William Vanderbilt Circles the Globe, 1928-29

William K. Vanderbilt II, an expert yachtsman, naval officer and marine naturalist, first circumnavigated the globe in 1928-29. Eighty-nine years ago – on October 28, 1928 – he and his wife, Rosamond, a few friends, and a crew of 40 boarded the Vanderbilt yacht Ara, moored in Northport Bay, just off the Eagle’s Nest estate grounds.

Above: Rosamond (atop camel at left) and William Vanderbilt at the Pyramid of Cheops in Giza, Egypt, 1929. To the right is The Great Sphinx.
Vanderbilt Museum Archive photos

The crew weighed anchor and, with Mr. Vanderbilt at the helm, pointed the 213-foot ship westward toward New York City, then headed for the Atlantic. The Ara cruised southward along the eastern seaboard, passed through the Caribbean and the Panama Canal, and steamed across the Pacific. The voyagers made numerous ports of call in the South Pacific, Asia, the Middle East, through the Red Sea to Mediterranean destinations, through the Strait of Gibraltar, and back home. By the time they arrived back in Miami six months later, they had traveled 28,738 miles.

During the journey, Mr. Vanderbilt collected marine and natural-history specimens for his Hall of Fishes museum in Centerport. Artist William Belanske, hired away from the American Museum of Natural History, traveled with the Vanderbilts. He made detailed paintings of many of the fish collected for the museum.

By late 1929, Mr. Vanderbilt, using his ship logs and photographs, produced and privately printed a 264-page book about the journey, Taking One’s Own Ship Around the World. Nineteen full-color plates of Belanske’s work are included.

Chapter one of his book begins:

“For years I had waited and toiled for the moment when, as captain of my own ship, I would be able to undertake a voyage rarely accomplished – the circumnavigation of the globe. Even as a youngster, I had a leaning toward the sea, and lost no opportunity to pass my hours of leisure near the water. As time went on, I gained experience and a certain amount of knowledge in the handling of small boats.”

The Ara

Vanderbilt became an expert sailor and owned a series of increasingly larger boats. Just before the United States entered World War I, he enlisted in the U.S, Naval Reserve and was commissioned a lieutenant, junior grade. After America entered the war, he began sea duty in command of the torpedo boat SP-124, originally his own 152-foot steam turbine-powered yacht, Tarantula 1:

“Strangely, in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the army rejected me, a freshman then at Harvard, because of a weak heart. Apparently, at thirty-nine, I had staged a comeback.”

In February 1918, Vanderbilt passed an exam and obtained his Master’s certificate. Later, advanced endorsements made his certificate “good for all oceans and unlimited tonnage.” In 1928, he purchased the motor yacht Ara, a refitted French warship built originally for the British Navy.

From an article in The New York Sun in 1929:

“Paris, April 12 – William K. Vanderbilt and Mrs. Vanderbilt are pausing here on one of the most interesting around-the-world cruises ever undertaken. Other yachtsmen have circled the globe in their own ships, but Mr. Vanderbilt is no mere passenger – he is the master of his 213-foot motor yacht Ara and employs no captain.  He attends to all matters of navigation himself and takes all responsibility himself for the safety of his ship and complement of over forty persons.

“Mr. Vanderbilt has three watch officers to help work the ship, but in stormy weather it he is who remains on the bridge, and who performs the other fatiguing duties that go with command of a vessel.

“However, this is no novelty for him. For fifteen years, he has been a licensed master, qualified to sail any ocean, and he holds the rank of lieutenant-commander in the United States Naval Reserve. The Ara carries several guns, but her owner made it clear today these were used solely for saluting. He strongly believes in the efficacy of a friendly approach.”

Photos of Mr. Vanderbilt’s adventures can be viewed in the Ship Model Room at the Vanderbilt Museum. The images include him as a child with his parents and grandparents on a ship on the Nile; him at various ages with his cars and large marine specimens; and with the crew of the Alva, the ship in which he made his second circumnavigation of the earth, 1931-1932.

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