William K. Vanderbilt II used his yachts for pleasure, but the pursuit of science and exploration for the betterment of humanity was always at the fore.
By John Rousmaniere
Photos courtesy of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, Centerport, New York
Kings, queens, emperors and tycoons have been sailing fine yachts for centuries, yet it’s a safe bet that few have done it more, or more successfully, than William Kissam Vanderbilt II. As a member of one of America’s wealthiest and most famous families, he could easily have opted to enjoy his prosperity in a less rigorous way, but he threw himself into an active, ambitious, very physical life on the water, in the end cruising more than 200,000 miles, including two voyages around the world, in full command of his grand yachts.
“Willie K,” as he was known, was not the only Vanderbilt entranced by salt water. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the founder of the family fortune, had his first job on a ferry boat and commanded a steamship and railroad empire so forcefully that he was nicknamed “Commodore.” Yet when he headed off on a family cruise to Europe in 1853, the man in charge of North Star was not the Commodore, but a paid sea captain. When his sons and grandsons built luxury yachts, they also deferred to hired professionals.
Great-grandson Willie Vanderbilt broke the mold. When he first went out on the water with his brother, Harold, and his sister, Consuelo (she married the Duke of Marlborough and is a model for Lady Cora in “Downton Abbey”), Willie began dreaming about boats. Over time, he created a plan for something grander and more challenging than merely spending time near shore in a small boat. He envisioned living pleasurably for long periods of time, independent of shoreside concerns, while contributing to human knowledge.
He recalled the germ of these ambitions many years later as he completed a 38,000-mile circumnavigation in command of his 264-foot yacht, Alva. “Ever since I began sailing in the little Osprey when I was 16 years old,” he wrote in his log in 1932, “the ideal boat has been shaping itself in my mind, and I believe that in Alva it has been achieved as nearly as possible.”
From his youth onward, Willie was fascinated by transportation, wanted to be in charge and liked going fast. In the 1890s he toured Europe in cutting-edge automobiles. Soon he was racing them, and he set a world record of 92.3 miles per hour and founded the first major American auto race, for the Vanderbilt Cup. He also raced powerboats. One he named Hard Boiled Egg because “she couldn’t be beaten.” Another, called Tarantula, was an arrow-thin 157-footer pushed by nine propellers. He donated his second Tarantula to the U.S. Navy for World War I patrol duty under his command as an officer in the Naval Reserve. Along the way, Willie was elected commodore of the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club. (Brother Harold also commanded his own patrol boat in the war. He served as commodore of the New York Yacht Club and raced sailboats at the highest level—winning the America’s Cup three times—and, on shore, invented contract bridge.)
After the war and a term as president of the New York Central Railroad, Willie set his sights on farther horizons. Every year from 1922 through 1931, he and his 213-foot yacht, Ara (a former French warship), completed at least one long cruise, including a circumnavigation. Alva came next, named for his hard-driving, ambitious mother, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, one of America’s leading suffragettes.
The yachts’ chief home port was Northport Harbor, near Huntington, New York, where Willie had a mansion called Eagle’s Nest and a marine museum to display oceanographic and other treasures discovered on his voyages. Willie’s winter base was near his home on Fisher Island, near Miami. In both places and on the oceans between them, his attention was constant and thorough. “The commodore always ‘ran the show,’” Yachting magazine reported after Willie’s death in 1944. He was a fully skilled captain, studying navigation and seamanship to such an advanced level that he was awarded a master’s license qualifying him to command any vessel of any size and type. He also was the ship’s morale officer, showing movies on the large screen and buying musical instruments to establish an onboard orchestra.
VIDEO EXTRA | William K. Vanderbilt II (Jr.), his wife Rosamund, his friends Mr. and Mrs. Earle Smith and crew set on a world cruise in 1931 aboard his beautiful 265-foot yacht Alva. They departed Long Island and traveled through the Panama Canal to the Galapagos Islands, the Society Islands, Samoa, Australia, Java, Bora Bora, Bali, Singapore, Ceylon, Arabia, through the Suez Canal to Cairo, Athens and Monte Carlo and westward across the Atlantic to America.
The cruise was documented in a seventy-minute film Over the Seas which opened in December 1932 in New York City. It is the only known record of Willie K.'s voice. The film is available at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum with all rights reserved. Highlights of the film are shown on VanderbiltCupRaces.com with permission of the museum. These highlights are shown in two parts.
