8 reasons to own a classic yacht

Classic yachts are beautiful – they are a living work of art

Classic yachts are a different breed. It takes time, effort and more than a little money just to maintain them, let alone to restore them. So why own a classic yacht? Four classic yacht owners – who took part in the Ocean Reef Vintage Weekend exhibition of classic yachts, planes and automobiles in Key Largo, Florida – explain why vintage yachts is the only way to go.

Jim Moores is in the classic yacht business but, unlike those who work on Ferraris and then, say, drive home in a Toyota, he spends his time off aboard Aurora II, his restored 1947 18.6 metre Trumpy motor yacht. Moores is a classic yacht junkie, first and foremost. When asked why people love classic yachts, he says, “The main reason is dreams — people dream of a quieter, less complicated time.” But he admits there’s more to it than just that. “It’s the beauty of these boats — [my Trumpy is] like a work of art. Many who designed these pre-war vessels were artists first and boatbuilders second.”

With his wife, Margaret, Moores showed off Aurora II at the Ocean Reef Vintage Weekend, but it was with a caveat: Don’t open the door to one stateroom because it wasn’t finished. For Moores, this is the classic tale of the cobbler’s children without shoes, but he admits that his customers come first before his personal yacht.

Words by Chris Caswell

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There's an accomplishment to restoring and owning a classic yacht

Jim Moores’ love for wooden boats had its genesis when he lost his inflatable tender while sailing in the Caribbean as a young man. He went to have a wooden one built by MuMu, the best boatbuilder on Dominica, but it turned out to be the wrong length. Another was built and, as MuMu used Moores as free labour, the young man learned his trade.

A later stint in Maine as apprentice at a wooden boatyard honed his skills. In the 1970s, he moved to Florida with his tools. He found work restoring a vintage Chris-Craft, lived in his van and used a bread truck as his shop. In no time, Moores was being called to tackle projects considered impossible on classic Rhodes, Elcos, Aldens and eventually Trumpys.

A shop followed and expanded; and a second Moores Marine yard was opened in North Carolina and, with the company motto “We Keep Legends Alive”, it’s no surprise that Moores hasn’t finished that cabin aboard his Aurora II.

Jim Moores' speciality seems to be Trumpys like his, those recognisable yachts with graceful lines, elegant aft decks and covered side decks, built from the 1940s through to the early 1960s. There are only a few left. With Moores Marine, Jim Moores has made a career of helping yacht owners with a passion for classic yachts breathe new life into their beloved vessels. What draws people to restore classic yachts?

“There’s an accomplishment to it,” Moores says. “Someone who enjoys bringing something back, making it work and enjoying it for what it truly is will take pleasure in restoring classic yachts. My own philosophy changed at one point and it became my mission to preserve these boats for the next generation.

“I should thank whoever it was that stole my inflatable tender.”

Classic yachts stand the test of time

“I’ve liked Chris-Crafts since I was a kid. My dad had a 1939 Chris-Craft 33-footer and I have photos of me on it at the age of three. Then, when I was in the service, I loved the Chris-Crafts of ’64 and ’65 that had a new styling,” says Ron Marsella. He and his wife, Caroline, own the classic yacht Miss Caroline, a meticulously restored 1965 Chris-Craft Commander that they show at the Ocean Reef Vintage Weekend, held each year in early December.

"It had been in our neighbourhood and I had always admired it,” he says with a wry grin. “When it came up for sale, I said to my wife, ‘That would be a great knockabout boat — buy it for peanuts and just wash it once in a while.’

“I guess it’s my fate in life to buy something I think I’m going to use just as is, and then I spend a fortune to make it look right,” he says, but it’s clear he doesn’t regret it for a second.

“We love classics that have stood the test of time,” says Ron Marsella. “People are always stopping us with a common refrain. They either remember our Commander from back when, or they are boat people who know how much work went into Miss Caroline. Then there are those who know nothing about boats and think it’s a retro boat!"

Classic yachts are better than cars

Miss Caroline started life as a Commander Flybridge Sedan, meaning it had a flybridge atop the cabin as well as doors enclosing the cabin. “I wanted a boat with one level, so we took off the flybridge, and I wanted to open up the cockpit, so the cabin doors were removed,” Ron Marsella says. “We can still close up the helm area with canvas to use our air conditioning in the Florida heat, but most of the time it’s wide open for entertaining.”

The restoration of Miss Caroline was a far cry from his original buy-it-and-use-it plan. The boat was out of the water for one-and-a-half years for a refit and restoration that included replacing all the wiring, plumbing and electronics. The finishing touch was the non-Chris-Craft “Stars & Stripes” Awlgrip topsides.

This isn’t the Marsella's first dabble in owning classic yachts. That started with a vintage 1956 Wheeler 13 metre motor yacht and then a 1947 Crocker- designed 11 metre sloop that they stripped and refinished. A 16.5 metre Tom Fexas-designed pilothouse motor yacht followed, and then a pair of Eastbays, ending with the 15 metre that they keep in the northeast for summer use while Miss Caroline is tucked into a hurricane-proof shelter in Florida.

But Miss Caroline doesn’t lack for use; the Marsellas admit to using her “constantly,” sometimes cruising with friends up the Intracoastal Waterway to somewhere they can anchor and have dinner, other times cruising with their yacht club on weekenders or weeklong trips.

