to work on a trawler. Af­ter his first sea­son he had an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis. “I had zero plans for the fu­ture,” he says. So he cat­a­logued his as­pi­ra­tions: “I wanted in­de­pen­dence—to live my own life—and I thought that was through get­ting rich. I was mis­er­ably wrong.”

First step: sav­ing money ag­gres­sively. “When my friends went to Mex­ico or Hawaii, I was

home mak­ing fish­ing gear for the boat,” he says. By 1982, he had the $75,000 needed for a down pay­ment on a boat of his own, a 69-foot trawler.

Two years later, the boat caught fire. He bought a sec­ond boat. It ran aground and sank. “I had to sit down and ne­go­ti­ate with all my ven­dors,” Rokke says. That process took more than seven years.

The per­se­ver­ance paid off. Some­how, banks con­tin­ued to lend Rokke money, en­abling him to start anew. Over time, he amassed a small fleet of boats, which by 1987 had grown into a bona fide com­pany, Amer­i­can Seafoods, which har­vested pol­lock off the coast of Alaska.

With his fi­nances shored up, thanks in part to sub­si­dies from the Nor­we­gian gov­ern­ment, his boats caught huge quan­ti­ties of fish. At one point, they pulled in 600,000 to 800,000 pol­lock per day, Rokke es­ti­mates, gen­er­at­ing more than $18 mil­lion in an­nual sales (roughly $45 mil­lion in to­day’s dol­lars). The high­est-qual­ity fish were fil­leted and sold. The trim­mings be­came fish­meal and fish oil.

“Even­tu­ally Rokke’s com­pany con­trolled 40% of the Amer­i­can pol­lock har­vest,” writes ecol­o­gist Kevin M. Bai­ley in his book Bil­lion-Dol­lar Fish.

But as Amer­i­can Seafoods ex­panded glob­ally, Bai­ley says, it “was in­volved in en­ter­prises from Rus­sia to Ar­gentina that were ac­cused of over­fish­ing.”

In 1990, Rokke turned his at­ten­tion back to Nor­way as the coun­try reeled from an eco­nomic cri­sis. “Very few had ex­cess cash,” he says. “I had that . . . . So I bought as much as I could get my hands on.”

Among his ac­qui­si­tions: a cloth­ing com­pany, a sport­ing-goods chain and large swaths of com­mer­cial real es­tate. “He came sort of out of nowhere,” says Knut Sogner, a pro­fes­sor of eco­nomic his­tory at BI Nor­we­gian Busi­ness School.

In 1996, Rokke bought a con­trol­ling in­ter­est in Aker, one of Nor­way’s largest con­glom­er­ates, con­cen­trated in ship­build­ing and off­shore drilling ser­vices. (Aker is now the name of Rokke’s pub­lic com­pany; his port­fo­lio col­lec­tively gen­er­ates $9.4 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enue.)

Then came a dose of hubris. In 2002, Rokke was strug­gling to ob­tain a li­cense to op­er­ate his 56-foot yacht, Celina Bella. He skirted the law, pay­ing Swedish of­fi­cials $10,000 for the per­mit. “I wanted to have the li­cense done in the least painful way,” he says, claim­ing he didn’t know the ar­range­ment was il­le­gal. Pros­e­cu­tors dis­cov­ered the pay­off, and Rokke was sen­tenced to 120 days in jail. He served 23.

Once free, Rokke kept in­vest­ing in en­ergy, which makes up about a fifth of Nor­way’s econ­omy. He es­tab­lished an off­shore oil out­fit, Aker Drilling, in 2005 and ac­quired Marathon Oil Nor­way for $2.7 bil­lion in 2014. But he wor­ried about his legacy. “I haven’t in­vested in any in­fras­truc­ture, I haven’t built a road,” he re­mem­bers think­ing. “Ba­si­cally, I’m a har­vester.”

To that end, in 2017 he es­tab­lished Rev Ocean, the non­profit that over­sees the su­pery­acht. He sought out Nina Jensen, then the head of World

Wildlife Fund Nor­way, to lead it. The en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist wasn’t im­pressed. “Kjell Inge called me up and asked me if I wanted to work on the project with him,” Jensen says. “I said in­stantly, ‘no.’ ”

But the man who had spent years sal­vaging his com­pany from fires and sunken ves­sels was not eas­ily turned aside. Even­tu­ally Jensen signed on. Now she cham­pi­ons their un­usual al­liance: “At the end of the day, if a bi­ol­o­gist and con­ser­va­tion­ist can team up with a cap­i­tal­ist and an in­dus­tri­al­ist, that must be magic, right?”

The su­pery­acht is Rev Ocean’s first project. There is also a plas­tic-waste-re­duc­tion ef­fort in Ghana and plans for soft­ware that will cen­tral­ize data about the ocean.

Jensen’s group oc­cu­pies the third floor of Rokke’s cor­po­rate head­quar­ters in Oslo, which it shares with Aker’s en­ergy divi­sion. It’s a co­in­ci­dence that high­lights a glar­ing ten­sion: While Rev Ocean works to clean the seas, Aker con­tin­ues to pol­lute them.

That dis­so­nance seems not to bother Rokke. “If you want to be a prob­lem solver, by na­ture you’re an op­ti­mist,” he says. The crit­ics, well, “They’re not part of the so­lu­tion.”

Spin­ning Their Wheels Ship­yard work­ers af­fix a mam­moth pro­pel­ler to Rev’s stern. Con­struc­tion is de­layed due to the COVID-19 out­break.

Rev It Up Once com­plete, Rokke’s yacht will be the world’s largest. Apolo­gies to Sheikh Khal­ifa of the United Arab Emi­rates: The Az­zam’s 590 feet no longer cut it.

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