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Colleagues remember legendary yacht broker Bartram

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Legendary yacht broker J. Burr “Joe” Bartram Jr. passed away peacefully at his home in Ft. Lauderdale on Christmas Eve after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 79.

The silver-haired broker was best known for his charming demeanor, gracious friendliness and ethical business dealings.

“We’ve lost a true gentleman,” said Capt. Rusty Allen, who first met Mr. Bartram in the late 1980s.

Mr. Bartram’s yachting career spanned the length and breadth of contemporary yachting itself. Born on July 12, 1934, he joined yachting as a young man in the late 1950s as a broker with Northrop & Johnson in Stamford, Conn. In 1967, he broke off with his friend Bruce Brakenhoff Sr. to start the firm that still bears their names, Bartram & Brakenhoff.

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Yacht broker J. Burr “Joe” Bartram Jr. Photo by Lucy Reed

He was an active member of the New York Yacht Club and a founder of the NYYC’s Harbour Court in Newport. He served on many NYYC committees and was active in several America’s Cup syndicates, including as co-manager of the Courageous Syndicate, which successfully defended the Cup in 1974.

He was also a member of the Indian Harbor Yacht Club in Greenwich, Conn., and the Storm Trysail Club, the invitation-only organization of bluewater sailors.

Set in that circle of yachtsmen, many of his clients — though most would call themselves friends, not clients — naturally came from old New England money, and many of the yachts he specialized in were what are now considered classic sailing and motor yachts, including Trumpys and the Feadships of the 1980s.

“We always said, ‘If you want to buy a slow boat, call Joe’,” said Jimmy Floyd, sales and marketing manager with Bradford Marine in Ft. Lauderdale.

Mr. Bartram was honored with a lifetime achievement award in early December from Ocean Reef Club’s Vintage Weekend committee for everything he’s contributed to the classic boat community over the years.

Perhaps more than being known for the style of yacht he sold, Mr. Bartram was known for the style of brokerage he embraced. Capt. Allen recalls one deal he witnessed firsthand when his boss, through his broker Kit Denison, put an offer in on a yacht Mr. Bartram had listed, the 116-foot classic canoe-stern Feadship M/Y Lady Angela.

Mr. Bartram had received a verbal offer (but no deposit) from a prospective buyer and told Capt. Allen’s boss about it. About a week later, the verbal deal fell through and Allen’s boss bought the yacht.

“It just showed how Joe played by the rules,” said Capt Allen, who spent 12 years with that owner and also skippered M/Y The Highlander for a time. He is now a rotational captain with the Natita fleet. “Joe was a gentleman and his word was his bond. … No disrespect to brokers today but they broke the mold when Joe passed away.”

To the people closest to him, however, Mr. Bartram will be remembered mostly for his fun, friendly and generous spirit, from setting a mooring ball off his home for yachts to tie up to, to expanding his dock to make way for fuel trucks, to opening his home to captains and crew far from family.

“Everybody went to Joe’s house for fuel, everybody,” said Capt. Butch Vogelsang, most recently of the 170-foot Feadship M/Y Dream. “Joe was the go-to guy. If you had an issue, you’d call Joe and he’d say ‘come to my house’. How’s that for service?”

Mr. Bartram’s nephew Alex Clarke, a broker with Denison Yacht Sales, wrote this on his company’s web site in memory of his uncle:

“I grew up spending the month of August in his guest cottage with my mom, dad and sister,” Clarke wrote. “I can’t remember a weekend going by when that mooring ball was empty, always having a yacht tied up like famous yachts such as M/Y Stone Face with the Farbers, or M/Y Destiny with Freddie Appleton.

“Every time a yacht would drop lines to depart, Unkie Joe would hop in his golf cart (with the Snoopy bobble head on the dash) with one of his numerous Labrador Retrievers by his side sitting shotgun. He would race down to the end of the dock, position his brass cannon and send them off with proper yachting etiquette with a traditional sounding of the cannon.

“Of course, the yachts would blast their horns in response,” he wrote. “Normally, a battle would begin as he would normally sound the cannon numerous times, then the yacht would blast its horn, and this would continue until the yacht would disappear around the point.

“Classic ‘Unkie Joe’.”

To many who started in yachting in the 1980s, it was those summers at Mr. Bartram’s home in Marion, Mass., on Buzzard’s Bay — which he called Caritas — that carry their strongest memories of “Unkie Joe”, as he became known to the fleet of captains and crew who spent time with him.

Jimmy Floyd was young when they met. Working for his uncle, Jimmy Smallwood, he helped drum up business, walking the docks in Newport, telling people “I’m Jimmy from Smallwoods.” Mr. Bartram called his friend Smallwood to warn him that “someone is walking the docks impersonating you.”

Smallwood told his nephew to go introduce himself, “which I did, and that started a long friendship,” Floyd said. “Every summer after that, I spent a weekend at Joe Bartram’s house. I was new to this so that was over the top for me. There was always a big dinner and we’d watch old videos of old America’s Cup races.

“Joe loved young people,” Floyd said. “Never once when I was there was I the only one there. There were always other people around. He was really young at heart, and he just liked being surrounded by youth.”

Mr. Bartram spent most of his life a bachelor, marrying only recently. He never had any children of his own, but became like a father-figure to many of the young yachties he helped place on yachts through his relationships with owners.

“He loved crew,” said David Lacz, a former yacht captain who bought the Bartram & Brakenhoff firm in 1998. “Here’s a man who never had any children. His children were the crew, the chefs, the mates, the stews, the engineers, the captains. He looked after everybody. I think he’d like that to be what he was remembered for.”

