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Saving Aphrodite

The launching of the classic commuter yacht Aphrodite

The launching of the classic commuter yacht Aphrodite after an extensive restoration caps another chapter in this unique boat’s fascinating life.



But before she reached a safe port — first in Rhode Island and later in Maine for the refit — doubt stalked the five-man crew of the near-derelict, black-hulled 74-footer on her voyage north from Florida. In fact, Aphrodite’s captain, Kirk Reynolds, says there were a few moments during the September 2000 delivery when they thought the wooden powerboat — pulled a few weeks earlier from the slip where she had spent the last 10 years — might not make it.

Read the other story in this package: Rebuilding a classic: 20,000 rivets later

“I remember driving her into her first real wake on the ICW,” says the 49-year-old Reynolds. “The boat shook like a bowl of Jell-O, and I thought to myself: Only 1,500 miles more to go. I kind of wondered.”

Then the quaking old commuter lost an engine on Chesapeake Bay. “Around Annapolis, one engine developed a knock, and it had to be shut down,” Reynolds says. “From then on, we traveled on one engine, using the other sparingly and only at low rpm [for maneuvering].”

Aphrodite, which once turned heads racing up and down Long Island Sound at 60 mph, now limped uncertainly into New Jersey coastal waters. “We kind of nursed her along, a rotting boat that, looking at, you expected might fall apart,” says Reynolds.

By the time Aphrodite approached New York and the crew finally saw the city skyline, they were openly rooting for the old girl to make it. “When we entered Long Island Sound and the boat was back home again, that was a great sensation,” says Reynolds. “Crawling past Manhasset Bay we could only imagine her past life here.”

Eventually, Reynolds and his crew brought Aphrodite safely to a berth in Watch Hill, R.I., where her new owner, financier Charles Royce, already had started planning for a complete restoration of the 68-year-old vessel. But it would be another three years before Royce finally settled on Brooklin (Maine) Boat Yard for the rebuild.

Aphrodite was relaunched last October, looking almost exactly as she did in 1937, when she emerged from the builder’s shed in Port Washington, N.Y. The project took the restoration team some 40,000 hours to complete, and the final cost remains to be calculated. But as the old saying goes, if you need to ask … suffice it to say, a restoration like the one Aphrodite underwent isn’t cheap.

Steve White, owner and president of Brooklin Boat Yard, called it a complete rebuild. “There was little left to save,” he says. “I had seen the boat first back in 1980, on display at a wooden boat show, when it was still in beautiful shape. When I saw it again in Watch Hill I was shocked at its condition. The Florida environment had done its work.” Aphrodite was sea trialed after launching and then stored at the Brooklin yard for the winter. This season marks her public reintroduction as a fully restored commuter.

A boat worth saving

With only cleats and stanchions remaining, as Reynolds put it, why save Aphrodite? What’s the magic in this boat that’s been brought back from the brink of oblivion not once, but twice? Might it be that few commuters can match her pedigree?

Aphrodite was designed and built in New York by the Purdy Boat Co. on Long Island’s Gold Coast during the Golden Age of Yachting. Owned by New York financier John “Jock” Hay Whitney — a Depression-era multimillionaire still in his 20s — she expressed an energy left over from the Roaring Twenties, with her high speed and Art Deco styling. This commuter is the third of four Aphrodites that were built. Whitney inherited Aphrodite I from his uncle Oliver Hazard Payne, then commissioned the building of II, III and IV himself.

Her log book reads like both a Who’s Who of the entertainment world and a spy thriller with a wartime setting. Did Fred Astaire tap dance on the cabin top when he stepped aboard? Did Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy hold hands in secret when they visited the yacht? We know child star Shirley Temple had a birthday party on board; she’s pictured in the forward cockpit in her trademark jumpsuit and blonde curls.

During World War II, Aphrodite entered military service with the Coast Guard in the dark days after Pearl Harbor. With her reputation for speed, she was assigned to shadow President Franklin Roosevelt’s special train as it sped along the Hudson River to his Hyde Park family home. Sometimes FDR rode in “CGR-557” — as Aphrodite was known — planning strategy with his closest advisors and hosting Allied dignitaries as twin V-12 Packard engines, producing more than 1,500 hp, drove her through the night.

