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Caritas: The remarkable story of the 48m trailer park superyacht

Highway 101 in northern California, just a few miles south of the Oregon border, is about as far removed from the bustle and glamour of southern California as you can get. A large redwood reserve lies to the east and the landscape is peppered with roaming elk.

Just past the town of Smith River, population 866, there’s a slight rise in the road. Ascending it reveals a most incongruous sight: a large 1920s steel motor yacht sitting in a field of grass, on the land of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation tribe.

The story of how the 48 metre German-built superyacht Caritas ended up high and dry in one of the most rural stretches of the Pacific coast is a tale that spans a war and two very different seaboards.

It starts on the East Coast in 1925 when sugar magnate J Percy Bartram took delivery of his second yacht called Caritas — at 47.7 metres, about 50 per cent longer than his previous Caritas, launched three years earlier.

The New York Yacht Club member turned to New York firm Cox & Stevens for its design and Krupp in Kiel, Germany, for the build. Fifth Avenue’s William Baumgarten & Co created lavish interiors to complement the Honduras mahogany panelling — a job that the company boasted in a 1926 advertisement was comparable to the most artistic interiors on land.

Caritas’s guest cabins were situated aft on the lower deck, with a full-beam en-suite owner’s cabin and five more cabins sharing two baths. Crew were housed in the bow, and the main deck had plenty of communal space, with a living room aft, an owner’s lounge and a formal dining room all the way forward. The total cost was reported by Motor Boating magazine to be half a million dollars.

Named after Bartram’s private island estate in Connecticut, Caritas was the pinnacle of his yacht ownership. She was a one-owner yacht for the many years that followed, taking Bartram south for the winter and hosting the likes of Sir Thomas Lipton, who reportedly watched his Shamrock sailing yachts challenge for the America’s Cup from her decks.

But the Second World War changed everything. Caritas was requisitioned and purchased by the US Navy and Bartram, then aged 71, had to give her up. Robert Jacob Shipyard converted her for naval use and in 1942, sailing as the USS Garnet, she was sent through the Panama Canal to San Diego then to Hawaii. Stationed in Pearl Harbour, she served for the remainder of the war as a convoy escort and patrol boat between Pearl Harbour and Midway. On board were up to 80 sailors, a cat, a dog and a mischievous monkey called Jo-Jo.

During the war, her yacht DNA caused more than one case of mistaken identity — according to Engineer 1st Class RF Paone, as published in the book Home from the Sea by Ernest L Sackett, she was nearly sunk by one of the US Navy’s own ships, which mistook her for a Japanese sub, and a B-29 made a bomb run over her with its bay doors open.

But the most terrifying incident, Paone reports, took place after the war. En route to California, the most severe hurricane they had faced — and they had survived at least five — swamped them, cutting out the engines. The entire crew worked for 24 hours on the bucket brigade while engineers attempted to dry and restart the engines. The storm overturned and sank three destroyers but USS Garnet persevered.

When it abated they limped into harbour, and the ship was decommissioned in San Pedro, California, in late 1945. She was struck from the naval register in early 1946 and her Union L8 diesel engines were removed and sold. In 1947, she was sent for disposal and purchased by IW Landers, of Baltimore, Maryland.

Meanwhile, up north, Joe and Betty Sierka had been running Castle Rock, a small fishing resort on the salmon and steelhead trout-rich Smith River. In 1949 a devastating fire accidentally started by an intoxicated employee destroyed their motel office, tackle shop and home. According to Sackett, Joe Sierka had always been interested in the sea and ships.

Navy surplus sales piqued his imagination and he combed the shoreline for a suitable floating replacement for his loss. He found the USS Garnet through the San Francisco Base Metals Corporation, which was representing Landers, and had her towed to Eureka, California.

The next challenge was getting her up the Smith River as she was twice the size of any vessel to have navigated the narrow entrance. The Sierkas tried it in August 1949 but aborted the attempt when a heavy groundswell spoiled the highest tide of the year. Six months later they tried again.

“No one thought it would work,” says local Scotty Tryon. The overriding attitude was sceptical, bordering on angry, as some feared she would permanently clog up the channel that provided their livelihood. Hundreds of people lined the banks to watch the delicate operation, according to the Humboldt Times, as reported in Home from the Sea.

The second attempt was successful, though, and she was towed 400 metres upriver and parked on the riverbank. She served as a home for the Sierkas and their two children, as well as a restaurant, cocktail lounge and tackle shop, and became known as Ship Ashore.

When the Sierkas retired in 1964, they sold out to brothers Henry “Hank” and Robert “Chopper” Westbrook, hardcore entrepreneurs from a family of early settlers in the area. Hank and Chopper grew up on the family’s dairy ranch and, as adults, they expanded into international timber operations, lily-bulb growing, tourism and real estate development.

