From Classic Yachts to Fish Packers: Their Stories
Movie Stars, Depth Charges and Tugboat Annie: The Story of the Thea Foss
I still can’t think of the Thea Foss as a boat. No, she is a ship, a special ship. Her lines are long and elegant with a plumb bow and a fantail stern. She is a 120 foot yacht with the heart of the once grand trans-Atlantic steamers. I first saw her when I was 11 or 12 in Seattle with my father, a ship captain, as she quietly navigated the Lake Washington Ship Canal. My dad said the Thea Foss was the most beautiful yacht he had ever seen. And now, at 90 years old, she is also one of the luckiest.
The Thea Foss was designed by L.E. “Ted” Geary, who had become known for his elegant “fantail power yachts” that were commissioned during the 1920’s and early ’30’s by timber barons, oil magnates and in Thea Foss’s case, a famous stage and screen actor. The yards in Seattle, the Blanchard Boat Company and Lake Union Drydock and across the Sound in Bainbridge Island’s Eagle Harbor at the Winslow Marine Railway and Shipbuilding Company, had built a number of fantails such as: Malibu, Blue Peter, Principia, and the Sueja III. They are so called due to the elliptical or fan shaped stern reminiscent of the turn of the century ships such as the RMS Titantic.
It was the Sueja III on a cruise to California waters, that caught the eye of Hollywood’s popular actor John Barrymore. According to John Kobler in Damned in Paradise, the Life of John Barrymore: “Nothing had so lifted John’s spirits, during intervals between pictures, as his adventures at sea and remote spots ashore.” He became enamored with sailing and purchased the 106-foot gaff-rigged schooner Mariner in 1926, eventually taking her and his new bride and co-star Delores Costello to the Galapagos. In 1929, with Delores pregnant, John, in the prime of his movie career, decided on a bigger boat more or less instantaneously. On seeing the Sueja III (currently active on the East Coast as the Mariner III), he boarded the vessel and demanded to buy it. The owner, Captain James Griffiths of Seattle, refused and referred Barrymore to Geary. Geary, in the act of relocating from Seattle to Long Beach created a 120 foot long, 21.5 foot wide, 10 foot 6 inch draft yacht similar in dimensions and appearance to the Sueja III, but John wanted a steel hull stating that this boat was destined for the “deep ocean”.
Laid down, launched and fitted out in one year by the Craig Shipbuilding Company of Long Beach, powered by twin 275 hp Atlas Imperial diesel engines (which still power her today) with a top speed of 12.5 knots and at a cost of $225,000, Barrymore got what he wanted and named it Infanta for his infant daughter. According to Kobler “In the master stateroom John set up a mahogany bed with a gold-threaded design and mirror glass and a hand-painted Italian landscape on the headboard. Other installations included a glassed-in sun deck, a library with wood-burning fireplace and boxes of soil in which to grow mint for juleps.” And the bar was decorated as a cantina. Infanta was now ready for a world of adventure, but Barrymore’s Hollywood life was denying his desire to “…run down to new Zealand for a fishing trip.”
John Barrymore appeared in 22 films between 1930 to 1937, relegating Infanta to short cruises with few true voyages. One, in 1930, just after Infanta was delivered, was to Cabo San Lucas and possibly points south with Delores and their five month-old daughter Delores whom the family nicknamed Dede. That same year the Infanta went north to Alaska’s Southeast, and again to Juneau in 1931. And in June of 1934, Delores, in an attempt to stop John’s drinking, suggested another trip to Alaska. In Vancouver BC, John jumped ship in evening clothes and on return, reportedly quite drunk, punched their nurse in the nose. With that, Delores and the nurse returned to Los Angeles both to meet with lawyers while John took Infanta north on her strange, extended Alaskan cruise. Finally, in 1935, Barrymore’s long-time skipper, Captain Otto Matthies transited the Panama Canal to meet Barrymore and a new paramour in Miami. They sailed to Havana and here her movements become too difficult to track. By 1937, John was divorced from Delores, an incorrigible alcoholic, incapable of acting and in debt when creditors auctioned Infanta to a New York manufacturer, E.P. Lawson for $77,500. John would die of cirrhosis of the liver within three years at the age of 60.
From the obscure ownership of E.P. Lawson, Infanta was sold to the equally obscure ownership of San Franciscans Edward and Kathryn Lowe. They re-named her Polaris, and had the ship for nearly four years with the tantalizing home port of Juneau, Alaska. And then the US Navy began requisitioning the larger yachts on both coasts for coastal patrol duty as World War II threatened.
In December 1940 the US Navy bought Polaris and sent her to the Winslow Marine Railway and Shipbuilding Co. yard. Just after Pearl Harbor, Polaris left the yard commissioned as the USS Amber, PYc 6 (Patrol Yacht coastal). She was painted Navy gray and stripped of much of her interior woodwork to accommodate possibly 36 officers and men. (A similar 124′ yacht Vasanta was converted to wartime patrol with 36 crew members.) On the bow stood a 3’/50 dual purpose gun and the elegant fantail was roughly cut for two depth charge racks. (One can only wonder what the shock to the hull, engines and crew was while the USS Amber strained at her top 12.5 knot speed to distance herself when or if they ever dropped depth charges.) Designated for Inshore Patrol, 13th Naval District, Seattle, for 6 months the USS Amber operated between Seattle, Tacoma and Port Townsend before being stationed out of Astoria, Oregon and then to patrol the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, most likely home ported at Neah Bay. USS Amber’s sea keeping qualities must have been put to the test at both of these stations.
