Bill Zinser Has His Cake
Onboard with the captain of the largest yacht built in America since 1931.
In the sleepy port city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, a once bustling town that has now seen better days, there is a shipyard that is littered with the carcasses of large vessels in various states of repair. And in this dust-tinged city of boats, in a small trailer partially hidden by a cavernous shed, there sits a man hard at work putting the finishing touches on something truly magnificent.
When I step into that trailer on an unusually hot August day, I find Capt. Bill Zinser ensconced in charts and models, Blackberries, cellphones, half-finished cups of coffee, and pictures of his family. At 58, Zinser is stocky, square-jawed, and possessed of disarmingly calm blue eyes and a stubborn thatch of silvering hair that is straight out of central casting. With deep creases in his tanned neck and bear paws for hands, he could easily be a fire chief or the head of a stevedore’s union were it not for one detail—a chunky Rolex on his wrist that hints at a vocation much closer to the realm of luxury. Zinser is captain of Cakewalk, the largest personal yacht built in America since Maine’s Bath Iron Works turned out the 343-foot Corsair IV in 1931 for J.P. Morgan. At 281 feet and 2,998 gross tons, she is a true leviathan, awash in both state-of-the-art technology and stunning detail, and Zinser knows every nook and cranny of her by heart. If the Devil really is in the details, then as far as Cakewalk is concerned, the Devil has met his match.
On the day of my visit, Zinser’s full attention is focused on four different charts on his desk, each mapping the path of Hurricane Earl, a Category 4 storm that is sweeping up the East Coast and, as seemingly every weatherman on the planet has breathlessly predicted, is due to make landfall in New England that Friday. No one I speak to at the yard can actually recall a Hurricane hitting town, not for decades anyway, and a jangly tension flickers in the air. (Last June a freak tornado hit Derecktor Shipyards, where Cakewalk is being built, destroying another shed and damaging one of the yacht’s tenders.) Zinser, however, is characteristically cool. He believes that Cakewalk can handle just about anything Mother Nature tosses her way. And he should know—he built her. Plus, after scouring every detail of every map, chart, and weather report concerning Earl’s putative path of destruction, Zinser isn’t overly convinced that the storm will even make it to Bridgeport.
If, as John Locke opined, toil begets ownership, then Cakewalk belongs as much to Zinser as it does to her publicity-shy owners. For the last three and a half years Zinser has overseen every facet of her build, relying on an unusually strong synergy with the owners to produce their dream boat, a yacht that is, in truth, quite impressive. Equal parts graceful and imposing, and blessed with an enviable tender garage and an expansive yet cozy interior, Cakewalk is the apotheosis of a lifetime of boating. The captain hails from a long line of boaters and began working at his paternal grandfather’s marina as a teen. After having a cup of coffee at a local community college, Zinser decided to take a year off to work on a 110-foot houseboat named Captiva. Soon thereafter, he realized he was done with academics for good, as his collected nautical knowledge crystallized into an expertise that would fuel a boating career on the fast track. By age 23 he would be in charge of a 56-footer—and one of the youngest, if not the youngest, yacht captains in the country, routinely assuring doubters that yes, this babe in a boat was indeed the captain of the ship and not a posing crewmember. In 1995, after hopscotching through various captaincies, Zinser was in Lauderdale when he caught wind of an owner looking for a new captain and threw his hat in the ring. A fortuitous toss it turns out. After a single dinner meeting on June 5th of that year, Zinser was hired on the spot to captain the first Cakewalk—there would be four more to come, spanning the ensuing 15 years, each one growing in size until the most recent behemoth now at rest in Bridgeport. And of all the past boats on which he has served, Zinser is patently the most proud of this Cakewalk, mentioning with the offhanded assurance of a seasoned captain that “she won’t necessarily be the biggest boat, but she will be the best.” When I ask how he thinks Cakewalk will be received when she debuts at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, he answers frankly (and with a not-so-subtle tip of the cap to her Yankee origins), “I think she’s going to blow a lot of people away. Our goal is to see a lot of nervous-looking German and Dutch people standing around.” (I’d be lying if I said right then a small part of me didn’t want to stand up and belt out “God Bless America”—but I managed to constrain myself for the sake of journalistic integrity.)
As we take the short walk from his office to the dock where Cakewalk is moored, we pass the aluminum hull and superstructure of a 150-foot sailing yacht resting hollow and unpainted in a shed. Zinser notes dryly, “The original owner never finished her.” This is typical of his understated wit, as well as his unfailing discretion. I find out later the original owner was Dennis Kozlowski, the erstwhile CEO of Tyco International who infamously used $2 million of company funds to throw a birthday party for his wife, which featured an ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David that urinated vodka, and who is now serving up to 25 years in prison for fraud.
