A ‘comedy’ of conspicuous consumption

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A yachting historian turns an acid tongue on big boats, go-fast boats and their mega-ego owners

A yachting historian turns an acid tongue on big boats, go-fast boats and their mega-ego owners

 Today’s lecture by noted yachting historian Llewellyn Howland III (known to himself as LH Three) will cover, in succession and often humorously, two topics. The first, Why own a boat, anyway? The second, Where do boat names come from? But first, a note of caution: Howland — known as Louie to his wife and friends and never one to duck a difficult question — is not your typical maritime historian. He is opinionated and outspoken to the point, some might say, of being outrageous. He comments with tongue only partially in cheek that any American who owns a yacht more than 100 feet or with more than 1,000 hp “should be sent to jail or a hospital for the criminally insane.” More on that later.

 

Howland grew up in a pedigreed yachting family — his uncle Waldo Howland, along with C. Raymond Hunt, created the Concordia yawl — and this 68-year-old maritime authority has probably forgotten more yachting history than most of us ever bothered to learn. And while he professes a love of boats going back to childhood, he says he’d rather mow his lawn or go to the beach than spend time on one. In fact, he’s never owned one. Odd, until you get to know Howland.

Yachting authorities who know Howland call him “respected” and knowledgeable. And they invite him aboard such institutions as Mystic Seaport, the International Yacht Restoration School and the New Bedford Whaling Museum. His credentials are strong.

Before the lecture begins, Howland has a serious matter to discuss. “I really am not a revolutionary,” he begins. “But deep down I think it’s asinine what we do with our money.”

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In particular, Howland is fuming about megayachts. In his youth, sailing on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts, he was accustomed to seeing few large pleasure boats. “Mostly, I remember CCA [Cruising Club of America]-rule cruising/racing sailboats. Anyway, sail and powerboats in the 40- to 70-foot range,” he says. “And then suddenly, beginning in the ’70s but especially during the Reagan era, they started to grow and grow and grow, in lockstep with the income of Fortune 400 CEOs and venture capitalists and university portfolio managers and professional golfers.

“Here’s where I’m coming from,” Howland continues. “I don’t think any human being, other than a head of state, should own a boat, a yacht, bigger than maybe 100 feet.” He follows this suggestion with his missive suggesting incarceration for big-boat owners.

“The rape of a planet,” he says to the Larry Ellisons (Oracle CEO, yacht length: 454 feet) and Paul Allens (Microsoft co-founder, yacht length: 414 feet) of the world, “is commensurate with the size of a yacht. Does anybody need a yacht that size? No. For pleasure? No. To take your friends on a cruise? No. We know that petroleum is a finite resource. Not to mention teak and mahogany and coal and even diamonds, for all I know. And we are depleting it. By what right does any human being have the right to deplete the world’s resources at the rate these boats do?

“But let’s talk about the fun of this. Everyone has a right to have some surplus income,” the historian declares. “Society arguably exists to generate surplus income … and that’s where yachting comes in.”

Now mirth takes over where venom seemed ready to pounce. Howland can be the most entertaining and scathing observer of our culture since Thorstein Veblen crafted the phrase “conspicuous consumption.”

“I reserve the right to think of humans as figures of comedy,” says Howland. “Otherwise, the tragedy of human existence would be intolerable.”

***

Besides being of the same bloodline as Waldo Howland, LH Three was processed through a New England prep school, graduated in 1960 from Harvard University with a degree in English, and worked as a literary agent and then as an editor for a major publishing house until it was consumed by a giant corporation. Then, starting with his own book collection — “I’d always been interested in books as objects,” he says — he began dealing in rare books.

Howland is widely regarded as an authority on the history of yachting. His version of how his credentials were established is humble. “A lot of the associations that began when I was a kid have come back to help me,” he says. “Probably the most important were that great sailor and yachting historian Jack Parkinson and my Uncle Wally Howland. They were on the board at Mystic. They got me onto the yachting committee at Mystic Seaport. I had done some writing for WoodenBoat magazine before that.”

***

On to the lecture. “I grew up in a boatyard, and my first love by far — the greatest love other than booze and a good woman — has been boats,” says Howland. “Even in grade school. I lived in a boatyard from the time I was 5 until the time I was 20. I was there whenever I had the chance, hours at a time, and I knew all the yard crew and the yacht professionals, and I worked on the boats. I read everything I could read about sailing. I met some of the great racing sailors, some of the great yacht designers.”

Howland believes that some people are just driven by something in their nature to be on the water. “There is no question that that attraction is real,” he says. “They are willing to suffer any discomfort or indignity for the pleasure of being on a boat. It’s probably not as strong a desire as the need to procreate or to drink water, but it is a pretty basic drive, like painting pictures or making music.”

Then there is a “certain percentage who dream about sailing but seldom or never do it. I, LH Three, am in the dreamer category. I like to think about boats for a while — maybe read a book about them or watch some poor sap make a fool of himself shooting a mooring or bringing his boat alongside a crowded dock. But I’d much rather cut grass, frankly, or lie on the beach. Or go for a long jog.”

