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Mighty, Mighty Aphrodite

How Chuck and Deborah Royce were seduced by the swift goddess of the Sound

Jim Wangaard/Classic Boating

There is something about the boat that strikes emotional chords in people. It could be the dramatic lines of the 74-foot-long projectile that ends in a smoothly rounded torpedo stern. It might simply be the glories of its polished wood. But very likely it is this: The Aphrodite simply looks like a fast and racy launch upon which some raffish 1930s star like Tallulah Bankhead would pipe you aboard with a frosty martini and a smoky “Why, hello, dahling.”

Even when Chuck Royce first spotted the Aphrodite, a sorry, forgotten hulk sitting in Florida mud, he was immediately hit with the reaction that he had to have her, had to save her. And when Royce’s crew slowly brought the creaky vessel north, people would spot her, recognize her, clamber to get closer and set eyes upon the famous speed demon of the Sound.

One day the crew had just tied up to a dock on Florida’s north coast when a senior gent made a beeline for the boat. “He paced back and forth, totally focused on the Aphrodite,” remembers Kirk Reynolds, the boat’s captain. “We asked if he knew her, and he said, ‘Yup. I worked on her.’ He had been an engineer back in wartime, when the Coast Guard used her to escort FDR to Hyde Park. We said, ‘Well, come on aboard.’ But he shook his head: ‘Nope. Too many memories.’ And by the time I turned to tell someone the story, he was gone.”

Too many memories. That’s Aphrodite’s life story. When Chuck and Deborah Royce invite friends aboard now and soak up all the nostalgia, they know that the boat is only there because another stock market investor admired beauty and speed.

The glorious boat first came to life for the most mundane of reasons: a businessman heading into the city wanted to shave some time. It seems weird to call something like Aphrodite a “commuter,” but that’s what John Hay “Jock” Whitney and his friends along Long Island Sound’s Gold Coast called their cruisers in those pre-Interstate days of the 1920s and ’30s.

Whitney was a man of immense wealth and privilege. Born in 1904, he was an oarsman at Yale and just beginning to get started in business in Manhattan in his early twenties when he would inherit a tremendous amount of money. From the railroad interests on his father’s side there came trust fund of $20 million. Later, from his mother’s side where a doting uncle administered to John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, there came another $80 million, which in that low-tax period put Whitney among the wealthiest Americans.

Whitney could claim descendants of Mayflower vintage and family ties that interlaced through all the upper strata of society and political influence, including the Vanderbilts, the Harrimans and even President Roosevelt himself (Whitney’s second wife Betsey Cushing was divorced from FDR’s son James). For all that, he despised the Social Register and called it a travesty of democracy. In the full flower of noblesse oblige, he felt that the wealthy should help the less fortunate. As a friend noted, he went to bed a Democrat and woke up a Republican.

Living the charmed life to the hilt, he sponsored teams of racehorses, was a champion polo player and became an early member of Augusta National. But despite the inherited wealth and the sweet life at the family’s Fifth Avenue town house or the 438-acre Manhasset estate, Greentree, he readily went to work on Wall Street. He continued to build his fortune and eventually founded J.H. Whitney & Co., considered the first venture capital firm in the country.

He loved show business and invested in a string of Broadway shows. Soon he was part owner of the pioneering Technicolor company and then joined movie magnate-producer David O. Selznick in producing Gone with the Wind. Thus connected, he was able to enjoy flings with glamour queens like Paulette Goddard and Joan Crawford, not to mention Tallulah.

In the 1930s, Whitney had a 72-foot cruiser that he would board at his Manhasset home in the morning, still wearing his pajamas. An hour later, he would disembark in the city, shaved and dressed. This was fine until his brother-in-law Charles Payson showed up in his more powerful boat, named Saga, and started beating Whitney to Manhattan.

Miffed, Whitney auditioned several boat builders to see who could build something even faster. The Purdy Boat Company of Port Washington took on the job and, with Whitney himself dictating certain design choices, produced the water missile.

It was the third boat to be named Aphrodite.

The keel was constructed of white oak and the transom and hull planking of Philippine mahogany. Powering her were two massive Packard V12 engines adapted from aviation use, producing more than 1,500 horsepower. A pair of 700-gallon fuel tanks was required: At top speed she would consume 300 gallons of high-octane aviation gas in an hour. But speed is what she was made for. Soaring across the Sound at 38 knots, she kicked up a high rooster-tail in her wake. Everyone came to know her transcendent roar. The damnedest commuter anyone ever saw.

When World War II broke out, Whitney thought the armed services would have a better use for the fastest boat in the waters and donated her to the U.S. Navy, which outfitted her for Coast Guard duty with even stronger engines. According to legend, she hit 60 mph during a show trial for PT boats.

After the war, Whitney was more preoccupied getting his friend Dwight Eisenhower elected president and then, once he did that, serving as his ambassador to England. After that he would become publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, which he’d purchased several years earlier. His days of running Aphrodite out to his summer retreat on Fisher’s Island, from where he’d send her over to New London to pick up the Herald Trib, came to an end.

“She was for sale in the fifties,” Reynolds says. “But there was no interest in the Old Black Lady, which was Whitney’s nickname for her. Finally in 1964 he just gave her to a camp for underprivileged boys on Long Island. She sat there at a mooring for two years, and she had gone completely white from seagull shit.”

