When a couple builds three custom yachts, ranging from 65 feet to 81 feet, with one builder over a period of 15 years, it's worthy of note. When that same couple, 30 years later and in their mid-90s, comes back to build a 127-footer, it's a milestone for the owners and builder alike.
It would be difficult to write the story of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Walgreen Jr. (of Walgreens pharmacy fame) and the Burger Boat Company without injecting a bit of history, especially since my first glimpse of the Walgreens' latest yacht, Sis W, was from the foredeck of the USS Wisconsin, now out of commission and docked in Norfolk, Virginia. As I chatted with the battleship's volunteer crew of old salts, they asked if I'd seen the beautiful yacht tied up on the other side of the channel. She was the newly delivered Burger, Sis W, and she had definitely caught the interest of these sailors, including one U.S. Navy vet who had served aboard the USS Wisconsin during World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
When the Walgreens built their first Sis W, a 65-foot steel cruiser, in 1956, World War II had been over for a mere 11 years and the Korean War had only recently ended with a fragile truce. The second Sis W, a 72-foot aluminum cruiser, was completed in 1961 to the plans of the late Jack Hargrave. The third Sis W, an 81-foot aluminum flush-deck houseboat, was delivered in 1971.
Fast-forwarding three decades to the new millennium and still looking ahead, the Walgreens decided they wanted to get back on the water and would need a new yacht to do so. They enlisted the help of Jim Bean, who had captained the last Sis W. Bean and the Walgreens worked with the Burger design team to develop a trideck yacht that would be fully accessible by wheelchair. Also assisting in the planning were the Walgreens' grandson, Casey Pratt, who served as project manager, and their granddaughter, Joanne Walgreen, owner of Belden Interiors, who worked with Burger's Douglas Richey on the yacht's traditional interior of raised-panel fiddleback makore.
Sis W was launched in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, last summer with more than 1,500 guests in attendance. Leslie Ann Pratt, Mr. Walgreen's daughter, christened her.
Burger's president, David Ross, referred to the ceremony as "definitely one of the biggest highlights in my career" at the helm of Burger Boat Company. The yacht is the biggest in Burger's 140-year history, surpassing the 125-foot Arara II, launched in 1977.
Sis W is also the first Burger designed from inception with total accessibility for owners with physical impairments. The special features begin as you board her from the stern. From low docks, a scissors lift is available for movement from the swim platform to the afterdeck. In other situations, an extra-wide telescoping passerelle, with auto-leveling capability, is available.
Inside, the yacht has an elevator that spans three decks, opening into the foyer on the main deck, the skylounge on the bridge deck, and topping out at the open sun deck. Interior passageways have a few extra inches of width, and a nurse's cabin is between the galley and the Walgreens' stateroom, which is forward on the main deck. The tender crane, aft on the bridge deck, has an articulating knuckle boom that can be used for lifting wheelchairs, and the tender itself is designed for loading and carrying wheelchairs.
The sun deck has a hot tub that is round and unusually deep, as it is intended not only for relaxation but for therapy.
One of the cleverest design features is the powder room, adjacent to the skylounge. Pocket doors provide privacy in normal use, but the enclosed space can be nearly doubled for wheelchair access by opening the pockets and closing the passageway doors leading to the pilothouse, skylounge and stairway. This is design at its best, providing for special needs without interfering with usage by others.
Besides addressing the accessibility issues, the Walgreens made Sis W their own in other ways. Mr. Walgreen brought aboard a vintage barograph, or charting barometer, which has moved with him from boat to boat throughout his last seven yachts. Prior to the advent of modern electronics, it allowed him to chart changes in atmospheric pressure. He claims it still has an excellent record in weather prediction.
There's also the ship's wheel mounted on the bulkhead outside the pilothouse. It was a gift from Walgreen's employees on the day he semi-retired in March 1971 to go cruising on his third Burger. Little did anyone imagine the Walgreens would eventually log more than 200,000 miles on that boat, and 32 years hence, start again with another.
In addition to the hot tub and bar, Sis W's sun deck carries a bit of firepower. The searchlight is a formidable weapon against the night, its Xenon bulb delivering 2.5 million candlepower. There's also a 12-gauge cannon, used for salutes on special occasions. Mr. Walgreen fired it during the launching ceremony, in honor of the attendees.
In many ways, Sis W is similar to yachts of her size and configuration. She carries four guest staterooms belowdecks: two with queen berths and two with twins. Each one opens onto a central foyer. Crew's quarters are forward, and the engineroom is aft. The owners' stateroom is forward on the main deck, a commercial-grade galley is to port, and a combined dining area and saloon are aft. There's a skylounge and pilothouse on the bridge deck, and the captain's cabin, as Bean says, is "where it belongs: between the two.
It's a statement that could apply to the yacht in general. Everything, it seems, is where it belongs, in a proven arrangement that is popular with knowledgeable yachtsmen. Sure, there are special touches, such as built-in accessibility, and even a piano and a fireplace in the saloon. Credit must also be given to Burger Boat Company, a fine builder that, from the 19th century to the 21st, has not lost its focus on quality and service.
In the end, it is the unquenchable enthusiasm for yachting that is embodied in the Walgreens that makes Sis W special. They are an amazing couple who are where they belong: enjoying the sea in the company of family and good friends.