Jason and Rena Pilalas tell Marilyn Mower about their journey to buying the 44-metre superyacht Rena and realising a childhood dream of buying a historic Connecticut lighthouse.
“We lived in Belle Haven [Connecticut] and when I was 10, my dad gave me a rowboat. I used to row out past the Captain Island lighthouse and think to myself, ‘I’d like to live there one day,’” recalls Jason Pilalas. Decommissioned in 1970, the Great Captain Island lighthouse was too dilapidated for use by the early 2000s. But further east along the Long Island Sound lay a near-identical lighthouse. Several decades – and a successful career – after Pilalas first conceived his lighthouse dream, this twin came up for sale. The Morgan Point light was deactivated much earlier, in 1919, and its lantern removed. The old tower became leaky and uninhabitable, but a ranch-style addition was used for many years as a summer residence by a New York couple. In 1991 they offered it for sale and Jason and Rena Pilalas became the lighthouse’s third owners. Meticulously restored, the property might be viewed as the jewel in the couple’s impressive collection of nautical memorabilia – along with a 44.2-metre motor yacht named Rena.
After 55 years of marriage, Jason and Rena Pilalas finish each other’s sentences spontaneously. The stories of their lives are so intertwined that it comes across mostly as a single narrative, Rena adding the details to Jason’s topics. I had gone to North Palm Beach, Florida, to interview him about his life in boats and discovered that Mr and Mrs P, as they like to be called, are a delightful tag team.
We are seated at their expansive home, the north end of Lake Worth stretching out before us beyond a very long and noticeably empty dock. Its intended occupant, Rena, was at Lauderdale Marine Center getting ready for her spring and summer cruises. You could tell she was missed – they had bought the house specifically to accommodate a yacht. And this was not the first time that they have demonstrated having their priorities straight. Once, when Mr P accepted a job across the country, they flew from New York to California and in one weekend bought a car, a boat and a house, in that order.
Mr P is a Navy man and a proud Vietnam veteran. “I ran away from boarding school on a Friday, went to the [nearest] Navy recruiter and signed up to get out from under my father’s thumb. I figured by the time the school reported me missing, it would be too late. I was 17 years old but as I didn’t have a driver’s licence, the recruiting officer was willing to take me at my word that I was 18.”
Serving on cargo vessels in the Atlantic, Pilalas caught the attention of some of the “brass” who thought he might make an officer candidate. The problem was, he didn’t have a high school diploma. “They sent me to the Naval Academy Prep School for four months so I could get a GED [diploma equivalent] then offered me a scholarship to several colleges. I picked University of Southern California as it was furthest from home,” he says.
He is wearing a USC polo shirt as we speak. What was it that he liked most about the USC experience? “She’s sitting right next to me,” he says with a grin. Indeed, Mrs P had been a student there too. She offers that he was a somewhat undetermined student except for his naval science classes. “I never missed one,” he adds, which is about their score for USC football games today.
With his diploma came an officer’s commission and soon, a deployment to South East Asia aboard the destroyer USS Southerland where he served for two and a half years. In 1965 came the first of two back-to-back deployments in South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta as executive officer on the 100-metre USS Garrett County, a base for helicopter teams and gunboats. The ship won eight battle stars before she was decommissioned in 1971 – and Pilalas had seen enough to know he didn’t want to make the Navy his career.
Armed with knowledge of ship operations, he resigned his commission and returned to the US, taking a position with a shipping company in New York. He and Rena settled in Connecticut. Eager to be on the water, he bought an Etchells 22 sailing boat and began racing on Long Island Sound. Although he did well, he realised he didn’t really like the shipping business, especially after he read a report that said shipping company executives, whose decisions are subject to great risk, earn 30 per cent less than their counterparts in other industries.
“I wanted to be successful, so I decided I better go to business school,” he says. In the evenings, Rena helped him study for the entrance exam. It paid off with acceptances to Columbia, Harvard and Stanford. “Everything you do in life before focuses you; business school opens the doors.”
