Keeping The Past Alive: Restoring Wooden Boats

By Brent Frazee & Elaine Lembo

Meet these passionate boaters who share the same devotion to restoring vintage craft.

Terry Hart

Restored wooden ski boatTurning the past into the present: Terry Hart salvages sunken wooden boats, then restores them to their former glory.

As Terry Hart's ski boat knifes through the waves on Lake of the Ozarks, he commands attention. Some boaters steer closer to get a good look. Others wave or honk their horns.

It isn't every day that you see a boat like Hart's on the big lake. His 1961 wooden Chris-Craft ski boat is definitely a showboat, and a magnet for attention on the water.

"This is our go-to-dinner boat," Hart said above the rumbling of the engine. "When we pull up to a waterfront restaurant, people aren't rushing out to look at the million-dollar cruisers that dock there," he says. "They're coming out to look at our old wooden boat."

The ski boat, which Hart named Chug in honor of her past owner's sons, Charles and Doug, is a reminder of the lake's rich past when wooden boats were common. Spot one on Lake of the Ozarks and, chances are, Hart is behind the steering wheel. He's owned as many as 25 classic and antique wooden boats.

Society Of Wood Boat Aficionados

Among a select group of discerning boaters, Kathy Parker would much rather cruise the lake in a vintage boat than a new one.

"Being seen in a vintage boat lets viewers know that you are not just satisfied with the ordinary," says Parker, the interim director of the national Antique and Classic Boat Society (ACBS).

Parker finds it easy to promote the lifestyle her organization is dedicated to. She and her husband, Don, live near Table Rock Lake in the Missouri Ozarks, and they have three vintage boats — a 1965 Carver, a 1954 Chris Craft, and a 1989 Century Arabian.

"We came from Nebraska where there aren't many good boating lakes," Parker said. "Now in retirement years, we get to enjoy living by a lake."

Many others are enjoying that same lifestyle. That is reflected through the ACBS membership, which counts more than 12,000 members nationally and includes almost 100 boats that were built in the 19th century. The oldest was launched in 1860.

How old does a boat have to be before it is considered an antique? The society has five categories:

  •  Historic: A boat built up to and including 1918
  •  Antique: A boat built between 1919 and 1942
  •  Classic: A boat built between 1943 and 1975
  •  Late Classic: A boat built after 1975 up to the time 25 years prior to the current year
  •  Contemporary: A wooden boat built in the last 25 years

ACBS is an international organization. There are chapters in the United States, Canada, and France, but there are members from New Zealand, Australia, Bermuda, Germany, England, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Puerto Rico, China, Spain, Switzerland, and the Virgin Islands.

The most common vintage boat is a Chris-Craft. But there also are many Century boats. And in the Midwest, Higgins, Lyman, Thompson, and Dunphy are all lapstrake boats that are popular.

The cost and value of antique and classic boats vary widely with the condition they are in when purchased. For example, many collectors pay less than $10,000 for a boat that has been sitting in storage for years and put in the time to restore it themselves. Rare and fully restored boats can cost much higher.

For more information on the ACBS, visit ACBS.org.

— Brent Frazee

"Some people would call me a hoarder," Hart says with a laugh. "I prefer to call myself a collector. I'm just fascinated by these old wooden boats. Each of them has a story." In Chug's case, that story can be traced to the former CEO of 7-Up, who used the boat in Michigan. When the boat was only two years old, he advertised it for sale, and Hart's uncle purchased it and brought it to Lake of the Ozarks, where he and his family used it for about five years. Eventually, Hart's relative fell ill and the boat sat unused for three years.

When Hart purchased the boat, he lifted the cover to find wasp nests and mildew. He later discovered there was some wood rot on the bottom. He brought it back to his shop and spent several months working on it, putting in 1,000 hours of sanding, varnishing, painting, and working on the mahogany. By the time he was done, he and his wife, Sue, were ready to start cruising.

"This boat will go 40 miles per hour, tops. And I sure didn't buy it for its ride. It's a rough-riding boat," says Hart, 64, who lives in Lake Ozark, Missouri. "I love these boats' history, and I was looking forward to really working on one and getting it back to good running shape."

Reclaiming The Past

Hart doesn't have to kick around old storage sheds and barns to find the vintage boats he desires. He owns a long-standing dive and salvage business at the sprawling lake located in central Missouri, and that gives him ready access to the old boats he restores.

"A lot of the boats that we find have sunk from neglect right at the dock. We'll pull them up and we'll buy them from either the owner or the insurance company," he says. "If they're not damaged too badly, they can be saved."

Often, Hart will strip them down and just rebuild them with wood like cedar or oak. So by the time Hart and his crew members are done, boats such as Chug must be worth a lot, right? Well, not exactly. Hart estimates that Chug might be worth $25,000 at most. "One time a guy asked me how much it would take to buy my boat," he says. "I threw out what I thought was a high figure, $13,000, thinking there was no way he would go for it. Well, he did, and I had to back out of it."

The masterpiece of Hart's present collection is a 1926 Lake Union Dreamboat, an ahead-of-its-time cabin cruiser. That boat features a rich wood finish, sliding windows, a cabin with living space, sleeping quarters, and a galley.

"It was being restored on this lake, and the owner had already put $90,000 in it," Hart says. "But he didn't get it done. We saved it from sinking, and the owner didn't want to part it out, so we bought it."

