Keeping a legendary wooden boat alive
She served her country dutifully, transporting secret service agents and entertaining heads of State. Now 77, she shows signs of her age but anyone can see that Honey Fitz was a beauty in her day. Her current owner is determined to restore that beauty and dignity. We visited the former presidential yacht after she underwent extensive work at Fort Lauderdale’s Bradford Marine boatyard.
Photos David Decoteau and Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University
The yacht,known once again as Honey Fitz, started her life as Lenore at the Defoe Boat Works in Bay City, Mich., in 1931. The 92’ wooden boat had a full life that included serving several U.S. presidents, most publicly John F. Kennedy Jr., and some may believe the damage done by time and rot is just an inevitable reality for a pre-WWII wooden hull. Fortunately, others, including her current owners, believe a Presidential yacht deserves better than to be left to decay. Curiously, the fate of a yacht with a very public life is in the hands of private benefactors.
Businessman William Kallop, who bought the deteriorating yacht after it served as a charter vessel for a couple of decades, in 2001 decided it was time to bring her back to life. A first $1 million restoration—perhaps best described as a resurrection given the condition of the yacht before work started—took place in a Mobile, Ala., shipyard, but it was only the beginning. Honey Fitz, which her owner had brought back to Palm Beach after years of absence, has been a much-honored guest at Bradford Marine off and on for three years now, and additional repairs, including a new mahogany transom, have amounted so far to an additional $1.6 million. Captain Tony Bucknole knows this is not the end but says Honey Fitz’s owners are dedicated to preserving a valuable and colorful piece of the American past. The JFK Presidential library offers a detailed account of that history up to the 1970s.
The Defoe shipyard built the yacht, designed by Thomas D. Bowes, for financier and Montgomery Ward Chairman Sewell Avery. Avery, a controversial figure whom two soldiers forcibly removed from his office while he was in his 70s, publicly disagreed with government policies of the post-depression recovery; and many believe that the 1942 government seizure of his prized wooden-hulled yacht, named Lenore after his daughter, was retaliation for his very public anti-New Deal rhetoric. Ostensibly, Lenore, renamed CG-92004, was requisitioned to participate in the war effort. Her assignments included patrol duty at Rockaway Point and Fire Island in New York and submarine training in New Hampshire. She later became a tender for the vessel Franklin Roosevelt used as presidential yacht, the USS Potomac. By the time Harry Truman became president, the Williamsburg had become the new presidential yacht, and Truman used it extensively to entertain guests such as Winston Churchill, to play Poker games up and down the Potomac River and to cruise to Florida and the Caribbean. Truman renamed the tender yacht Lenore II and used her mostly to ferry his secret service detail. In the 1950s, contrary to his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower found the 244’ Williamsburg “too rich” for his blood and invested $200,000 to upgrade Lenore. He renamed her Barbara Anne, after one of his granddaughters, yet the Eisenhower family rarely used the yacht. However, Ike reportedly shuttled to the Newport Golf Club on Barbara Anne for daily golf games during his vacation.
The wooden yacht acquired a more public profile in the 1960s during John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s presidency. JFK renamed her Honey Fitz, the nickname used by his maternal grandfather, and spent most summer weekends and numerous holidays in Palm Beach and Newport aboard with family and close friends. Kennedy friend Dave Powers reported that JFK spent some of his happiest moments aboard the yacht, most often alone with his children. In May 1963, just a few months before JFK was assassinated, Jackie Kennedy threw a surprise birthday party for him onboard Honey Fitz. After Lyndon Johnson took office, he continued using the yacht mainly for dinner parties and cocktails parties. “Although it was my prerogative to do so, I would no more have considered changing the name of the Honey Fitz— the name Jack Kennedy had given one of the Presidential yachts—than I would have thought of changing the name of the Washington Monument,” he wrote in his memoir. Not so in the coming years. Honey Fitz’s legacy as a presidential yacht came to an end during the Nixon era. After renaming her Patricia, the president decided he needed a larger yacht, and the former Honey Fitz was put up for sale. Here details get a bit murky. The boat may have been acquired by a New York cruise operator at a bargain $170,000, according to a newspaper article and then sold to Joseph Keating, a JFK admirer, who renamed her Presidents, but the JFK Presidential Library, which keeps a record of the boat’s ownership up to Keating, makes no mention of that intermediary step. What everyone seems to agree on is that Keating, a Greenwich, Conn., restaurateur, found original drawings in one of the yacht’s closets and had his architect consult with the Kennedy architect to restore the boat’s interior to its Camelot-era charm. Former presidents and their families sent original pictures that now hang in the yacht’s main salon. Presidents served as a charter vessel from the 1970s until at least the mid-1990s. A controversial March 1998 auction held in New York sold JFK memorabilia collected by a friend of JFK’s personal secretary. Among the items for sale was the former Honey Fitz, at the time under restoration in Louisiana and owned by McAllister Towing and Transportation Company of New York, according to the auction house president quoted in a NY Times article. Newspapers articles later reported the 88-ton boat sold for between $5.4 to $5.9 million to a then unidentified telephone bidder.
When Kallop acquired the yacht, his first step was to restore the name Honey Fitz in honor of his father, who attended Princeton during the same years as JFK. Both Kallop and his wife Cristina recognize the yacht’s intrinsic value. Captain Bucknole, a former merchant marine engineer who has worked with Kallop for more than 30 years, says he loves the boat as much as her owner. “Our focus is to keep her alive since she is a part of living history,” he says.
Bucknole first brought Honey Fitz to Bradford Marine in 2005 to repair her frame and hull. Amazingly, all of the yacht’s mechanics were original and still in good working order. After two years, however, the transom started leaking badly. A closer inspection revealed at least half of the keel needed replacement. Amazingly, 60 percent of the hull is still original,” says Colin Lord, assistant superintendent at Bradford Marine, adding most of the work is done with the goal to preserve as much of the original boat as possible. A crew of five, including wooden boat specialist Andrew Barnett, started work in July 2007 and spent five months replacing much of the keel and bottom planking with mahogany. Workers removed shafts and struts for realignment but kept the transom carefully intact while they worked on the keel so as not to take the hull apart. Eventually the transom was also redone in mahogany, and the name Honey Fitz and port of call Washington D.C. were carefully stenciled in 24-karat gold leaf once more.
“There’s still a lot of original planking on the boat that will need attention at some point but for now the hull is sound, has a brand new paint job and looks really good,” Barnett says. Although not quite back to her original state—at some point after the 1960s someone extended the cabin—, any resemblance to a former charter yacht, Coast Guard patrol, or tour boat is gone.
Bucknole’s favorite time aboard Honey Fitz is at night. “With the low light and mahogany interior, she’s really quite cozy,” he says. Indeed Honey Fitz is much more modest, for all of her history, than today’s luxury vessels, but she has charisma. Previous interior restoration projects installed carpeting identical in pattern, color and style to that of the original Kennedy era. JFK’s White House chair sits near his desk. Pictures of six U.S. Presidents adorn the small salon. One quickly daydreams of times long ago when presidents found calm and happiness onboard this historic vessel.
Length: 92ft. 3in.
Beam: 16ft. 6in.
Draft: 4ft. 10in.
Cruising speed: 12 knots
Weight: 88 tons
Builder: Defoe Boat Works, Michigan
Designer: Thomas D. Bowes
Latest refit: Bradford Marine, Fort Lauderdale, 2008