And then there are people who are into boating, Howland continues, but only up to their ankles. “When they use their boat at all, they do so mostly for show,” he says. “So there are the die-hards and there are the dilettantes — a large slice of the boat-buying population that increases and shrinks depending on the health of the economy.”

Starting with these basics from human nature, Howland is poised to paint portraits of boat owners, something he did in a notable 1996 essay for WoodenBoat magazine, “Why People Own the Boats They Do.” His box of colors represents the tastes of a man who can rhapsodize over the lines of an L. Francis Herreshoff design and who delights in the feel as his palm sweeps over a highly-varnished rail.

“When I was a kid there was a lovely boat, Menikoe V, in Padanaram Harbor,” he recalls. “She was a big John Alden schooner, an unusually handsome boat with low freeboard and a very flat sheer, a fast boat well maintained by a professional captain and cook. I don’t think I saw her under sail more than twice in all the years she was in Padanaram. Her owner almost never used her, yet she obviously meant a great deal to him or he wouldn’t have spent the money on her. So what did the boat mean to him?” If you couldreally understand what she meant to him, he continues, you’d have a clue to the larger puzzle.

“Alternatively, there were boats that were out every possible day,” Howland says. “My grandfather’s Concordia yawl, Java, within reason sailed every single day of the summer from mid-May until October, unless it was filthy weather. Sailing the boat was a psychic necessity to Grandpa. Quite literally. For the other guy, it was necessary to have a boat but not so necessary to use it.”

Howland declares that “everyone who owns a boat has a signature, a thumbprint. When you know what kind of car they drive, what kind of house they live in, the data begin to create a detailed portrait.”

The greatest cliché, Howland says, is a guy who is maybe 40 pounds overweight, between the ages of 40 and 60, in an open shirt, with a gold chain nestled in his chest hairs, wearing dark glasses, driving a go-fast boat.

“They are everywhere: in Florida, on Ipswich Bay and Long Island Sound, in California, on every lake,” Howland observes. “There’s the guy! What a stud! If you see that guy on the floor of a boat show and he’s got cash in his pocket, you know what kind of boat he’s going to buy: a high-speed, fiberglass atrocity.”

In the next breath, Howland paints a portrait of another guy walking down the same dock. “He’s got a pair of reddish-tan shorts, a Brooks Brothers oxford shirt with a worn collar, freshly laundered,” he says. “Everything is slightly worn, a little faded but tidy. No jewelry, not even a wedding band. But he’s trim, he’s much thinner than the guy with the gold chain. He doesn’t eat red meat. He’s not smoking a cigar. He’s going to get on a Swan or a Hinckley or maybe that handsome old Aage Neilsen ketch. You can tell his wife or girlfriend. She looks just like him, with breasts.”

With a small boat, there are some crude clues to the nature of the owner, Howland suggests. “If you own a 10-foot lapstrake tender, the boat is immaculate, the oars are varnished, and the leathers are oiled, you’re one kind of person,” he says. “Or if you own flatiron skiff, didn’t paint it last year (or the year before), there is an inch-and-a-half of water in the bilge because ‘Why bother?’ then you are another type of person.”

But when you get to a 40- or 50-foot boat, Howland continues, you get some serious clues about a boat owner’s identity and expectations. One clue is the name of a boat.

“Probably the most famous American yachts are America and Corsair,” he says. “Take the yacht America. She was owned for nearly 40 years by Benjamin Butler, a Civil War general, lawyer and politician. Butler was a feminist, an abolitionist; he was certainly not a socialist, because he didn’t mind making money. But during his lifetime he was considered a Populist. When the yacht America came into port, blue-collar people would come out in small boats, and he would invite them aboard. He came to be seen and be known. Very similar to Ted Turner, who owned the American Eagle. What does that name say? It screams, ‘I’m American and proud of it. I want people to see me and hear me.’ ”

Populists are a distinct part of the yachting community, Howland says. He mentions Dennis Conner in Stars & Stripes and Ted Turner in American Eagle. “Great sailors, great self-promoters, avowed egalitarians,” he says.

Federalists or Hamiltonians like J.P. Morgan form a second yachting class, one that represents Wall Street and big estates hidden down two-mile driveways, Howland says. The yachts exist to say: Stay away from me. I don’t want to see you.

Morgan’s string of enormous yachts were named Corsair. “Each one was bigger than the last,” he says. “The Corsairs were almost unapproachable. They were not quite the biggest, but they were clearly the best. The best engineering, the most beautiful lines, the best maintained.