In the winter months, Hart can be found in his workshop, restoring vintage boats. "We do it all," Hart said. "We do the sanding, woodwork, painting, varnishing, upholstery, engine, everything.

"It really is fun to compare what shape some of these boats were in when we got them and how they look after we're done."

— Brent Frazee

A Passion For Wooden Boats

Kevin Hogan and his wife, Jeanne, who live in Olathe, Kansas, are among the many who share a passion for wooden boats. They have displayed their 1958 Century 21-foot Coronado at local boat shows and other events.

Kevin and Jeanne Hogan

"We decided to name it Love Me Timber because it's a wooden boat," Hogan says.

This is the second classic boat Hogan has purchased. A retired industrial-arts teacher, he was looking for a project he could enjoy. He found one when he bid for a 1954 Century Resorter runabout.

"I got it for $2,050," he says.

He also got a big challenge. The boat was stripped, except for the hardware and the engine. So Hogan went to work on his restoration. "It was ready for the burn pile," he says. "Everything was rotten."

It took Hogan 1,200 hours to restore the boat to its stylish self. Then he and Jeanne were able to launch it and get out on the water.

"It was a thrilling moment when we were able to use it for the first time," he said.

Eugene Lee

Tony-award-winning set designer Eugene LeeSuch drama rises from boats: For Tony-award-winner Eugene Lee, theatrical set design and wooden boats go tongue and groove. (Photo: Billy Black)

The mind of Eugene Lee works in intricate ways, which helps explain how the Tony-award-winning set designer approaches his trade. He hopes to immerse all your senses in the experience of live theater, so you forget about everything else and are completely enveloped in the now. For this man, whose name is most associated with "Saturday Night Live" and "Wicked," television and theater are work. His passion? Owning and restoring wooden boats.

"You know, I've never met a stagehand who didn't love boating," Lee says. "If that's not a sign from the universe that I've chosen the perfect profession and hobby, I don't know what is." Lee's wood fleet totals about 10, including a Concordia 31, a pair of Laurent Giles-designed Vertue sloops, a couple of Herreshoff 12-1/2s, a Herreshoff Buzzards Bay 15, a Beetle Cat, a Pete Culler lapstrake yawl, and a Pulsifer Hampton launch.

The 79-year-old Lee, whose career spans more than 40 years, better resembles a Yankee shipwright than a denizen of the Great White Way. Round, clear eyeglasses frame a balding head of gray hair. Red, white, and blue suspenders hold up rugged khakis over his thin frame. Worn-out boat shoes complete the picture. He may be unassuming, but whether advising Steve Martin and Edie Brickell on their Broadway musical "Bright Star," or showing off a scale model of the miniature Manhattan skyline he created for "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," he's still in the thick of A-list entertainment.

Connecting A Fleet Of Passions

Lee commutes into New York City weekly from his home and studio in Providence, Rhode Island, which he shares with his wife, Brooke. Wedged into every square foot, Lee's house and work space are eclectic collections, among them miniature barnyard animals, model skyscrapers, old typewriters, fans, framed prints, wooden stacking toys, T-squares, salt-and-pepper shakers, oars, vintage wooden rulers, giant clothespins, at least one life-size stuffed bear, walking canes, and canisters of pencils. Surrounded by all this stuff, and with the score of "Bright Star" playing on the stereo, he talks about his fleet of wood sailboats.

Eclectic collections are wedged into every corner of Lee's work spaceEclectic collections are wedged into every corner of Lee's work space. (Photo: Billy Black)

"Jerry Todd, my Herreshoff 12-1/2, was named after a character in my grandfather's books," Lee says. "Named after my father, actually." Lee's grandfather, Edward Edson Lee, was the author of children's books such as Jerry Todd, Pirate, and Jerry Todd and the Oak Island Treasure, under the pen name Leo Edwards. "Ronald Reagan said my grandfather's books were his favorite growing up."

Lee and his twin brother, Tom, spent carefree Wisconsin summers full of DIY projects, shooting sun sights with a sextant, sailing, rowing, and whipping up magic tricks. There was always lots of bustle around Lake Ripley, and lots of boats, which is where Ole Evinrude tested out his great invention, the outboard motor. Summer also gave the boys time to read books by sailors Eric and Susan Hiscock, which sent Lee's imagination soaring beyond the lake, to the challenges of bluewater voyaging.

"I was always interested in Vertues because the Hiscocks sailed Wanderer III, a 30-foot Vertue, around the world," he recalls, then adds, "I'd live on a boat in a second."

Eugene Lee aboard Karesta Ferida at the Wickford ShipyardLee aboard Karesta Ferida at the Wickford Shipyard in Wickford, Rhode Island. (Photo: Billy Black)

Years passed, the boys grew, and while Tom got a commission to West Point, Eugene was drawn to sketchpads, isometric drawings, and the theater. He received BFA degrees from Carnegie Tech and the Art Institute Of Chicago, and a Master of Fine Arts from Yale School of Drama.

"I'm just doing now what I was doing in high school, to be honest," Lee says. "It hasn't changed. A lot of the technology of the theater comes from sailing ships. The systems that were used in the theater to fly things involved counterweights and blocks and falls. All that's right out of how the mechanics of theater used to be done.

"Set designers like me, we know a little bit about engineering, but we're not engineers. We do things architects might do, but we're not architects" he says, spreading out drafting paper that contains his storyboard from the musical "Wicked," which would become the blockbuster Broadway hit. "It's a funny profession." 

— Elaine Lembo

— Published: August/September 2018


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