The Ice Cream Sailor

The Ice Cream Sailor - “Delphine”
The Ice Cream Sailor
An ancient mariner remembers a grand yacht from a bygone age.

By Tim Clark — November 2001

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On one of the quietest shores on the North Carolina coast, in Carteret County where Highway 70's two lanes hug Core Sound, about 100 merchant mariners are living out their days at the Sailors' Snug Harbor in Sealevel. With ship's models, seascapes, and curiosities from distant lands adorning its tidy lounges, the place seems almost like a museum. But its most valuable historical resources talk over coffee in the Bum Boat Cafe, rest in armchairs with the latest issue of the Maritime Reporter, and enjoy the salt breeze under the pines on the facility's grounds. "Each mariner is an individual and has a story," writes Jay Ottinger of his "shipmates" at Snug Harbor in his memoir The Steam Yacht Delphine and Other Stories. At 98 and with more than 50 years of sea time behind him, Ottinger has more stories than most.

I met with Ottinger in his private room, where every surface overflows with books, files, and periodicals. He moves with fragile tentativeness amid the scholarly clutter, yet his speech is remarkably forceful. His responses to my questions are like his writing: solid and spare as a ship's log, but peppered with humor and sometimes disdain.

He tells me that by the early 1930s he held a third mate's license and had served in the U.S. Navy, worked freighters and tankers on the Great Lakes, and sailed twice around the world on Dollar Line passenger ships. But with shipping hit hard by the Depression, long-term stints on commercial ships were hard to come by. So in the spring of 1932, back in his hometown of Detroit, Ottinger became quartermaster on what merchant mariners scorned as an "ice cream boat." On the 257-foot Delphine during the summer cruising seasons of that year as well as 1934, '40, and '41, he was witness to an era in yachting whose lavishness would not be rivaled again until the resurgence of the megayacht a half century later.

As ice cream boats went, Delphine was richer than Häagen Dazs. Designed by the renowned Henry Gielgow, she was commissioned by automobile tycoon Horace Dodge, who died suddenly four months before she was finished. However, Dodge's widow Anna decided that Delphine, named for their daughter, would be completed. Following her launch in April 1921, the yacht reigned for nearly 40 years as the largest ever built in America. Her master stateroom, eight guest staterooms, card room, smoking room, and music room were decorated by New York's Tiffany and Co., and she was powered with two 1,500-hp steam engines that ran off oil-fired boilers. The crew of Delphine numbered 55 and, according to Ottinger, included 10 ship's officers, 22 sailors, a galley staff of four, 11 stewards, and two mess boys for the officers and crew. Remaining berths were presumably for Mrs. Dodge's personal staff.

Every spring Delphine's recommissioning required two full months and her entire complement of officers and deck hands. Her four tenders and mahogany runabout were taken from storage and rerigged. Her teak main deck and white-pine boat and promenade decks were stripped of the varnish applied to protect them over the winter. Her two masts were stripped and refinished. And yacht painters brought in from New York re-enameled the hull and superstructure and, writes Ottinger, "even grained and varnished the metal lifeboats so that they looked like wood."

During the season, Delphine was berthed at Rose Terrace, Mrs. Dodge's estate on Lake St. Claire in Grosse Pointe, reached via a channel privately dredged to accommodate Delphine's 16-foot draft. Ottinger says that rumors of wild parties on the yacht were untrue and that "the Old Lady," as he sometimes calls Mrs. Dodge, mainly hosted teas and games of bridge. "Mrs. Dodge was all right," declares Ottinger. "She was a saloon keeper's daughter, and all the fancy Grosse Pointe ladies would stick their noses up at her. But she was good people in my book, and she knew a hell of a lot more about the ship than most people imagined."

Next page > Delphine continued > Page 1, 2, 3

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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