A 57-foot pre-war Elco cabin cruiser still going strong
At 75, the Elco cabin cruiser Serenity is old for a wooden yacht. But in the care of owners Jim and Nelda Blair, and with the help of Capt. Buck Beasley of Professional Yacht Management in Seabrook, she’s doing well today.
Looking for a larger boat than the Chris-Craft runabout they still enjoy on Clear Lake, the Blairs found Serenity advertised for sale in 1998. She was on Lake Michigan; her owners needed to sell her to help send their children to college.
The Blairs bought her and took her down the series of canals and rivers that connect Ohio with the Gulf Coast, with crews of eight or 10 friends at a time.
“We weren’t racing, and kept her around 9 knots on that trip,” Jim Blair said. “I don’t remember how long it took, but we used up maybe 38 cases of beer.”
Serenity’s heritage dates back to the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893, which highlighted many new developments in American art and industry. Among these were 21 elegant launches built by the new Electric Launch Co., or “Elco,” of Bayonne, N.J.
Sleek, finely crafted, comfortable and silent with newly developed electric motors, these boats offered rides to fairgoers on the large artificial lake built for the exhibition, and in the process made the pleasures of yachting available to ordinary visitors.
Yachting until then was exclusively an activity of aristocrats and the rich. Elco helped trigger an interest in yachting for the common man, and provided affordable watercraft for the next century. While still building electric-powered launches, the company introduced larger diesel-powered cabin cruisers with suitable accommodations for owners and more Spartan accommodations for the paid crew that was still assumed to be part of yachting.
Among the largest of these cabin cruisers was Serenity, one of only a few 57-foot cabin cruisers produced by Elco before World War II.
Launched in 1941, Serenity was requisitioned in April of the following year by the U.S. government’s War Shipping Administration for coastal patrol duties. For the duration of the war, the Elco yard turned to the production of fast Patrol Torpedo, or PT, boats for the U.S. Navy. By war’s end, the yard produced 399 PTs, using some of the production techniques Elco had perfected in building cabin cruisers such as Serenity, but in strong marine plywood.
PT boats were not successful in their intended role of attacking larger warships with deck-launched torpedoes. Fast as they were, the time it took to bring them near enough to accurately launch a torpedo left them vulnerable to defensive fire. Worse, American torpedoes in the early years of the war were unreliable. Many boats were lost. The title of the 1945 movie about PTs sums it up: “They Were Expendable.”
PTs did good service, though, in fast dispatch and transportation during the war. It was an Elco PT that evacuated Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his staff from the Philippines, when he famously vowed, “I shall return.”
Another, PT 109 commanded by Lt. j.g. John F. Kennedy, was rammed and sunk by an enemy destroyer. Several of his crew were lost, and Kennedy suffered a back injury which plagued him for the rest of his life. But the story of his heroic swim to a nearby island, towing a more seriously injured shipmate, became a significant part of his political charisma.
In 1945, the War Shipping Administration sold Serenity. She had 11 different owners and seven names, until bought by the Blairs.
Her twin 1951 Detroit Diesel 671 engines are still going strong, with regular maintenance. Her hull, planked in four-inch mahogany, required some rebuilding.
“We had to replace a lot of rotten ribs,” Jim Blair said. “We put in 4,000 or 5,000 stainless steel screws on that job.”
Today, Serenity cruises on Clear Lake and Galveston Bay, often on fundraising excursions organized by the Blairs to benefit local charities.
“Serenity is not your average yacht,” Beasley said. “She’s a lucky boat to have the Blairs looking out for her. ”