“Anything that needed to be done, they did it,” says Bobby Westbrook, Chopper’s son. “They built up this whole area of town. They even started a fish hatchery on Rowdy Creek” — California’s first and still only privately run hatchery. That can-do spirit was responsible for the yacht’s next big move, in 1965, which was also met with scepticism locally. To attract tourists off the highway, Hank and Chopper decided to drag the Ship Ashore to the road.

Tryon recalls that his parents let him take a week off high school to help. He drove one of the 12 Caterpillar tractors that hauled the ship out of the water and several hundred metres across land. Logs under the hull helped get her up the bank, he recalls, but she kept threatening to tip over. They dug a deep V into the dirt to stabilise her and brute tractor strength finished the job, a dozen tugging together for a full 10 hours.

Once the yacht was relocated, it hosted a gift shop and museum, which grew by bits and pieces with no particular theme. The Sierkas had made a “pirate’s den” on board with lifelike wax figures shaped by Madame Tussauds, which they had discovered in a San Francisco antiques shop.

Added to this was a rock collection, military relics, Native American artefacts, marine oddities, even Beanie Babies. It was a popular tourist attraction, a destination for school field trips and a place of exploration for the Westbrook children, who used to crawl around the empty engine compartment.

The gift shop and museum closed in 2013 after 48 years because of a one-man campaign against public places with no disabled access. “He went around to all the little grocery stores and places that didn’t have handicap access and sued them. He sued more than 20 in Humboldt and Del Norte counties until he was run out of the counties,” says Westbrook.

Under the Westbrooks’ ownership, the little fishing resort had expanded to include a 50-unit motel, 200 RV spots and 100 mobile home places. “It grew to a pretty big city of its own, actually bigger than the town that is down the road as far as population goes,” says Westbrook.

But with the older generation of Westbrooks gone, the downturn in the economy and the family’s interests moving towards farming, it was time to let go. They sold the property to the local Native American tribe, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, in autumn 2016. As the site is adjacent to tribal lands, the acquisition means more to the Tolowa than just a business opportunity. It was a chance to regain the land of Xaa-wan’-k’wvt, an important village that was destroyed in an 1853 massacre.

Leslie Payne, speaking for the federally recognised tribe, says it is too early to reveal their intention for the resort and the ship but they hope to have a plan to rebuild or renovate the resort by the end of the year — and that may include removing and scrapping the yacht.

This might have been the end of the story for Caritas if it wasn’t for William Collier, a designer with a penchant for adventure. As managing director of a company that specialises in restoration projects, GL Watson, he has travelled the world locating historic yachts, abandoned in odd places, and matching them with the right client.

He is responsible for such finds as Bystander, tender to six America’s Cup campaigns, the world’s oldest surviving 12 metre, and 91 metre Nahlin, the biggest restoration project ever undertaken.

Collier learned of Caritas through a friend, who had spotted the yacht on Google Earth, and headed to California to investigate. These fact-finding missions are about determining if a yacht is worth saving, Collier explains. “There needs to be some sort of sense between the equation of cost and the lifestyle the boat can offer, and smaller boats often don’t get restored because the cost is out of proportion with the accommodation.

“One of the really encouraging things is that Caritas has great volume, so you could have really nice accommodation in the boat. You could make it work while respecting her original elegance and not compromising the original design, and that’s probably the single most important thing that I got out of my visit.”

Collier has drawn new plans for Caritas, to show what’s possible. They remain true to her 1920s character and charm but with a bathroom for each of the five cabins and more outdoor lounge space, as is customary today.

As for her current condition, “the Westbrooks had maintained her, doing common sense things like regular painting and caulking the decks, but when the shop and museum were stopped not a great deal was done,” Collier says, describing a cobwebby, gloomy space complete with waxwork “pirates” still on board.

Water has caused a few overheads to fall down, but for the most part the decks are not leaking and, most importantly, Caritas's structural framing appears sound. The Westbrooks had been amenable to letting the boat go for no cost, and it seems likely the new owners would feel the same. “They have told us that they would be interested in continuing with William in getting her back to sea,” says Westbrook.

Renovation would be a fairly straightforward process, says Collier, but it’s not one for the faint of heart. “Whoever takes it on is in for a two-and-a-half to three year project with associated costs, but when it’s done it will be very special.”

The only tricky part of the process would be the first stage: moving her. With the Smith River difficult to access, Collier recommends lifting Caritas, taking her down the highway about four miles to the nearest port and craning her on to a barge. He has had some discussions with heavy lifting companies and has estimated a budget. “But that’s about as far as we can take it without a client,” says Collier.

And so Caritas awaits her fate. While she has been a landmark on Highway 101 for more than 50 years, she had fallen off the superyacht world’s radar. Thanks to Collier, she is back on it. It will take the right client to make sure she stays there.

First published in the August 2017 edition of Boat International

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