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Rebirth of the legendary Phoenix

An FCC license and a bit of time on Google connect a classic commuter’s past with the present

An FCC license and a bit of time on Google connect a classic commuter’s past with the present

Several months ago, as I was getting ready to shut down my computer for the day, an e-mail wafted in from the ether with a most intriguing subject line: “Yacht formerly owned by Ted Conover?”

Read the other story in this package: A simple twist of fate

Fascinated, I had to read it, despite the fact it was going to make us late for an engagement. I yelled for Ted, my husband, to come see it. The e-mail read: “I recently purchased a 1937 65-foot Consolidated commuter yacht in Long Beach, Calif. I found a radio license in the name of Ted Conover, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., inside a cabinet in the saloon. Could this possibly be your husband? I’m trying to find out as much about the history of this yacht as possible. I have attached a photo of the yacht. Any information would be greatly appreciated.”

The e-mail was from a gentleman named John in Venice, Calif., and we live in Fort Lauderdale — one side of the country to the other. I answered back in the affirmative that, indeed, it had been our yacht some 40 years ago and that I would send photos the next day. Ted and I marveled over it the entire evening, wondering how he’d ever managed to track us down and how the boat had gotten to California. The mystery began to clear up the next day in a follow-up e-mail. John had Googled the name “Ted Conover,” and it came up on my book’s Web site. Thus began a series of e-mails with information and photos flying back and forth across the country. Ah, the wonders of the Internet.

Ted had bought the boat in the 1960s, before I met him, naming her Lancer because she was so long and thin. In addition to the everyday maintenance of an antique wooden yacht, he had done extensive work updating her. He changed the original cable steering system — which was frozen — to new hydraulic steering, sister-ribbed her, and completely refastened her with new bronze fastenings.

When I met Ted he was living on Lancer — without question one of the most beautiful boats I have ever seen — and I was always willing to lend a hand. She turned heads wherever she went. She was designed for banker E.E. Dickinson of Essex, Conn., by Sparkman & Stephens, and she had the further distinction of being built for Dickinson by the Consolidated Yard on City Island, N.Y., one the most famous shipyards to build these sleek commuters.

Before the great highway systems were built, the average Long Island, N.Y., millionaire would board his commuter every morning — after an early dip, shave and breakfast — to be whisked to the downtown East River docks of the New York Yacht Club. During the 45-minute commute, he would read the morning paper, getting a head start on the day’s news. The guest lists on these yachts read like a “Who’s Who” of the elite in government, business and entertainment worlds. There was a great deal of competition among these millionaires, and the yachts had to be stylish as well as fast.

Lancer’s original name, Phoenix, turned out to be truly prophetic, as the original commuter built for Dickinson was totally consumed by fire on the eve of her launching. Undaunted, Dickinson (also of Dickinson’s Witch Hazel fame) immediately ordered a replacement. The new yacht was a duplicate of the original, measuring 65 feet with a 12-1/2-foot beam and a double-planked hull, mahogany over cedar on an oak frame.

During her years with us, we regularly cruised the Bahamas and Mexico with such luminaries as Johnny Carson, Susan Hayward and Joe Namath on board. Her original Speedway 6-cylinder gasoline engines had been replaced by twin 671 GM diesels. We sold Lancer around 1973 to a gentleman in Hollywood, Fla. Soon after — around 1974 or 1975 — Richard “Slim” Gardner purchased her from an attorney in Miami. She had been renamed Elana II. Gardner had her trucked to California.

The rig measured 100 feet from the front of the truck to the back of the trailer that carried the yacht. It was the longest rig to haul cross-country at the time. That’s quite a story in itself, because it was stopped at the California border and almost denied entry due to weight. In an effort to lighten the load, they took everything possible off the boat, as well as every double tire on the rig.

Upon gaining entrance to the GoldenState, Slim did an extensive restoration on her, both reribbing and reframing. His company was named A.G.E., so he named her Old Age. He updated the heads and reconfigured the galley, a vast improvement. We’d had a standard 110-volt refrigerator in the galley, but he built and installed a wooden housing with a passway into the saloon, fitted with modern refrigeration. In 1985 he had the twin 671s rebuilt.

