There are certain yachts you never forget, and one of my most memorable is a sternwheel steamboat that came out of Jack Hargrave’s design studio in the early 1980s. There’s just something that stirs the soul when a sternwheeler passes by, its buckets gently churning brown water into white foam. When the whistle blows—or better yet, the calliope plays—emotions soar.

With a hull length just under 65 feet, Patty Gordon may be the most complicated and expensive yacht, per ton, ever completed. She was built for a special client, an Alabama steam enthusiast who wanted her to be as authentic as possible. 

The yacht’s name was not that of the owner’s wife, but, much to her chagrin, that of a Civil War-era madam renowned for charging Yankees double, in order to offer services to Southern soldiers for free.

To say the owner was involved in the project would be a gross understatement. He was seeing his lifelong dream come true, and he didn’t want to miss a single bit of it. 

As the design developed, he’d provide us with century-old drawings and clippings from his extensive file, asking whether the technology could be incorporated in his yacht. As just one example, the sternwheel was built with staggered paddles to reduce vibration.

On the roof of the pilothouse, four gilded eagles anchored the corners, and a magnificent 40-pipe calliope echoed off the shoreline wherever she cruised. Twin boarding ramps extended from the bow, just forward of a foremast that carried both the U.S. ensign and the Alabama state flag. 

Abaft the pilothouse, a tall, black smokestack sported silver bands and an elaborate crown. One break from tradition, owing to the owner’s age, was an elevator for easier access to the upper deck’s four staterooms, each with period décor and antique furnishings.

On a technical note, we had carefully limited the regulatory length of Patty Gordon to 65 feet in order to avoid mandatory U.S. Coast Guard inspection, but a change to the law a few years later created consequences that the USCG quickly acknowledged were unintended. 

Enforcement was suspended pending corrections to the law, but in the ways of Washington, D.C., that took several years. A new USCG commander in the owner’s district decided to make points by making trouble, so one day, I got a call from the owner’s son asking for help.

Within a few days, in a stroke of pure luck and coincidence, a fax arrived from Washington informing me that the long-awaited correction to the law had passed through the U.S. Congress, and a copy bearing President Reagan’s signature was attached. I forwarded it to the owner’s son, with a short note that it should solve the problem.

Profoundly impressed, as he wrongly assumed I had gotten a new law enacted just for him in less than a week, he replied, “That’s great! There’s one more thing, though. I’m having trouble getting a liquor license for a club down here in Alabama. Do you think you could help me with that, too?”

Patty Gordon lived on, and her legend grew. Her second owner was actress and singer Debbie Reynolds. The yacht hosted many of Hollywood’s elite as Reynolds’ guests, and it is reported that singer Ricky Nelson spent the last night of his life aboard.

Today, 37 years after she launched, Patty Gordon has been renamed Jean Mary and is undergoing a refit to serve as the floating centerpiece for the Apalachicola Maritime Museum in Florida.

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