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Weatherbird: The story behind the classic sailing yacht that inspired Jazz Age artists

1 June 2022• Written by Olivia Michel

After an extensive refit lasting more than a year, the 31 metre, classic schooner Weatherbird has returned to the market in search of a new owner. Olivia Michel looks back at her storied past…

“Weatherbird” is the name of a 1928 rag record, considered one of the most famous duets in jazz music history. The song is characterised by the clean and jolly tones of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet paired with the staccato piano notes of Earl Hines – sounds distinctively recognisable of the Roaring Twenties. The 31 metre, two-masted sailing yacht that has been named after this record similarly embodies the Zeitgeist of the early 20th-century, with a copy of the record itself symbolically melded into the keel.

Weatherbird was first delivered in 1931.
All images courtesy of Thomas Gerasopoulos.

Since her designer and original captain, Vladimir Orloff, first started sketching her schooner lines, Weatherbird has been touched by unusual stories and eccentric characters from the bygone era in which she was delivered. In turn, she has inspired some of the greatest writers, artists and musicians of the Jazz Age who stepped on board when she was in her prime. When her current owner saw Weatherbird for the first time lying in Palermo, Italy, “I fell in love with it,” he recalls. As her broker, Northrop & Johnson’s Richard Callender puts it, Weatherbird “is more than a sailing yacht”.

Weatherbird was commissioned by Sarah and Gerald Murphy, a couple of American expatriates who had relocated to the French Riviera during the prohibition years. Gerald was a clean-cut Yale graduate with one foot in business and the other in art, while Sarah was a glamorous socialite who hailed from a millionaire family and mingled with London’s fashionable set.

Her deckhouse is mostly original following the refit, but the owner has installed Art Deco recreation features including geometric brass TV frames.

The Murphys were close friends with captain Orloff, the son of a Russian nobleman who had overseen the finances of Czarina Alexandra prior to the October Revolution. After his father was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1917, the aristocrat who had grown up sailing his grandfather’s yachts on the Black Sea escaped Russia and emigrated to France. In Paris, he met the Murphys through their mutual involvement with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes and went on to helm all of their yachts.

Together with Frenchman Henri Rambaud, Orloff designed Weatherbird with a profile reminiscent of American clipper ships and a generous 6.5 metre beam. Her sails were by E. Mariole & M. Hémet loft of Le Havre, with power provided by a Benz diesel auxiliary motor. The gaff-rigged schooner was constructed entirely in oakwood and teak, built by the Chantier Navals de Normandie shipyard and delivered as the Murphys' third and final yacht in 1931.

From the drinks tables to the navigation panel, new features on board are careful in keeping to a 1930s style.

The Murphys sailed the yacht around the Riviera for just three heady years, joined by an eclectic and esteemed group of friends from home and abroad. Their social circle was nicknamed “the Transatlantiques” and moved between lavish parties in their “Villa America” onshore in Antibes and jaunts out at sea, dining al fresco out on the deck or drinking in the wood-panelled and fireplace-warmed saloon of Weatherbird.

Friends of the Murphys that frequented the yacht were famed creatives and intellectuals of the Lost Generation; Ernest Hemmingway, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Cole Porter, Coco Chanel, Man Ray and Archibald Macleish included. Artist Pablo Picasso reportedly designed the yacht’s house flag, while Fernand Léger was inspired to create a portfolio of paintings following his time on board. Louis Armstrong, whose jazz song inspired the yacht’s name, also joined the Murphys out at sea.

From 1924 onwards, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda regularly visited the Murphys in France, and their time together cruising around the Riviera was later immortalised in the writer’s 1934 novel Tender is the Night, which begins with a dedication to the couple.

Aside from her obvious beauty, it is her history that will sell the yacht, attests Callender. “With a yacht that was built in 1931, you can’t help but stand at the wheel or sit around the table and conjure up all these thoughts in your mind about who’s sat there, who’s helmed the boat, what conversations have gone on – if the walls could talk it would be incredible,” he says.

In 1933, as Mussolini rose to power and the health of their son Patrick declined, the Murphys sold Weatherbird and closed up their villa to leave for America, never to return. But Weatherbird’s story didn’t end there – tales have been told of subsequent ownership under a Swiss count, who was arrested for using the yacht to smuggle gold from Turkey into France and according to her current owner, she’s also had a star appearance in an Orson Welles film.

After sailing through the previous century, she was purchased by her current owner in February 2020. A Greek IT businessman, he was charmed by her unique layout and old-school looks that directly contrast with his modern, tech-focused background: “It was the only sailing yacht built in the 1930s that I had seen with the saloon on top, on the main deck, and for me, that was a plus – something unusual.”

There are four cabins on board, all with new bathrooms.

