For Elizabeth Meyer, restoring classic yachts "is instinctively a good thing to do".

October 4, 2007

First there was 130-foot Endeavour and then 124-foot Shamrock V, and then there was Elizabeth E. Meyer, whose fame as a restorer of these J-Class boats blossomed in the mid 1980s. But Elizabeth (never call her Liz) is a far more explosive individual than even her electric personality would lead you to believe. A straight-talking lady, who with her straw blond hair looks more like Jean Harlow than Goldilocks, Meyer has experienced the wrath of politicians in high places. Her riveting blue eyes are always aimed directly at you as she talks, and talks, and talks. Yet never would you realize that her mortality itself was a driving force.

Though managing the Phoenix-style resurrection of classic yachts from 50 to 133 feet is her present shtick, Meyer’s foundation sits squarely within the tenets of a quiet Quaker religion and the memory of a mother who practiced “germ warfare” on her daughter. However, I get ahead of the story.

Born in Baltimore in 1953 to two medical doctors (one a Johns Hopkins professor/psychiatrist, the other an epidemiologist), Meyer attended a Quaker Friends Academy, an exclusive prep school and eventually progressive Bennington College in Vermont where she majored in English. Later she lived on a Concordia and worked at several Hood lofts building sails. She also volunteered at a zoo (“As a child our home was crammed full of animals”) and ran a restaurant.


But nothing remains the same with Meyer. So it was in 1977 that she ended up on Martha’s Vineyard opening a business where she would design and then manage the building of houses. Who knew? And it was during this time she developed a fantasy. “I would go into the yachting business as a project manager,” she says. Since childhood Meyer has always had a very active imagination. In 1983 she sold her share in the building business and began writing for Nautical Quarterly.

“At that time I read an article about how someone had carved a wooden leg for Tristan Jones,” she reports, “and I thought ‘How stupid!’ I was also very critical of writing in general in the yachting industry, and of course I thought I was better. So I published a parody of Yachting.” Yaachting (no relation) is still available today.

Parody is a way Meyer highlights her view of the absurd. She embraced the tactic during summer camp where she managed the campus newsletter. Parody is also the aim of “The Admiral’s Rules,” followed during the last five annual Classic Yacht Regattas that she organized and held in Northeastern waters. Here the rules of the New York Yacht Club’s annual cruise are shredded. Elizabeth Meyer’s Rules include: “No [racing] protests allowed. Trophy awards are arbitrary. All bribes are happily accepted. If you get to the front of the fleet you must turn back…”


Though all boats are appealing to Meyer, it’s the grand J-Boats that demand her attention. This comes from her mother, Mary Adelaide Bradley Meyer, the epidemiologist, a very successful Star and Lightning sailor who adored the J-class yachts. “It was like germ warfare,” says Elizabeth. “She would say, ‘I know you love to sail and it’s really too bad you’ll never, never see the Js as I did in Marblehead.’ She was sort of torturing me, while at the same time telling me bedtime stories about them.”

When Meyer grew up she thought all the Js were gone. But then she went to see Swept Away, an avant-garde film about personal relationships on an island and aboard a sailing yacht. In the middle of the movie she realized that the featured sailboat was in fact Shamrock. “I simply stood up in the theater and shouted ‘That’s a J-Boat, a J-Boat!’ “

It was when freelancing for Nautical Quarterly that she tackled an assignment on a number of classic yachts that were still alive, either preserved in mud berths in England or sailing the Mediterranean. Enter Shamrock V and Endeavour-the 1930 and 1934 America’s Cup challengers from England.


“I saw Shamrock in Monaco and immediately wanted to chainsaw her add-on houses,” says Meyer, who eventually did exactly that in 1986. “My favorite thing is to chainsaw things off that should not have been put on in the first place. When I saw Endeavour, I was overtaken by an irresistible urge,” she says. “I’m going to buy this and restore it.” She did.

This urge to not build new but to restore is deep in Meyer’s psyche. “I believe restoration is instinctively a good thing to do,” she says. “When people see an animal, a person, a house, a boat, something in them says, ‘Let’s fix that.’ I believe it has to do with empathy and morality. If you see something that’s hurt, you want to take care of it. I think restoration is a natural instinct in good people.”

Meyer’s appreciation for Js and buildings and bridges and monuments lies deep in her appreciation and respect for industrial art-not plain art, which she believes is the “great expression of the human spirit that doesn’t fill a function except to be inspirational and beautiful.” No, to Meyer industrial art is where people have exercised real genius in dealing with quite difficult engineering questions, beautifully. “Like the Eiffel Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Pyramids, the Statue of Liberty-these are masterpieces of human endeavor that don’t hurt anything.” To her, J-boats fall into this category.


