The woman put down the rack of wine glasses, hitched up her apron and gently sat on a dark green cushion. A brilliant American flag flapped behind her head as she turned and surveyed the Ashley River, the massive yachts tied up nearby and the dock gently rising and falling alongside.
"I could get used to this," she said. "Don't send me to no event at Boone Hall Plantation. I'll work right here, thank you very much."
A crew of contented caterers launched the newest player in Charleston's hospitality pool Wednesday, a 70-year-old yacht named Innisfail, fresh from a North Carolina boatyard and available for charter.
The yacht, commissioned in 1939 for an Irish captain of Chicago meat-packing, is one of 80 or so vessels designed by John Trumpy, a legendary German-American naval architect. While the Innisfail was dwarfed by the fiberglass monuments to capitalism tethered nearby at the City Marina, its 92-foot hull represents the Learjet of its day: a lavish plaything of the very rich.
"They were built for every major American industrialist," said Jim Moores, who owns the shipyard where the Innisfail was restored. "Name one, they had a Trumpy."
The Innisfail was not a pleasure boat for long. The U.S. Navy bought it in 1942, bolted two cannons to its dark wooden deck and motored it up and down the Eastern Seaboard, looking for German submarines. The government held on to it for 20 years after the war, ferrying four presidents and various heads of state on pleasure cruises.
When Frank Lynch, founder of the burgeoning Cactus Car Wash empire, first saw it advertised in a yachting magazine, the Innisfail was finishing a 12-year stint cruising private parties out of Chicago's Navy pier.
Renamed "El Presidente," the vessel had little of its erstwhile grandeur. It had been modernized — Lynch would say "vandalized" — with aerodynamic windshields and pink-and-turquoise wallpaper. "It was like Aunt Mary's double-wide," Lynch said.
However, its previous owner had also spent a small fortune on new engines, bilge pumps and other modern improvements to garner U.S. Coast Guard approval to steam with 70 passengers. Lynch, 68, and his wife, Linda, bought the boat last summer for $1.5 million
"It was a bit like when you take your girlfriend or your wife to see a puppy and say, 'We're not buying it,' " Lynch said. "The minute you see the puppy, it's over."
After studying records and decades-old photographs of the ship, he poured another $1.5 million into a new deck and roof and opulent antique appointments: French paintings, bronze sculptures from Italy and museum-quality Art Deco furniture.
"These people had no inhibitions about spending money," Lynch said. "... We just replicated it as closely as we could."
The Gatsby-esque salon shines with dark teak and wall sconces, the wheelhouse sparkles with well-shined brass, while the staterooms gleam with high-gloss white paint and mirrors.
"That ship over there probably has a hot tub and all that, but what I love about this is the ambience," Lynch said, scanning the marina. "When you're standing here, you're in a time-machine. ... JFK might have leaned against this wall and told someone a story."
Still, the Innisfail is no plaything for Lynch, who describes himself as a thrifty Scotsman. He plans to offer a brunch cruise every Sunday and will charter the vessel starting at $800 an hour for events such as weddings and corporate retreats.
Charleston Place has jumped on board as the ship's caterer.
The ship joins a relatively small fleet of antique vessels for-hire in Charleston, including Blue Moon, a 67-foot Trumpy launched in 1963, which is chartered by Mermaid Voyages Ltd.
Moores, a hulking craftsman, came down from his North Carolina shipyard for a final survey of his handiwork Thursday.
"Frank said, 'Take it back to its original grandeur,' " Moores recalled. "To me, that was kind of magic."
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