Around 1986 Bob and Alice Swaim purchased the boat from Slim and were the happy owners for the next 20 years. During their stewardship they did a lot of entertaining, rebuilt the Allison transmissions, and replaced the old Onan generator with a 3-cylinder Northern Lights unit, placing it in the lazarette and making it a great deal quieter.

John Eraklis, 36 — the present owner — had gone to look at another boat for sale in Long Beach when he first saw Old Age, and it was love at first sight. However, the story of how the founder and CEO of a media production company came to be looking for a yacht is even more compelling. He had lost his 37-foot EggHarbor in a dramatic nighttime collision with a submerged container.

As trying as the ordeal was, John wouldn’t have found Phoenix if ithadn’t happened. It was four or five months later when he found her while looking at another yacht. The commuter’s appearance belied the fact that she was in need of extensive updates in wiring, plumbing, bilge pumps, electronics, etc., to bring her up to present-day safety standards.

The owner agreed to a substantial price reduction, and the work started. The first thing John had to do was haul the boat, but there are only two boatyards in Marina del Rey, and both use marine Travelifts. The proper way to haul the Consolidated would have been to put her on a railway and pull her out. The thought of using straps to pick her up was terrifying to John; he had heard horror stories of old wooden boats that were literally crushed under their own weight. But he had no choice. The nearest railway was in Long Beach, and there was no way to get the boat there without fear of her sinking. John contracted with the yard and signed a waiver that said the boat would be hauled at his own risk.

He hired Arturo Oliva, the best shipwright in the area, to oversee the project. Arturo looked at the plans and blueprints and formulated his plan to haul the boat. Placing the straps in areas they knew were solid would evenly distribute the weight and make the difference between hauling the boat and creating a very expensive bundle of wood. With everyone holding their collective breath, she raised up effortlessly and gracefully from the water without so much as a creak. John knew then that he’d hired the perfect man for the job.

They stripped all the soft wood from the boat — stringers, planks, ribs, blocks, etc. However, the more soft wood they removed, the more they discovered. By the time Arturo finished he’d gutted the entire aft portion of the boat, from the transom to the cabin. They stripped the bottom and systematically began removing rotted planks and frames. The goal was to repair the boat using traditional materials and techniques, but with modern enhancements.

Phoenix had been built with the finest materials of her time, and John’s goal was to duplicate this. They had the boat’s original specifications, and Arturo selected white oak for the frames and stringers, cedar for the first layer of planking, and Honduran mahogany for the outer planks. All the new material was sealed with WEST SYSTEM epoxy, and all original wood was stripped and coated with clear penetrating epoxy sealer or penetrating epoxy.

While the woodwork was going on, he also had a team of painters stripping the hull above the waterline and mechanics replacing through-hulls, raw-water strainers and other hardware. Three full-time crews worked on the boat, often six days a week. Progress was slow, and there are pages and pages of invoices and materials, but with patience and persistence she began taking shape. The bilges were so clean you could eat off them. They stripped, primed and painted the engines gunmetal silver, which looks wonderful, and replaced hoses, wiring, impellers and so on. The diesels had only 600 hundred hours on them since the rebuild, so they were barely broken in.

Finally John had master craftsman Tom Adams re-create Phoenix’s mast from a single piece of old-growth Douglas fir. He cut eight separate pieces and fused them together to create an absolutely beautiful hollow mast and boom. That’s when we took John up on his invitation to come out and see the newly restored Phoenix and meet with Slim Gardner and the Swaims, the owners between ourselves and John.

I waited to write this until I saw her, and I must admit to being a bit teary-eyed when I spotted her down the dock in Marina del Rey. Phoenix turned 70 this year, and she is every bit as beautiful now as the day she was launched in 1937. The way she’s going she’s got at least another 70 years to go. We had a birthday party on board, complete with champagne, only to be hailed by some other classic yacht lovers as they tied up next to us to comment on her beauty.

Phoenix has been listed with a broker for a year, and if she doesn’t sell John plans to have her trucked to Rhode Island next spring for some cruising. The plan is to make stops in Newport and Block Island, then Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., eventually reaching Maine for the summer.

To the best of our combined knowledge she is the last Sparkman & Stephens-designed Consolidated commuter still afloat. Being of Greek descent, it is entirely appropriate that John rechristened the yacht Phoenix. Like the legend, this Phoenix has risen from the ashes. Long may she sail.