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A Big-Apple Builder


Howard Wheeler founded Wheeler Shipyard in 1910, and for more than five decades the New York City company would be one of America’s most innovative and influential builders. In addition to producing all manner of vessels for the military, Wheeler (later renamed Wheeler Shipbuilding Corp., then Wheeler Yacht Co.) is credited with building the first sedan cruiser, offering a dinette that could convert to a berth and helping to pioneer the use of diesels in pleasure boats.

By the 1930s, Wheeler was building yachts for a “discerning clientele.” These included the Sedan, Sport Fisherman and Promenade Deck models (shown here), along with a Playmate series of Sportsman’s Family Cruisers in 31-, 34- and 40-foot lengths.

Fishing boats were another specialty. Wheeler delivered a 38-foot Playmate for a young writer who was making a name for himself. Ernest Hemingway’s Pilar was customized with four 75-gallon fuel tanks, a fishbox, a live well and a cut-down transom with a wooden roller for landing fish. Powered by a 75-hp Chrysler Crown, with a separate 40-hp trolling engine, Pilar could run at 16 knots.

The queen of the Wheeler fleet was the 87-foot Home-Yacht, which the builder touted as having “every comfort of a luxurious apartment ashore,” including four double staterooms. The owners’ stateroom was amidships, laid out with twin berths, a lounge, hanging lockers, bureaus and a night table. The “dining room” was placed forward of the flybridge, with the galley and crew’s quarters far forward. Amenities included heating and air conditioning. “A trip to Alaska could be made in complete safety and comfort,” the builder proclaimed.

By 1960, the recreational boating market was swelling with new technology and new builders. Wheeler was making the switch to fiberglass with such models as the 25- and 28-foot Sea Skiff. In 1963, the yard — then located in the Bronx — was destroyed in a fire. In 1966, Wheeler Yacht Co. laid its final keel, in Toms River New Jersey, leaving its proud name to history, with more than 3,500 hulls built.

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue.