Aphrodite: How a storied yacht was restored to former glory
Kirk Reynolds hesitates just a fraction of a second when he's asked about Aphrodite, the 74-foot vessel that ties up every summer in Watch Hill Harbor and of which he is the captain.
"Who is she? What is she? She's like a Ferrari," he purrs in response. "She's fast and nimble and quick. Light. But she is really pretty easy-going, she's got a free spirit. She is the goddess of love after all."
Aphrodite, the private yacht of Ocean House owner and developer Charles M. "Chuck" Royce, is as well known in local waters as the ferries and fishing boats that regularly ply Long Island and Fishers Island sounds.
Mariners know the hum of Aphrodite's twin 1,000-horsepower Caterpillar C18 engines and recognize its distinctive silhouette on the horizon, even from a considerable distance.
Built by the Purdy Boat Company in Port Washington, N.Y., and launched in May of 1937, this Aphrodite was the third in a series of five boats by the same name and originally was used as a commuter yacht by a Wall Street financier named John Hay "Jock" Whitney.
Whitney would be chauffeured to the boat and, once on board, he'd shave, dress and then have his coffee and read the newspaper on his quick voyage to Wall Street.
Following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Whitney offered the boat to the government for war service, and in 1942 it was commissioned as a Coast Guard auxiliary vessel.
It was during this time that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was ferried on Aphrodite from his home in Hyde Park, N.Y., along the Hudson River, and other dignitaries were transported along the Eastern Seaboard.
Reynolds said Aphrodite also would carry A-list Hollywood celebrities, like Spencer Tracy, Sir Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn, because of their relationship with Jock Whitney, who backed Technicolor and convinced David O. Selznick to produce "Gone With the Wind." Today, a photo of childhood star Shirley Temple onboard Aphrodite hangs in the ship's parlor; she celebrated a birthday onboard.
By the 1960s, Whitney outgrew his use for Aphrodite and donated the boat to a program for inner-city youth that was held on Long Island. After that, the vessel went through a series of owners and eventually fell into a state of neglect, at least until the late 1990s, when friends of Reynolds saw it in Palm City, Fla.
Reynolds, who owned a boat painting and varnishing business in southeastern Connecticut, had just been hired by Royce to tend to and captain his boats.
Recognizing the beauty of Aphrodite but not knowing the boat's storied history, Reynolds' friends alerted him and suggested that his new boss might be the only person to save it. That started a complicated process of working with the owner, surveying and assessing the boat, and researching its history.
Reynolds said Royce initially was noncommittal, but the more he saw and heard about Aphrodite, he soon became smitten.
Locally known for his business acumen, philanthropy and preservation efforts, Royce recognized the value of saving Aphrodite.
"He said, 'This is a piece of American yachting history and it needs to be saved, because in another year, it will be gone,'" Reynolds said.
It was 1999 and Aphrodite was in dire shape.
"The boat was derelict," Reynolds said. "The bilge pump, all four bilge pumps, were running 24 hours a day to keep it floating. And the worm damage and termite damage was so extensive. And any time it rained, there was water coming in everywhere."
By 2000, Royce owned Aphrodite, and was going to do for the boat what he also did for the Ocean House, the historic ocean-front hotel in Watch Hill that he recreated.
But don't call Aphrodite a replica, says Reynolds, who is adamant that it was a restoration.
"I can argue that point all day long," he said. "There are some people who feel it is a replica, but there wasn't a day when you could walk into that shop and say what boat is that? You could always tell it was Aphrodite."
The boat was moved to the Brooklin Boat Yard in Brooklin, Maine, in 2003 and painstakingly restored.
"They took the old pieces off, and they put new pieces on as the old pieces were being taken off," said Reynolds, who watched much of the work.
The same species of woods as the original were used, as were the same methods of construction, albeit with modern techniques and materials like glues and adhesives, Reynolds said. One exception was the fiberglass cabin top.
There is air conditioning now, and a few other modern amenities, but Aphrodite looks much like it did when Jock Whitney was onboard.
The vessel still employs its original cast bronze, chrome-plated shifters and throttles that followed the boat in a cardboard box for 50 years. Today they are digitized. And, the boat has many original fixtures, such as running and masthead lights, cleats, stanchions and bow chocks.
"It's pretty remarkable we still have them," Reynolds said.
The boat is mostly used now by Royce family and friends for luncheons and sunset cruises, and everywhere it goes, it gets noticed.
"She gets a lot of attention, and that is kind of hard to take sometimes," Reynolds said.
"We pull up to a dock and hands on the boat are tossing a line and the line just falls to the feet (of the person onshore ready to catch it) because they're just staring at the boat," he said.
But he admits it's fun, and there is much pride with all the attention.
'She's an icon'
Aphrodite is long and lean, and its Philippine mahogany hull is always varnished and sparkling.
It is 74 feet long with a 14.6-foot beam, and displaces 22 tons, drawing just four feet. Eighty years ago, when it was built, the contract set the price at $90,000 and there was a stipulation that the boat must do 38 mph.
Today, the boat's cruising speed is 30 mph and it can make the 90-mile trip from Watch Hill to the Royce home in Greenwich in three hours. Running at 26 mph, Reynolds said the vessel burns about a gallon of fuel a mile, or wide open, at about 40 mph, it will burn about 150 gallons an hour.
Mostly, the boat runs in Fishers Island and Long Island sounds, and spends time at its summer home on the Plimpton Dock in the Watch Hill Harbor.
"She's an icon," Reynolds said. "In Watch Hill, people look forward to seeing this boat every season. You cannot do this job and be on this boat and think you're going to be invisible."
The captain is grateful that his employer had the foresight and wherewithal to save this classic vessel.
"For Chuck, it really is about preserving for the next generation," Reynolds said.
"It's not just boats, he does properties, houses, too. For him, it's about preserving the past because it's flying by so fast, and next thing you know, it's gone, and if you don't do something, it's all going to be gone."
Royce was not available for comment and Reynolds would not disclose what his employer paid for the boat or how much he invested to renovate it, but he did say it was an investment intent on preservation.
"It was important for him with Aphrodite, and a few other vintage boats he's had, that they are maintained and preserved," Reynolds said. "So, all his projects have been to save it for future generations."
The captain said Aphrodite is regularly used and the public can get a chance to cruise on it when Royce and his wife, Deborah, put rides up as an auction item at charitable functions.
But for most people, it's the iconic boat in Watch Hill Harbor, a throwback to the past, to a different time and lifestyle, and it has been preserved as a reminder.
"We could have made it better than when it was built, we could have, but I didn't want to and Chuck didn't want to," Reynolds said. "It was very important to Chuck that it be the same boat."
Is it really the same boat, he's asked.
Absolutely, says Reynolds.
"She still has the same soul, I know, I can tell."
Stories that may interest you
City Risk Manager Paul Gills resigned abruptly on Thursday following a disagreement with Chief Administrative Officer Steve Fields. The city's Economic Development Coordinator Peter Lent also resigned recently.
Led by the Connecticut Mirror and hosted by Mitchell College, the event was an extension of reporter Jacqueline Rabe Thomas's series on affordable housing in the state.