Though Weatherbird is his first classic, it is not the owner’s first boat. Since 2010 he has owned a 25 metre and a 36 metre Tecnomar, and currently uses a Mangusta 80 “for speedy excursions” between the Greek islands.

But his history of ownership was plagued with misfortune; after an intensive refit on his last Tecnomar, the yacht caught fire while he was sleeping inside in April 2017. “The whole boat burned in a matter of minutes. We all had to jump into the water with guests, and the boat was history. It's off the coast of Mykonos, 58 metres at the bottom of the sea right now. I couldn't feel ready to buy another boat very promptly after that,” he explains.

Even in the galley, brass and wood details continue the classic look.

When the urge to go sailing eventually returned, Weatherbird’s owner decided to change tact and move away from modern plastic yachts and start looking back at classics. The first boat that he had ever wanted to own was actually a classic; a wooden-hulled 1968 Baglietto which he describes as “the most beautiful boat I had ever seen.” Looking for his next yacht, he tried to find out what had happened to this vessel only to discover that it too – like his second boat – had been lost to a fire.

But then Weatherbird came onto the market in August 2019. “I saw that the boat was for sale online for a good price. When I saw the boat and I stepped inside I said ‘wow.’ I wanted to take this boat and make it over, but make sure that it still looked exactly like it was back in the 1930s.” He describes superyacht refits as his “hobby,” with Weatherbird being his third project.

Exactly 91 years since she first set sail, Weatherbird went into an extensive 17-month restoration. On a functional level, all mechanical systems were replaced and the engines overhauled. This included a new watermaker and generators, and an updated varnished wood navigation panel. All of her rigging systems and winches are also now automatic “so actually you can lift the sails with just two levers,” explains her owner, adding that “for me, automation on a vintage boat – automation that you cannot see – is really gorgeous”.

“Basically, all the moving parts have been overhauled and serviced or replaced mechanically, the point being that a new owner can just set sail,” details Callender.

Art Deco details abound, including the replica fireplace screen.

Weatherbird’s classic interiors were also refreshed, with her owner carefully studying boats from the same era to ensure that the 1930s look was retained on board. The structure of the deckhouse is original but features details such as geometric TV frames and light fittings that are new but maintain an Art Deco style – the owner even sourced a special glass substitute popular in the 1930s named Opalina which diffuses light more softly through the saloon than modern fixtures would. The fireplace screen is finished with a distinctly Art Deco motif, an exact copy of one made in 1930 but reproduced with modern laser technology in Greece. Out on the deck, plush marine blue sun loungers are accompanied by drinks tables finished with the sweeping curves distinctive of the Streamline Moderne style.

In the four cabins, many of the original features have been retained but are complimented by entirely renovated ensuites. Even behind the scenes in the crew quarters, which accommodate up to five staff, every detail meticulously maintains the classic design. The Lacanche stove and Gaggenau oven in the galley were both purchased with brass elements that reference the characteristic Roaring Twenties look. As the owner stipulates; “nobody can tell you that her features don’t belong to that era”.

The piano on Weatherbird is the same Yamaha model that the owner had on his previous yacht.

One of the newer pieces of furniture that has been installed by the owner is the piano in the saloon which doubles as a coffee table when closed – but even that modern piece has a story to tell. The owner had the exact same Yamaha H801 on his last boat and after it was lost to the fire in 2017 spent years searching for it until he found the last ever out-of-production model for sale in Switzerland and shipped it back to Greece. “There's no other piano like this,” he says. Now, that piano is a key element for creating an ambience whenever the owner is on board. “I am friends with someone who's a famous singer here. That first winter on board was very cold, so we turned on the fireplace and played on the piano,” he reminisces.

Since finishing the refit, the owner has cruised Weatherbird around Greece and Turkey. Under sail, she cruises comfortably around eight knots and can make it up to 11 knots when powered by her Cummins Mercruiser 300hp engines. “The feeling of sailing with this schooner is unparalleled,” her owner describes. “The moment you go inside the yacht and you pass the passerelle of the boat, you leave all your problems and all your complications outside.”

Weatherbird is listed for sale with Northrop & Johnson for €3,800,000.

But her owner already has his eye on his next refit project and is ready for someone new to take on the act of preserving this piece of history. Weatherbird is currently listed for sale with Northrop & Johnson, asking €3,800,000. Callender speculates that the new owner will besomebody that has a natural fascination with history, the arts, who clearly has a love of sailing”.

In Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald writes of a yacht “lying placid among the little swells of the Nicean bay, constantly bound upon a romantic voyage that was not dependent on motion.” He could well have been writing about Weatherbird, the storied superyacht that is now waiting for her next chapter to begin.

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