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How Jordan Belfort's 37m superyacht Nadine sank off the coast of Sardinia

8 November 2021 • Written by Sam Fortescue

Coco Chanel was famously outspoken on many things, but yachting, in particular, attracted her ire. “As soon as you set foot on a yacht you belong to some man, not to yourself, and you die of boredom,” she was once quoted as saying.

Her solution was to buy her own yacht. A 37m with a steel hull, built by the Dutch yard Witsen & Vis of Alkmaar. The yacht passed through many hands, finally ending up belonging to the Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, on whose watch she foundered and sank in 1996.

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The yacht was originally built for a Frenchman under the name Mathilde, but he backed out and she caught Chanel’s eye instead. With a narrow beam, a high bow and the long, low superstructure typical of Dutch yachts of her era, she was certainly a beautiful boat. But she was also well equipped, with five staterooms in dark teak panelling, magnificent dining facilities, room for big tenders and, later, a helipad. A frequent sight along the Florida coast, she caught the eye of a young skipper called Mark Elliott.

Nadine as Big Eagle

“In those days, she was the biggest yacht on the East Coast,” he remembers. “Nobody had ever seen anything like it. I needed a wrench once and went up to the boat - Captain Norm Dahl was really friendly.” He didn’t know it then, but Elliott was destined to become the skipper of the boat himself and was at the helm when the storm of the century took her to the bottom off Sardinia.

Coco Chanel died in 1971 and sometime thereafter the yacht was renamed Jan Pamela under the new ownership of Melvin Lane Powers. He was a flamboyant Houston real estate developer, fond of crocodile skin cowboy boots and acquitted of murder in a trial that gripped the nation.

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Powers sent Jan Pamela to Merrill Stevens yard in Miami, where a mammoth seven-metre section was added amidships. “We made templates for the boat where we were going to cut her in half, then she went out for another charter season,” remembers Whit Kirtland, son of the yard owner. “When the boat came back in, we cut it just forward of the engine room, rolled the two sections apart and welded it in.”

He remembers how the sun’s heat made the bare and painted metal expand at different rates. “You had to weld during certain time periods – early in the morning or late at night,” says Kirtland.

The dining room on board Nadine

The result of the extension was a huge new seven-metre full-beam master stateroom, an extra salon and one further cabin – pushing the charter capacity to seven staterooms. During this refit, the boat’s colour was also changed from white to taupe. “No one had really done it before and it was gorgeous,” says Elliott. By 1983, Powers was bankrupt and the yacht was sold on again. She next shows up named Edgewater.

Elliott’s chance came in 1989. He was working for the established yacht owner Bernie Little, who ran a hugely profitable distribution business for Bud brewer Anheuser-Busch. “Bernie Little had always wanted to own the boat,” Elliott says. “He loved it. He bought it sight unseen – and I started a huge restoration programme, including another extension to put three metres in the cockpit.”

The master cabin on board Nadine

It was a massive task, undertaken at Miami Ship. “We pulled out all the windows, re-chromed everything, repainted – brought it back to life,” says Elliott. They also cut out old twin diesels from GM and replaced them with bigger CAT engines, doubling her horsepower to 800. “Repowered, she could cruise at up to 20 knots. She was long and skinny, like a destroyer.”

A smart hydraulic feature was also brought to life for the first time. Under two of the sofas in the main stateroom were hidden 3.6m x 1.2m glass panels giving a view of the sea under the boat. At the push of a button, the sofas lifted up and mirrors above allowed you to gaze at the seabed – from the actual bed.

The saloon on board Nadine

Now called Big Eagle, like all of Little’s boats, she was a charter hit and her top client was a certain New York financier named Jordan Belfort. He fell in love with her and begged Little to sell to him. But he needed to secure financing, and in 1995, Little agreed to hold a note on the boat for a year if Mark Elliott stayed on as skipper.

With the boat rechristened Nadine after his wife, Belfort set about another round of refit work, restyling the interior with vintage deco and lots of mirrors, extending the upper deck this time, and fitting a crane capable of raising and stowing the Turbine Seawind seaplane.

Nadine also carried a helicopter, a 10m Intrepid tender, two 6m dinghies on the bow, four motorbikes, six jetskis, state-of-the-art dive gear. “You pretty much needed an air traffic controller when all these things were in the water,” says Elliott.

Leonardo DiCaprio filming The Wolf of Wall Street on board the yacht M3
Credit: Appian Way/ Paramount/ Kobal/ Shutterstock

Belfort’s partying was legendary and Elliott clearly saw eye-watering things on board, but as far as he was concerned, he was there to safeguard the boat. “When Jordan Belfort became the owner, he could do whatever he wanted. I was there to protect the note,” says Elliott. “He is a brilliant mind and a lovely person. It was just when he was in his party mode, he was out of control.”

Nadine and her huge cohort of toys and vehicles plied all the usual yachting haunts on both sides of the Atlantic. But Belfort’s love story was to be short-lived. Disaster struck with the boss and guests on board during an 85-mile crossing between Civitavecchia in Italy and Calle de Volpe on Sardinia.

What was forecast to be a 20-knot blow and moderate seas degenerated into a violent 70-knot storm with crests towering above 10.6m, according to Elliott. Wave after wave pounded the superstructure, stoving in hatches and windows so that water poured below and made the boat sluggish. By a miracle the engine room remained dry and they could maintain steerage way, motoring slowly through the black of the night as rescue attempt after rescue attempt was called off.

Nadine eventually sank at dawn in over 1000m of water just 20 miles from the coast of Sardinia. Everyone had been taken off by helicopter, and there was no loss of life. Captain Mark Elliott was roundly congratulated for his handling of the incident. “The insurance paid immediately because it was the storm of the century,” he says. “I took the whole crew but one with me to [Little’s next boat] Star Ship. That was my way to come back.”

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