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Back Page: Sea Trials and Tribulations

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

A story that features the confrontation of adversity, perseverance through downfalls, and ultimately the reclamation of glory is going to be a compelling one—and no less so if that tale is about a boat and not a person. Consider the history of the vessel that serves as the backdrop for the fashions in “Ship Shape” (page 94). Originally christened the Aviva, the then-204-foot Feadship was damaged by fire three years after its 1998 launch, leading its owner to sell the yacht to Dennis Washington, chairman of a Montana-based construction and engineering company, who remade it as the spectacular 226-foot Attessa. However, even more dramatic resurrections have been performed on more famous—or in some instances, notorious—yachts.
 
As described in our December 2002 article “The Story of O,” the Christina O was known as the Christina in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, when it was the prized possession of Aristotle Onassis, who hosted then–first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and pursued an affair with opera singer Maria Callas on its decks. The yacht slumbered in a Greek naval shipyard for almost 10 years before Peter Tauck purchased it in the late 1990s and began to restore it. Since 2002, it has been available for charter starting at about $55,000 per day.
 
Like the Christina O, the Sea Cloud also enjoyed a glittering heyday and then endured a long period of darkness before its restoration. “On Cloud Nine,” an article that ran in our December 2003 issue, chronicled its journey. Launched in 1931 by Post Cereals heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, the ship sank two German submarines during World War II (Post leased it to the U.S. Coast Guard for $1) and later became part of the Dominican Republic’s navy in 1955 when dictator Rafael Trujillo acquired it from Post. After the ship lingered for about eight years in Panama, a German businessman purchased Sea Cloud in 1978 and hauled it back to his country, where it was renovated. It returned to the seas in 1979 as a cruise ship that also can be chartered.
 
Despite a reconfiguration that tripled the number of cabins, Sea Cloud is as magnificent as it was when it moved the Duchess of Windsor to tell Post that she and her husband, the former king of England, “…have never had such a thrilling invitation,” which is high praise considering the source. During the summer of 1936, King Edward VIII chartered the 300-foot steam-driven yacht Nahlin and invited businessman Ernest Simpson and his then-wife, Wallis Simpson, to take a cabin on board. The British press later suggested that the king, whose reign ended the following December when he abdicated to marry Mrs. Simpson, had romanced her during that Nahlin cruise. But according to police files on the Simpsons’ divorce, as reported by the BBC in 2003, the yacht’s staff insisted that they “saw nothing incriminating even though her cabin was close to his.”
 
Although it may not have provided the thrill that the Sea Cloud did, the Nahlin, which was built in 1930, survived until its eventual restoration because of the notoriety thrust upon it. The yacht’s role in the abdication scandal prompted King Carol II of Romania to purchase it in 1937. He and his mistress enjoyed the yacht until 1940, when, with Russian and Nazi forces bearing down on his country’s borders, Carol fled to Portugal. The vessel remained tethered on the Danube for decades and had been transformed into a restaurant when rescuers discovered it in 1999 and brought it to England for a restoration that still is ongoing.
 
It is possible for a yacht to stage a comeback even if it is beyond repair. The Alva, the 285-foot floating palace that William K. Vanderbilt named for his wife and launched in 1886, met an abrupt demise in July 1892 when the H.F. Dimock struck the vessel while it was anchored in waters near the Cape Cod town of Chatham, Mass. (The Alva’s 52-man crew was waiting for a dense fog to lift before sailing on to Newport, R.I.; all survived.) Vanderbilt’s magnificent vessel sank, but decades later the wreck had become a favorite site among scuba divers. Divers who have visited it more recently, however, say that the sands have shifted and now nearly cover the wreck. Alas, this is one famous vessel that may be beyond resurrecting. Others may have been dead in the water, but the Alva also is buried.

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