One of Whitney’s friends, the famed stuntman-flagpole sitter Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, owned her for a while. But by the 1980s, Aphrodite was a rotting hulk, and a new owner from New Jersey asked John Pannell, who operated a boatyard where the Purdy Boat Company had been located, to restore her. Before that could happen, the man died and Pannell took ownership as payment for yard bills. He refurbished and proudly exhibited Aphrodite in boat shows all around the East. But even Pannell could not keep up with the heavy maintenance requirements, and by the 1990s, the old defeated heavyweight was sitting in a slip of mud in Florida. She might have just returned to earth completely if a friend of Chuck Royce’s hadn’t spotted her sagging frame.

Kirk Reynolds remembers all too well what dubious shape she’d fallen in to by 1999. She was so loose and flexible, he says, “You could watch the handrails spring when you hit a wake.”

Captain Kirk, as he is called, is a man clearly in love with his new charge. Growing up, he’d known of the famed Aphrodite and her strange passage through the hands of those who’d adore her and those who’d abandon her. Earlier this summer he brought Aphrodite down for the Greenwich Concours and tied her up at the Delamar Hotel. It was a beautiful June day, and every surface had a surreal, storybook glow in the crisp sunshine. As he walked through the sunlit cabin and gestured at the beautiful fittings, he acknowledged that such a piece of workmanship requires a fair bit of elbow grease.

“We’ve had three varnishers working on her since November,” Reynolds said ruefully, pointing to the immaculate and gleaming brightwork. “She’s 22 tons, displacing 33 tons. She only draws four feet and she handles beautifully — as easily as any center-console boat. With the 1,000-horsepower Caterpillar diesels we’ve got now, we can still get to 40 miles per hour.”

Chuck Royce was the perfect man to take on the Herculean job of returning Aphrodite to her former glory. A pioneer in small cap investing, since 1972 he has run Royce & Associates, managing a group of funds invested in small-cap and micro-cap companies.

That is, when he’s not up to his ears in restoring some grand relic. Together with his wife Deborah, Royce is always throwing himself into something. He’s heavily involved with the Bruce Museum and both Greenwich’s and New York’s historical societies. He was responsible for the restoration of the Avon Theater in Stamford and is now replicating a landmark hotel in Watch Hill that was too decrepit to be rebuilt.

At his Cos Cob office one day recently, with a majestic water view behind him, the alert Mr. Royce cracked his ever-present wry smile and peered over his half-moon glasses, saying, “The boat was in desperate shape when we found her. Desperate.”

“It was pretty derelict,” Deborah chimes in, an equally sunny-eyed soul. They both seem to twinkle. And they love talking about the boat.

“Pannell just wouldn’t sell it, even though I think he’d fallen on hard times,” Royce recalls. “He named some outrageous price. I think he was attached emotionally to it. He had created an image for himself, and the boat fit it. It was Jock Whitney, Shirley Temple, that whole life.

“When finally he did sell it, we went down and hauled it out, and it was terrible. Big Florida worms falling out, snakes, termites, geckos. I just remember these foot- long worms dropping out.”

Royce is no avid yachtsman and only learned about the awesome mystery of wooden boats about fifteen years ago after a friend took him through his collection in Clayton, New York.

“She and I were dating at the time,” Royce says, smiling and glancing at Deborah. “And I told her about this, and she thought I was a nutcase.”

The sorry carcass of a boat was wrapped in plastic and fumigated. With the Packard engines long gone, a couple of truck V8s were procured from a local yard and installed. The bottom was patched up and she was taken up the coast. In the fall of 2003, Aphrodite was delivered to Brooklin Boat Yard in Maine.

What happened next strains the use of the word refurbish. A Stradivarius might get “maintained” and a Bugatti might get “restored.” The Aphrodite went through a more serious reanimation.

“The word restoration is a very complicated word,” Royce acknowledges. “It’s used loosely. This is called a restoration, but frankly it’s a replication. We replaced every piece of wood. There is not an original piece of timber left.

“We considered for about thirty seconds restoring the Packard engines — everybody lusts after the Packard engines,” Royce said. “But apparently they’re very dangerous, very flammable. There’s a reason why there are none of these  boats around — they burned up.”

The story of Brooklin Boat Yard’s rivet-by-rivet, plank-by-plank replacement of the Aphrodite’s beams is astonishing. It’s not too distant to what the Royces are now doing to the Ocean House hotel in Watch Hill. Similarly, every architectural detail in the famed waterfront palace is being reproduced.

Aphrodite required an equivalent level of reconstruction. After all the boat’s bronze hardware was removed and stored for later, the boat was stripped down to the bulkheads. To make sure its distinctive shape was kept, the boatyard made a digital recording of its dimensions and locked it down in a framework of braces. Then, one by one, the old timber was replaced by fresh hull planking. About 52,000 rivets kept it all together.

“To me, this was all about preserving it,” says Royce, “not about me driving the boat. I like being on the boat, I like the condition it’s in. I like to display it and have my friends on it. If you asked me to park it, there’s no way. On the open seas, I’m as proficient as a child in keeping it going straight.”

“What’s fun,” Deborah adds, “is running into people who’ve heard about it. You come into a port and people rush up. They know Aphrodite, and they’re very excited to see it restored.”

Royce glanced out the window, where sun danced on the waves. “It has lived in these waters for fifty or sixty years. Everybody, everybody knows the boat! And now it’s home.”