Friday, June 21, 2013

WOODIN | The Storied Yacht "Nanin"

Richard Dey's book has
Nanin's end-of-life story
 in Chapter  2.
It's exactly 80 years since the FDR Administration tackled panic and economic misery. I have been working on a short biography of a neglected member of the Cabinet team that implemented the New Deal, William H. Woodin, FDR's first Treasury Secretary.

(Woodin was a Republican, like Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace and Department of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. He presided over the Bank Holiday and carried out FDR's wish, which Woodin personally opposed, to devalue the dollar and prohibit the private ownership of gold bullion and coins, except for collectors' items.)

As part of the story, I have been interviewing three of Woodin's four surviving grandchildren - Charlie Miner, Anne Harvey Gerli, Woody Rowe and William Woodin III. One of the vivid memories of Woodin's grandchildren is fishing from an 80-foot yacht, named Nanin after Woodin's wife Annie Jessup, who was nicknamed Nan. The boat was anchored out on Gardiner's Bay, which back in the 1930s had more depth and could more easily take big boats like that.

Devon Yacht Club Commodore William H. Woodin's yacht. Thanks to Lucy
Sachs for access to her family album where this photo appears.
The boat was used for fishing and cruising. One of Woodin's grandchildren, Anne, used to try to save the fish by taking out the hooks and throwing them back in the water. This was after she learned that fish did not drown like people in the water. She says she was once caught taking goldfish out of the pond in front of their Lily Pond Lane house so the goldfish could breathe, until the poor flopping fish were rescued by Anne's mother. Anne was also disturbed by moles being caught in traps and would spring the traps. When her mother tried to stop her, Anne showed her what happened to the moles and her mother this time followed her daughter and stopped trying to kill the moles.

While Anne was forced to go fishing and didn't like it, other grandchildren enjoyed it. Mary liked to fish and so did Charlie. Charlie and his late cousin Bill Rowe (who later served in the Army Air Force as a pilot instructor) also liked to sail their jointly owned Star Boat. They had Saturday and Sunday races at the Devon Yacht Club - Charlie still remembers his sail number, #1585.

Besides fishing, Nanin went on cruises. Charlie Miner remembers making the trip all the way up through the Erie Canal locks to Lake Erie. He also remembers attending the America's Cup races in Newport, R.I.

I was curious whether there was any record of Nanin's life before purchase by Woodin and its war-time and postwar service. In fact, the boat is well documented:

  • Lloyd's Register shows that the Nanin was built by Lawley's in 1915 for Harvard-educated Albert Y. Gowen, Vice President of the Lehigh Portland Cement Company, based in Allentown, Pa., and later Chicago. No expense was spared, Lawley's being the builder of several yachts that competed for the America's Cup. Instead of copper tubing they used bronze.
  • The boat suffered from a fire in 1919, after which the single engine was replaced by two Speedway engines with 32-inch propellers (Dey, p. 32).
  • Gowen in about 1921 took the name Speejacks off his old boat and put in on a new 98-foot "motor cruiser" or "gas yacht" with 100-ton displacement. (With the new Speejacks he traveled 35,000 miles in 1921-22 and claimed to be the smallest boat that had circumnavigated the globe.)
  • Based on a year-by-year review of Lloyd's Registers, I can say with confidence that Mr. Woodin purchased Gowen's old boat within 12 months of 1922, 11 years before he became Secretary of the Treasury, and named it Nanin as a way of combining his wife Annie's nickname, Nan, and the last two letters of his own. 
  • The postwar history of the boat is found in a book by Harvard-educated Richard Dey, Adventures in the Trade Wind, about chartering yachts in the West Indies in the second half of the 20th Century. The Nanin appears in the second chapter of the book, identified only as having been purchased by a Mr. Woodin "from New York". Dey's book says correctly that the 1940 edition of Lloyd's Register has the yacht listed with Annie Jessup Woodin as the owner.
  • Dey's book confirms the report by Woodin's grandchildren that the yacht was given to the Coast Guard, but the book says the boat was "taken" for coastal patrol purposes, suggesting that there was some compensation for its taking. Vincent Astor's 264-foot yacht Nourmahal, for example, was commandeered by the Coast Guard in return for compensation of $300,000 (equivalent to $5 million in 2013). 
  • The Woodin family legend that Nanin was brought to Dunkirk and was used to rescue British troops and was sunk by a U-Boat could not be confirmed and seems unlikely. It is a glamorous story, the kind of story one wants to believe, but if the yacht was sunk it was then recovered and brought back to the American Hemisphere, because:
  • The yacht ended up (the Nanin name still on it) in Trinidad as a tugboat after the war - its snazzy bronze propellers gone and its motors replaced by noisy war-vintage GM engines (see Dey, p. 26), and the staff increased to eight to handle the heavy anchor. There is a photo of the postwar Nanin in the book. It looks like a beached whale - or, to change the metaphor, a one-time racehorse that was now yoked to a milk truck.

Here it is:
Nanin (nee Speejacks in 1915) in Trinidad after World War II. This was Will
Woodin's boat, after long use by the Coast Guard, which took the Nanin
for its own use during the war. Photo by Morris Nicholson, in the book by
Richard Dey.

The same year that Woodin became Treasury Secretary, 1933, Vincent Astor's yacht picked up FDR at Hyde Park at the end of August 80 years ago, after sailing around Manhattan.

Escorted by two Coast Guard ships, the Nourmahal took the President fishing off Montauk. The yacht then went to the Astors' Newport home. According to the East Hampton Star of September 1, 1933, the Nourmahal did not have on board anyone connected with the federal government.

The Nanin was decommissioned from the Navy in 1946 and was sold in 1964 for scrap.