Exclusive yacht club reunion

Trumpies: Owners and admirers of pleasure craft built at the Eastport boatyard meet this weekend.

June 19, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

The Chrysler family owned one. The DuPonts owned several. And a storied 1925 pleasure yacht named the USS Sequoia served eight U.S. presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter.

Legendary for their elegant designs and excellent craftsmanship sealed with an ornate gold insignia on their bows, the mahogany yachts custom-built in Eastport's Trumpy boatyard have long represented a bygone era of perfection, wealth and living the high life. They were the venues of lavish summer parties with free-flowing champagne and caviar. Marilyn Monroe even took a spin on the Sequoia at John F. Kennedy's invitation, so the story goes.

The boatyard closed in 1973, and the current generation of owners of the estimated 75 remaining Trumpies aren't as fabulously rich or famous. But they are devoted.

This weekend in Annapolis, about 100 Trumpy owners, friends and fans are gathering to share ownership experiences, show off their exotic yachts and commemorate the 26th anniversary of the boatyard's closing by forming a first-ever club.

They hope this elite group will be a repository for Trumpy history and a support-system for owners of the boats, which are dwindling by the year as more and more fall to disrepair and neglect. A Trumpy costs $30,000 to $50,000 to maintain every year, and some owners confess to spending as much as $100,000 to $150,000.

"It's like an endangered species," said John Coale, a Washington attorney who sailed in on an 80-foot Trumpy he bought last year with his wife, CNN legal analyst Greta Van Susteran. "Hopefully, we can get the organization together to rescue some of the old Trumpies."

The reunion has generated enough excitement that one owner has commissioned an Easton film production company to document the whole weekend. The mere presence of a Trumpy seems to cause a stir.

"Everyone always tries to get close to the boat," said Misty Vesper, who, with her husband, Carl, is living on their 61-foot Trumpy houseboat in Baltimore. "So you always have to make sure that you're dressed."

The Vespers have owned the Seaholm since 1988 but just moved into it because Carl Vesper is about to retire as director of worldwide communications at the U.S. Information Agency.

The luxury yachts were products of a boatyard John Trumpy Sr. opened in New Jersey in 1908 and moved to Eastport in 1948.

Trumpy was a third-generation boat builder who grew up in Norway, where his grandfather and father built wooden clipper ships. He moved to the United States at the turn of the century when steamships were gradually usurping the popularity of sailing ships, said Donald Trumpy, his grandson, who lives south of Annapolis and owns a company that builds marine parts for the Department of Defense.

Donald Trumpy, 58, said his grandfather hoped there would be a market among America's elite for his boat-building skills. John Trumpy & Sons flourished for decades, with big-name, wealthy people flocking to commission 448 yachts -- 200 of which were built in Eastport. Most of them cost about $400,000 back then; to build a similar boat today would cost $1 million to $2 million.

The Eastport business shut when when it became increasingly hard to find skilled workers to create the magnificent craft. Earlier this year, the boatyard site was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

This weekend's reunion stemmed from an idea that struck Eastport historian Mike Miron during last summer's Whitbread race. As he marveled at the nine Trumpy yachts that sailed into town for the event, Miron wondered how many were left and set about trying to track them down.

This proved difficult because many Trumpy yachts had been destroyed over the years when owners either lost interest or lacked funds to sand, refinish and repaint their wooden treasures every year.

"Wooden boats are very, very expensive to maintain," said Miron, who developed a list of Trumpy owners with the help of a maritime historian in Palm Beach, Fla.

In January, Miron sent letters to owners, floating the idea of a Trumpy reunion. The response was immediate and overwhelming, with 100 people signing up from all over the country and 13 Trumpy yachts sailing into Annapolis for the weekend.

Positioned on a welcoming boat, Miron -- who has researched the boatyard for three years -- identified the Trumpy yachts by name as they sailed in yesterday afternoon, but was otherwise overwhelmed and incoherent.

"The woodwork the way the boat looks in the water, it just glistens its line," he mumbled as he looked out at Claudette, a 58-foot cruiser built in 1970. "It's like the difference between looking at a Mercedes and a Ford. It just catches your eye."

After Trumpy owners slowly settled into their mooring positions at the Annapolis City Dock, they began strolling up and down the boardwalk, peering into boats, picking up ideas on renovations and additions and sometimes introducing themselves to their yachting soul mates.

Standing on the sidewalk and gazing long and lovingly at Sirius, the last boat built before the Eastport boatyard shut, Trumpy owner Ed Zausch looked like a smitten groom on his wedding day.

"It's just as good as looking at the Mona Lisa," said Zausch, a construction company owner who has a 57-foot 1962 cruiser named Emma that's in the shop. Zausch and his wife, Jane, flew in from Evansville, Ind., for the reunion.

They were so excited about the weekend that they armed themselves with a camera and began staking out the City Dock at 10 a.m. yesterday, even though the boats weren't due in until noon. But the highlight of the weekend, Ed Zausch said, will be visiting the old boatyard.

"It's almost like a mecca for us," he said. "That's hallowed ground."

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