On October 18, 1944 the USS Amber was decommissioned and on June 13,1945 returned to the previous owners, the Lowe family. It’s uncertain just what the family felt upon the return of their Polaris but dates don’t lie. That same year the Lowe’s sold the ship, still painted gray throughout, to the Macco Construction Company of Clearwater, California to be used for freight and geological surveys.
By 1950, the Infanta, Polaris, USS Amber was 20 years old and for sale. In a predictable parallel, both John Barrymore and Henry Foss of the then Foss Launch and Tug Company, Tacoma, Washington, wanted a bigger boat.
Henry had had the Foss Company build a 60 foot yacht named after his mother and founder of the company, Thea Foss. Thea, in Tacoma in 1889, bought a row boat, painted it white with green trim, sold it and bought more rowboats and in time, with her husband Andrew, built the enterprise up to 27 launches and towboats at her passing in 1927. Thea is considered the personality behind “Tugboat Annie”, the 1933 movie by the same name, starring Marie Dressler and Wallace Berry. So Henry Foss brought his bigger boat, named the Thea Foss back to Tacoma and the restoration began.
Fortunately Foss is a towboat company rich with shipwrights, mates and deckhands and retired towboat men to restore the Thea Foss to her original splendor, but foregoing any idea of the cantina bar. Year after year Foss supported the upkeep and haul outs, some of the volunteers have spent over 40 years keeping her beautiful and crewing on her when she is chartered for cruises on the Salish Sea. During the past 70 years Foss Launch and Tugboat Company would move its headquarters and the Thea Foss to Seattle and become Foss Maritime which in turn has become a subsidiary of Saltchuk, a multi-pronged marine transportation and logistics corporation that, in a final note, is, like the original Foss Company of Tacoma, a family business from Tacoma. And that, Thea Foss, you charmed, beautiful piece of Northwest maritime history, is, as the fate of ships go, pretty damned lucky.
About the images: the on the hard images of Thea Foss were taken in Port Townsend Boat Haven Marina on January 4, 2020 just before Haven Boatworks covered her with a protective shed. She returned to the water in early April. Pacific Motor Boat provided the image of Delores and John Barrymore aboard Infanta in 1930 and the main salon interior. The wartime USS Amber image was most likely taken in the spring of 1941in Elliott Bay, Seattle.
I’d like to thank David Huchthausen, Pacific Northwest Fleet Historian for the Classic Yacht Association, for sourcing the 1929 and 1930 articles and pictures on Infanta in Pacific Motor Boat, Stephen Wilen, also from CYA, for pictures and an excerpt from his and Norm Blanchard’s book Knee Deep in Shavings, Memories of Early Yachting and Boatbuilding on the West Coast, The Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society and the Classic Yacht Association website, John Kobler for writing Damned in Paradise, the Life of John Barrymore, a biographical sketch of Mark Maddock featured in The People of Saltchuck titled: Thea Foss deckhand dedicated to making every trip memorable, and Wikipedia’s articles and links on the USS Amber, Thea Foss/Tugboat Annie and John Barrymore.
This was of specail interest to me. My uncle vernnon wright went to work at foss tug and barge in 1928 at age 20. He was married to Henry’s niece clara. Vernnon ran the foss built tug Brynn Foss from the time of its launching until his retirement in 1969. My father, vernnons half brother went to work at foss in 1950. He bought the retired foss tug carl foss in 1969 when i was 13. She had been built in 1912 as a gilky brothers tug and was bought by foss in 1941 and repowered by a enterprise engine. My father had a falling out with foss over his seniority in 1975 and we went into the towing bussiness in southeast Alaska. Later he also acquired the oswell foss. In 1978 he bought the ex foss tug joe foss from george peterson of peterson boat building. To my regret I never got to ride on the thea but was around her a lot.
I had the good luck to be friends with one of the recent Saltchuk / Foss owners of the Thea Foss (now sadly deceased). Len generously hosted holiday gatherings and Salish Sea / Costal BC trips with our group of friends. The vessel just oozed luxury and class, and the crew of 4 were so devoted to our comfort and enjoyment, and mostly to the Thea Foss. I knew I was experiencing something special, but this write-up of her history, and some of the characters involved in her 90 years, was really fascinating and makes my memories even sweeter. I doubt I’ll ever have the opportunity to board her again, but whenever I am biking or walking around South Lake Union, I sometimes spy her from shore, comfortably docked in her slip, and I stop to admire for a while.
I had the distinct privilege to work on the Thea Foss during the summers between 1963 and 1968. The pay was paltry (5$ per day for a 16 hour day , seven days a week) but the experience was priceless. Normally the crew number from 5 to 6 and, in those years, the captain was Russ Gross, Alfie Pedersen the celebrated cook and Herb Ellison as the engineer. In June the Thea would go to Vancouver, BC where I would take a train from Seattle to join the crew. Every week we would take senior businessmen and their family up the BC coast, often to Hardy and Stuart Islands for fishing. On several occasions, we sighted the Campana, a yacht owned by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Their crew was always in dress white while the Thea didn’t care: just do your job. And we did. I met Henry and Agnes Foss, Drew Foss and Sid Campbell: they could not have been nicer people.
What an experience for a once 14 year old kid.
Michael M. Pixley
Thank you so much for the history of one of my favorite boats. I’ve seen her quite a few times on the water, mostly on Lake Washington in the early evening hours as I was paddling along enjoying my solitude, or on the way back to Bainbridge island after a few beers at Ray’s boathouse, her interior lights glowing. I’ve always admired the graceful lines and simple, elegant beauty of these large fantails. To me, she looks the way a motor yacht should look, nothing gaudy or tasteless about her. I had heard bits and pieces about her history, but never the entire glamorous and adventurous story. What a gift!