Cat eyes, Cadillacs and a modern Classic
For the last five years I have been quietly looking for a special boat from the 1950’s. It’s called a Cadillac. So many good memories draw me to this boat, particularly its big fins and cool styling. My mother, Jackie, had a red and gold Coupe DeVille, and with her cat eye rhinestone sunglasses and her platinum blond hair, she looked like a movie star driving that car. I loved her style. She was fabulous. The ‘50’s and ‘60’s were simpler times, and we never owned a Cadillac boat. But we spent a part of our summers on Lake Wawasee, swimming, and water skiing. This was a great time to be a child. The Cadillac boat just brings me back to this wonderful time in my life.
One day while looking on Facebook Marketplace, I put in the search “classic fin boat” and she popped up. A 14-foot burgundy top Cadillac Continental. There she was! A barn find. I was excited. But she was in Wabasha, Minnesota, many miles away. I contacted the owner, “Is it still for sale?” I wanted to know all about the boat.
After many back and forth communications, the owner asked if I was a scammer. Why would I drive that distance? I didn’t share the story about my mother …. Just how long I had been looking. I didn’t want to drive up the price. The more I contacted him, the more he thought I was up to no good. And, before I drove that distance, I wanted to make sure the boat was not sold out from under me. I posted my telephone number and I asked for his. I even gave him my website. The owner told me he would hold the boat for one week. That, his place was next to a huge grain elevator named Gerken’s Grain Elevator. No address, no phone. I asked, “What if I get lost?” His answer, “I know everybody, and they know me.” I took a leap of faith and went on an epic road trip with my small pickup. I crammed my 6’4” body in for the long drive and arrived three days later in Wabasha, Minnesota. There it stood – one huge grain elevator. Driving in, there was no sign of the boat. I texted the owner, “I am here.” He told me he moved the boat to the pole barn right around the corner. So, I walked over. In this open barn, there were tractors from all eras – from the 1800’s to the 1900’s. Thirty to forty of them. It was a museum.
So, as I walked to the boat, I had a big smile. It was the boat! The ONE I have been searching for these many years. Yes, she is rough. But all the parts are original. It has the original motor clamped to the back. The owner, Dale, drove up and said, “I don’t get you, but you’re actually here.”
So, after trying to get the lights on the trailer to work, and signing and exchanging papers, he invited me to meet his wife and have lunch. I was no longer a stranger and a suspected scammer. His house sits on the edge of the Mississippi River. From the kitchen we looked out at that mighty river. Dale’s wife served up a homemade Midwest lunch, with all the fixings. Dale was still amazed that I drove so far just for an old boat. We talked about Margaret’s Dad, Vince, who was a cheesemaker from a Wisconsin multigenerational cheesemaking family. Dale’s wife pointed and said, ”That’s Wisconsin over there, on the other side of the river.”
After lunch we went back to the boat, and Dale told me that nobody up there would believe the crazy story of me driving all the way from North Carolina. I looked, and smiled and told him you make it sound like this is my first time. I know what I want and I don’t care what it takes to get it. He smiled and said well we are both a little crazy. Yeah, him and tractors. Me, and boats. We shook hands and I headed south with my little dreamboat in tow.
On the long drive, I gave Margaret a call. She told me she was discussing the new boat with her cousin, Amy Lydia, who lives in Winona, just down the road from Wabasha. They were thinking about 1950’s glamour and the fun of racing around the Outer Banks in my Cadillac Continental. She said Amy Lydia suggested the name Jackie-Oh for the boat. And I have been thinking of the same name! Now, all I have to do is restore my new boat and find some cat eye sunglasses.
Back home, we are now busier than ever. After five years of starting and stopping, it is finally time to finish my boat. We built a new boat shop, restored five or six boats, rebuilt three houses, and it seemed to never end. It wasn’t procrastination – it was finding the time.
My boat has so many details. Is it modern or is it classic? Looking for something as simple as a windshield, I spent hours pouring over the internet and not finding what I wanted. Margaret and I drove down to the Mount Dora Wooden Boat Show. I carried $1,000 hoping to find the right one. Margaret can tell you – when I want to go, we go, leaving before daylight. She wasn’t too happy. When we arrived early to the boat show, only one vendor had some windshields. He told me he sold a matching set for $10,000 earlier that morning. He had another set for $5,000. I was like “Wow,” they looked a little beat. These were out of my budget, so I asked if he had anything else, and he told me he didn’t think so. Then his wife asked him if he had already sold the Dodge windshield. She walked over to their trailer and pulled this sorry looking windshield out. Most of the glass was broken and the chrome was peeling. Two thousand dollars he told me. “Wow!!” So, we laid it out and took out the tape. It would fit perfectly. After trying to haggle on the price, the guy looked at me and said, “It will be sold today. These are really hard to find.” So, I pulled out my cash and put the rest on a credit card. We ran into lots of old friends at the boat show, and I could brag that I was now the proud owner of a 1940 Dodge boat folding windshield.
But nothing is simple. When we got home, I had to make patterns for new glass, find gaskets, disassemble the windshield, and take it to the chromer. Next, we had to make a wooden back to fit the curve of the deck and the windshield. Finally, we had to prime, fair and paint. After the total restoration of the windshield was complete and we were going for the final fit, with a lot of up and down and back and forth, one of the glass panes cracked. But of course. Everything seems to take so long to get done. So, I called our glass company, and hearing my voice, the woman on the other end of the phone said she would push the job up the list. Within hours I was driving to the glass company to pick up the new glass. Now the windshield is done and installed.