Is it Aphrodite’s looks, lineage and lore that make people like Royce (and John Pannell, earlier) come to her rescue? Maybe. “When [Royce] first saw photos of the boat, he was kind of interested. It was an odd boat, something different,” says Reynolds. “Getting deeper into the boat’s past, learning its history, understanding its design, he knew it was also an important piece of America’s yachting past. And if it wasn’t saved right then, it would be lost forever.”

Local transportation

And what a shame that would have been. The late maritime historian and editor Joe Gribbins called Aphrodite “one of the great commuters from the great days of prewar yachting, one of the great boats altogether.” She was launched in the spring of 1937 and carried Whitney, who had just shared in a $179 million inheritance, to and from work in Manhattan. Some transportation. The $90,000 Aphrodite turned heads from the beginning with her looks and performance.

Here is Gribbins’ description: “A long, black, sweetly curved commuter [with] a clipper bow, dramatic beavertail stern, varnished house and cockpit … and the name Aphrodite in gold on the buxom finishing touch of a stern. [She was] more an ultimate development of the express-cruiser commuter than a boat typical of the breed.”

The Purdy yard built about 250 wooden boats over a 30-year period that lasted into the 1950s. It was well-known for its distinctive commuters, speedboats and sportfishermen, as well as Star Class one-design sailboats. The yard also built small craft for the U.S. Navy.

Aphrodite certainly was well-constructed, with white oak keel and ribs, Oregon pine stringers and Philippine mahogany planking. She was 74 feet overall, 72 feet on the waterline, with a 14-foot, 6-inch beam and a draft of 3 feet, 6 inches. Her 12-cylinder Packards drove her at just less than 40 mph the year she was launched. Later repowered by the Navy for the Coast Guard during the war — she’s thought to have been repowered as many as eight times — Aphrodite attained a top speed of 60 mph as she raced off to Whitney’s weekend retreat on Fishers Island, N.Y., off Stonington, Conn. She would daily retrieve the New York Herald Tribune from a train that stopped in New London, Conn., and carried the paper specially for Whitney, who happened to own the newspaper.

Where did the Aphrodite look come from? The clipper bow and torpedo stern certainly weren’t typical of Purdy boats, writes historian Alan Dinn in “Boats by Purdy” (Tiller Publishing, St. Michaels, Md., 2003). In fact, Whitney’s previous boat, also named Aphrodite but built in Albany, N.Y., also had both elements.

“The integration of these two designs was a Whitney idea,” writes Dinn. “[He was] copying the bow and stern of Aphrodite II.” The new boat originally was gray before acquiring her trademark jet black paint in time for the 1939 boating season.

Tales of Aphrodite

Aphrodite soon became a familiar sight on the waters between Long Island and Manhattan. Whitney usually boarded the boat in the early morning in casual attire, changed into business clothes, and read the newspaper in the forward cockpit as the boat sped toward Manhattan. Local roads were primitive at best in those preinterstate days, and the commute by boat was shorter and less stressful than by car. Less than an hour later, Whitney would arrive at his office, rested and ready for business.

World War II put a stop to the idyllic ritual. Whitney volunteered his boat for military duty the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, and she was commissioned in 1942. Her legend only grew.

While acting as a pace vessel for a PT boat test, she apparently was challenged to an unofficial race. Aphrodite not only outdistanced the PTs, but those “so-and-sos were cooking hot meals while we were trying to hold on to our sandwiches,” roared one PT skipper afterward.

Aphrodite escorted the Queen Mary into port on her maiden voyage, the British liner seeking refuge from possible Axis attack. Aphrodite’s orders: stand between the Queen Mary and any torpedo. Secret talks took place on board the commuter, and when two suspicious strangers were found lurking around President Roosevelt’s Hyde Park pier, they were locked up aboard Aphrodite until the FBI arrived.

Whitney was faithful through the war and gladly took Aphrodite back when peace returned, owning it for another decade. He changed little on her but wasn’t adverse to repowering to keep ahead of the other commuters that flocked around Fishers Island beginning in the late 1940s. The fleet included Dauntless, a 65-foot aluminum cruiser owned by the Rockefellers; Goddess, the duPonts’ 58-foot Consolidated commuter; and a snazzy-looking Ray Hunt-designed 42-footer named Rock Bottom, famous for the roar of her engines. When islanders and mainlanders alike heard these boats rev up, they flocked to the shore to see them speed by.

