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At the Pleasure of the President

JFK's Yacht - Honey Fitz

Extensive hull repairs—and some new technology—make historic Honey Fitz as sweet as ever.

The owner of Honey Fitz made the right call—twice. First, after the former presidential yacht had paid many visits to various repair yards since the mid-1970s, he decided to undertake a full refit. Second, he hired Jim Moores of Moores Marine to do the job.

The scope of the work was daunting, especially considering that the owner wanted Honey Fitz to get a U.S. Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection (COI), which would allow her to carry paying passengers. The standards specify manning requirements, allowable number of passengers, and required safety and fire-suppression equipment, as well as standards for hull stability, and they can be challenging for older boats to meet and maintain. Little did the restoration team know that the certification process would also give them a full hull scan and the data to make the repairs more effectively.

The owner understood the importance of this yacht to history, since she embodied the seaborne component of President John F. Kennedy’s mystique. Honey Fitz is a 92-foot commuter-style motoryacht that was built by the Defoe Boat Works in Bay City, Michigan, and christened Lenore II in 1931 by Sewell Avery, who ran Montgomery Ward and vigorously opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. Stories differ on how the boat passed from Avery to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1942. Whether Avery sold her or the government expropriated her is unclear, but the yacht saw service during World War II as a picket ship off Rockaway Point and Fire Island, New York. She also served as a training ship for submarine crews, and in June 1945 was refit to serve as tender to successive presidential yachts, the 165-foot USS Potomac and the 245-foot USS Williamsburg.

When Eisenhower assumed the presidency, he sent the lavish Williamsburg back to the Navy, where she had served as a patrol gunboat and communications vessel in World War II. He preferred the more conservative 92-footer, which he renamed Barbara Anne and used in Narragansett Bay and on the Potomac.

When Kennedy entered the Oval Office, he also renamed the presidential yacht. He called her Honey Fitz—the nickname of his beloved maternal grandfather, John Francis Fitzgerald, a two-time mayor of Boston. And as Kennedy enjoyed the yacht on the Potomac and in Newport and Palm Beach, Honey Fitz became part of the lore of Camelot. Sold off during the Nixon Administration, the yacht has been in private hands ever since.

The current owner bought her in the mid-1970s. “The boat has been repaired and maintained on a regular basis,” said Tony Bucknole, the owner’s representative for the refit. “It came to Offshore Shipbuilding in Florida in 1986, where we had the keel repaired and had the steel framing replaced. Then in 2000, we did repairs to the side, [installed] a new top deck [and] new forepeak and then five years ago we put a new transom in and parts of a keel.”

For this job, the owner brought in Eddie Cochran, who had worked on the boat before and agreed to serve as project manager. “They decided they needed a liaison with the Coast Guard, engineering, the naval architect, and Jim Moores, and had me stick around and run the project. I can tell you mister, I’ve had my hands full,” Cochran says with a laugh. “It needed time—you don’t put this stuff together overnight. When you’re going for a COI on a boat, they want to monitor everything—materials and application—because a lot of this stuff is being covered up as you go.”

Moores, who works out of Beaufort, North Carolina, and Riviera Beach, Florida, understands wooden boats, and as he embarked on the project, the importance of this one became clear. “Nineteen fifty-four was the most famous year for that boat,” he says. “That’s when it was transformed and called the private yacht of the president. They took what would become the Honey Fitz to John Trumpy’s yard in Annapolis, Maryland, and converted the boat from a commuter-class boat to a houseboat-style boat.”

After Honey Fitz was hauled at the Rybovich yard in West Palm Beach in late 2009, Moores’ team used large steel arms to support her on the hard. Part of the challenge was the boat’s construction: “It had steel I-beams in it,” Moores says. “It had small ribs. It was double-planked. For its time it was composite construction.”

As the project got underway, the team wanted to repair Honey Fitz but also preserve her essence so that future generations could enjoy her history. “I did a lot of research on the boat, going back and finding the original blueprints when she was built in 1931,” Moores says. “Then we had Glowacki Engineering out of Jacksonville, Florida, come in. They had the boat scanned [with a digital laser scanner], then we overlaid the scan onto the original drawings so we could see where the problem areas were.”

Marine Measurements of Newport, Rhode Island, did the scan that gave Glowacki Engineering data for its stability analysis of the hull for the Coast Guard certification. But having a full-scale digital image of the hull created from millions of data points helped the team properly fix the hull shape. “On one section, the starboard side had an indentation—a two- to three-inch depression,” says Alan Horrell of Glowacki Engineering. “I used the scanned image of the port side because it was still the correct shape and mirrored that over to give [Moores] a template. So he had a full-size drawing where he could shape three or four ribs through that region. He couldn’t use his battens from the outside because it was deformed there and he was recreating the deformation.”

The data from the scan revealed other issues. The stem had rotated 15 degrees to starboard, the keel was hogged anywhere from six to nine inches, the bow was down six to nine inches, and the stern had rotated to starboard four degrees and down three inches. “Through the years, there had been many different repairs done and they were really done in a very insufficient way,” Moores explained. “So the boat got weaker and weaker as time went on.”

The first goal was to reform the hull to its original shape. To do this Moores’ team had to cut through many structural members in the hull and remove all her keel bolts because the past repairs had locked her into her current shape.

“We went into the engine room and cut holes in the boat and replaced the sections of ribs where the scan had shown us that the hull was true to the original,” Moores explains. “Once we got those done in places…we would strip sections of hull off,” a process Moores like to refer to as “backwards boatbuilding,” because in doing it the team would batten out the section of hull and then laminate more ribs to fit in the section.

As the hull was trued, Honey Fitz’s four 300-hp Detroit Diesel 6-71s were rebuilt. This interesting setup—four diesels turning two screws with two engines per side mounted back-to-back—had replaced twin 500-hp Winton diesels during a repower in the war years.

The boat also received a new sanitation system, bilge pipework, and a fire-suppression system, plus new handrails and exterior planking on the main deck. Her foredeck and foredeck beams were replaced, and her shaft logs were rebuilt. Although much of the vessel’s structure was replaced, her interior and galley remain very much the same as when Kennedy used her for meetings and getaways.

“It was a fantastic project,” Moores says. “One of the heights of my career. To work on a presidential yacht is really a pinnacle.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.