While internal combustion may be the main motive power here at the Scarf & Goggles it is worthwhile looking in other directions on occasion. Steam, yes, but also an even more traditional power – sail.
It was with the news that Kevin Kline is starring in an Errol Flynn biopic that I recalled visiting the Black Pearl in Malta. This Swedish-built schooner is reputed to have belonged to the swashbuckling Hollywood swordsman – although that assertion is somewhat harder to confirm than one might think.
Undoubtedly the Black Pearl had a colourful life – sinking twice and appearing in the ‘ahem’ critically-challenged movie Popeye, starring the young Robin Williams. Today she rests in Sliema Creek between Msida and Ta’Xbiex, serving as a fashionable bar and restaurant. Despite her colourful past, a workhorse like the Black Pearl is somewhat lacking in the stuff of the Scarf & Goggles. But there is another Errol Flynn vessel which more than lives up to its billing…
So, then, welcome aboard Flynn’s greatest passion, the Zaca – laid down in 1929 by the Nunes Brothers of Sausalito, California for the San Francisco socialite and railroad heir Templeton Crocker.
At 118 feet she was in fact too large for the small but expert yard and so began life out on the street – an incongruous birth for what was intended to be the fastest and most opulent ocean yacht in the world.
In fact she was a scaled-down replica of a more famous vessel – the Nova Scotian racing ship Bluenose, which won the International Fisherman’s Trophy at every time of asking from 1921 until 1938. Designed for speed and endurance against the Atlantic, the template for Zaca was one of the fastest and most handsome vessels ever seen.
Fortunately for the boatyard, Templeton Crocker’s fortune survived the onset of the Great Depression and the Zaca was completed in 1930 at an eye-watering cost of $350,000 (around $14 million today). Her maiden voyage was to Polynesia, carrying the magnate and his associates in search of a ‘prehistoric’ tribe who had never yet encountered the white man or the benefits of the free market economy.
Zaca’s adventures in the Pacific were many and she circumnavigated the globe twice over, being credited with the discovery of 2,000 species. Then her varied, philanthropic existence came to an abrupt end with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The US Government requisitioned all seaworthy vessels, and this princess of the sea was given a coat of grey paint and set to work as a reconnaissance and supply vessel throughout the years of conflict.
When the war ended, the US Navy vessel IX-73 was sold off by her government – with speculator and dealer, Joe Rosenberg, taking the somewhat dilapidated Zaca onto his books. Rosenberg found an eager buyer in the form of Errol Flynn, who had sufficient funds to restore and refit her to something like her former glory and intended to enjoy her to the fullest.
Flynn’s star was already on the wane, however, and the Zaca endured some torrid days under his alcohol-soaked stewardship – not least when her entire company abandoned ship in Acapulco and Flynn was forced to rent her out as a prop in the Orson Welles movie, The Lady from Shanghai.
Hollywood finally severed ties with Flynn in 1950. He lost his celebrated home Mulholland House soon afterwards and set sail for a new life in Jamaica. Among the many guests he entertained on board Zaca were Noel Coward, Ian Fleming and Truman Capote.
In 1954, Flynn sailed Zaca to the Mediterranean, taking a shine to Mallorca as he continued to imbibe the vast majority of his fortune. Eventually he had no option but to sell his beloved yacht, but it was while in Vancouver to finalise the deal that the 50-year-old’s beleaguered body gave up its unequal struggle, and Errol Flynn died
For Zaca this was the beginning of a long and sorry tale. She remained in Mallorca until British entrepreneur Freddie Tinsley promised the Flynn estate that he would sell her for a good price, took her to France – and proceeded to strip anything of value from her before leaving the remains in situ.
Zaca lay remained at Bernard Voisin’s boatyard in Villefranche for 20 years in lieu of mooring fees. In 1979 she made headlines when the by-now derelict hulk was given an exorcism by both catholic and Anglican ministers after repeated claims that music, women’s laughter, lights and even Flynn himself had been clearly seen and heard aboard.
Although now free of spectral shenanigans, Zaca remained a forlorn sight until the late 1980s. It was then that, in his eagerness to get his hands on such a storied vessel, a British electronics magnate bought the Voisin boatyard lock, stock – but not, according to Voisin’s lawyers, the Zaca.
A lengthy legal dispute rolled on during which Zaca managed to sink in her berth. Then in 1990 the by-now forlorn hulk was purchased by Italian entrepreneur and renowned furniture restorer Roberto Memmo. In his care the Zaca was at long last restored to the sot of specification that Flynn would have been happy with, and made her return to public life at Monaco’s classic Regatta in 1993.
Since then the Zaca has become one of the best-loved vintage ships in the Mediterranean, scything through the playground of southern Europe with all the speed and style that she was intended. I think we can rest assured that both Errol Flynn and Templeton Crocker would approve.