Wurlitzers of the Waves
Today’s yacht owners aren’t the first to gild the lily with light.
By Dudley Dawson, editor-at-large
Herbert L. Pratt, head of Standard Oil in the Roaring Twenties, owned a magnificent country estate, The Braes, on Long Island Sound. The property eventually became the campus of Webb Institute of Naval Architecture. The imposing mansion has appeared in a number of Hollywood productions, notably serving as Wayne Manor, Batman’s home, in two movies and a TV pilot. Life-size bronze tigers flank the entrance. They are not movie props.
During my time at Webb, Bob Kramer, a classmate who was apparently bored out of his skull, examined the statuary and noticed that one of the tigers was probably female, but the other was unmistakably male. Seeking to highlight that fact for the unenlightened, he spent a good part of one night with a can of Brasso metal polish in hand. The results were spectacular. No one within a quarter mile could miss the polished privates, against a background of green patina, when the sun rose the next morning.
Now, “the eye of the tiger” is a phrase meaning that one is focused on becoming the best. Albeit bronze rather than brass, Kramer’s tiger tidbits bring to mind a different two-word euphemism that denotes one is the best and has no reservations about flaunting his status as the alpha male.
I think of Kramer and his Brasso every time I see a superyacht that goes above and beyond to distinguish itself from the others, sometimes by being a foot or two longer, sometimes with a prominent display of questionable taste, sometimes both. My first brush with this was Time, a 126-foot motoryacht built by Palmer Johnson in 1987. Designer Tom Fexas had given her a single extra foot to surpass the 125-foot Burger Arara III, designed by my colleagues at Jack Hargrave’s studio a few years earlier. She displaced Arara as the longest American-built aluminum yacht and then, as an added slap, Fexas specified clear Lucite handrails that glowed blue at night, giving Time the appearance of a giant jukebox, a Wurlitzer of the waves.
Little has changed in the intervening decades other than the scope of the excess. Between the oil oligarchs and the tech billionaires, overall lengths have jumped by a factor of four, now exceeding 500 feet, but the blue glow remains. Today, underwater lights enable yachts to float on luminous clouds. The lights dance in sync with blaring music, and a rainbow of colors can take the place of simple blue to complete the Wurlitzer effect.
William Shakespeare, in King John, wrote, “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” I’m in ol’ Bill’s camp, but judging by the number of light suppliers and happy owners, we are on the losing side of that debate. It’s not the first time.
Hargrave once took me to task for bringing logic into a discussion with a design client. As he pointed out, there is no logic when it comes to yachts, their overall size, their distinguishing features, indeed their existence. There is no right or wrong; only what the client wants, and aren’t we all fortunate that’s the way it is? Where else can such freedom of expression find an unfettered outlet?
The future of Brasso, in whatever form, remains bright.