At Capital Group, one of the top investment firms in the world, Pilalas specialised in pharmaceutical and medical company investment and steadily moved up in the company during his 36-year career. His track record as a risk-taker was impressive; the company’s assets during his tenure grew from $3 million to $1.5 billion (£2.5m to £1.25bn). He likes to point out that the 500-fold increase was accomplished with only five times more people.
While he had left the Navy behind, the Navy never really left him, and he began collecting memorabilia. Because US Navy items belong to the US government, that gear was hard to come by and he began collecting British Navy artefacts. Over the years, that collection has grown into one of the world’s largest private collections. Some of the pieces are simply breathtaking in terms of their historic significance. There are enough ships’ bells to anchor every stair tread here and in their Morgan Point lighthouse home in Noank, Connecticut. “When we saw the notice in The Wall Street Journal that [the lighthouse] was for sale, there was no question, he had to have it,” says Rena.
The lighthouse dates to 1868 and is one of a series of similar lights on the shores of Long Island Sound and Block Island. Seeking out the original US Lighthouse Service plans, Pilalas had the tower reconstructed with a comfortable 13-square-metre observation room occupying the space where the lanterns once flashed a beacon to ships bound for the Mystic River. That painstaking reconstruction – research uncovered the quarry that supplied granite blocks for the original tower – along with building a library and a cedar-shingled residence, took two years to complete. They spent more than twice the asking price of the property on the restoration – but it was worth it. The couple spends four months each year at the lighthouse. To share their good fortune, they host an annual Fourth of July celebration for local residents with a barbecue and fireworks.
By 2007, Pilalas, who by then ran the New York office, decided it was time to have some fun and buy a boat, a big boat, and travel, recalls Mrs P. Pragmatically, Mr P went shopping for a dock suitable for a large boat, and, oh by the way, a house. They found the perfect spot in a gated neighbourhood with forever views – in Florida. “He said, ‘I’m retiring. We are moving to Florida; Florida doesn’t have income tax. Don’t worry, we’ll meet new people just like us,’” recalls Rena. She was a bit stunned; he went boat shopping.
When it comes to yachts, Pilalas’s taste runs to “boats that look like they are built for a purpose,” and they both like classic looks. “I didn’t want anything ostentatious. We had a budget, which of course we exceeded several times.” A brokerage offering called Curt C fitted the bill for a classic boat matching the draught and dock length of their new home.
The yacht, now known as Rena, was launched as Eastwind at the Australian shipyard NQEA in 1989 as a custom tri-deck by legendary US naval architect Jack Hargrave. It was designed as a yacht that “could do everything”, including a good turn of speed for coastal cruising, but also have long range and stability for transatlantic passages. The midships engine room was conservative but easily accessible from the crew quarters forward, with five cabins for the owner’s party aft. A previous owner added 4.5 metres to her LOA, but to this day she keeps the strong, unbroken sheer line and bow shape of a classic Hargrave.
In their 15 years of ownership, the last eight with Captain Brad Baker, Rena has had two Med seasons as well as cruised Northern Europe. She’s spent many winters in the Caribbean, serving as a guest observation boat or committee boat for the St Barths Bucket, and summer cruising grounds are New England and Canada. Once, the boat closed its Caribbean season by heading through the Panama Canal to Alaska. “We had so many friends want to join us that we did the Pacific coast of Costa Rica three times,” recalls Mrs P. “And the Margerie Glacier in Alaska,” interjects Mr P. “It was magnificent, even though I realised we were two miles past the iceberg limit of our insurance!
“I know 15 years is a long time to own a boat,” he says. “If I had my way, I might get something new, but nothing is pushing me strongly in that direction. I went to the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show for several years really looking, but I couldn’t find anything that I liked better.” That’s the way it is with collector’s items – they only grow in your affections.
First published in the May 2022 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.SHOP NOW