“The Mae West,” as we called her, was a gorgeous 80-foot classic wood-hulled motor yacht with lovely lines, a perfect fit for the glamorous Hollywood star who was said to have owned her. With a big covered fantail deck, she was the quintessential party boat for the 1920s. It’s known that Miss West also owned the 103-foot motor yacht Zumbrotta, originally built in 1914 for Charles Ringling of the famous circus, and that she sold it to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in the 1930s. We can only assume that our “Mae West,” whose actual name is unknown, being smaller, was her earlier vessel (our attempts to find information on the boat have gone unrewarded).
When we first came to our little nautical community here in New York City, we lived near a marina at which this boat was docked, an elegant bit of history gracing our waterfront view. We understood that she was now owned by someone who intended to make a full restoration.
Well, this was in the 1990s, and in spite of the on-going economic recovery, the marina was gradually getting run down, on its way to going out of business. The owner of “The Mae West” was obviously also running down, and out of money for his project. The thing about wooden boats is: they are constantly leaking. It’s virtually impossible to keep sea water from coming in between the hull planks, so the bilge pumps have to be kept constantly running. At this point these pumps are all electric – no deckhands required to man the pump handles . . . but, the owner failed to pay his electric bill at the marina, so the marina owner (a fellow of no particular scruples) turned off the shore power to the yacht. “The Mae West” sank at the dock.
It was very disheartening to see the boat sitting in the mud, partly exposed at low tide, and mostly-immersed at high tide. As time went by it was obvious that she’d been abandoned, and the ceaseless action of waves, storms, and the growth of black slime, then seaweed, and barnacles, turned a thing of beauty into an ever more saddening spectacle.
It was at this time that we were finding shipworm-eaten dock planks on our little beach, and conceptualizing what would become Dockwood Furniture. And much to our delight, “The Mae West” began to provide us with flotsam, broken loose from her interior by storm-driven waves. First we found an eight-foot solid mahogany companionway ladder on our beach. Then big panels of teak plywood. Finally a section of the teak handrail from her deck washed up, and another mahogany ladder.
From these we fashioned our “Mae West” Bookshelf, Side Table, and All-Teak Side Table, and we have another bookshelf planned.
After years of battering by the elements, “The Mae West” finally broke up completely in a big late-fall Nor’easter. With so much wreckage strewn about, the Coast Guard declared it a “hazard to navigation,” and the marina was forced to have it all cleaned up by a marine contractor, and pay a big fine as well. That put them out of business for good. Poetic justice?
But at least something was salvaged from one of most lovely yachts of her age that we have ever seen – her memory is preserved, and her story continues as we tell our friends about these pieces of furniture we’re so proud of.