UPDATE, JANUARY 30, 2014: Despite the continuing deteriorating condition of Williamsburg, there’s keen interest to see her renewed. Green Yachts, an Italian design firm, was inspired to create a restyling of Williamsburg after Mattia Massola, Green Yachts’ business development manager, was returning from a visit to a yacht builder. “I stopped along the coast for a few and saw this sinking vessel,” Massola explains. “Making a restyle project was a natural step for me. I wanted to show the yachting market how beautiful the Williamsburg can be as a luxury yacht.” Massola acquired some of the original engineering drawings from the shipyard where the yacht is currently sitting and based the redesign on them.
Among the changes that Green Yachts envisions: all accommodations on the lower deck, a fireplace in the main saloon, and a study on the uppermost deck, which itself is reconfigured. As you can see, Williamsburg’s original funnel is also retained. Massola says it can be used for ventilation, but it also lets the former Presidential yacht keep her classic character. “I didn’t want to make a modern yacht, I just wanted to maintain the original appeal of Williamsburg, updating some surfaces, portholes, and deleting the upper structure that had been added by Truman. It was too high of a structure. The same area is more comfortable if used as a sundeck or stowage for a small dinghy, submarine, or touch-and-go area for a helicopter.”
“It’s something amazing, I feel the presence of history,” Massola says, of visiting Williamsburg. “You can imagine what can be the feeling of cruising on this vessel once restyled.” The Green Yachts team plans to reach out to the U.S. Navy’s Presidential yacht historian (see story below) to gather additional information and, it hopes, position itself at the forefront of a future buyer’s plans.
Read on for our original story from 2012, which renewed awareness of Williamsburg’s plight.
The USS Williamsburg, one of the largest and most famous megayachts built in the 20th century, is rusting away at a shipyard in Italy, where she has been for nearly two decades, untouched. The photo above was taken within the past few weeks. Despite her appearance, and despite an anticipated restoration cost in the nine-figure range, there’s still interest in acquiring her and restoring her.
Bert Laacks, a broker with Florida-based Lloyds Yacht and Ship, holds the central listing, with Williamsburg for sale for 8.8 million euros (about $11.6 million). Laacks was hired by Navalmare, the shipyard in La Spezia where Williamsburg currently lies, to sell her. Some brokerage listings state the anticipated restoration costs are at least 33 million euros (about $43.54 million), but Laacks says that figure is about three to four years old. In today’s economy, he says, the cost would be more like 100 million euros (about $131.94 million).
Contrary to what you might expect given the global economic situation, Laacks says he has talked with some serious potential buyers. The U.S. Navy’s Presidential yacht historian, Kim Nielsen, confirms this. His office is part of the Naval History and Heritage Command at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Furthermore, Nielsen has a personal connection to Wiliamsburg. He was the project manager for an anticipated restoration over a decade ago. His office has the original naval architecture plans, which he and Laacks have shown to potential buyers. Those buyers have even gone so far as to commission surveys, Nielsen says, showing that Williamsburg is still structurally sound. This, in combination with Williamsburg’s history, has allowed potential buyers able to see past the rust that covers nearly every inch of her 243-foot (74-meter) length.
As for that history, Williamsburg was launched in 1930 at Bath Iron Works, as a private yacht named Aras. Pictured above, she was an impressive sight, bearing a black hull with a 36-foot beam and 14-foot draft (11 meters and 4.3 meters, respectively). The steel-hulled megayacht was commissioned by Hugh Chisholm, a paper and railroad magnate from Maine. Aras (“Sara” spelled backwards) was the third same-named yacht had Chisholm built, and he and his family cruised aboard her every summer until war service called. Aras was acquired by the U.S. Navy in April 1941 and converted into a gunboat from October to December of that same year. The Navy renamed her Williamsburg. Williamsburg departed U.S. waters for her first official tour of duty on December 6, 1941—coincidentally, the day before the attacks on Pearl Harbor. From that point to June 1945, Williamsburg saw service mostly in Iceland. That summer, the vessel was intended to be converted into an amphibious force flagship, a floating command post from which further water-based attacks would be coordinated. However, upon Japan’s surrender, the conversion was cancelled. Instead, Williamsburg was converted back into a yacht, setting course for Washington, D.C. in November to replace the Presidential yacht Potomac.