“Classic boats are better than classic cars, because families can’t enjoy classic cars. We enjoy the heck out of using Miss Caroline all winter,” he says.

A classic wooden boat is solid and quiet

Dr Albert Wall is clearly a man who understands and enjoys the finer things in life, since he not only owns a classic wooden yacht, but a classic mansion in Savannah, Georgia. The former is 55 years old and won the “Most Shoes on the Dock” award for attracting the most visitors at the Ocean Reef Vintage Weekend, while the latter is 180 years old and captured the Preservation Award from the Historic Savannah Foundation.

“I like the way a wooden boat feels on the water, how it goes through the water,” says Dr. Albert Wall. “It’s entirely different than a fibreglass or metal yacht. It feels solid and quiet.”

He should know, since he’s owned three classic wooden yachts, if you don’t count the 5.8 metre Lightning he sailed as a kid and still owns. His latest, shown at Ocean Reef, is Jonathan III, an 25 metre Broward built in 1958.

Originally built for Harry Blum, founder of Jim Beam Distilleries, Jonathan III was featured on the covers of both Yachting and Motor Boating in 1959. Later, billionaire Samuel J LeFrak enjoyed her for more than three decades. She then went through several owners who let her maintenance slide until Wall found her near Annapolis, Maryland in sad condition.

“I recognised a good, solid boat,” he recalls, adding, “I fell in love with her the moment I saw her.”

Own a classic yacht and own a piece of history

When Jonathan III was constructed, Broward was transitioning from building minesweepers for the Navy to yachts, and the yard used much of the lumber in stock for the boat. “She’s mahogany planked over oak frames,” Albert Wall says. “She’s built like a minesweeper.”

He has Jonathan III’s original logs, which include a long list of celebrities spotted on this superyacht, including movie stars Marilyn Monroe, Red Skelton and Buddy Hackett. She was also used by New York mayor Rudy Giuliani during the 9/11 crisis.

It took more than two years for Albert Wall to restore Jonathan III to her original glory. On display at the Ocean Reef Vintage Weekend, her varnish was glossy and flawless, the 22-carat gold leaf accents and lettering glittered in the sun, and guests oohed-and-aahed about the vintage interior lined with the original teak. Albert Wall, whose Stephen Williams House in Savannah is a boutique hotel known to insiders, also dabbles as an antique dealer, and he made sure that Jonathan III is period perfect and perfectly elegant. She even has the original GM 6-110 diesels, which have been rebuilt.

Albert Wall’s goal was to restore his classic yacht to the condition on the 1950s magazine cover and, he says, “It was a long process, but we’re extremely proud of the results.”

Own an iconic original

Almost hidden among the classic Trumpys, Chris-Crafts and Rybovichs at the Ocean Reef Vintage Weekend was a small plastic boat, and yet insiders made a beeline to it, discussing it in awed tones.

“It started it all!” they would say of the iconic classic yacht. “That was his first boat!” or “So that’s where the name came from!”

The boat that caused this stir? The Cigarette, a seven metre motorboat that, in 1962, was the first boat from Don Aronow’s first company, Formula Marine. Aronow named her after a Prohibition rumrunner and she proved just as fast in ocean racing. Later, he would start companies such as Donzi, Magnum and Cigarette.

But The Cigarette was a classic “barn-find” so cherished in car restorations. Don Aronow sold the boat to George Peroni, who kept her until 2002, when Bob DeNisco Sr, a high-school friend of his, spotted it in Peroni’s backyard, covered in mould with a palm tree growing out of it. A deal was cut on the spot: the price was one dollar, but DeNisco had to restore the boat and own this classic yacht.

With his sons, Bob Jr. and Scott, Bob DeNisco launched the restoration, which turned into a four-year project to find missing parts or fabricate new ones. The disassembled engine, a rare Chevy 409, was taken to an engine builder in three shopping carts and restored to new. Exactly four years to the day they awakened the boat from its backyard sleep, they launched The Cigarette for a test run, hitting nearly 65 miles per hour.

Keep a legend alive by owning a classic yacht

The Cigarette is steeped in pop culture history as well as yachting history. After Don Aronow sold the boat to Peroni, he asked to borrow it back because he “had some guys who want a ride in a fast boat.” Peroni loaned The Cigarette, and Aronow took The Beatles for their first speedboat ride just before the Ed Sullivan appearance that introduced them to America.

“It was too important a boat to let die,” says Bob DeNisco Sr, “but we wanted to enjoy it as well.” For the DeNiscos, owning this classic yacht is not just a source of pride, but it serves as a family yacht, too.

The question remains: What’s it worth? She’s the first Formula, the first Formula race boat and the first fibreglass boat raced by Don Aronow, who changed performance boating forever. She carried The Beatles and she is impeccably restored with one of only two remaining 409 marine engines. In the automotive world, “provenance” and “historic significance” are everything. A Shelby Cobra once owned by Carroll Shelby sold for $5.5 million, so what is Aronow’s original boat worth? Who knows?

People sometimes get huffy about the name, according to DeNisco Jr. “How dare you call that a Cigarette,” they say accusingly. “It’s a Formula!”

“No,” reply the DeNiscos with a grin.

“It’s The Cigarette.”

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