“The Corsairs had very few staterooms. The idea was not to have a lot of people cruising with you. Everything about the Corsairs spoke of a distance to the general population. His yachts allowed Morgan to stand above people. They proclaimed his grandeur or his sovereignty. If you look at any of the great plutocrat yachts, they had names like Warrior or Invincible or Dauntless or Enterprise, conquering and being better than somebody else. They were very frank about it,” Howland says. “The name said: ‘I can crush you when I want.’ ”

A third class of yachting is the Jeffersonian Americans, the agrarian or landed gentry. “Ownership of the land is the important thing here,” he says. “Control of your corner of nature. It’s sort of my dream, really, of a democratic agrarian America, everything peaceful, no obvious striving, people happy and prosperous and in their place. Maybe not everyone can afford a Herreshoff-designed New York 50. But at least they can own a Herreshoff 12-1/2-footer.” This Howland contrasts with what he describes as the Federalist vision — teaming cities, grimy subways, factories, boom-and-bust economic cycles.

“The agrarian view is the sailing view — to be free with the wind, with cotton sails, spars fashioned from Sitka spruce logs transported from your 1,000-acre estate,” he says.

Howland narrows his politics-of-yachting definitions now. “First, the populist wants to be out there with everyone. Everyone should do it, belong to the same club.”

He continues: “Then you have the Federalist, the Hamiltonian view. That’s where you wear a necktie when you sail, and you don’t rub shoulders with the public. Your boat can sail, but she is designed to impress people with who you are.”

Finally, he explains the Jeffersonian view, which he subscribes to. “That’s the view of mankind living in harmony with nature,” Howland says. “The human measure says a boat should reflect our best instincts: love of beauty, understanding of proper function, understanding of materials.”

Howland says yachting is a beautiful expression of the human genius. “Yacht design is an art form … that deserves to be celebrated like any other. It has just as much primacy as any creative work that the mind of man may do.”

An example of what this Jeffersonian would consider inappropriate is Aristotle Onassis’ yacht Christina, which — despite her appealing name — has bar stools upholstered in the foreskins of whales. “Is that appropriate? Is that measured?” he asks.

What Howland is trying to get to is a school of thought that views the pleasure boat as something that reflects the best that we have in us, that pleases us and pleases others by its function, its name, its presence. “A boat that’s called Persephone or Fleetwing or Peace. These are infinitely more fortunate boat names than Up Yours III or Stick It To Me Baby or Wet Dream,” he says.

Howland diverges here from his planned lecture. “A boat that has really angered me is the recent replica of the J-boat Ranger, which was one of the supreme sailing yachts of all times and designed by one of the greatest of designers, Starling Burgess,” he says. “Everything about this new Ranger is more or less in order, I suppose. But then you discover that about 6 feet below the water line is painted in white outline a big smiley face on each side. When her rail is down, there’s the big smiley face. Poor old Ranger.”

But to return to the name game. “The naval architect Lester Rosenblatt owned a ketch named Rosa II, a little clipper-bowed ketch of 41 feet designed by himself and his father, Mandell,” Howland recalls. “Lester Rosenblatt was a good sailor and a perfectionist, and everything about Rosa II was close to perfect, including her name. A boat can’t have a more beautiful name than Rosa.”

So the question arises: Would Rosa have seemed as sweet by any other name? “There are a lot of puzzles that amuse me to try to solve,” Howland concludes. “Let’s take a class of people, a group of people who are united by one common denominator — people, say, who own boats designed by Sparkman & Stephens. The group is typified by someone more or less Olin Stephens’ age — born, let’s say, between 1905 and 1920 — who started sailing young and came into money in his 30s, at just about the time Olin Stephens was becoming famous as a designer.

“This fortunate fellow began racing a Lightning or even a 6 Meter for a few years, then, having moved up the ladder in his company, moved up to a New York 32. And then a few years later, by God, he became president of his company and asked Olin to design for him a slightly updated version of that great 58-foot sloop Gesture. And then the guy’s made chairman of the board and he gets into America’s Cup racing. Then having fought the good fight for the honor of American yachting, he develops a heart condition. He goes to Sparkman & Stephens and gets them to design him a 50-foot motorsailer.”

Why did he stay with Sparkman & Stephens? asks Howland. There are plenty of reasons. “He admired Olin. He knew the boats would look good and perform well,” he says. “He also bought them because all his friends had boats like them. They marked him out as being a member of a very select and elite peer group. And indeed there is a marvelously elaborate peer structure to yachting and boating that is also wonderfully American.”

At one time, Howland says, the structure was epitomized by automobile ownership. If you were a GM type you began with a Chevrolet and, with luck, ended with a Cadillac, he says. Or you moved from a Plymouth to a Chrysler 300. Or from a Ford to a V-12 Lincoln, and so forth.

“The guy who I’m talking about measured himself using the Sparkman & Stephens measure,” Howland continues. “He could as well have used the Rhodes or Bill Tripp measure. If he’d been into powerboats, he might have applied the Huckins or Burger or Walter McInnis measure.

“In the 2lst century, the hierarchy of measurement has become much more difficult to decode. But one thing is certain: The boat you own tells the world more about you than you may wish the world to know. The boat’s size, her rig, her age, who designed her, who built her, her name. Even her color.”

So take care … LH Three is watching.