July 29, 2015 11:14AM
By TOM VERDE
Special to The Sun
Editor’s note: This is the 10th in a series of stories about local craft that are in a different class than the average boat. The series will continue on Mondays through the summer.
If you have to face the morning commute from the North Shore of Long Island to your Wall Street office, you may as well do it on a custom-built, 74-foot, luxury cruising yacht.
Wealthy financier John Hay “Jock” Whitney thought so, anyway, back in 1937 when he commissioned the cruiser Aphrodite from the Purdy Boat Company of Port Washington, Long Island.
Today, Aphrodite is among the most distinctive boats in Watch Hill harbor, where she is as familiar and iconic a symbol of summer in Watch Hill as the Flying Horses carousel or St. Clair’s Annex. Owned by resident Chuck Royce — the man who saved the Ocean House from the wrecking ball — the vessel was completely restored between 2003 and 2005 at the Brooklin Boatyard in Maine. From the gorgeous guilt scrollwork on her razor-sharp prow to her signature “torpedo” stern, every line and feature of this unique boat testifies to her elegance, style, and storied past.
Aphrodite was not Whitney’s first “commuter” boat, as such vessels were called. During the early 1930s, he owned a 72-footer that he would board in the morning, leaving his Manhasset mansion in his pajamas to arrive in lower Manhattan an hour later, washed, shaved, dressed, and ready for the office.
But after his brother in-law, Charles Payson, began beating him to work in a faster boat, Saga, Whitney commissioned a larger, more powerful commuter vessel from the Purdy boatyard, famed builders of custom yachts and racers. Her keel was of white oak, while her planking and transom were of Philippine mahogany.
A muscular pair of modified, 1,500-horsepower, Packard V-12 airplane engines delivered top speeds of 38 knots, while burning 300 gallons of aviation fuel per hour. Not only did Aphrodite’s ferocious (not to mention decibel-shattering) speed beat the heck out of sitting in traffic, it represented an increasingly common standard of luxury for an elite cohort of Jazz Age millionaires, like Whitney, who lived along what was known as Long Island’s Gold Coast.
Why swelter in the city, when Wall Street was within “easy, comfortable commuting distance” from Long Island by water, touted the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1900. Just “jump on your yacht, and there you are,” the paper declared. By 1902, according to the New York Herald, an “enormous fleet of private yachts carry owners at racing speed twice a day from their great estates to the wharf on Manhattan Island nearest their offices.” (Bucking the trend was J.P. Morgan, who preferred the more modest wake of a Herreshoff-built, steam-powered commuter boat.)
Of course, for a man of Whitney’s considerable wealth (a $20 million trust from dear old dad’s railroad investments, plus an $80 million Standard Oil portfolio via his mother’s side of the family), life on board Aphrodite was far from all work and no play. A Mayflower descendant and third generation Yale oarsman (he reputedly dubbed the practical hair styles of his fellow Ivy League rowers “crew cuts”), Whitney was an early investor in the film industry’s Technicolor technology, put up half the money for David O. Selznick’s “Gone With the Wind,” and mingled freely with Hollywood royalty. Romantic, extramarital encounters with Tallulah Bankhead, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Crawford were rumored, while Aphrodite’s guest list included Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, Fred Astaire, Spencer Tracey, and Katherine Hepburn. A birthday party was once held on board for the child star Shirley Temple.
Aphrodite did her bit during World War II, courtesy of Whitney, who offered her services to the U.S. Navy. Outfitted with even more powerful engines, she was commissioned as an auxiliary Coast Guard vessel, and spent the war transporting dignitaries up and down the Atlantic Coast, as well as ferrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt to and from his Hyde Park estate on the Hudson River.
During the ’50s, Whitney, then owner and publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, dispatched Aphrodite daily from his home on Fishers Island to New London to pick up a copy of the paper. By the ’60s, he no longer had need for the aging boat and donated her to a Long Island camp for disadvantaged boys. Subsequently passed along through various owners, she gradually declined into worm-infested deterioration, ending up in a sad state of rot in a muddy Florida slip in 2003.
That was when Royce, a Wall Street mutual fund manager, stepped in and saved Aphrodite from obliteration. Two years and 45,000 man hours later, she was launched at the Maine boatyard where she was restored, although Royce carefully qualified the term.
“This is called a restoration, but frankly it’s a replication. We replaced every piece of wood. There is not an original piece of timber left,” Royce told Greenwich Magazine in August of 2007.
What does endure, however, is Aphrodite’s timeless charm and head-turning beauty, inherent in her design and history, no matter how fresh the varnish on her rackishly elegant superstructure or the jet black paint on her curvaceous hull.