Wheeler family to build boats again


The storied builder next year will introduce its first model in more than 40 years

Known for its rugged, seaworthy sportfishing yachts, the long-defunct Wheeler Yacht Company is poised to make a comeback.

By next year Wes P. Wheeler, great- grandson of company founder Howard E. Wheeler, and his business partner, Jim Scandura, expect to officially introduce Wheeler Yacht’s first boat in more than 40 years. “This is all very incredible,” says Wheeler, who is 48 and president of North American operations and global marketing at Valeant Pharmaceuticals International. “I’m excited. I can’t wait to see the first one splashed.”

That yacht is the Tom Fexas-designed 55-foot Legacy Sedan, which is modeled after Wheeler’s 1952 48-foot Sportfisherman. Wheeler says he is confident the new incarnation will exceed today’s standards of construction, performance and luxury. “The interior will be made with all the best finishes I can find. The boat is very modern,” says Wheeler, a mechanical engineer and avid sailor and yacht owner.

For Wheeler, restarting the family business was something he’d wanted to do for years. “There are still a lot of Wheeler Yacht fans out there, many of whom have asked if we’d ever start up again,” he says. “I had taken too much of that over the years. Then, recently, I saw an article in Sea magazine written by Tom Fexas. It was about what happened to all the classic boats we once loved, and in the middle of the page was a picture of a Wheeler 1952 48-foot Sportfisherman. That inspired me.”

Wheeler says he called Fexas immediately and asked him if he’d design a contemporary Wheeler. He plans to have the first Legacy Sedan built at Bennett Brothers Yachts in Wilmington, N.C. If all goes as planned, the boat will be in the water for its first sea trial next May.

Wheeler believes the classic styling of the Legacy will contribute to its success. “The original was one of Wheeler’s most popular models,” he says. “This new design has a classic look, and there’s a definite movement toward retro-styled boats today. These aren’t going to be your typical white blobs in the water. They’re beautiful. I think there’s a healthy market for Wheeler.”

The standard layout includes a king size island berth in the forward owner’s stateroom. There’s a starboard VIP stateroom with a queen-size berth, and a port cabin with two single berths. In all, the boat will sleep eight, including two in the saloon.

The 55-footer has a beam of 17 feet, 11 inches and draws 4 feet, 6 inches at half-load. The standard package includes twin 1,015-hp Caterpillar C-18s for a cruising speed of around 32 mph. Optional twin 1,652-hp CaterpillarC-32s will be available, for a top speed of around 48 mph.

Unlike the 1952 model, the Legacy’s hull is solid fiberglass below the chine, and is cored with vacuum-bagged PVC foam in the topsides. Wheeler estimates the base price will be around $2.5 million.

“I think the market for boats 40-feet and smaller is already well-saturated,” he says. “We’re catering to a higher-end boater who wants different, faster, American-built luxury yachts.”

The Wheeler Yacht Company was founded in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1910. By the time it dissolved in 1965, the company had built more than 3,500 hulls. (Working primarily with wood, Wheeler found it difficult to compete with the growing popularity of fiberglass.) Perhaps the company’s best-known boat was Ernest Hemingway’s 38-foot sportfisherman, Pilar. Custom built for Hemingway in 1934, Pilar was the first in Wheeler’s popular “Playmate” series.

In addition to the Legacy Sedan, Wheeler Yacht is working on a 55-foot Sunlounge and a 55-foot Promenade Deck. Both boats originally were designed in the late 1940s.

Wheeler says he’s happy that the company is back in business and proud to continue his family’s commitment to building quality luxury yachts. “It seems like my family is destined to build boats,” he says. “As a businessman most of my life, I’ve never had that opportunity, until now. I hope to be successful and to get my entire family involved in the process. I’m very excited — Wheeler rides again.”

For more information, visit www.wheeleryachts.com.