Lewis had been given his first steam yacht by his mother for not taking up smoking before he was twenty one. (1)Lewis had a keen interest in boating that only grew over time. He commissioned a steam yacht for the purposes for commuting rapidly from his job as a banker on Wall Street to Connecticut (2). He then named the steam yacht The Kemah, which, when translated from the language of Eastern Indians means “wind in my face.”
When World War One began the US Navy was unprepared. They did not have the ships to complete their mission. So, on October 17, 1917, the Navy purchased the steam yacht Kemah, weighing on at 300 tons. The Kemah had a length of 146 ft and a speed of 13 knots and was so large it had a complement of 52 sailors. It was outfitted with an armament of 2 x 3-inch (76.2-mm) guns. The Navy kept the name of the ship and it went on to patrol New York’s coastal waters. (3) At the Westport estate a massive boathouse complex harbored the Kemah along with other ships, which could be stored in an enclosed pen, large enough to shield boats from the elements and allow for repairs. The yacht basin at Longshore in Westport still has large steel chocks to secure yachts such as this that came for visits to the estate. (4).
When the company that produced it – The Luders Marine Construction Company of Stamford, Connecticut – began to go under he promptly bought the company in order to save it (5) . The ship The Kemah was Fred’s first boat and the name of his personal corporation (6)
Lewis constructed on Coal Island fire stations, three gas stations and machine shops, and the island was set up like a veritable playland (7) Margaret let us know that their Lewis long displayed personal hand towels emblazoned Longshore.
Besides the craft he owned before and during World War One Lewis was to own several large ships . Many were named Stranger. In 1932 and then 1937 The Stranger , one out of Los Angeles and another out of Honolulu were on the waters. Reports have Lewis owning seven Strangers during his lifetime. (8) In 1932 the San Diego Zoo chartered Lewis’s ship for an expedition to the Arctic (9) In 1933 he visited Micronesia and The Galapagos Islands (10) . In 1937 Lewis sailed into Alaskan waters with trainee Sea Scouts (11). Kermit Roosevelt, the second child of Teddy and Edith, and Vincent Astor were guests on his ship. Astor inherited an estimated $69 million when his father went down with the Titanic – called “the richest boy in the world” (12)
In his memoir Norman Blanchard recalled Fred telling him “a story about Vincent Astor, who had been a friend of his since college days. Fred was a good talker. Astor has approached him and said, “I think I can sell that boat for you,” meaning the biggest Stranger Fred had ever owned. Astor had gone on, “But, I’m not going to do it unless you will promise to come with on my South Seas Islands cruise next fall.” [Fred] said “By Golly he sold the boat… [Astor then sent] a telegram saying “Join me in Miami on such and such a date… You know, Norm, dressing for dinner and all of that crap.” After he finished the story Fred said to me quietly “You know the vessel,” it’s the Nourmahal”, a 264 foot diesel yacht built for Astor in 1928. (Note: Time magazine on February 6th 1928 featured a cover article on Astor and the Nourmahal which was described as the finest private yacht of its era. During August 1933 the yacht was (again) host to President Roosevelt. With the President on board the Nourmahal was permitted to fly the Presidential flag — four white stars on a blue field. President Roosevelt believed it was the first time in U. S. history that this emblem had been used on a private yacht.) (13).
The May 1917, Volume XXXIII, number five of The Rudder, A Magazine for Yachtsmen, headlined To Build 345 Patrol Boats For Navy. “ One of the most unique boats now building is for Frederick E. Lewis, 2nd… the primary object aimed for in the designing of this boat was a vessel that would have great cruising radius. A tank space of 6,500 gallons has been provided, which will permit, at a speed of about 11 knots, of about 4,500 miles. This will permit of a contemplated cruise to Honolulu. All told there will be six staterooms and three toilet rooms. The forward staterooms will be finished in silver gray with metal work to match. The after quarters will be finished in white enamel rubbed to an egg shell finish, with all trim, furniture and the like of genuine African mahogany.”
In his memoir Norman Blanchard recalled Fred telling him “a story about Vincent Astor, who had been a friend of his since college days. Fred was a good talker. Astor has approached him and said, “I think I can sell that boat for you,” meaning the biggest Stranger Fred had ever owned. Astor had gone on, “But, I’m not going to do it unless you will promise to come with on my South Seas Islands cruise next fall.” [Fred] said “By Golly he sold the boat… [Astor then sent] a telegram saying “Join me in Miami on such and such a date… You know, Norm, dressing for dinner and all of that crap.” After he finished the story Fred said to me quietly “You know the vessel,” it’s the Nourmahal”, a 264 foot diesel yacht built for Astor in 1928. A youngster sitting with Lewis and Blanchard later privately said to Blanchard “Who the hell does [Lewis] think[s] he is? Even President Roosevelt jumps at the invitation to go cruising on the Nourmahal.” (14).
Lewis sailed for as long as six months and at one point travelled 9,000 miles on one voyage . In 1940 Lewis returned empty handed after voyaging to South America to find “The Loot of Peru” 15.
In 1932 the San Diego Zoo chartered Lewis’s ship for an expedition to the Arctic (16). Lewis brought Kodiak bear cubs, ‘reindeer’ (they turned out to be caribou) and a baby walrus that became in time the only one on exhibit in a zoo in the United States (17). He also made contributions to The Smithsonian.
In 1938 Lewis commissioned to be built what was to be the largest privately owned vessel to be built in the United Sates since 1931, and which was to be the most completely equipped boat of her size in any service, including government craft. (18)
Shortly after being commissioned, she became involved in America’s preparation for the war in the Pacific. Ostensibly engaged in a continuing program of marine research, Stranger was actually operating under the direction of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, predecessor to the CIA) in charting many of the Pacific areas where the anticipated war was expected to reach, and where the only charts extant were those made by the British Admiralty in the late 19th century. (19).
In World War Two the Navy commissioned it as a Coastal Patrol Yacht- Acquired by the Navy 1 July 1941 it was placed in service as USS Jasper (PYc-13) at San Diego, CA (20) .
After the installation of experimental sound and electronic equipment, Jasper was assigned to the 11th Naval District to perform research work at the Naval Sound Laboratory, San Diego. She continued this important scientific work throughout the war taking part in experiments with radio and sound waves in cooperation with the University of California, Division of War Research. Echo-ranging equipment on board Jasper was used in 1946 to discover a deep 300-mile-wide oceanic layer off the coast of California. (21) , later in 1948 it was donated to the Scripps Instituition of Oceanography. (22) .
Again Lewis could also well be a template for Dan Cody, Gatsby’s wealthy patron from the West, who owns a yacht that Jay Gatsby works on. Lewis was owner of multiple massive yachts.
1.Knee-Deep in Shavings: Memories of Early Yachting and Boatbuilding, p. 64.
2. Shavings, 120.
3. An Inkling of Brewster: Brewster and Company Automobiles and the Wealthy Who Owned Them By Frank E. Wismer III.
4. Interview with MargaretLebedis.
5. Shavings, p. 120
6. Interview with Greg Busch.
9. Diamond Head, p. 44.
11. Diamond Head, p. 45.
14. Shavings, p. 64.
16. Diamond Head, p. 44.