Before Arthur Wirtz died in 1983, the owner of the Chicago Blackhawks and founder of the Wirtz Corporation made his final wishes clear to his family: Don’t sell Ivanhoe Farm, the family’s original land grant in Mundelein, Illinois, dating back to 1857. Don’t sell his wife’s 1961 Rolls-Royce. And don’t sell the boat.
The boat is Blackhawk, a 123-foot Feadship launched in 1971. It was Arthur’s pride and joy.
“He literally designed every inch of that boat, including the hull,” says William Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz, Arthur’s grandson and president of the Wirtz Corporation. Fifty years later, the family has gone to great lengths to keep Blackhawk in pristine condition and preserve it as Arthur concieved it, to provide a comfortable and consistent setting as five generations have made lasting memories on board.
Rocky was a teenager when his grandfather was building Blackhawk. “If you happened to be in his office around 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m., then you would stay there until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. because he would clear everything off his desk and take the plans out,” he recalls.
His grandfather was upgrading from a 94-foot sport-fisherman, and Arthur envisioned his Feadship as the ultimate luxury fishing yacht with a cockpit and flybridge, despite the fact that Feadship’s naval architects said it wasn’t possible. “They’d tell him what he couldn’t do, and he’d say, ‘No, I can do it,’” Rocky says.
It wasn’t Arthur but Rocky who had the privilege of taking Blackhawk’s maiden voyage. “I had just graduated from high school,” Rocky says, “and my parents brought all five of us kids over to Europe. We met the boat in Lisbon and sailed around the Mediterranean.”
Departing from Portugal, they visited Cannes, France, and Gibraltar, among other ports of call, before disembarking in Portofino, Italy, where Arthur and his wife, Virginia, arrived for their inaugural sailing. They cruised the Mediterranean before a captain handled the Atlantic crossing, via the Azores and Bermuda. Finally, Blackhawk arrived in South Florida, which has been the boat’s home port ever since.
It takes tremendous time, effort and expense to keep a 50-year-old yacht as close to original as possible. “With a newer boat, once you’re up and running, you’re mostly just provisioning for the next trip,” Capt. Richard Freeberg says. “But we are perpetually going from shipyard mode to guest mode.”
At Bradford Marine in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Freeberg and crew varnish the original teak interiors and fair one section of the hull at a time. When they replaced the cockpit electronics, they hid the new instrumentation behind the original control panel and restored the original woodwork and wheel. When they renovated the galley with a Lang range and two MiraCool refrigerators, the crew tracked down the same delft pattern of hand-painted backsplash kitchen tiles from Royal Tichelaar Makkum that had been installed 50 years earlier.
“It has to be in mint condition—or not at all,” Rocky says. “With all of the improvements we’ve done over the years, the boat is really in better shape now than the day it was launched.”
The living spaces remain largely as Arthur envisioned them. The Sherle Wagner sea-serpent fixtures he chose are still in the four stateroom heads. The floral works by French artist Michel-Henry he selected still adorn the stateroom walls.
“It’s like walking into my great-grandparents’ living room when you walk on the boat,” says Danny, Rocky’s son, the current CEO of the Chicago Blackhawks and part of the fourth generation on board. “There have been plenty of updates, but it still very much feels like their taste and aesthetic across the board.”
Over the years, many Wirtz family members and friends have flown to South Florida around Easter and Christmas to cruise there and in the Bahamas. Bill Wirtz, Rocky’s father, used to take charge of the itinerary, which often revolved around excursions in Power Play and Slap Shot, two 21-foot Boston Whaler Outrages built in 1971.
“We would end up on some wild adventure that could involve going through some major storm, getting lost, getting stranded or having the engine go out,” Danny says. “But that was the nature of my grandpa [Bill]; he was as stubborn as he was adventurous. We’d go find a hidden beach and explore a new area. We’d come back sandy, sun-drenched and salty.”
The evening’s entertainment was often predicated on whether the Blackhawks were playing.
“We would move hell and high water to catch the game,” Danny says. “In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was much harder to get satellite access to a hockey game at sea or in the Bahamas, so it was kind of this comical attempt to get the satellite to work. But when you got that game, we loved it. Everyone huddled around. If the game was during dinnertime, I would watch it and then run into the dining room to tell the adults if the score changed.”
Nowadays, Danny is among the adults in the Blackhawk dining room. For his 40th birthday in 2017, he brought his daughters, Juniper and Rosemary, for their first cruise. They were 6 and 7—about same age that Danny was when he first stepped on board.
“They were running all around, checking things out, claiming a room and having the best time with the crew,” he says. “It was great to see their exuberance.
“It’s a tremendous privilege to share this boat with them,” he adds. “It’s such a special thing that is so connected to my childhood. Now they get to experience it their own way.”