Some people look at things the way they are and ask, why? Others dream of things that aren’t and ask, Why not? That’s a rough paraphrase of a quote from George Bernard Shaw, and it fits when talking about the modern commuter yacht Vendetta. She is still the 56-foot carbon-fiber speedster launched in 2005 for use in New England, but thanks to a pair of forward-thinking California businessmen, she has a new purpose on the West Coast.
Singer Billy Joel commissioned Vendetta from naval architect Doug Zurn of Marblehead, Massachusetts, for a very specific purpose: carrying skipper and guests hither and yon at high speed, in the style of the commuter yachts of the early 20th century. Like many of the old commuters, Vendetta had less in the way of accommodations than most boats her size. As originally built, there was no cockpit; the skipper and guests would occupy four Stidd helm chairs in a two-by-two configuration. Belowdecks, there was a basic galley, a dinette, port and starboard settees, and a head—but no berths. The boat was well engineered and built, according to one of her new owners, but the overall finish was “utilitarian.” Now, after 18 months at Newport Harbor Shipyard, she’s luxury on deck and below.
The Only Way to Travel
In Joel’s home waters of western Long Island Sound, high-speed water transport isn’t a new idea. From the turn of the 20th century until the late 1930s, many business moguls living on Long Island’s Gold Coast rode to their Manhattan offices aboard yachts, rather than mingle with the hoi polloi on the railroad, or brave the local roads leading into the city. Commuting by yacht was faster and more pleasant, albeit substantially more expensive. While the bosses were at work, many of the yachts rafted at the New York Yacht Club station at the foot of East 26th Street, while the largest anchored in the East River. Some of the earliest commuter yachts were large—very large. A few were more than 200 feet length overall.
Commuter yachts got smaller, but more stylish, as the decades passed. The best of the bunch, coming at the end of the commuter-yacht heyday, were Saga and Aphrodite III of the late 1930s, owned by brothers-in-law Charles S. Payson and John Hay Whitney. Saga was 70 feet and fast; she always beat Aphrodite II into the city on workday mornings. So, in 1937, Whitney built the 74-foot Aphrodite III; the contract with the Purdy Boat Company of Port Washington, New York, required a top speed of at least 33 knots. With her twin 800-hp Packard engines, Aphrodite III started winning the races to Wall Street.
Like the 1930s commuter yachts that inspired her, Vendetta is built light; unlike many of them, she’s also built strong, using resin-infused Kevlar fabrics and high-spec coring. The craftsmen who did her recent refit said she’s one of the best-built boats they’ve ever worked on, thanks to her original construction at Coecles Harbor Marine in Shelter Island, New York.
Her twin 1,300-hp MAN diesels and surface-drive props tucked into pockets under her torpedo stern—a Power-Vent Marine Drive System—produce nearly 50 knots of top end, and her modified-V hull is fine for dealing with chop at high speed. In short, she’s got it all over the commuters of the old days. But when Joel decided to sell her, Vendetta was a victim of the specificity of her design: Apparently, not many people want a 56-foot yacht with no berths and minimal seating, fast and stylish though she may be.
After several years of having her languish on the market, Joel donated Vendetta to the International SeaKeepers Society, a Florida nonprofit organization that promotes oceanographic research, conservation and education. SeaKeepers sells the donated boats that the organization receives; that’s where Rudy Svrcek and Mike Sullivan found Vendetta.
Svrcek and Sullivan are business partners—they own several auto dealerships in the Los Angeles area—and have owned boats together in the past. They saw not what Vendetta was, but what she could be with a few modifications. They wanted an elegant yacht for entertaining in the Newport Harbor area, with offshore sprints to Catalina Island now and then. They didn’t want to go cruising, so the lack of staterooms didn’t matter to them.
Yes, the boat would need refitting to suit their needs, but, as Svrcek said, “Her breathtaking one-of-a-kind design, coupled with speed and performance, made it too difficult to walk away.” They bought the boat and shipped her to California, commissioning Zurn to design the changes.
A Deck to Dance On
Zurn said one goal of the refit was to maintain the boat’s integrity with respect to her high-tech construction, coring all new structure to keep it as light as possible. The yacht’s weight and balance didn’t change, so the engines, drive gear and props could be retained. Svrcek had the shafts realigned, and had the five-blade, super-cavitating props rebalanced and polished. He added a stern thruster too, but most of the changes were needed on deck.
Originally, Vendetta had a barrel-back raised deck abaft the pilothouse, over a lazarette; this deck, along with its associated structure and the wooden mast and boom, could be removed without interfering with any machinery. Zurn designed a molded cockpit to replace the barrel back, to be built of cored laminate and fiberglassed into place. It’s on the same level as the helm deck, and it extends it all the way aft to the beginning of the torpedo stern. The crew at Newport Harbor Shipyard did the work, finishing off the job by laying down teak decks. Svrcek says there’s now enough room for dancing, which his guests have been doing.
