Cars, Bikes & Boats

Steams like old times

Six years after a long and loving €40m restoration, one of the last magnificent private steamships of the 1920s is up for sale. Julian Allason cruises in vintage style.

June 20 2009
Julian Allason

Ferraris and Maseratis are queuing to decant a succession of beauties onto the steps of the Hôtel de Paris. “No special occasion, just another sunny day in Monaco,” says the doorman, before snapping a smart salute at the latest arrivals. It takes quite a lot to turn heads in the principality, but something unusual then happens. The cheerful toot of a steam whistle reverberates off the palace and around the harbour. The heartbeat of life stills; pedestrians stop in their tracks; Bentleys pull over on the Grande Corniche; balconies fill with the ordinarily unimpressionable citizens of Europe’s most sophisticated tax haven. Delphine is leaving town.

While no longer in the first flush of youth, she wears her years lightly – and is immaculately turned out. SS Delphine is one of the last magnificent private steamships of the 1920s. As her dreadnaught bow cuts into open water, smoke billowing from her yellow funnel, the unspoken question is whether this might be Delphine’s final adieu to Monaco? Her owner has discreetly put her up for sale and the occasional charter with leading yacht broker Edmiston & Company, and a handful of potential purchasers have been poring over her particulars.

They make interesting reading. The vessel has had a remarkable history from commission by the American automobile magnate Horace Dodge in 1920 (with a view to eclipsing JP Morgan’s yacht), through golden days on the Great Lakes between the wars, followed by service with the US Navy during the second world war. Then, it is believed, she became the venue of secret summits between allied leaders. Her postwar story, however, was one of steady decline until the Belgian jeans magnate Jacques Bruynooghe spotted her hulk rotting near Marseille.

As in the best fairy tales, the beast is restored by a maiden’s kiss. Having persuaded her father to purchase Delphine for little more than scrap value, Bruynooghe’s daughter Ineke, a history of art student, instituted a search through American archives, eventually unearthing Dodge’s original plans, including interior designs by Tiffany. The restoration that followed remains the talk of the shipyards of northern Europe. From February 1998 to July 2003 love and money – a reported €40m – were showered on her.

First Delphine was towed to Bruges in Belgium. Her 21m wooden masts were restepped and the mighty funnel restored, bearing as a badge of honour nine hash marks signifying four-and-a-half years of active naval service. Engineers were found to reinstate the unique quadruple expansion steam engines that must still be oiled by hand. The hull and superstructure were made good using, as far as possible, original materials, such as teak on the foredeck. Behind the unaltered surface, though, the latest technology was embedded, including air conditioning, firefighting systems and wireless internet throughout.

“The test was ‘Is this what Horace Dodge would have done?’” says her captain, Kai Ketonen. “He specified the latest proven technology – such as the Marconi radio.” Thus the owners of other yachts are invariably astonished by Delphine’s ability to turn within its boat’s length, thanks to the addition of bow and stern thrusters. A discreet radome (the housing for radar antenna) behind the bridge constitutes the sole alteration to the vessel’s classic silhouette now that the for’ard gun installed by US Navy commander-in-Chief Admiral Ernest King in 1942 has gone. The camouflage paintwork from the period when, as USS Dauntless, she served as his flagship – mainly on the Potomac river – has been restored to its original gleaming white.

The result of this comprehensive restoration is a ship that contradicts almost every rule of modern naval architecture and contemporary taste. Nonetheless, Delphine now complies with Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) rules and is permitted to accommodate 26 guests; for inshore navigation she can carry as many as 160. What such visitors invariably remark upon is the human scale: the promenade deck is 10ft wide, broad enough for a couple to stroll arm-in-arm, while meeting Dodge’s intention of providing ample room to view the speedboat races he sponsored. Unlike modern vessels, the exterior space is the equal of that within.

Facing the bed in the spacious master suite is an oil painting depicting a three-masted barque under sail, and at the touch of a button it slides down within its gilt frame to reveal a large plasma display. Two more cabins on the main deck warrant the description of state rooms, with marbled en-suite bathrooms. Nine further cabins on deck two bring the guest complement to more than double the dozen prevailing upon all but the largest superyachts.

