Zaca – A Yacht with a Colorful Past

by Annie Sutter

The Zaca in all her glory. Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

The Zaca in all her glory.

Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

In a recent article about the launching of the Matthew Turner, Chronicle writer Carl Nolte pointed out that the ship is the first large wooden vessel to be built on the Bay since the Zaca.  It seems only appropriate that we reprint an earlier column about that storied yacht and its colorful past.

What does the razzle-dazzle career of Errol Flynn have to do with Sausalito? His legendary white yacht Zaca, reportedly the scene of ongoing parties and continuous seductions, was built at the Nunes Bros. Boatyard in Old Town in 1929. She was commissioned by the original owner, Templeton Crocker, one of the heirs to the Crocker fortune.

The Nunes yard, located on what is today known as the Valley Street beach, won the job by sub-mitting a low bid of $350,000, thus bringing to Sausalito a welcome infusion of money and jobs. The Depression was apparently no deterrent for Crocker, who commanded great wealth throughout his life. In the midst of hard times, a luxurious pleasure ship rose from the shores of Shelter Cove with money no object. Nunes had to build a special shed at the foot of Main St. to accommodate the 118' hull. The yacht was 127' including the bowsprit, and was two masted, gaff rigged, and had an unusually broad 23' beam. The ship had hot and cold running water, and on deck they carried a full-sized power cruiser for side trips

Crocker is said to have spent an additional $100,000 just on fittings and furniture for Zaca. Her decks were built of solid teak, white primavera was used throughout the main salon, and the spars were Oregon pine. However, the decks didn't turn out to be all teak when Zaca came off the ways. Somehow, she ended up with teak forward and aft, with pine decks amidship. There are whispers that teak was snitched from Zaca to embellish the cruisers turned out at the yard during that time. The vessel, modeled after the famous Nova Scotia fishing schooner Bluenose, was drawn up by the yard’s designer, Manuel Nunes. One unusual feature was the placement of its two diesel engines, which are normally found astern. But Crocker ordered them placed amidship. Nunes' daughter, Bertha Basford, says that when Zaca was launched, her nose pointed downhill because of the engine placement, and so they had to add ballast at the stern which made the boat ride beneath the waterline.

Zaca was christened at her launching in Sausalito in April 1930 by silent film star Marie Dressler. Eyewitness accounts of the event vary widely; however, everyone agrees that perhaps Miss Dressler had made use of a few bottles of champagne herself. Everyone agrees that as the huge yacht began to slide down the ways, she swung the champagne bottle. Some say she missed, some say she hit, and the bottle didn't break. Some say she swung, missed, and fell into the water and was then hustled into a speedboat which raced after the departing yacht. In any case, there is a great deal of confusion about Zaca's christening. Also confusing are memories of her color, because she was launched as a white hull, and a few days later was painted black.

 'Zaca' under construction in Nunes boatyard - 1929-1930." The SHS accession number for the photo is 95-135.

 'Zaca' under construction in Nunes boatyard - 1929-1930." The SHS accession number for the photo is 95-135.

Zaca, with a crew of 18 including a doctor, photographer and Crocker's valet, started off on a Round the World cruise shortly after the launching, visiting the Marquesas, Tonga, Java, Sumatra, India, Europe and the Caribbean. The ship returned to San Francisco after exactly one year as scheduled and they sailed her past the cove to salute her builders. Zaca went on many scientific expeditions in the next years. Two crew members still living in the 1980s told stories of trips to the Galapagos and South America, bringing back turtles and iguanas and live fish in tanks for the SF Aquarium. They recall taking specimens for the Academy of Sciences, dragging so deep that they brought up fish with lights on their heads which, when they came up, exploded.

The War put an end to the expeditions. The Navy took Zaca and used her for a coastal patrol boat, and painted the teak, the hull and the interior battleship gray. In 1945, Flynn bought her, and it’s been said that he could never erase all the gray. He spent $50,000 on new furnishings however, and decorated her all in white, with red rugs and a white ermine bedspread. His shakedown cruise was to Mexico, and in 1946 Zaca was chartered for the film Lady from Shanghai with Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, and returned briefly to Sausalito. The film ends at the Nunes yard, it’s worth renting the video if you’re a history buff; great shots of the boatyard and the docks, the boardwalk and the Valhalla in 1946.

Flynn took the vessel to Mexico and the Caribbean, and is reported to have enjoyed a luxurious life aboard. He had planned on a world cruise, but got the yacht only as far as the French Riviera until his death in 1959. There she slowly deteriorated as debtors, heirs and boatyards argued about her fate. Slowly she became a rotting hulk in the harbor of Villefranche, mastless, the interior gutted, the hull rotten and kept afloat by pumps.

Salvation arrived in 1991 when Roberto Memmo, sailor, yachtsman, and businessman from Monaco who was experienced in expensive and expensive restorations, foundZaca. Today she has been beautifully restored, sails throughout the Mediterranean, and carries a full-time crew of four. A worthy ending for a yacht apparently destined for a lifetime of luxurious living.