We near the yacht and a pretty young crewmember and her male companion call out, “Hey Bill!” and wave. The crew is starting to trickle in as Cakewalk nears her official launch date, and the excitement in the yard is palpable. When mixed with the jittery anticipation of Hurricane Earl, the mood surrounding the boat, for the time being at least, is surreal. Onboard, some of the 300 workers who have been laboring over the yacht are anticipating another kind of disaster—unemployment once Cakewalk launches. “We’re throwing a party for these guys next week,” Zinser says soberly. “Some have been working on this boat for four years. I mean, that’s been their life, and now they might be out of a job. That’s tough. So we’re doing what we can to keep their morale up.”
The high regard with which the captain is held by the workers is evident immediately. He looks everyone in the eye and greets them by first name and seems to have in-depth knowledge of the job that they are working on at that moment, asking when the deep fryer in the galley will be re-installed one minute, then talking shop with the audio guys on the main deck the next. He negotiates his way through this hive of activity with an easy gait and a sharp eye. Eyes like an osprey—Zinser doesn’t miss a thing. As we make our way up the boat’s outdoor staircase, he taps me on the shoulder and points at a half-concealed worker prostrate in a stowage area 25 feet away. Only the man’s legs are visible; his toes are pointed at the azure sky and he is suspiciously motionless. “Let’s hope he’s asleep—and not dead,” Zinser says with a twinkle in his eye. Then the captain grabs the attention of a young worker and asks him what’s going on with his colleague. The kid splutters out, “Oh he’s, he’s just working on the wiring.” Maybe so, but Zinser seems dubious.
“Well why don’t you go see if he needs any help,” he responds, gamely.
As the worker walks over to check on his buddy, Zinser scurries up the staircase to the owner’s deck, intuiting that if in fact the worker had dozed off amidst the embryonic warmth of a darkened stowage area, that the only thing worse than finding out you just got caught by your boss asleep on the job is having your boss leering over you when you wake up.
As we reach the bridge deck, Zinser’s face screws up as he looks at some exterior ceiling tiles. “They don’t match,” he mutters to himself. I look up. I don’t notice any irregularity among the cream-colored squares. At that moment an athletic looking Australian brushes by us headed forward. “Dave,” Zinser blurts out, “look at these tiles.” Dave Pringle is Cakewalk’s Second Master and has been working with Zinser since 2000. He knows the yacht as well as just about anyone. He squints at the ceiling. Seconds tick by. More squinting. “That one’s more matte than the others,” Zinser says, pointing at a tile about 20 feet forward. “There are some back there that don’t have the right gloss, too,” he says motioning aft. “Ahhh, yeah” Pringle agrees, cocking his head, still in full squint mode, “They don’t match.”
Later, Pringle will describe Zinser with almost childlike awe—a striking conceit made all the more remarkable because Pringle himself is what you might call an alpha, all wiry muscle and laser-intense eyes. “Bill’s one of the most amazing boat drivers I’ve ever seen,” he confides, recalling an instance in 2000 when Zinser spun a 200-foot Feadship in a Bahamian harbor with a total clearance of eight feet off his bow and stern. “He’s also a real family man,” says Pringle. “When my father died, Bill found me and immediately told me to go home [home is Perth, Australia, the most isolated city in the world]. I stayed for three months, and when I came back, it was totally fine. That kind of thing inspires loyalty in a crew.”
Pringle’s respect for his captain is obvious, but as our interview closes, he adds one thing: “Bill’s a bit of a celebrity at the boat shows,” Pringle says, smiling. “Everywhere you go with him everyone’s shouting ‘Billy! Hey Billy!’ I think back in the day he was a bit of a—a bit of a . . . well, something,” chuckles Pringle, his Aussie lilt trailing off to another place and time. (Later on, when I pry Zinser for what Pringle was alluding to, he casually mentions a rum-soaked game of darts he played long ago against Jimmy Buffet in a bar in New England, and then quickly steers the conversation towards where to go for lunch.)
At the end of my visit, the captain is again back inside his trailer, buried in charts and the latest news reports concerning the encroaching Hurricane when his phone rings. A slightly panicked female voice rings out tinny but clear in the small room, “Have you heard anything about Earl?!”
“No,” Zinser deadpans, “who’s that?”
In the end, Friday came and Friday went. And Hurricane Earl, for all his hype and bluster, amounted to nothing more than a cough in a church. Though all her lines were doubled up and all her hatches battened down, ultimately all Cakewalk had to do was withstand another cloudy day in southern New England. And Bill Zinser, as much her shepherd as he is her captain, no doubt sat contentedly in his trailer, sipping a fresh coffee, and anticipating storms yet to come.
This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.