For the Greater Good


Yachts International - - Contents - By John rous­man­iere

Wil­liam K. Van­der­bilt II used his yachts for plea­sure, but the pur­suit of science and ex­plo­ration for the bet­ter­ment of hu­man­ity was al­ways at the fore.

KINGS, QUEENS, EM­PER­ORS AND TY­COONS have been sail­ing fne yachts for cen­turies, yet it’s a safe bet that few have done it more, or more suc­cess­fully, than Wil­liam Kis­sam Van­der­bilt II. As a mem­ber of one of Amer­ica’s wealth­i­est and most fa­mous fam­i­lies, he could eas­ily have opted to en­joy his pros­per­ity in a less rig­or­ous way, but he threw him­self into an ac­tive, am­bi­tious, very phys­i­cal life on the wa­ter, in the end cruis­ing more than 200,000 miles, in­clud­ing two voy­ages around the world, in full com­mand of his grand yachts.

“Wil­lie K,” as he was known, was not the only Van­der­bilt en­tranced by salt wa­ter. Cor­nelius Van­der­bilt, the founder of the fam­ily for­tune, had his frst job on a ferry boat and com­manded a steamship and rail­road em­pire so force­fully that he was nick­named “Com­modore.” Yet when he headed off on a fam­ily cruise to Europe in 1853, the man in charge of North Star was not the Com­modore, but a paid sea cap­tain. When his sons and grand­sons built luxury yachts, they also de­ferred to hired pro­fes­sion­als.

Great-grand­son Wil­lie Van­der­bilt broke the mold. When he frst went out on the wa­ter with his brother, Harold, and his sis­ter, Con­suelo (she mar­ried the Duke of Marl­bor­ough and is a model for Lady Cora in “Down­ton Abbey”), Wil­lie be­gan dreaming about boats. Over time, he cre­ated a plan for some­thing grander and more chal­leng­ing than merely spend­ing time near shore in a small boat. He en­vi­sioned living plea­sur­ably for long pe­ri­ods of time, in­de­pen­dent of shore­side con­cerns, while con­tribut­ing to hu­man knowl­edge.

He re­called the germ of th­ese am­bi­tions many years later as he com­pleted a 38,000-mile cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion in com­mand of his 264-foot yacht, Alva. “Ever since I be­gan sail­ing in the lit­tle Osprey when I was 16 years old,” he wrote in his log in 1932, “the ideal boat has been shap­ing it­self in my mind, and I be­lieve that in Alva it has been achieved as nearly as pos­si­ble.”

From his youth on­ward, Wil­lie was fas­ci­nated by trans­porta­tion,

wanted to be in charge and liked go­ing fast. In the 1890s he toured Europe in cut­ting-edge au­to­mo­biles. Soon he was rac­ing them, and he set a world record of 92.3 miles per hour and founded the frst ma­jor Amer­i­can auto race, for the Van­der­bilt Cup. He also raced power­boats. One he named Hard Boiled Egg be­cause “she couldn’t be beaten.” An­other, called Taran­tula, was an ar­row-thin 157-footer pushed by nine pro­pel­lers. He do­nated his sec­ond Taran­tula to the U.S. Navy for World War I pa­trol duty un­der his com­mand as an of­fcer in the Naval Re­serve. Along the way, Wil­lie was elected com­modore of the Seawan­haka Corinthian Yacht Club. (Brother Harold also com­manded his own pa­trol boat in the war. He served as com­modore of the New York Yacht Club and raced sail­boats at the high­est level—win­ning the Amer­ica’s Cup three times—and, on shore, in­vented con­tract bridge.)

Af­ter the war and a term as pres­i­dent of the New York Cen­tral Rail­road, Wil­lie set his sights on far­ther hori­zons. Ev­ery year from 1922 through 1931, he and his 213-foot yacht, Ara (a for­mer French war­ship), com­pleted at least one long cruise, in­clud­ing a cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion. Alva came next, named for his hard-driv­ing, am­bi­tious mother, Alva Van­der­bilt Bel­mont, one of Amer­ica’s lead­ing suf­fragettes.

The yachts’ chief home port was North­port Har­bor, near Hunt­ing­ton, New York, where Wil­lie had a man­sion called Ea­gle’s Nest and a marine mu­seum to dis­play oceano­graphic and other trea­sures dis­cov­ered on his voy­ages. Wil­lie’s win­ter base was near his home on Fisher Is­land, near Miami. In both places and on the oceans be­tween them, his at­ten­tion was con­stant and thor­ough. “The com­modore al­ways ‘ ran the show,’” Yacht­ing mag­a­zine re­ported af­ter Wil­lie’s death in 1944. He was a fully skilled cap­tain, study­ing nav­i­ga­tion and sea­man­ship to such an ad­vanced level that he was awarded a mas­ter’s li­cense qual­i­fy­ing him to com­mand any ves­sel of any size and type. He also was the ship’s morale of­fcer, show­ing movies on the large screen and buy­ing mu­si­cal in­stru­ments to es­tab­lish an on­board orches­tra.

