Sometimes called the Golden Century of Yachting, the period between 1830 and 1930 produced some incredible yachts that were marvels in their beauty and extravagance. Millionaires competed with each other by displaying their wealth in their lavish yachts. But not all of the floating palaces were merely the toys of the superrich. In the year 1931, Cox and Stevens designed a yacht for William K Vanderbilt II. The Kiel Yard of Krupp-Germaniaweft in Germany built the 264 foot motor yacht named Alva. The cost in 1931 dollars was $1,250,000. In today’s dollars that is nearly $20,000,000. It was the second yacht with that name in the Vanderbilt family. The previous Alva was named for William K. Vanderbilts Sr’s wife. It was 285 feet long and was a three-masted steamer. The new Alva ( II ) was as opulent as any of the golden age yachts, but it was different and was unique in many ways.
William Kissam Vanderbilt II (“Willie K”) was a member of one of the wealthiest families in America and perhaps one of the most famous of its yachtsmen. The stories of exploits of Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the Vanderbilt family fortune, are still being told on TV and in countless books. The Vanderbilts have had a great love of yachts and ocean voyages. In 1853 Cornelius Vanderbilt and his family cruised on his yacht North Star to Europe. In that same family tradition, Cornelius’s great grandson Willie K completed a circumnavigation on his 264-foot yacht Alva. Willie K wrote in his log in 1932 “Ever since I began sailing in the Little Osprey when I was 16 years old the ideal boat has been shaping itself in my mind, and I believe that in Alva it has been achieved as nearly as possible.” Willie K owned more yachts than any one of the Vanderbilts. He owned at least fifteen yachts between 1878 and 1944. Willie K 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.
John Rousmaniere writing in Yachts International said; “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.)
Willie K was not one of the idle rich. He was very rich, but never idle. At one point he was director of the New York Central Railroad. He had a keen interest many things including oceanography, architecture, ichthyology, aviation, sailing, anthropology, ornithology, art, automotive technology and racing. His home at Centerport on Long Island, NY, Eagle’s Nest, is now a museum jam packed with his collections of his many interest including specimens he brought back from his frequent trips to the Galapagos Island. The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located in Centerport on the North Shore of Long Island in Suffolk County, New York, USA. Named for William K. Vanderbilt II, it is located on his former 43-acre estate,180 Little Neck Rd, Centerport, NY 11721, www.vanderbiltmuseum.org .
Willie K was a licensed Captain and held a Master’s Certificate. A member of the US Naval Reserve, he was a seasoned sailor having sailed to far off place around the world. In 1928 Willie K and his wife Rosamond sailed around the word in his yacht ARA. In 1931 he did it again on board his new yacht ALVA. Willie K was the Captain of own yacht. Unlike most luxury yacht owners of the time, he did not hire a licensed captain to sail his yacht. On their World Cruise in 1931, they travel 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 then westward across the Atlantic to America. The entire trip was documented in a seventy-minute film titled “Over the Seas”. The film, narrated by Willie K, can be viewed on YouTube. It originally was shown in 1932 at a theater in New York City. The film is available at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum on Long Island. The museum is filled with the art and artifacts Willie K collected. William Belanske, an artist from the American Museum of Natural History, traveled with Vanderbilt. (Later, he lived on the estate as Vanderbilt’s curator.) Belanske then collaborated with the noted painter Henry Hobart Nicholas (also of the AMNH) to create the Habitat’s stunning dioramas that depict animal life from several continents. The centerpiece of the room is a 32-foot whale shark, the world’s largest taxidermied fish, caught off Fire Island in 1935.
Willie K loved the Galapagos Islands, with their population of unusual animals that had inspired Charles Darwin to develop the theory of evolution. Willie visited there often, “Tomorrow we shall see the Galapagos Islands again,” he wrote in 1932. “How well I remember poring over charts as a boy, wondering whether someday 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 his yacht Ara’s name carved on a cliff in Darwin Bay.
The Alva did not sport highly polished mahogany decks and the luxury of ornate bright work. The decks in fact were white painted steel. She was actually more like a serious oceanographic research vessel equipped with trawls, laboratories and a team of scientists, photographers, artists who develop reports for the American Museum of Natural history and Willie K’s own museum. The guests were afforded all the luxury of lavish yachts while at the same time much of the crew of 51 went about serious marine science research.
The Alva had its own gymnasium and overheads (ceilings) that were nine feet high with the main living room overhead 15 feet high. She carried a $60,000 seaplane onboard and had a top speed of 16 knots powered by two diesel engines with an auxiliary electric motor. She displaced 1,524 tons, her length was 264 feet, beam 46ft 2 inches and draft 19 ft.
The 264 foot Alva was transferred to the US Navy at the start of World War II and commissioned the USS Plymouth. She was painted in camouflage and sent on patrol in search of enemy U-boats. She was torpedoed by a German U-Boat on August 4,1943 off Cape Henry, Virginia and sank. The seas were rough and only 85 of the crew survived to be taken to Norfolk on 6 August. A Board of Investigation concluded that USS Plymouth had been sunk by a torpedo fired from an enemy submarine. The submarine was U-566.
Willie K cruised more than 200,000 miles while every bit the working captain of his various yachts. He died in 1944 leaving a legacy of marine science. According to an article in Yachts International Aril 17, 2015, “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.”