The commodore of the New York Yacht Club, Chris Culver, talks to BOAT International about his classic Feadship superyacht Cetacea
Cable television ratings are big news in the US. The nightly MSNBC versus Fox versus CNN battle for viewers is a never-ending slugfest with massive implications for networks’ bottom lines. Prime-time hosts face off like heavyweights, pulling in enormous salaries to seize audience share – and dictate the reverberating narrative on social media. Sitting serenely apart from this fray is a network you’ve never heard of but that’s bigger than them all. And unlike Fox, MSNBC or CNN, with this network you can’t change the channel.
The man behind it is Chris Culver, current commodore of the New York Yacht Club and owner of the classic 40-metre Feadship Cetacea. His company, Health Media Network (HMN), beams programming into doctors’ offices across the US, reaching an annual audience of more than 300 million people. And with wait times in medical centres in the US on the increase (up 30 per cent in major cities since 2014) and an ageing population, HMN’s audience is getting bigger by the day. But you won’t hear about it on CNN.
“Once a medical centre takes on our network, you don’t watch another network. We’re larger than the top five or 10 cable networks combined in terms of audience size,” says Culver. “So we have to think about our impact – do we feature daytime soap operas or do you want headlines, weather, sports and information about how to lead a healthy life? It’s, hopefully, inspirational, and not focused on the doldrums of the news cycle. If you’re tuned into that all day, every day, it’s unbearable.” The genius of HMN’s offering is that it’s entirely bespoke. If a cardiologist and a radiologist work in the same office, their screens feature content only relevant to the patients in their waiting rooms. There is no “one-size-fits-all” broadcasting.
Culver has spent his whole career in the media space. He started out in the movie business before branching into digital advertising, and even spent some time in the UK in the early 1990s setting up the first charity lottery in the country. He founded HMN in 2007, basing it in Stamford, Connecticut.
Often entrepreneurs will make their first proper boat purchase as a reward for a deal, or when some success means there’s a bit more disposable income sloshing around, but not Culver. “The first boat I bought, believe me, I was making no money. It was a 19ft sailing boat that cost $200. I’d sail it in what we call the thumb area of Michigan, off the Saginaw River, overnight and on weekends. It was all mine.”
The Michigan native is a lifelong sailor.“I grew up on the inland lakes of Michigan and then the Great Lakes. My father and I were always on the water. We sailed small boats and water-skied competitively.” He remembers being seven or eight and navigating a motorboat in heavy seas across the Straits of Mackinac by dead reckoning alone. “That’s what we were taught. It was a spectacular way to grow up on the water.”
He moved to California early in his career and bought a 9.5-metre FarEast ketch, the first Cetacea, which he sailed up and down the Californian coast. Since then, there’s been a Hinckley SW59 in which he did 20,000 offshore miles, a Swan 42 that he campaigned at events up and down the East Coast of the US, and most recently the fourth Cetacea, the 40-metre Feadship motor yacht from 1970 that he bought two years ago. Rounding out the current fleet is a share in Onawa, the oldest 12 Metre in the US, and an IC37 raceboat.
Was there any trepidation about moving into a big motor yacht after a life spent under sail? “It was the easiest transition I’ve ever had in my life. What drew me was its lines. I love the classic lines. When I saw Cetacea sitting at the dock with the beautifully flared Feadship bow, I just thought she was beautiful. It was a different era for yachting back then. You can go back to the turn of the last century and it’s interesting to see designs change throughout the decades. But in 1970 the classic lines of this Feadship were just spectacular. This is a sailor’s motor yacht.”
Enjoying her would have to wait, however, as she spent the first 12 months of Culver’s ownership in various stages of refit. Cetacea, formerly known as Alchemy, had been donated to a non-profit by her former owner, which meant maintenance in some areas was lacking. “So we’ve done a tremendous amount of work. We’ve really spent the time to make sure that anything we add is in keeping with a 50-year-old yacht of this vintage. That’s really important to me.”
Fortunately Cetacea was in a good-enough state in March 2020 as Covid-19 struck. Culver and his wife saw that office life as they knew it was over, at least temporarily, so they flew down to Fort Lauderdale to meet the boat, and spent the next two and a half months on board riding out the first wave of the pandemic. “We couldn’t leave US territorial waters, so we dropped the hook halfway between Marathon Key and Key West, off of a very small island down there, and that’s where we stayed.” This was no vacation, however. “I don’t think we’ve ever done more calls, more business meetings, more Club meetings than in that period. Just one Zoom call to the next, but we were always able to come back up on deck and enjoy a sunset for a few moments, which seemed to balance things at a time when we needed that balance the most.”
A little island off the Keys was a world away from his intended destination in March 2020, which was a little island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Like many owners, he had been planning a transpacific passage on his yacht, in order to arrive at the end of the year in Auckland, to oversee, as the commodore of the New York Yacht Club, American Magic’s attempt to secure the America’s Cup. Culver did eventually make it to Auckland, by plane, but came home without the Auld Mug after the NYYC team was eliminated in the first stages of the Prada Cup. Culver even had a spot picked out for the Cup: the Palm Cafe in the Club’s 44th Street clubhouse in New York. “There’s a big empty spot in the centre of it that would be perfect.”
Unfortunately Culver won’t be the commodore that places it there, but he’s not letting that distract him from his mission to expand the reach of the historic Club he now oversees, and introduce a new generation to the water. “I don’t care what you sail. I don’t care if you like classic yachts or foiling yachts or motor yachts, just get on the water, be on the water, and commit to that experience. And how do we reach and mentor the next generation to have that pride of ownership of a yacht of any kind?” Not for Culver the status quo; he is a campaigning commodore. “We are not stewards of the New York Yacht Club, we’re the leaders of this Club and it’s our responsibility to take it forward.”
It’s a lot to shoulder, especially for someone still so active in his business, but Culver shrugs off my question about it being a burden. “I don’t see it like that. It’s such a wonderful opportunity to take this club and others forward and so I’m excited. People have said, ‘Boy, really sorry the pandemic hit during your term.’ I’m not. I’m glad it happened on my watch versus somebody else’s because we have a great capacity to look at this and focus on the opportunities it will create, not the opportunities lost."
There’s that entrepreneurial streak again. Professionally, things seem only to be getting busier, too. HMN recently inked a big deal with global media giant Meredith, parent to brands such as People and Entertainment Weekly, to broadcast its content to HMN’s vast audience. “This deal will also enable us to dramatically scale the business which presents great opportunities for all,” Culver said in the press release announcing the deal. A work/club life this hectic is going to require some serious downtime. Luckily, Culver has the perfect platform for that.
“We’re only just really at the start of the journey with Cetacea. There’s lots of places we want to explore, and it’s a wonderful boat to do that.” Under previous owners, the 1970 Feadship did a full circumnavigation, but the Culvers don’t have anything quite so ambitious planned just yet. “We want to do the Mediterranean with her. And we’d love to bring the 12 metre over and race at Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez. Wouldn’t that be wonderful to have both boats there to enjoy that experience?”
Before then, however, Cetacea will be cruising a little closer to home – New England in the summer and the Caribbean in the winter. There’s even talk of taking her to the Great Lakes in the not-too-distant future, bringing the Michigan boy back to where it all began.
This feature is taken from the May 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.SHOP NOW