Postwar, twin Packards — V-12s, 1,600 hp each — gave Aphrodite the mile-a-minute speed she became famous for when Whitney “opened her up,” as one local boater put it. Kids surfed their sailboats in her wake and nicknamed her “dirty diapers” because of her noisy, smoky engines.

But Whitney, a member of both the New York and Manhasset Bay yacht clubs, was more than a speed demon; he was a yachtsman, sensitive to tradition. After inadvertently using another member’s dock space at the Fishers Island Yacht Club, he promptly apologized, paid the bill, and soon got dock space of his own … slip No. 1.

Decline in fortunes

The long relationship ended in the early 1960s, when the aging Whitney donated Aphrodite to Boy’s Harbor, a summer program for disadvantaged inner-city youth that operated on an estate at East Hampton, N.Y., on Long Island’s South Fork.

A friend of Whitney’s, John “Shipwreck” Kelly, saw the once-lovely yacht in decline several years later. Distraught at her condition, he purchased her, brought her back, and owned her for another five years or so. Maintaining the old girl, however, proved too much.

Beginning in the early 1970s — her named changed to Moonfire — the declining boat went through a series of owners. Her hull was daubed with latex house paint, sections were literally carved out of her with a chainsaw, one man even kept goats on board. Eventually, Aphrodite came to rest in the weeds of an eastern Long Island boatyard.

In 1983 boatyard owner John Pannell was approached by a New Jersey man who told him he had just bought an old boat and would Pannell be interested in a project. The boat was named Moonfire, but the New Jersey man believed it was the old Aphrodite. Pannell took the job, and after the unexpected death of the owner shortly after work had begun, he accepted ownership of Aphrodite from the estate heirs as payment for work done.

Pannell, whose yard occupied the defunct Purdy yard’s piece of Port Washington waterfront, launched the refurbished Aphrodite in 1984 after 10,000 hours of work. Pannell lived aboard with his family, showing the boat and winning awards. In a 1985 Nautical Quarterly article, Gribbins wrote: “Aphrodite could be seen traveling up and down the East Coast and in attendance at classic yacht events, where she garnered many a prize.”

The upkeep of a 74-foot antique wooden yacht proved too much over the years, and Aphrodite went into a slow decline that was halted in the fall of 2000 when Pannell sold Aphrodite to Royce.

A stunning example

But the marina owner had served Aphrodite well. It takes a special person just to take a boat like Aphrodite under their wing, says Brooklin Boat Yard’s White. He says some owners simply enjoy the restoration project, but there’s more to it than that. The boat has to have a history and evoke personal interest — and Aphrodite seemed to have that for Pannell. “His work saved the boat in the first place,” says White. “It wouldn’t be where it is today without him.”

Terry Nathan, president of the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, R.I., calls Aphrodite “an extraordinary boat.” “The first time I saw her, she was sitting at the dock in Watch Hill along with a Shelter Island runabout,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine two more stunning examples of beauty.”

Nathan has a project of his own under way at the school, the restoration of the 133-foot schooner Coronet, built in 1885 and the last of the 19th-century luxury sailing yachts. It, too, has the looks, lineage and lore that make it worth saving.

“These two boats have a lot in common,” he says. “They’re both examples of the age they were built in — for Coronet, the Gilded Age, for Aphrodite, the Art Deco Age.”

Royce, meanwhile, plans to get a full season in this summer, maybe taking Aphrodite to some of her old haunts, according to Reynolds. Test rides last fall were held under a blue Maine sky, marking the “new” commuter’s return to active service. She cleaved the waves with her clipper bow, black hull gleaming and gold letters spelling her name on her “buxom” stern. All agree, nothing looks quite like her.

Why save Aphrodite? White puts it simply: “It’s such a cool boat.” 

A team effort

Capt. Kirk Reynolds would like to thank Jeff Hall, Tom Townsend, Michael Hveem and John Hoffman, who helped deliver Aphrodite from Florida to Rhode Island, and Hall, Bruce Avery, Dan Pease and Peter Debar, who were on board for the delivery from Rhode Island to Maine. In addition, he extends his gratitude to all who had a hand in the restoration. Without their help, this classic American yacht might have disappeared forever.