In 1922, John Ringling purchased a new yacht, which was christened the Zalophus, Latin for sea lion. The 125-foot all-steel vessel with a 12 ft. beam and a draft of 4 ft. was designed for the Gulf waters by the Consolidated Ship-building Corporation of Morris Heights, New York. The boat cost $200,000. With 6,200 gallons of oil onboard, it had a cruising radius of 4,000 miles.
Because of the modern design and workmanship, the yacht was featured in many of the boating magazines of the time and was used in advertisements. One review noted that "All equipment that has been specified for us in the Zalophus, by the owner, is to be the best procurable at this time, and to be of the most modern design."
The Ringling’s used the houseboat to entertain friends and business associates as well as to demonstrate the charm and opportunities of Sarasota to possible financial investors. The yacht boasted a luxurious salon with wall-to-wall carpeting (some of the furnishings, like the needlepoint upholstered Astor chairs, are now displayed in the Ca' d'Zan), and numerous rooms for a host of guests.
With such a large and heavy vessel, running aground was always a possibility. On March 22, 1926, the Zalophus ran aground in Sarasota Bay when traveling from St. Petersburg to Sarasota. Making the trip with Ringling was Jimmy Walker, the Mayor of New York. Accompanying them were three New York newspaper correspondents, who joked, "At last we have you, Mr. Mayor, where you can't get away from us!" However, Ringling and the Mayor set off in a motor boat, with Ringling calling out, "Just make yourselves at home, boys. The boat's yours," to the unfortunate newspapermen.
"But the mayor's troubles were not so easily disposed of," read the resulting report in the New York Times on March 23, 1926. "Soon after the lifeboat had disappeared from the yacht the motor broke down. Its passengers sat in the stern while the pilot fixed the engine. Finally, the engine sputtered and started, but after two miles, it balked again. 'And I was thinking I might have been back on that spacious yacht instead of rolling around in the middle of nothing,' said the Mayor dolefully."
The Mayor of New York survived that adventure, as did the Zalophus, but both would experience less than smooth sailing a few years later. On February 4, 1930, while John Ringling was away, circus showman Sam Gumpertz borrowed the yacht to motor to Useppa Island with friends and family. At 3 AM, the boat hit an object about a mile off Lido Key and sank in the 12 feet of water. All those on board made it safely to shore while heavy seas battered the yacht. A statement was issued that there were four passengers onboard at the time, however later it was revealed that Mayor Walker and his friend, the actor Betty Compton, were also present but whisked to Ft Myers to avoid scandal.
The contents and pieces of the yacht washed ashore along the coast, some reaching as far as Cortez, 20 miles north. The ship's wheel and compass were recovered by diving around the submerged ship after the accident. The wheel has recently been given to The Ringling.
On display currently in the suite of rooms in the Ca' d'Zan where Charles and Hedwig Tomlinson lived, the valet and maid for John and Mable Ringling, are a series of photos of the Ringling's last luxury yachts, the Zalophus and the Zalophus Jr. These images were provided from Ida Ringling's Great Granddaughter, the daughter of Wellington Heusted, who was the yacht captain, and the son of another yacht captain, Arthur Roan. Seen in these images are John and Mable and their family, as well as friends including William J Burns of the Burn's International Detective Agency (which later became the FBI) and Tex Rickard of Madison Square Garden.
A small terra cotta guesthouse on The Ringling grounds (tucked out of sight behind the banyans and not open to the public) was the home of Captain Heusted and his wife. Their son worked for Ringling for three years as the engineer for Zalophus, and is shown in one of the photos on display. Today, The Captain's Cottage occasionally houses visiting artists installing their work or performing at The Ringling.