Entertainment has been updated throughout, although the concert grand piano remains discreetly anchored to the floor of the music salon. A cinema, hairdressing salon, fitness centre and spa with hammam and sauna share the level below. Up on the sun deck there is a small pool and all the necessary toys are stowed: four Waverunners, two ski boats and diving kit. Interestingly, the restored 1928 tenders are suspended outboard, now supplemented by modern lifeboats.

The kiss of the princess was finally bestowed by Stéphanie of Monaco in September 2003 when she rechristened the yacht Delphine – the name of Dodge’s beloved daughter. Since then the yacht has become a much-loved ornament to the principality. Corporate expeditions and family charters have made her arrivals and departures a distinctive and reassuring sight for Monegasques. “There is no doubt that she raises the tone in the harbour,” says yacht consultant Nick Jeffery, former editor of Boat International, as he gazes out over the fleet of futuristic superyachts.

With a range of 2,000 nautical miles at her stately cruising speed of eight to nine knots (about 10mph), Corsica, the Amalfi Coast and Sardinia are all within reach, making for a more refined experience than the crowded anchorages of Cannes, St Tropez and L’île de Porquerolles. At 78.6m Delphine is too large to put into St Tropez’s Vieux Port, although with the competitive exhibitionism that now prevails there this may be no great disadvantage. Portofino is judged a more sophisticated port of call, and one better appreciated when anchored off.

“Cruising is about enjoying the land from the sea,” reflects Jonathan Zwaans of the yacht broker Edmiston. It is a pertinent observation, for aboard Delphine one feels closer to the water than on superyachts one third smaller. Watching the moonlit port slip away astern from the sun deck remains a memorably romantic experience, particularly when there is space enough to dance to a 10-piece band.

Cruising in vintage style remains an inherently civilised experience; thanks to that dreadnaught hull design (and the addition of stabilisers), the vessel enjoys a calm ride through the sometimes agitated Mediterranean. In place of the high-frequency vibration of modern power units implicated in seasickness, the gleaming brass-bound steam engines revolve at a leisurely 80 revolutions per minute – “Delphine’s gentle heartbeat”, as Ineke Bruynooghe is fond of calling it.

While vintage yacht enthusiasts overheat about that unique powerpack and swoon over the original telegraph in the mahogany pilothouse (still used to signal “Full Ahead” to the engine room), other considerations may preoccupy prospective owners, particularly in force 10 economic conditions. Jonathan Zwaans reckons there are 50 people potentially interested; others believe the number of serious contenders to be nearer six. But will they be deterred by the implications of owning what could be viewed as a maritime white elephant, albeit a beautiful one? With a crew of 28, running costs are hardly trifling. At cruising speed Delphine’s fuel consumption is the equivalent of 200 Ferraris. With the owner prepared to continue chartering, it is probable that the deep discounting presently afflicting the market for large yachts will not apply to the €49.5m sale price.

In the panelled smoking room, where Churchill and Roosevelt are believed to have conferred in secret session with Russian foreign minister Molotov preparatory to the 1945 Yalta Agreement, the aroma of cigars lingers. Winston’s Romeo y Julieta No 7s perhaps? Or the relic of a more recent invocation of past glories? Last September Delphine hosted 150 guests for a cruise to enact – out in international waters – the “marriage” of Horace’s great-grandson, Alexander Dodge, to Charles Stewart.

Examining a handsome marquetry console in the music salon, one of the guests discovered the green baize of a card table beneath the lid. Closer investigation disclosed a further layer housing a roulette wheel. One can, it seems, take the girl out of Monte Carlo, but not Monte Carlo out of the girl.

Alerted by Delphine’s whistle, guests spill out of the Hôtel de Paris’ Churchill Suite on to their private terrace. There is something comforting about the sight of her return to port, and reassurance in the conviction that “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”.

See also