Vanderbilt’s Global Ocean Journey Began 85 Years Ago

Museum Observes Anniversary of Voyage Beginning July 7

This month, the Vanderbilt Museum marks the 85th anniversary of the epic voyage of the Alva – William K. Vanderbilt II’s custom-built, 264-foot yacht – during which he circumnavigated the earth. He favored lucky numbers and began the journey when he weighed anchor in Northport Bay on the seventh day of the seventh month: July 7, 1931.

This anniversary is a reminder that the marine, invertebrate and cultural treasures Mr. Vanderbilt brought back to Long Island from that expedition are on view all year in the Vanderbilt galleries.  Also on exhibit is a large scale model of the Alva, accompanied by photographs of the sumptuous staterooms.

Vanderbilt Museum archives Consuelo Vanderbilt, age 27, and her father, William K. Vanderbilt II, 53, aboard the Alva during their around-the-world cruise in 1931
Vanderbilt Museum archives
Consuelo Vanderbilt, age 27, and her father, William K. Vanderbilt II, 53, aboard the Alva during their around-the-world cruise in 1931

The anniversary also coincides with our expanded summer schedule – the Mansion, Museum and Planetarium are open Tuesday through Sunday 11:00 to 5:00 (and the Planetarium is also open Friday and Saturday nights, with shows at 8:00 and 9:00 – and a new laser light show at 10:00 on both nights: Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”).

The 1931 adventure began in March, nine years after his first circumnavigation of the planet in the smaller Ara, when Vanderbilt and his wife, Rosamund, traveled to the Krupp-Germaniawerft shipyard in Kiel, Germany, to take command of the new Alva, named for his mother.

“The trial runs have been successful,” he wrote in West Made East with the Loss of a Day, his privately published, 377-page account of the eight-month journey (28,145 miles) based on his journals and illustrated with 169 professional photographs.

“The ship has been transferred to American registry; the ensign floats on the breeze; the crew of forty-eight men is on board; bunkers are filled; stores and provisions lie in their shelves. Alva is ready to leave on her maiden voyage.”

On March 5, the Vanderbilts and their crew left Europe on the Alva, a preparatory trip for their longer sail around the planet. The first leg was to Miami and other stops in the United States, then home to Centerport, a journey of 8,628 miles. In his journal, Vanderbilt wrote, “She is ready to undertake a long voyage, in which West becomes East, with the loss of a day.”

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William Kissam Vanderbilt II (1878-1944), great-grandson of the nineteenth-century railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, was a naturalist, adventurer and global explorer. He indulged his passions for the sea, faraway cultures, marine life and the natural world by exploring the world on his ocean-going yachts.

Vanderbilt first sailed around the earth in 1928-1929 aboard his 213-foot diesel yacht Ara, a refitted French warship. (He eventually logged 135,991 miles as her captain.) His boundless curiosity took him to Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Galápagos Islands and the South Pacific, where he collected thousands of specimens of invertebrate and marine life and birds, as well as cultural artifacts.

In 1922, Vanderbilt built his own private marine museum at his waterfront Eagle’s Nest estate in Centerport and called it The Hall of Fishes. Later that year, he opened the hall to the public on Wednesday afternoons, with tours led by the artist and curator William Belanske, who accompanied Vanderbilt on his voyages. Vanderbilt’s marine museum – which by 1937 was open several days a week – remains one of the most extensive, privately assembled collections of sea life in the world, and the largest from the pre-atomic era.

As a boy and young man, Vanderbilt, known to his family and friends as Willie, grew up sailing the oceans on his father’s yachts. Those experiences and a young lifetime of piloting a succession of ever-larger boats prepared him to command the Ara and later the Alva.

Willie’s first major boat was a gift during his freshman year at Harvard in 1898. His family bought him the Carmita, a 70-foot sloop, which he sailed in New England waters. After selling it in 1900 he bought the 106-foot Virginia, and in 1902 the 152-foot Tarantula I, a former British Navy torpedo boat. Vanderbilt acquired the Tarantula II in 1913 and, as he wrote, “During the first seven months of the World War, I was performing sea duty in command of her.” After the war, he bought the schooner Genesee, the steam yacht Eagle and then the Ara.

In 1918, he earned a master’s certificate that gave him “the right to be master of yachts on all oceans and steamers of any tonnage” on the Atlantic coast, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific and the West Indies. In 1927, following his voyage on the Ara and years of advanced navigation study in New York, Vanderbilt earned additional endorsements on his certificate for “all oceans and unlimited tonnage.” He also held the rank of lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

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