Svrcek and Sullivan replaced the Stidd chairs with Trillion helm seats by Release Marine of Savannah, Georgia. Side-by-side seats forward to port and starboard, and a pair of single seats aft, increase the helm seating to six. Based on fighting chairs, the ladder-back Trillions are built of varnished teak on stainless pedestals, with teak contoured arms, footrests and Italian leather upholstery. Folding teak chairs add a couple of movable seats. And, yes, there are varnished-teak consoles to port and starboard. They house a wet bar, sound system and the other accouterments the owners wanted for a fun day on the water.
Zurn drew a stainless-steel-framed lounge to wrap around the after end of the new cockpit; it seats six, has a varnished-teak table with a stainless-steel pedestal, and is covered by an extended fabric sunshade, also stainless-framed, that cantilevers aft from the existing hardtop. The frame includes handrails to port and starboard—an important safety feature, since the coamings of the new cockpit were kept low to maintain the yacht’s sleek profile.
To replace the old mast and boom, Zurn designed a streamlined stainless mast to mount atop the pilothouse, with aerodynamic tubing and swept-back spreaders. It carries the running and anchor lights, and a couple of halyards for burgees; the radar is mounted on the cabin top. Joe Taylor, Newport Harbor Shipyard’s master welder, and his crew did the stainless work.
Svrcek said that, soon, Vendetta would also have a towing post for water skiing and wakeboarding, and a clay pigeon launcher for skeet shooting—a popular activity among California yachtsmen.
Although the boat’s original belowdecks layout is unchanged, the cabin is renovated. The sole is now teak, with Persian rugs as accents. The old Corian countertops in the galley and head are gone, replaced by varnished teak. All ship’s systems have been refurbished: There’s are new plumbing fixtures, and a new teak grate in the head. The upholstery is new, and the joinery glows in gloss and semi-gloss white, with varnished-teak accents. Svrcek said the painting alone took more than three months. “Vendetta is now a luxury yacht belowdecks,” he says.
The most difficult part of the refit was the time everything took, Svrcek says: “Each part and modification was custom-made. Nothing was off the shelf. So, time and patience were the greatest challenges.”
In addition to welder Joe Taylor, shipwright Bob Vanderwater, master painter Jamie Pereze and teak-deck maestro Don Fredriksen all contributed their expertise to the refit. Vendetta’s high level of design, engineering and quality of build made her worth it, according to the team. Including the planning and preliminary work, the conversion of Vendetta took two years from the time Svrcek and Sullivan bought her, with 18 months of that in the boatyard.
With the project now behind him, Svrcek has no complaints.
“The refit was very successful,” he says, citing Zurn’s refined aesthetic sense and design skills. Everything Zurn drew fit to within one-sixteenth of an inch. “He transformed Vendetta from a commuter yacht for four to a luxury entertainment yacht for twelve,” Svrcek says. “People love the design, they ask how old the boat is. They don’t realize it’s a new boat, now a boat that’s both functional and pleasurable.
“And,” Svrcek adds, “she handles like a Porsche at sea.”
Who were the guys who ran those beautiful commuter yachts in the early 19th century? Chrysler, Gould, Vanderbilt, Morgan and others whose names we all recognize were men who didn’t need to punch a time clock, and who could afford a pleasant boat ride on the way to work, with breakfast served in the morning, cocktails on the way home.
However, they still wanted to go fast. In 1903, William K. Vanderbilt’s 153-foot Tarantula was called the fastest yacht in the world. Her triple steam turbines pushed her to 26 knots; each shaft required three propellers to absorb the horsepower of the engines. In 1915, Peter Rouss, heir to a department-store fortune, built Winchester IV, which was 225 feet long with 7,000 horsepower from turbine engines pushing her to 32 knots. Investment banker Otto Kahn’s Oheka II of 1927 (73 feet) carried triple 500-hp V-12 Maybach engines designed to power Zeppelins, the transoceanic airships of the day. Her speed? Reportedly 34 knots. She was built by Lurssen in Germany; legend says her design was the basis for the German navy’s Schnellboots of World War II.
Speeds like these were achieved 100 years ago by building the yachts narrow and light. Aphrodite III was double-planked Philippine mahogany riveted to white oak frames, with scantlings that one boatbuilder working on her 2005 restoration said were more appropriate for a 28-footer. Even her deck hardware was hollow to save weight. And most commuter yachts had much less in the way of accommodations than typical yachts of similar size. Only the crew slept aboard; the owner slept in his waterfront estate in Oyster Bay.
When Billy Joel conceived Vendetta with minimal creature comforts, he was keeping to the commuter-yacht tradition. The only difference was, and it was an important one, the boat was strongly built to last for generations.
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.