Chef Chris Millburg glowed with intensity as he explained, with earnest precision, that the secret "zing" in his crabcakes was a unique blend of roasted red peppers, artichokes, relish and hot pepper sauce, all capped with a sizable dollop of sour cream.
He leaned slowly across the table. His gaze settled in the recesses of my eyes. His fingers extended, then collapsed toward his palms like those of a young boy preparing the ultimate snowball.
"But it's the massaging of the crabmeat that makes it special," he whispered, faintly arching his eyebrows for dramatic effect.
"You should see when I cook," first mate/engineer Jamie Stark interjected with a chuckle. "It's the motor oil that makes it special."
Ah, personality. If there's one thing the 87-foot Palmer Johnson Aria has, it's personality, from the crew to the yacht herself. Built in 1975, Aria began life as the largest sailing yacht in the Great Lakes. She remained there for a quarter-century until her original owner, who owned a packaging company in Green Bay, died. He decreed in his will that the yacht was never to leave the Great Lakes-no salt water would have the chance to eat at her hull-so she was sold to an owner who kept her in the Midwest, but for just one year. In early 2001, her current owner bought her and brought her to Newport, Rhode Island, for a refit that included a new engine and generator, new overhead and mattresses, electrical and wood work, and other interior improvements. She left the yard in November 2001 and went into her first charter season last summer, in New England.
"We did what it took to earn the loyalty of the brokers," Capt. Virginia Wagner said.
Wagner is a well-known captain who earned her reputation running sailing yachts twice Aria's size, but knew she had to prove her new old girl was reliable. She and her crew of three picked up last-minute bookings when other boats fell through. They made a notable impression when they nabbed a charter after a powerboat broke down-in just 24 hours, they sailed Aria 250 miles, provisioned her for two weeks of cruising and welcomed the six relieved guests aboard.
"It takes what it takes," the captain said. "I do heads and beds and scrub decks, too."
My one night aboard, courtesy of Aria's owner, gave me the impression that this yacht and crew are everything her captain promises. For starters, the yacht is in very good condition. I have chartered aboard boats half Aria's age that are three times as raggedy around the edges. She is no downtrodden geriatric; she's like an elegant great aunt sailing into the best years of her life.
Her interior has a classic feel, with rope details lining the upholstery and woodwork. The palette chosen for her décor includes blues and golds, with traditional accents surrounding even the modern entertainment area. I was quite comfortable in her air-conditioned master aft, which has a full tub and shower along with a television and DVD player. Four other guests can be accommodated in the two twin cabins forward of the saloon, each with a head/shower compartment.
Wagner is a strong personality who demanded perfection while I was aboard, leadership that is important when crew members are relatively new to the charter business. Millburg, for example, is a former actor (look for his three lines in the movie School Ties) who learned to cook at the French restaurant above Boston's famed Bull & Finch bar, where he parked cars.
"I wanted to get in from out of the cold," he said about taking his first job in the restaurant, as a dishwasher. "And I got free food."
He worked his way up to sous-chef and later found work as a crew cook aboard a 140-foot sailboat. He prepared excitedly for his first big excursion at sea-a trip to meet Wagner and Stark, who were to become the boat's captain and engineer. The cruise ended abruptly when, at 10 knots and under full sail, the yacht went aground. The impact was so staggering, Millburg said, that a 70-year-old guest slid off a settee and hung in the air like Wile E. Coyote before crashing onto the sole.
Instead of following the boat to the yard, Wagner and Stark joined Aria's new owner and brought Millburg with them. Wagner knew she could teach him the charter business, and that she would have to help him with little more.
"He's a lot of things you wish a lot of people were," she said. "You can't teach people how to be human beings. He's one of the best shipmates I've had in all my years on boats."
Millburg's newness, along with the relative inexperience of stewardess Naomi McNally, came through in a few small ways while I was aboard, but the very minor glitches did not detract from my dining experience. The appetizer of roasted red pepper and Wisconsin cheddar mini-pizzas was delicious, as was the main course of basil-and-cilantro-encrusted grouper.
The most important element of the Aria experience was that every crew member was happy and eager to make my stay perfect. I suspect that with just a bit more seasoning, their actions will more than match their intent, along with Wagner's expectations. People's skills can be taught, but it's their personalities that make them truly special in the long run.
The same is true of yachts, and Aria's essence shines as brightly as her crew's.
"This is such an individual boat," McNally said. "It has such character. You know new boats; they look a lot alike. You've seen one builder's boat, you've seen them all. This is unique, and you feel at home. And this crew reflects that."