While Williamsburg was the Presidential yacht for both Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, President Eisenhower preferred his farm retreat in Pennsylvania. President Truman, meanwhile, spent abundant time onboard. Indeed, the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum has dozens upon dozens of photographs of President Truman onboard. Some show him hosting dignitaries such as Winston Churchill. Others show him simply enjoying the sights from her decks, or wrapping himself in a robe after a swim, his wet footprints visible on the teak.
President Eisenhower decommissioned Williamsburg in 1953, and she was given to the Potomac River Naval Command for continued maintenance. The National Science Foundation acquired her in 1962, converting her into an oceanographic research vessel. This required the removal of the Presidential staterooms and other luxury touches, replaced by a lab and an aquarium. The re-christened Anton Bruun served scientists and researchers alike from around the world until 1968.
Anton Bruun was set for acquisition by the government of India later that same year, but misfortune lay just over the horizon. She was undergoing repairs in a floating drydock when the platform supporting her suddenly sank. She was a total loss, so the government auctioned her. A company in New Jersey acquired her to serve as a restaurant. She remained in that capacity for a few years, and in 1979 a Washington, D.C. company bought her and towed her into town for the same purpose. Plans fell through, however, and Williamsburg was abandoned, lying alongside a sewage treatment plant. A few years later, a group knowledgeable about her history decided she deserved rescuing, forming the USS Williamsburg Preservation Society in 1985. The goal was to publicize Williamsburg’s plight and find a buyer to set things right. Some reports state that the Society acquired Williamsburg, but it never attempted to buy her nor raised funds to do so. It acted, and still acts, as a conduit of information, part of the non-profit Historic Naval Ships Association. It took seven years, but the Society’s efforts worked: The USS Williamsburg Corporation stepped forward in 1992, pledging to fund a $65-million refit and restoration of Williamsburg as a boutique charter yacht.
The USS Williamsburg Corporation selected Valdettaro Shipyard in La Spezia, Italy to carry out the work. Williamsburg made her way from U.S. shores to Europe in 1994. The photo above shows her in La Spezia shortly thereafter. Now, things finally started looking up… except they were actually about to get a lot worse.
According to Nielsen, the shipyard owner suddenly disappeared—along with all the money. With all sorts of payments going unmade by the yard, the Italian courts placed it and its assets, including Williamsburg, into receivership. The craftsmen at the yard wanted to carry out the restoration, Nielsen says, they couldn’t afford to buy the facility. Neither, he adds, could the USS Williamsburg Corporation afford to take back the yacht. The Italian courts therefore sold her, with Navalmare, conveniently located across the bay, being granted possession. Navalmare had been husbanding Williamsburg during the court proceedings, so it was a natural choice.
According to some reports, at some point between Navalmare’s acquisition and 1998, the shipyard planned to scrap Williamsburg. However, Nielsen disputes this. “They assumed, rightfully so, that she has far more historical value and shouldn’t be scrapped,” he says. He adds that Navalmare has been looking after the yacht ever since then, making sure she remains upright.
Even with the sad situation that has befallen Williamsburg, Laacks believes there’s a buyer who will restore her. Nielsen puts it this way: “Williamsburg is the last unrestored yacht of the period…and the only unrestored Presidential yacht.” (The three other former Presidential yachts still in existence are Honey Fitz, Potomac, and Sequoia, all in private hands.) Laacks says that Navalmare would be interested in undertaking the restoration if a sale occurs.
If an American steps forward to acquire Williamsburg and return her to use in U.S. waters, that could be problematic, due to the Jones Act. The Jones Act requires, among other things, that vessels carrying goods between U.S. ports be constructed in the United States. Then again, special Congressional exemptions have been granted in the past (think Limitless, which flies the American flag).
One way or the other, something tells us this story is far from being over.