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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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As early as 1928, yachtsman William K. Vanderbilt undertook an eight-month world cruise aboard his yacht Ara to obtain rare and unknown specimens of sea life for the Vanderbilt Marine Museum at Northport, Long Island. The 211-foot Ara, a converted sloop of war built for the British Navy and acquired by Vanderbilt in 1922, was to carry him nearly 150,000 miles before he sought to replace her with a ship of larger cruising radius and of greater storage space for fuel, water, scientific equipment and specimen tanks.

Vanderbilt and his wife Rose made three transatlantic trips to watch over the building of their new ship at Kiel, scrutinizing every detail from keel to truck. On March 2, 1931, after a day of sea trials, Vanderbilt ordered the raising of the American flag to the top of the main truck, indicating his pleasure with the yacht.

In outward appearance, the Alva, like Astor's Nourmahal, was a businesslike vessel with few frills. Measuring 264 feet over all, she was practically plumb at both ends, being 259 feet on the water line. Her broad beam and 18-foot draft gave her tremendous displacement, stability and inside room.

Arriving at his winter home at Miami, Fla., on the Alva's maiden voyage from Kiel, Vanderbilt was required to pay $267,000 duty to U.S. customs, a 30% assessment on the value of the Alva's steel hull and built-in equipment alone.

Vanderbilt, pleased as he was with his new yacht, was reluctant to part with the Ara, which, with its limitations, had served him so well. He decided to keep both vessels. This may have prompted young David Rockefeller, when asked by a friend why his father didn't buy him a yacht, to remark, "who do you think we are? Vanderbilts?"

Mrs. Emily Roebling Cadwalader was no Vanderbilt. Neither was she a Rockefeller. But she was perhaps the most aggressive yachtswoman of all time.

She had plans for a third Savarona drawn up by William Francis Gibbs, America's foremost big-ship architect. The 4,600-gross-ton yacht, 64 feet longer than J. P. Morgan's Corsair, was larger by far than any other private yacht ever built or ever to be built. Measuring 407 feet 10 inches over all, and with a 53-foot beam, she wasn't much smaller than many of the commercial vessels in world-cruise service. Though she carried far fewer passengers than a commercial liner, they were accommodated in a manner to which even most of them were unaccustomed.

The yacht's unusually rakish lines were enhanced by two wide, squat funnels and slim pole masts; she had been built for speed. With a minimum operating budget of $400,000 a year, the yacht, which cost well over $4 million to build in the relatively economical German yards, sailed from Hamburg in October 1931 for Bermuda. The crew of 72 had their work cut out for them; another 35 men who had been signed for the crew were discharged before sailing. This was only an indication of the economies to come when Mrs. Cadwalader fully realized what she had on her hands.

Embarrassment of richness

Long before the Savarona arrived on the scene, the yachting fraternity had begun to feel distressingly conspicuous. Most big-yacht owners were ready to welcome any decent opportunity to take their yachts out of commission without losing face. Though few would admit they could no longer afford such expensive playthings, big-yacht ego, with its psychic complications, made it difficult for many owners to put away their yachts for reasons of economy alone.

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