My first sighting of the legendary Manitou is inauspicious given her unique history. It’s a breezy February afternoon and the 62 ft performance yacht is moored at the old port in Cannes next to Argyll, a fellow S&S classic owned by actor and comedian Griff Rhys Jones. There’s no doubting Manitou’s sleek beauty but currently, she is a work in progress as the winter varnishing of the interior continues.
Scratch beneath the surface however, and it’s clear this a boat with a fascinating story to tell, as current captain Alex Tilleray reveals over a pint at the Quays pub opposite the port. For Manitou in her heyday was better known as The Floating White House, where JFK conducted business between The White House in Washington and political offices around the globe including the Kremlin.
Named after Manitou Passage in Lake Michigan, meaning spirit of the water, Manitou was designed in 1937 by naval architect Olin Stephens of Sparkman and Stephens with one goal in mind for original owner James Lowe - to win the Chicago Mac race between Chicago and Mackinac Island across Lake Michigan.
This she did in the cruising division in 1938, beating all previous records, as well as winning in 1940 and 1941.
She was donated to the US Coastguard as a training vessel and when keen sailor John F Kennedy became president, his first presidential act was to choose Manitou over the incumbent Presidential power boat, the 92 ft Honey Fitz.
Alex picks up the story. ‘The Kennedys were a big sailing family, they loved the water and JFK did a lot of sailing when he was younger. He had a lot of different motor boats at the time but Manitou was the one he chose over all others. He had Manitou moored in the Chesapeake, very close to Washington, and used her two or three times a week throughout his presidency. He’d have a lot of meetings on the boat and she was kitted out with all the latest communication technology so he could run the country, which was why she was nicknamed The Floating White House.’
Alex walks me around the boat and I can see in an instant why JFK fell in love with her. A marvel of beautiful craftsmanship, the main mast is sitka spruce, the frames of the boat are oak, the planking is mahogany, the deck is teak, the hatches and cabin are mahogany and the interior is American butternut.
While the smaller mast is being repaired, the main mast is still original, almost 80 years down the line.
At the bottom of the stairs lies a unique feature - two American butternut doors open out to reveal a cleverly concealed deep white bathtub set in the floor, big enough to accommodate the President and reputed to have also been graced by his lover Marilyn Monroe.
After JFK’s assassination, Manitou was seconded to a sailing school and used to teach under-privileged kids to sail before being bought back by Lowe’s granddaughter in 1991. She carried out some renovation work replacing the teak deck before putting Manitou back on the market where she languished for several years until the current owners, a racing syndicate of four keen sailors, made a successful offer in 2010.
Following four years as first mate on fellow classic The Blue Peter, Surrey born Alex took over as captain of Manitou in March 2011, overseeing many of the renovations that have brought her back to her racing prime.
‘One of our first jobs was to open the mast up and cut a piece out to see the state of the wood inside,’ he explains. ‘There was a lot of rot near the bottom where rainwater had sat there so we had to cut out and replace some new pieces.'
'We did a refit and got her back in the water in July 2011, sailing up the East Coast to New York, Long Island Sound and up to Newport Rhode Island. Then we shipped her over to the Med and did the end of the regatta season. We race through the summer so there is a lot of wear and tear and we spend each winter working our way through the major jobs on the list.'
‘Last winter, we stripped all the paint off and removed the screws holding the planks. We replaced every one of them, 4,000 in total. We had to redowl the hole, glue it in then make a new hole next to it. That was four weeks with seven guys working under floodlights until 11pm most nights. It was tiring work and not for the fainthearted! Most boats sit around in the winter but our owners are keen to get through the list and catch up on restoration.’
In addition to specific jobs, all the wood needs 10 to 12 coats of varnish each year and bespoke silicone bronze screws need to be specially made if one breaks, so caring for Manitou, like all classic yachts, is a time consuming job as well as a labour of love.
However, all the hard work becomes worthwhile when she sets off each spring to race around the Med.
‘She is a very fast boat,’ Alex adds. ‘We are in the Marconi Class, which is generally the biggest fleet in the regatta. If we sail well, we are generally in the top three.'
'The owners have a racing syndicate of 25 friends and associates who pay a membership fee to sail with us. It works well, providing a good amount of money to cover the boat’s annual running costs of around £120,000.’
Manitou’s calendar is looking full for the foreseeable future, with 17 regattas planned this year, from May to October, one a week for nine weeks in a row. In July, they head to Naples, then Barcelona, and following a two week break in Ibiza ‘so not really a break at all’ quips Alex, they will race every week from August until mid-October and the final regatta in St Tropez.
Their track record is impressive, with two wins last season at the Panerai Regatta in Naples and the Silver Bollard Regatta in Port Adriano, Majorca and victory at the Barcelona Classic in 2012, as well as being placed second several times.
‘The owners are competitive,’ grins Alex,’ they bought the boat to win races. They have a five year plan to restore it and if we’re not at the top after that, it’s us, not the boat, we are too old and we need to give it up! Above all though, it’s a hobby and a passion, going to beautiful places and having a good time but also having a duty to care for the boat as a piece of history.’
With around seven S&S yachts competing on the Med circuit, including Tara Getty’s Skylark, Griff Rhys-Jones organised an S&S regatta last summer in Elba. ‘It was great fun,’ recalls Alex, ‘so much so that we will do it again this year. It’s a bit like having all the supermodels together on the same catwalk!’
Unlike the supermodel fraternity, however, the money is nowhere near as good, with Alex pointing out that the classic captains are the lowest paid of all boat captains. ‘You do it because you love it,’ he says. ‘I’ve spent eight years on the classic circuit and not many guys leave, it’s like one big family. Lots of the boats are based here and we have pretty much taken over Cannes now! We get a 40% reduction on the mooring fees, the tourists love to stare at the boats and occasionally even walk on board!’
All photos reproduced by kind permission of Alex Tilleray. JFK photos taken by Robert Knudsen of The White House.