Though Mayor C. Ray Nagin has recently encountered stormy seas regarding an aide’s affiliation with one, New Orleans was once proud to have a yacht available for entertaining dignitaries and showing off the port – that yacht belonged to the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans (the Dock Board) and was named the Good Neighbor. 

CHRONICLES: TRAVELS ON THE GOOD NEIGHBORFor two decades, from 1946 to ‘66, the Good Neighbor sailed the Mississippi River – a floating reception hall and welcome center that offered a taste of luxury travel along with an informative tour of a working port.

The name Good Neighbor recalls an American foreign policy objective in the period between World Wars I and II – being good neighbors, especially to Latin American nations; using diplomacy and commerce to keep allies. In Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address he announced this Good Neighbor policy: “I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor – the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others.”

Delesseps S. Morrison, mayor of New Orleans in the 1940s and ‘50s, worked hard to foster Latin American relations and promoted the city as the “Gateway to the Americas.” The Dock Board, in choosing a name for their yacht, was in synch with the Mayor’s attitude. 

The Dock Board purchased the yacht in December of 1945 for $25,000 from a broker, W.N. Macdonald, who had just purchased it from the Canadian government.

Former Dock Board president Robert L. Simpson called the ship “the finest harbor inspection vessel in the country” when it arrived here in August of 1946. The captain, John A. Rucker, had sailed it from Canada to Florida for renovation before bringing it to its new home. Rucker would stay with the Good Neighbor until his retirement in ‘66.

The ship was 153 feet long, 24.5 feet wide and had a draft of nine and a half feet. It was designed in 1929 by New York naval architect John H. Wells and was built by the Defoe Shipbuilding Company in Bay City, Mich., for Charles Fisher – one of seven brothers who owned a motor parts company. “Body by Fisher” was a proud boast of General Motors cars and eventually the automaker purchased the Fisher firm.

Fisher paid approximately $750,000 for the yacht in 1930 and he named it the Saramar III. It was luxurious, with teak decks, a grand salon and staterooms – it even had a working fireplace. In ‘34, Fisher sold it to Charles T. Levey who renamed it the Wild Duck. In ‘40, Levey sold it again, this time to a Canadian – G. H. Duggan – who turned it over to the Canadian government, where it was christened the Husky. The Husky, equipped with depth charges, saw wartime service patrolling the Atlantic seaboard.

According to Ned Read, who was employed by Dock Board in 1963 and served as Port Director from ‘70 to his retirement in ‘86, the Husky earned half a credit (sharing with a Canadian aircraft) for sinking a German U-boat.

New Orleans’ newly named Good Neighbor was “expensive to operate – it was twin screw [with two engines] and actually had two separate engine rooms and you had to man both,” says Read. “Plus, it was just an expensive, big yacht! It had teak decks and a lovely galley. You could turn out some wonderful food!”

The Dock Board used the Good Neighbor to honor important visitors and show off the port to visiting shipping executives and possible investors. New Orleans Item reporter Thomas Sancton (whose son Tom Sancton recently published a memoir of growing up in New Orleans, Song for My Fathers) described a typical Good Neighbor cruise for some Memphis business and political figures:

“The first run is downstream, part the freighters, the passenger-freighters, the luxury cruisers, the sweeping vista of Canal Street, the puffing ferries, the aluminum boats, the little oyster luggers at Barracks Street, the tall spires of the St. Louis Cathedral, the new Esplanade Wharf, the Industrial Canal … Mustachioed Louis L. Bourgeois, director of commerce, deluges them with dollar-sign statistics, a spat of figures, a masterful ‘come-on’ spiel … when the Good Neighbor docks, New Orleans has made its ‘pitch,’ in the lingo of the salesmen.”

Besides the port business, the Good Neighbor was a prized party spot. Cherie Bañños Schneider recalls the yacht as “an international meeting place for a lot of dignitaries – it was New Orleans hospitality and they loved it!” King Paul and Queen Frederika of Greece, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, King Hussein of Jordan and even Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz spent time on board while visiting the city.

Read says, “When I was there they did not allow liquor on board.” One exception was made: “General Charles de Gaulle demanded that he be allowed to bring his case of champagne with him!”

By 1966, the expense of running a yacht could no longer be borne by the Dock Board. The ship was sold and then changed hands several times – at one point being used as a scuba diving boat in Honduras. Finally, under ownership of attorney Samuel Exnicios, it was berthed in Morgan City when vandals set it on fire. It burned and sank.

In 1977, Russell Cuoco (the late owner of Russell’s Cleaners) purchased the boat and began restoration. He called on a trusted painting contractor for help. Lawrence Keller still remembers Cuoco’s strong effort.

Keller notes, “The fire burned all that teak deck off. He had to put sheet iron over that entire deck. The fire had softened some of the metal, too,” Cuoco added a bar and outfitted the yacht to serve as a floating restaurant, planning to seat 150 in two dining rooms with seating for another 150 in the observation deck. Keller ultimately took care of “all of the painting on that yacht, with the exception of the hull.” The Good Neighbor opened in 1979 as a restaurant berthed on the lakefront near the Orleans Marina.

By 1988, Cuoco had sold the Good Neighbor and it had been moved to Pensacola, again as a floating restaurant. From there it was purchased by two partners from Ocean Springs, Miss.: Danny Cross and Randy Bos.

Amazingly, the Good Neighbor survived Katrina. Berthed in the Escatawpa River at Moss Point, Miss.,  “there was water all around her everywhere, but she was still sound,” says Bos.

The yacht exists but there was storm damage – the engines are “pickled, is how I would describe it” and the wheelhouse is wrecked, Bos explains. He hopes to refurbish the boat and again use it as a restaurant.

For now, those heady days of royalty walking its decks are long gone. 
If you want to see the Good Neighbor, take I-10 to Exit 69 South in Moss Point. When you go over the high rise Escatawpa River bridge, look back on your right – you’ll see the long white yacht that’s still afloat, even if it’s not at its best.