He is.

Capt. Len Beck, most recently of M/Y Battered Bull, was a young first mate aboard the 1963 Burger M/Y Curt C, travelling the Mississippi River with Mr. Bartram as a guest. He recalled their first meeting clearly, Mr. Bartram looking sideways at him in the wheelhouse and saying, “You gonna keep that beard?”

“He sort of just glanced at me, his coffee cup about chest-high,” Beck said. “I thought I looked fantastic and nautical with it. I was 24, maybe. “That echoed in my mind and stayed with me in my yachting career, that real subtle ‘you gonna keep that beard?’”

Mr. Bartram didn’t tell Beck he should shave, he just asked the question, and drank his coffee. And Beck shaved his beard.

Beck remembers, too, the summers at the original Caritas, the home Mr. Bartram owned in Marion from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s where “we all went between trips.”

“He had a big stone wharf where you’d see two Feadships docked stern-to on the outside and an 85-95-foot Burger like mine on the inside,” Beck said. “Summer was a social occasion and it was there that I met people like Billy Zinser [now of M/Y Cakewalk] and Freddie Appleton,” a legendary charter captain who passed away several years ago.

In addition to those social gatherings, what Beck said he remembers most about Mr. Bartram is the human part.

“It was just the way Joe treated everybody,” Beck said. “He was a gentleman. If you spent any time at all with Joe, you always felt better afterward. He made everybody feel welcome, made everybody feel valued. … He was part of my yachting upbringing, that’s for sure.”

Even the name of Mr. Bartram’s estate — Caritas — reflects something about him. It is a Latin term for charity, and is one of the three theological virtues (faith and hope are the others).

“The first time I met Joe, he knew about the previous boat I ran and he said ‘you just did a trans-Atlantic’,” said Capt. Vogelsang, who was fresh off a yacht he said really wasn’t meant for bluewater. “I said I had and he said ‘I would have thought you were smarter than that.’ He knew everything. I was stupid enough to do it and Joe was right, I shouldn’t have done it.”

Mr. Bartram mentored and befriended countless yacht crew in his 60 years in yachting.

“The list can never be measured as his ethics, good nature, giving spirit, and love has been passed on to generations and will continue to reverberate through the industry long into the future,” his nephew Clarke wrote.

Mr. Bartram and Mr. Brakenhoff Sr. sold their brokerage firm in 1998 to Lacz, who had just joined the firm two years before. Mr. Brakenhoff died in 2012.

“They were like a second and third father to me,” Lacz said. “When I started working for Joe and Bruce, I was working the Miami show, wearing a shirt with the logo on it, and people would point and say “Say hi to Joe for me’, or ‘Say hi to Bruce’ or ‘great company, great people.’ At the beginning of the show, I was nervous and timid, but by the end of the show, I was so proud to be working for them.”

Though the financial reward might have been greater with bigger firms, Lacz said he knew the men and their history enough to know that their firm was where he wanted to begin.

“I wanted him to teach me the right way to sell boats,” he said of Mr. Bartram, who of the two men was the one more often showing boats and meeting clients. “I wasn’t interested so much in the money; I just wanted to learn the right way, the honest way. … I wanted to learn from the best.”

Getting started wasn’t easy. It took Lacz months, he said, to get a foot in the door and finally a brokerage position, one that didn’t exist when he came calling. But it was worth it, he said. What he learned from Mr. Bartram was the old school way of selling boats.

“Joe would not talk about his deals to anybody,” said Lacz, a trait he carries on today. “In time I came to realize that our business is very competitive. I learned very early from Joe that loose lips sink ships.

“Joe respected his clients too much,” he said. “Who are we to go out and brag about the people buying boats, saying I just sold a boat to so-and-so? We hardly ever send out announcements. I get a lot of flack for that now, people saying I need to market the company more, but Joe hated publicity. He would never send out a press release announcing what boat he just sold.”

Lacz traces that back to Mr. Bartram’s roots as a yachtsman.

“When the sun came up, the flag went up; when the sun went down, the flag went down,” he said. “The yacht had to be properly presented, the blue light on, the blue light off, the owner’s light on or off, the burgee flown. Even at his house, if the flag was up after sunset, it had a light on it.

“Some crew don’t even know about colors, and that would make him nuts,” he said. “Joe was an old school yachtsman.”

Mr. Bartram relocated to Ft. Lauderdale in 2001, where he continued to sell yachts and carried on the tradition of opening his home to the yacht crew, even in the months and weeks before his death.

“In his house in Ft. Lauderdale on the New River, he had an air whistle installed to continue saluting yacht traffic as it passed by,” Clarke wrote. “Since he lost his battle to cancer, yachts have continued sounding their horn in his honor.”

Mr. Bartram is survived by his wife, Barbara, his sister, Nina Griswold, numerous nieces and nephews, and hundreds of friends. In lieu of flowers, his family has asked that donations be sent to Carpenters Boat Shop, 440 Old County Road, Pemaquid, Maine, 04558, to the attention of Robert Ives. Donations may also be sent to Lahey Clinic, 41 Mall Road, Burlington, Mass., 01805.

“Joe was definitely unique, even then,” Beck said of those early days in Marion. “I didn’t know many brokers yet but it was easy to see that Joe wasn’t the average guy. … And he never wanted the limelight. He did what he liked doing. It just ended up that he touched people.”

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at lucy@the-triton.com or through facebook.com/tritonnews.

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