Dream Boats: wooden speedboats are cruising again

Pull up to a dock in a mahogany speedboat, polished like a Stradivarius with coat after coat of varnish, a classic engine rumbling like distant thunder, and you connect with a potent brand of refined retro cool. Imagine George Clooney soaring over Lake Como in a gleaming antique Riva, for example, or JFK in his Century Restofus runabout, or Frank and Dino and Sammy racing Lake Tahoe in arguably the most famous wooden speedboat. of all, the 55 footer

“A mahogany speedboat takes you to another era,” says Mike Turcotte, vice president of his family’s venerable Gar Wood Custom Boats. “These are elegant, high-end boats built in the traditional way, with mahogany in the keel and matching wood grain from starboard to port.”

There is a thriving resale market for these beautiful old-fashioned runabouts, some of which are now over a century old. (Minnesota broker Mahogany Bay, for example, is currently offering a 25-foot 1915 Speedway for $25,000.) High. New models made by luxury builders like Hacker-Craft, Gar Wood, Grand Craft, Van Dam, StanCraft and Streblow retain their classic chic without the many tedious maintenance issues that come with heritage boats.

The greatest mid-century icons of wooden speedboats, Chris-Craft in the United States and Riva in Italy, passed from the hands of their founding families and transitioned from wooden hulls to fiberglass. (Although the old Rivas remain something of a gold standard. “It’s the guys with the sweaters over their shoulders and girlfriends who look better than them,” jokes Matt Smith, editor of woodyboater.com.) Legacy businesses that remain are almost all family operations, some dedicated to producing one or two boats a year.

Hull Department of Hacker-Craft.

Photograph by Christopher Payne

Improve a classic

“I wanted to find a business that motivated me,” says Patrick Gallagher, a wooden boat enthusiast from Wisconsin who recently found himself looking for a career change in his 40s. On impulse, he cold-called the owner of Grand Craft, one of America’s best-known luxury builders. A few months later, in 2020, Gallagher had bought the company, and found himself with a lot of work on his hands. “They were knocked out in the 2008 recession and never really got back to their production levels,” he says. “Whether it was craftsmen retirements or whatever, the business had shrunk. We had to inflate the balloon.

“Reinflation” in Gallagher’s terms meant gradually increasing production to perhaps 15 boats a year from one or two. But that’s a deceptively modest goal: building a boat like the Burnham, Grand Craft’s flagship 26-foot model, can take 5,000 hours of labor. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Gallagher moved Grand Craft from Michigan to its Lake Geneva, Wisconsin home base and set about rethinking the process, with a contemporary workplace, artisans of the old school and an invigorating dose of modern technology.

Among other things, “Every piece of wood that builds our boats is now modeled with computer-aided design software,” says Gallagher. “We give this to our mahogany supplier and the pieces are then laser cut. We marry our finish carpentry with technology and this results in our boats being better designed than ever before.

A boat builder lays the bottom of a new Hacker-Craft.

Photograph by Christopher Payne

And Grand Craft’s boats, like those of its luxury competitors, are also drier, sturdier and easier to maintain than boats of the past. The hulls of older wooden boats, for example, require pre-soaking after being out of the water for a period of time to further inflate their board. And many will still take on water and suffer from wood rot.

The new mahogany runabouts use techniques such as multi-layered plank systems and epoxy coated interior planks to eliminate contact between the wood surface and water. The new boats are high quality, heirloom quality boats, like the older boats, only waterproof. “Our boats are warranted for life against wood rot and water intrusion,” says Jeremy Pearson, global sales manager for Boyne City, Michigan-based one-builder Van Dam. “We expect them to outlive us all.”

A Vintage Aesthetic

Proponents claim that mahogany boats produced today require no more TLC than their fiberglass counterparts, and note that wooden boats can be outfitted with all the options you can.

install on a fiberglass model, from bow thrusters to GPS to underwater lights. Of course, many builders try hard not to let modern equipment spoil the vintage aesthetic.

“We try hard to conceal that,” says Turcotte of Gar Wood. “We replicate everything from the original instrument clusters and gauges to the upholstery. When this boat comes to the dock, it looks like 1937.”

Wooden boats, too, are well known to roll like it’s 1937, a nautical experience that enthusiasts consider to be as endangered as the giant panda. “It’s day and night,” says Erin Badcock, chief operating officer of Hacker-Craft, the oldest of the builders inherited from his family. “Our classic runabout is designed as a displacement hull, so it really slices through the water. You’re not rolling bow-to-toe at the top of the waves to get on a plane, with that snapping motion you get with some fiberglass boats. It’s just a smoother ride overall; you feel like you’re sliding.

*** SINGLE USE *** Craftsman applying coats of varnish to fresh 23 karat gold leaf numbers on a new Custom 33′ Racer, Hacker-Craft factory, Queensbury, NY.

Photograph by Christopher Payne

“They’re fast as hell,” says Gallagher. “From apples to apples, a wooden boat is lighter than fiberglass, and any engine you can put in a fiberglass boat can fit in one of ours.”

The shiver of the wind blowing through your hair recalls the origins of these speedboats, when John Hacker ran the 1911 racing competitions with Kitty Hawk, whose clean lines were interrupted by six vertical exhaust pipes, angled like rocket launchers. rockets. Or Garfield Wood’s 1917-21 Gold Cup winners, ultimately targeted by the Cup rules committee, who made it clear that they preferred “gentleman’s runabouts” to Wood’s aero-engined torpedoes. Even without aircraft engines, new-build boats also follow suit. Stan Craft’s signature Rivelle model, for example, equipped with its two standard 430-hp Ilmor engines, hits 65 miles per hour.

Whether speeding or floating at anchor in sunny seas with, say, Rita Hayworth sunning herself on the foredeck while the Aga Khan lounges in the cockpit, the mahogany speedboats capture more than the look, they encompass a whole catalog of aspirations and associations. “When you’re on the water in one of these boats, there’s just a feeling that, well, I don’t even know a word for that feeling,” Smith says. “It’s a spiritual experience.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of penta magazine.

Earnest A. Martinez