Mahogany Boats: A True-blue Tradition

June 20, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

ST. MICHAELS -- In the elite company of vintage power boat owners, anyone who dares tout the virtues of fiberglass may end up walking the plank -- and a wooden plank at that.

No synthetic decks or hulls for this crowd. Mahogany is their mien, especially in the form of a boat built during the first half of this century by manufacturers such as as Chris-Craft, Hacker Craft and Gar Wood.

The lure of the wooden power boat is so strong in some circles that hundreds of people ignored yesterday's heat just to gaze at more than 70 such vessels at the Antique and Classic Boat Festival here.

The festival, which began six years ago as a way for boat owners to show off their prized watercraft, now includes old automobiles and a flea market where hard-to-find boat parts are traded and sold. The show ends at noon today at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

What's so great about old wooden power boats that their owners will spend thousands of dollars and hours restoring them?

"They look nice. They run nice. They make a nice noise. And the people who own them are nice, too," says Tab Miller, commodore of the Chesapeake Bay chapter of the Antique and Classic Boat Society.

Those who own these vessels see themselves as a special class of boater, more serious about maritime matters than the typical fiberglass power boat captain and at least on a par with sailboat owners.

These boaters like the way a wood grain seems magnified by clear spar varnish, the way a sleek wooden hull zips across the water, the way hand-rubbed planks carry the tickling vibration of a gas-powered inboard motor.

According to ACBS standards, antique boats are those built from 1919 to 1942. Classics were built between 1942 and 1968. JTC Anything built during the last 25 years is considered a contemporary and does not carry the older vessels' cachet.

Vintage boats generally fall into three categories -- cruisers, runabouts and the open-decked utilities. At the St. Michaels festival, boats range in age and size from a 54-foot Petersen-built triple cabin cruiser first launched in 1937 to a 13-foot Aristo Craft, complete with a red and white outboard motor, built in 1956.

"A lot of these boats are babied, but a fair number are used regularly," says festival chairman Scott Tompkins. Mr. Miller, a Severna Park resident, owns a restored 1947 Gar Wood utility.

While many boat owners claim the nostalgic value is most important to them, the financial investments are hard to overlook.

Boat restorer Steen Melby paid $4,200 for his 29-foot Hacker Craft in 1988. When it was sold in 1928, the boat went for $5,150. After working on his boat for nine months to get it into mint condition, Mr. Melby says: "Today, it would sell for anywhere between $80,000 and $100,000."

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