People hurting people really depresses Meyer. Her grandfather was Eugene Meyer Jr., investment banker and the first president of the World Bank. From 1933 to 1946 he was also owner of the Washington Post publishing company. Elizabeth’s grandmother was Agnes Ernst Meyer, social activist and journalist. Elizabeth’s aunt (sister of her father, Eugene Meyer III) was Katharine Meyer Graham, eventual owner and publisher of the Washington Post newspaper during the Watergate years.

“My Aunt Kay, of course, was on Nixon’s enemies list,” she says, “as was my sister for giving so much money in support of the McGovern and Muskie presidential campaigns. Every single member of my family was audited by the IRS every single year Nixon was in the White House.”

As then, Meyer believes this country is going to hell in a handbasket. “For a time,” she says, “the United States realized that its own power and wealth could actually be used for world good.” She cites the Marshall Plan as an example. “But now I am actually bowed with grief about our country. There’s the utter selfishness of everyone in power. There’s nothing in the people now who control the United States who have the slightest bit of morality or statesmanship about them.”

No one ever says Elizabeth Ernst Meyer doesn’t have strong feelings and passions. In fact she was among the 50,000 protesters who marched on the Pentagon in the late sixties in opposition to the Vietnam War. “I was terrified when everyone rushed the fence,” she reports, “but I’ll always remember that day.”

Rushing fences led to her present role as the conscience of Newport, R.I. Several times she’s challenged local authorities in lawsuits to stop what she feels are illegal efforts to further develop the waterfront. Public access and conservation are on her mind. She’s received awards for her efforts.

This strong belief in public service, charity and good works are all remnants of her mother’s influence. When she sold Endeavour, she donated $500,000 to a number of preservation and restoration projects in Newport.

She’s also not as wealthy as people believe. She has said that when she had to sell Endeavour because of the financial drain, the $15 million sale price was 95 percent of her worth. When asked how a restoration cost is determined, Meyer says she just knows when she sees the yacht. “It could be $10 million, even $35 million. Each is different. I had one prospect who would have had to spend from $35 million to $90 million to restore a 230-foot motoryacht.”

But by now it should be obvious that wealth is not what Meyer is all about. When Shamrock appeared on the doorstep of the Museum of Yachting in Newport, Meyer’s strong opinions about its preservation eventually got her kicked off the museum’s board. She subsequently started the International Yacht Restoration School (IYRS), which acquired Shamrock when the museum went bankrupt.

To promote the restoration aspect of her business, J-Class Management, Meyer started the J-Boat regattas, in which both Endeavour and Shamrock would race near Baltimore, New York, Newport, Boston and Marblehead. “It took forty-five people per yacht to race them,” she says. “We needed experienced hands, so we got Ted Turner, Buddy Melges, Tom Whidden and Gary Jobson to skipper, and they did it for nothing.” Both yachts have since been sold. Endeavour still charters out for about $65,000 a week or $15,000 a day.

IYRS today is a school where 400 students learn the ways of yacht building and restoration. After 80 such jobs, Meyer tackled her largest project-the complete $23 million restoration of Coronet-the last of the Gilded Age yachts still in existence. For all these efforts in preserving both boats and buildings, Elizabeth Meyer has received the President’s Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Right next door to the IYRS is the shop of Michael McCaffrey. Mike, who is Meyer’s husband of 15 years, is working on the rebuilding of Bystander-a 42-foot powerboat built in 1929 and owned by Harold “Mike” Vanderbilt. Bystander served as a tender in six America’s Cup campaigns.

“Mikey,” as Meyer calls him, “loves animals and we have a peaceful, loving and supportive relationship, for now.” Like her mother and father, McCaffrey, who is eight years younger than Meyer, is an “eccentric. He can do anything and do it well,” she boasts.

But support for Meyer is a very essential issue. For almost 40 years a benign brain tumor has attached itself to the pituitary gland in her brain. There have been three operations; the one in June 2004 hopefully will be the last. But as mother Mary Meyer once said: “Life is short so get out there and do it.”

Hence, Meyer’s drive: “My usefulness is having a very easy ability to see something and know it will be great.” This was the case with Harbour Court, the New York Yacht Club’s Newport station. Meyer was instrumental in getting the club to purchase the estate of former Commodore Edward Brown. It has revitalized the NYYC by allowing it to become a proper yacht club with matches, trophies and international sailing competitions.

As for the future, she may build a rescue and rehab center for wild cats like ocelots and margays. She may go fossil hunting with McCaffrey (she has a life-size model of an allosaurus head mounted on her bedroom wall). And though she has resigned from IYRS (“I’m burnt out”), her J-Class Management company is going strong. She and Vice President Marcia Johnstone Whitney (yes, the Johnstone family of J/Boats sailboat and MJM powerboat companies) have a full plate finding, restoring, chartering, managing, and brokering classic yachts for clients who have an appreciation for their graceful lines.

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