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Ringling's Yachts Showed His Presence

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ann A. Shank, former County Historian
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center
Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Ringling's Yachts Showed His Presence photo

One exploded and burned. Another ran into an unchartered object and sank. Small or large, John Ringling's yachts were a signal to local residents that he had a presence in Sarasota.

The size of Ringling's yachts increased as his influence and reputation grew. For Ringling, according to David Weeks in "Ringling: The Florida Years," a yacht and membership in prestigious yacht clubs were significant status symbols.

After John and Mable Ringling purchased a home in the Shell Beach area along Sarasota Bay and began coming here during the winter months in the early 1910s, their yacht Wethea could be seen docked at the city pier. Captain Arthur Rowe was in charge of the Wethea as well as its successor, Vidoffner II.

The newer 110-foot yacht arrived in Sarasota in 1917, and was reported in the Sarasota Times as being used for social outings in area waters. It came to a violent end on February 13, 1920. In Tampa for new engines and other repairs, the Vidoffner II exploded while taking on gasoline, burned, and sank. The yacht's chief engineer, Erwin Gremli, escaped with severe burns, but Ben Olson, a young member of the crew, was fatally injured.

Before Ringling purchased another yacht, he leased the Pastime from John Wanamaker, a well-known and successful merchant in Philadelphia and New York. Docked in front of the former Sarasota Yacht and Automobile Club, which Ringling had purchased in 1917 and was converted into the Admiral Hotel, the Pastime attracted the tourists who posed on the gangplank for the photograph above. During the same year, Ringling had a new yacht built, patterned after the Pastime.

The $200,000 Zalophus was 125 feet long, with six staterooms and smaller cabins for servants. The Ringlings boarded the luxury vessel in Jacksonville in January 1923 for its maiden voyage into Sarasota. By this time, John Ringling was entrenched in local business and development activities. The Zalophus was well suited to the kind of hospitality Ringling hoped would impress potential investors and buyers, especially those whose name and fortune attracted attention.

In February 1930 the Zalophus sank off Lido Key. The Sarasota Herald reported on February 4th that at 3:00 a.m. the yacht had hit an unchartered rock and sank. Four passengers escaped safely in small launch, their pleasure trip to Useppa Island cut short, but none the worse for the experience. Two crewmembers were treated by local doctor, Joseph Halton, for injuries. The following day, however, the New York Times reported that "several sources" had mentioned ten passengers, but none had been identified. Curious reporters apparently were unable to find anyone willing to talk.

Years later the story emerged that two of the unnamed passengers had been New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, who had several times visited the Ringlings in Sarasota, and actress Betty Compton.

By the time the insurance investigators had completed their evaluation of the submerged yacht, much of it had broken away and all that remained of value were the engines. Aetna reportedly paid Ringling $100,000 for his loss, but the yacht was never rebuilt.

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