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The Gaudy Era of Millionaires and Superyachts
Frank Kilburn Coffee
September 18, 1961
In the spendthrift 1920s wealthy sportsmen competed in a dizzy contest to build the most glittering pleasure craft on the seas
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September 18, 1961

The Gaudy Era Of Millionaires And Superyachts

In the spendthrift 1920s wealthy sportsmen competed in a dizzy contest to build the most glittering pleasure craft on the seas

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The total cost of Mrs. Cadwalader's pranked-out pride came to more than $2 million. With a crew of 41, the up-keep was in excess of $200,000 a year.

Only a few years earlier, such a vessel would have been impossible—physically, mechanically and financially. Very few large yachts had been built since the war, and of those that survived the war, most were coal-burning monsters that could hardly be called pleasure craft; and few were the owners' wives who could be persuaded to set foot aboard such vessels. But with the removal of wartime luxury taxes on the over-all lengths of pleasure yachts and the turning to diesel for power, yacht design was to change radically.

Designers showed clients that diesel yachts 175 feet in length could have more room for owner, guests and crew than a steam yacht 250 feet long—such was the reduction in size of the power plant. Too, the decreased weight of the machinery allowed for the carrying of great quantities of fuel oil, greatly increasing the cruising radius. The lower center of gravity of the diesel engines and the fuel stores also increased the stability of the vessel. No longer would yacht owners have to suffer the cramped quarters, limited and obstructed deck space, soot and belching smoke known to the owners of even the finest of the coal burners.

The day of the old-fashioned ship-style interior was to go, too, now that yachts could be built to please even the most fastidious owner's wife. Interior decorators familiar to Palm Beach, Newport and Saratoga society were called in, and the results were interiors that persuaded the voyager not that he was at sea but that he was in a fine country home or luxurious Park Avenue apartment.

Shipbuilders welcomed the challenges presented to them by gold-heeled yacht buyers and incorporated every modern navigational device and comfort obtainable into craft that began more and more to resemble miniature ocean liners.

When Vincent Astor discussed the building of his new yacht with Naval Architect Theodore Ferris, he impressed upon Ferris that he desired just such a "steamship" yacht. The Krupp Germania Company of Kiel. Germany was awarded the contract to build the vessel.

The straight-stemmed, businesslike-looking Nourmahal was a good 30 feet shorter than Mrs. Cadwalader's Savarona II and, though somewhat broader of beam, did not quite measure up to that craft in gross tonnage. When Astor brought the $600,000 bargain vessel home to New York, nearly six months after the Savarona II had been welcomed, newsmen hailed the Nourmahal as "the new queen of the deep." They said it marked the beginning of "the superyacht era." This was a slight to Mrs. Cadwalader and her toy.

A lot of yacht

But the 263-foot Nourmahal was a lot of yacht. Trim of line and smart of pace, she was built to sail any sea in any weather and had a cruising range of 19,000 miles on one fueling. Unlike his first Nourmahal, which he had inherited from his father after the latter went down with the Titanic in 1912, the new Nourmahal had no armament. Fearing pirates in Mediterranean and Caribbean waters, John Jacob Astor IV had equipped his yacht with four Hotchkiss rapid-firing guns.

Henry Ford, too, had yacht fever. His Sialia was a comfortable 202-footer, which should have been more than adequate for Great Lakes cruising. But he decided one day that he'd like the Sialia more if she were just a little bit bigger. So the steel-hulled Sialia was stripped down and cut in two. The delicate engineering feat represented a virtual rebuilding of the yacht. But a piece was inserted and stretched she was. The new Sialia, 21 feet 7 inches longer than the old, was delivered to Detroit along with a bill for $650,000—which was 550,000 more than the Sialia had cost originally and $400,000 more than Ford was to receive when he sold her to Archie M. Andrews several years later.

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