Strong morale was important because of the complicated combination of demanding roles the crew played on Willie’s yachts. Ara and Alva had different missions. On one hand, they were private luxury yachts dedicated to the comfort and pleasure of owner and guests. In this role they were in near-constant motion. During their 12-month world cruises, each yacht called at more than 80 ports. On the other hand, Willie’s yachts were serious oceanographic research vessels equipped with trawls, laboratories and a team of scientists, photographers and artists who gathered and analyzed samples, and produced detailed reports for the American Museum of Natural History and his own museum. These different, yet related missions are the major themes of Willie’s books and a film about the Alva circumnavigation, “Over the Seven Seas,” that played in a New York movie house and is available on YouTube.
A favorite destination of Willie’s was the Galapagos Islands, with their population of unusual animals that had stimulated Charles Darwin to develop the theory of evolution. Willie couldn’t stay away from these rocky dots in the Pacific on the equator. “Tomorrow we shall see the Galapagos Islands again,” he wrote in 1932. “How well I remember poring over charts as a boy, wondering whether some day I should make a voyage to this weird place. And here I am on my third visit!” His enthusiasm evolved with every visit and observation of astonishing diversity. When he was first there, in 1926, he wrote: “Hawks, pelicans and sea gulls looked at us in fearless amazement, as if we were queer but innocuous museum pieces.” He felt free at that time to claim a personal stake by having Ara’s name carved on a cliff in Darwin Bay.
Five years later, Willie was less enthusiastic. Dozens of cruising yachts and fishing boats had begun not only to come out to the islands, but to change them. Willie believed the animals were uneasy. One of his small boats was chased by a whale, and manta rays seemed threatening. “The creatures of this once fearless animal world have had too much contact with human beings,” he observed. “It is a sad commentary on the havoc civilized man inflicts on a primitive world.” As one of those intruders, he felt some responsibility.
By the time Alva arrived home in 1932, the big fist of the Great Depression was pounding even Vanderbilts, and Willie put more ambitious cruises on hold. “Now Alva will have a period of quiet,” he wrote, adding, “We all feel she deserves a rest, but we hope that the near future will find her at sea once more, visiting new lands and bringing to those on board a relaxation that is hard to find in these days of stress.” That stress only increased. He undertook shorter voyages that brought his total distance to more than 200,000 miles. His last big adventure, a tour of South America, was in yet another type of transportation: an airplane. His energy and passion turned to developing Eagle’s Nest into the sprawling Vanderbilt Museum, which today continues to offer vast exhibits of marine, land and human artifacts he gathered.
After Willie’s death in 1944, some mourners focused on his yachts, others on his automobiles, still others on his scientific activities. Inevitably, some people could not resist the temptation to gossip about the Vanderbilt family. In one of the best evaluations of the man himself, an editorial in a major newspaper characterized his life as one that “combined usefulness with a vast amount of intelligent pleasure.”
Willie threw himself into projects thoughtfully and personally; as the editorial writer put it, “He was never one to be satisfied with a purely academic knowledge of whatever interested him.” That was the intelligent part of the formula. As for pleasure, there was plenty of that, too, though not everybody fully appreciated it. There was, for example, the country club acquaintance back on Long Island who, on hearing that Willie was headed to the Galapagos, asked, “What in God’s name do you do in a place like that where there are no golf courses?” Willie had plenty of answers to that question. Some are implicit in this sublime entry in the ship’s log at the start of a voyage: “We desire to see again endless waters, starbeams in lonely regions, streaks of dawn over fairy islands, swift-gliding outrigger canoes and people whose outlook upon life is different from our own.”
Willie Vanderbilt knew precisely what was important to him—and he knew how to make it happen.
John Rousmaniere is a yachting historian and an authority on safety at sea. He is the author of more than 20 books on sailing and boats including “The Annapolis Book of Seamanship” and “Fastnet, Force 10.” This is his first article in Yachts International.
Always Back to the Sea
Two kinds of pleasure are felt by any sailor: the happy anticipation of casting off and the contented joy of successful completion. Here is how Willie Vanderbilt described his feelings as Alva was about to head out in 1931 with a ship’s company that included his second wife, Rosemund, and his daughter Consuelo (named for her aunt):
“Ever since our return from a round-the-world voyage on the Ara, our fancies have wandered to remote harbors. Imperceptibly, thoughts of the past turned into wishes for the future. We desire to see again endless waters, starbeams in lonely regions, streaks of dawn over fairy islands, swift-gliding outrigger canoes and people whose outlook upon life is different from our own.”
A year later, after a satisfying cruise, he wrote, “Rose and I are deeply moved as we take leave of Alva. We felt somewhat the same way when we left Ara after her last voyage. I have an even stronger feeling about Alva, because I had a hand in her creation.”