“She was so dilapidated, but the moment I saw her, I felt this amazing positive energy to her,” says Dr. Bob Salk of his 46-foot 1926 wooden sportfisherman, Ida May. Now on San Francisco Bay, Ida May isn’t just any battlewagon: she set the stage for future sportfishing boats when she was designed and built in Los Angeles Harbor by Hugh Angelman, better known for his world-ranging ketches.
Considered to be the most expensive ($120,000!) yacht of her time, she was built for avid angler Willard Van Brunt, cofounder of John Deere. With a tripleplanked mahogany hull and a beam of just over 11 feet, she was also the fastest yacht in the area. Named for Van Brunt’s wife, Ida May was regularly anchored off the famous Tuna Club on Catalina Island, and she fished the local waters with an array of celebrities. Ernest Hemingway and western writer Zane Grey landed swordfish from the Ida May, and President Herbert Hoover said he was “well-satisfied,” even though he didn’t land a fish.
But the Ida May was just beginning her celebrity career. Sold in 1935 to Stan Laurel of the Laurel and Hardy comedy team and renamed for Laurel’s wife as the Ruth-L, she was as much a part of the Hollywood scene as the Academy Awards. Regulars aboard included Charlie Chaplin, Joseph Kennedy, Cecil B. DeMille, W.C. Fields, Bing Crosby, Gloria Swanson, Babe Ruth, Liberace and, of course, Oliver Hardy.
Laurel sold her three years later to Jonah Jones, who was Howard Hughes’s attorney and founder of Long Beach Yacht Club. Again, the guest list was distinguished, ranging from crooner Rudy Vallee to the Prince of Kuwait to, of course, Hughes, who shot at seagulls with his pistol. Even World War II, when the now-named Nada III was used by the Coast Guard to patrol the Catalina Channel, brought celebrities aboard—she was crewed by the likes of Donald Douglas (Douglas Aircraft) and heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey, then a Coast Guard commander.
When Salk saw Ida May, she had been partially restored by Paul Arnold, an actor who Salk credits with saving the yacht. “I called my best friend for advice,” recalls Salk, “because my wife would never approve of buying the boat.” The advice was obviously “Buy it!” and, even though Salk was just out of residency and not really looking for such a project, “I just couldn’t let her go. Others have to appreciate this yacht…it’s a piece of American history.”
Since that time, Salk and his good-advice friend, Steve Wynn, have invested thousands of hours in restoring the yacht. “I don’t think there’s one inch that we haven’t sanded,” Salk groans. He negotiated with the John Deere company for engines, but just discovered they are too large for the space available. So the Ida May is an immovable weekend getaway until the engine issue is resolved.
Like other owners of classic yachts, Salk has been contacted by previous owners, including the family of Jonah Jones, who gave him the priceless gift of the original log books, as well as several original fishing rods. A collector discovered Laurel’s brass yacht clock at a yard sale and presented it to Salk, and the great grandson of Laurel’s captain contacted him to visit the yacht.
Ida May’s ornate interior is the original varnished teak, with beveled-glass windows and cut-glass lights. The built-in bookshelves hold an early edition of Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea, and the cockpit still has the original teak and brass fighting chairs, bait well, and tackle boxes.
Just sitting on the leather settees makes you imagine twilight at anchor off Catalina, with Hemingway telling tales and slugging down daiquiris, or Charlie Chaplin laughing about a Hollywood episode while Stan Laurel leans over the side in the cockpit to rinse off the dinner dishes (a frequent occurrence). Today, the Ida May remains as a place and a moment frozen in time.
Four wonderful yachts and four sets of...whatever you wish to call them—owners, caretakers, or curators. It isn’t always easy being responsible for a classic yacht, but it is clearly worth the effort. Have you got enough heart and soul to care for a classic?