I decided to teach Anna how to tape off a waterline. Patience is no simple tape off. With a dreadnought bow, a ducktail stern with a sharp chine, this one is particularly not easy. So, she watched me do the port side first. The boot stripe on my boat is an Americana Red stripe. Then a white stripe, then a blue stripe, and another white stripe. I laid the first bottom line, pulling a long line of tape. I knew where it landed on the bow and stern, making measurements and placing small pieces of tape. Then I pulled long lines, 20 feet, smoothly walking in and using my eye. I laid the tape as Anna watched. Now I handed her the tape. She shook her head no. She was too intimidated. After a little coaxing, she stepped up and did it. Five lines of tape. I explained that a boot stripe is an illusion, not math and science. It has to be pleasing to the eye. I remember Danny Vandeveer teaching me. He just called it magic. I think Anna felt that magic after putting the paint on and pulling the tape off. She had a wide smile.
It is funny how inspiration comes in small pieces, but once all the pieces are there, it points you in a direction. The end of this story is really the beginning.
I got a call one day from a man telling me his father had left me his collection of old magazines, a man I never met. There were boxes of them. Some from the 1920’s all the way to the 1940’s. Reading them or just looking at them I always felt maybe I was born in the wrong era. I always had a few issues of Yachting or Rudder on my desk. One time, reading one of the old magazines I found an article about John Wells. He designed many great pre-war yachts. He worked for Defoe, Consolidated, and New York Yacht and Launch and Engine Company - just to name a few. The article was about the art of design. Mr. Wells explained that after a size and purpose was discussed, he would do preliminary sketches. If the client liked the style and the shape, then they would do drawings that were more detailed. Once those were approved, then the hard work began with many months of drawings and calculations with a team of draftsmen.
I also knew about John Wells from Justice, a 75’ 1930 commuter that we worked on for the last two owners. At one point, we installed new motors. On her sea trials I was amazed at her performance. Her piercing bow, the lift from her chines, and the drag lines came off at the transom with little wake. As I stepped out to the deck, the wind hit me so hard my eyelids were flapping. We were sliding through the water at 33 knots. I was beyond impressed.
In the early years, living in my boat shop in Maine, I would fill my cold winter days looking at wooden boat magazines, flipping the pages of a book called Comprehensive Cruising by L. Francis Herreshoff. Later in life it would be the Trumpy book that was most memorable.
When I was young, I built primitive work boats. Later in my career I was fortunate to be involved in restoring some of the most beautiful boats and yachts ever built. I have been blessed in that way. I found my inspiration all around me. All these pieces played an important role in inspiring my thoughts about how to design my boat.
The design process started in my sleep. I know that might sound silly, but I would dream of this boat gliding through the water. I would wake up, trying to remember it all. So, one night, after dreaming about the boat, I got up and sketched (more like scribbled). Night after night, I repeated this until one day I opened the drawer and pulled out a handful of scribbles. I could see it! Taking them to my office after hours I began to draw, realizing some of the design origins were from the magazines and books I read, and the beautiful boats I admired and worked on. But I needed a naval architect, so after asking around, I was directed to B&B Yacht Designs in Bayboro, N.C. I set a meeting with Graham Byrnes and Alan Stewart between everyone’s busy schedules. I carried books and my chicken scratches to their shop. During many meetings, we tried to push the envelope on what the boat could do and developed an initial design. We then began work on a second design. After that was done, we stepped back, and returned to the original design. Patience is based on this design.
I wanted a modern boat that followed Mr. Wells’ thoughts on design. So, what is the dream boat? Well, a dreadnaught bow, a stern like Ticonderoga. L. Francis and reverse tumblehome. Then a ducktail like John Trumpy, Sr. And the deck layout inspired by Garwood.
Now, for the rest of the story: It’s about a promise I made.
Through the years I have had the opportunity to work for many fine people. Some are very special. Hollis Baker is at the top of that list. One day, out of the blue, I got a call from Mr. Baker. He had bought a small, picnic-style boat for his new house on the eastern shore of Maryland. So, hopping aboard to go to Annapolis, with the wind blowing 8on the stern, exhaust bellowing into the cockpit, he and his wife arrived at the yacht club.
Mrs. Baker informed him that she would not be riding back with him because the diesel smell made her ill.
Being the gentleman that he was, Mr. Baker took the boat to a yard and instructed them to replace the diesel with the largest gas engine that would fit in the same space. When he went to pay the bill, he asked that boatyard what the trade-in was on the diesel engine. They told him they would take $3,000 off his bill.
He didn’t think that was right. The engine only had 40 hours on it. He called me in Florida and told me the backstory. He asked, “Isn’t it worth more than that?” I said, “”Of course, I’ll buy it for $3,000.” He considered my offer and wanted to know why he should sell the engine to me for that price.
I gathered my words and courage and told him “Because, one day, I will build a boat around this motor.”
Fifteen years have passed but that “one day” finally came. I started my career building crude workboats for commercial fishermen and now I am ending it by building a little yacht that incorporates all the engineering and design elements I’ve marveled at on the legendary yachts that I’ve had the pleasure of working on.
I just wish Mr. Baker was here to see what became of his motor. That I made good on my promise.
Until next time,