Strong morale was im­por­tant be­cause of the com­pli­cated com­bi­na­tion of de­mand­ing roles the crew played on Wil­lie’s yachts. Ara and Alva had dif­fer­ent mis­sions. On one hand, they were pri­vate luxury yachts ded­i­cated to the com­fort and plea­sure of owner and guests. In this role they were in near-con­stant mo­tion. Dur­ing their 12-month world cruises, each yacht called at more than 80 ports. On the other hand, Wil­lie’s yachts were se­ri­ous oceano­graphic re­search ves­sels equipped with trawls, lab­o­ra­to­ries and a team of sci­en­tists, pho­tog­ra­phers and artists who gath­ered and an­a­lyzed sam­ples, and pro­duced de­tailed re­ports for the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory and his own mu­seum. Th­ese dif­fer­ent, yet re­lated mis­sions are the ma­jor themes of Wil­lie’s books and a flm about the Alva cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion, “Over the Seven Seas,” that played in a New York movie house and is avail­able on YouTube.


A fa­vorite des­ti­na­tion of Wil­lie’s was the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands, with their pop­u­la­tion of un­usual an­i­mals that had stim­u­lated Charles Dar­win to de­velop the the­ory of evo­lu­tion. Wil­lie couldn’t stay away from th­ese rocky dots in the Pacifc on the equa­tor. “To­mor­row we shall see the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands again,” he wrote in 1932. “How well I re­mem­ber por­ing over charts as a boy, won­der­ing whether some day I should make a voy­age to this weird place. And here I am on my third visit!” His en­thu­si­asm evolved with ev­ery visit and ob­ser­va­tion of as­ton­ish­ing di­ver­sity. When he was frst there, in 1926, he wrote: “Hawks, pel­i­cans and sea gulls looked at us in fear­less amaze­ment, as if we were queer but in­nocu­ous mu­seum pieces.” He felt free at that time to claim a per­sonal stake by hav­ing Ara’s name carved on a cliff in Dar­win Bay.

Five years later, Wil­lie was less en­thu­si­as­tic. Dozens of cruis­ing yachts and fsh­ing boats had be­gun not only to come out to the is­lands, but to change them. Wil­lie be­lieved the an­i­mals were un­easy. One of his small boats was chased by a whale, and manta rays seemed threat­en­ing. “The crea­tures of this once fear­less an­i­mal world have had too much con­tact with hu­man be­ings,” he ob­served. “It is a sad com­men­tary on the havoc civ­i­lized man in­ficts on a prim­i­tive world.” As one of those in­trud­ers, he felt some re­spon­si­bil­ity.

By the time Alva ar­rived home in 1932, the big fst of the Great De­pres­sion was pound­ing even Van­der­bilts, and Wil­lie put more am­bi­tious cruises on hold. “Now Alva will have a pe­riod of quiet,” he wrote, adding, “We all feel she de­serves a rest, but we hope that the near fu­ture will fnd her at sea once more, vis­it­ing new lands and bring­ing to those on board a re­lax­ation that is hard to fnd in th­ese days of stress.” That stress only in­creased. He un­der­took shorter voy­ages that brought his to­tal dis­tance to more than 200,000 miles. His last big adventure, a tour of South Amer­ica, was in yet an­other type of trans­porta­tion: an air­plane. His en­ergy and pas­sion turned to de­vel­op­ing Ea­gle’s Nest into the sprawl­ing Van­der­bilt Mu­seum, which to­day con­tin­ues to of­fer vast ex­hibits of marine, land and hu­man ar­ti­facts he gath­ered.

Af­ter Wil­lie’s death in 1944, some mourn­ers fo­cused on his yachts, oth­ers on his au­to­mo­biles, still oth­ers on his sci­en­tifc

ac­tiv­i­ties. In­evitably, some peo­ple could not re­sist the temp­ta­tion to gos­sip about the Van­der­bilt fam­ily. In one of the best eval­u­a­tions of the man him­self, an ed­i­to­rial in a ma­jor news­pa­per char­ac­ter­ized his life as one that “com­bined use­ful­ness with a vast amount of in­tel­li­gent plea­sure.”

Wil­lie threw him­self into projects thought­fully and per­son­ally; as the ed­i­to­rial writer put it, “He was never one to be sat­is­fed with a purely aca­demic knowl­edge of what­ever in­ter­ested him.” That was the in­tel­li­gent part of the for­mula. As for plea­sure, there was plenty of that, too, though not every­body fully ap­pre­ci­ated it. There was, for ex­am­ple, the coun­try club ac­quain­tance back on Long Is­land who, on hear­ing that Wil­lie was headed to the Gala­pa­gos, asked, “What in God’s name do you do in a place like that where there are no golf cour­ses?” Wil­lie had plenty of an­swers to that ques­tion. Some are im­plicit in this sub­lime en­try in the ship’s log at the start of a voy­age: “We de­sire to see again end­less wa­ters, star­beams in lonely re­gions, streaks of dawn over fairy is­lands, swift-glid­ing out­rig­ger ca­noes and peo­ple whose out­look upon life is dif­fer­ent from our own.”

Wil­lie Van­der­bilt knew pre­cisely what was im­por­tant to him— and he knew how to make it hap­pen.

John Rous­man­iere is a yacht­ing his­to­rian and an author­ity on safety at sea. He is the au­thor of more than 20 books on sail­ing and boats in­clud­ing “The An­napo­lis Book of Sea­man­ship” and “Fast­net, Force 10.” This is his frst ar­ti­cle in Yachts In­ter­na­tional.

LEFT: The cap­tain en­joy­ing life with his daugh­ter, Con­suelo, on board Alva. Bot­tom: He named a race boat Hard Boiled Egg be­cause “she couldn’t be beaten.”

Ara (bot­tom) and Alva were yachts and re­search ves­sels col­lect­ing var­i­ous species, like this enor­mous ray, for Van­der­bilt’s mu­seum.

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