The Honey Fitz is Back in Business – By Carlos Frias Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
By Carlos Frias
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The way she bobs low and sleek between towering two- and three-deck fiberglass yachts at her West Palm Beach marina home, her wooden transom lettered in gold, the Honey Fitz almost looks quaint.
That is, until you see the presidential seal gracing her smokestack.
The presidential yacht John F. Kennedy made famous, a symbol of Camelot that cruised the Intracoastal Waterway near the family’s winter retreat in Palm Beach County, has returned to the seas.
After a two-year renovation here, the Honey Fitz, which started life as a luxury liner and went on to serve five sitting U.S. Presidents, is resurrected as a charter vessel that will spend the next year raising money for charities along the east coast, from West Palm Beach to Nantucket, Mass.
The 93-foot wooden ship, built in 1931 for Montgomery Ward tycoon Sewell Avery, lived through many iterations, from luxury cruiser to commandeered World War II mine sweeper. But it was restored to its most famous era, when it was the pleasure vessel for President Kennedy and his family.
Its current owner, Texas oil executive William Kallop, bought the Honey Fitz at Sotheby’s famed Camelot auction in 1998 for $5.9 million. His grandfather Anthony McKinley Kallop was a classmate of Kennedy’s during the future president’s brief stint at Princeton as a freshman.
Like all things attached to Kennedy, the ship — which the president named after his paternal grandfather, Boston Mayor John Francis Fitzgerald, whom everyone just called Honey Fitz — is a magnet for historians and fans of the era.
“One of (Kallop’s) main objectives is preserving history and this is a national treasure,” said crew member Francis Pavlov, the Honey Fitz’s director of charter sales as well as its executive chef. “Part of this goodwill tour is so that everyone can see it and everyone can enjoy it.”
The Honey Fitz will set sail for its 14-city charity tour up the coast, stopping for stretches of five days to two weeks, to serve as a fundraising tool for charities from wounded veterans in Charleston, S.C., to autism research. The other times, it’s available for charter for $5,000 for four hours.
When she arrived in West Palm Beach for restoration, the Honey Fitz was a far cry from Camelot. Piecemeal restorations had left the wooden vessel with a hull that was twisted 15 degrees off center and was starting to show the strain of a wooden ship that has sailed the Atlantic for more than 70 years.
The renovation started at Moores Marina, which specializes in vintage American powerboats, to straighten her hull and painstakingly re-plank her wooden sides by hand.
From there, she was handed off to her current crew, with Capt. Mark Glasser, First Mate Paul Ocepek and their staff finishing the restoration. The big question was whether to leave the aft section open to the elements, as the Kennedys had used her. Instead, they chose to leave the area enclosed, the way President Nixon had ordered done, to make for a more comfortable charter vessel and to protect the many pieces of presidential memorabilia from the elements.
Inside is the glistening mahogany bar the presidents used and pictures of the Kennedys aboard their beloved ship. In one corner, lovingly restored over 15 hours by Glasser himself, is the small curved desk Kennedy used aboard.
Nearby, there’s a framed copy of Princeton’s “Freshman Herald” yearbook, which shows Kennedy and Kallop’s grandfather as part of its class of 1939. But an illness would force Kennedy to withdraw by midyear.
On another wall are pictures of Eisenhower and his family, who had named this ship the Barbara Anne, and the framed Burgee flag Eisenhower flew on her bow.
“President Kennedy used the boat more than any of the other presidents,” Ocepek said.
The romantic spirit of the yacht remains. She was a dedicated party ship, a day-tripper — since there is only one stateroom onboard. It has a huge galley easily 150 square feet to cook for the 70-people who could enjoy the views from deck, a wide expanse that makes up two thirds of the ship’s topside.
“It’s a regular dance hall up here,” Glasser says from the royal blue-carpeted deck overlooking the Rybovich marina, where she’s docked.
Everywhere she goes, she draws a crowd with her glistening white hull and sporty red stripe just above the blue bottom.
A month after receiving her U.S. Coast Guard certificate of inspection in October, meaning she could carry paying passengers, the Honey Fitz was named the Spectator’s Choice at the exclusive annual Ocean Reef Club’s Vintage Weekend in Key Largo, where some of the rarest automobiles, airplanes and boats are displayed.
More than 540 visitors viewed the Honey Fitz that day.
“There was a line down the dock the entire day,” Ocepek said. “She gets a lot of attention.”
This crew figures that’s just the beginning for this historic ship’s return to public life.