Skip to main content

Love Those Classics

As the sun moves south, many of us begin to think about the on-rushing boat show season. Even if we're not buying– -and the purpose of every boat show is sales– -there's a lot to learn and a good time to be had just strolling the docks, seeing friends, sharing gossip, and checking out new stuff. And, shows are plentiful, with four in my Seattle area between August and January and many others in cities across the nation.

For me, fall is also time to step into a parallel universe and attend a different kind of boat show–one where unique craft are present solely to be toured, admired, and talked about and where nothing is for sale (except fast food from vendors on shore). There's one in my neighborhood every year and a few weeks ago I drove to nearby LaConner for its 15th annual classic and antique boat (and car) show.

Every entry is built of cedar, Douglas fir, mahogany, teak, and oak, although rarely a steel-hulled classic shows up. These boats were built by hand by craftsmen who followed designs also drafted by hand. There were no computer-controlled cutting devices or battery powered drills and saws. These craft were built one board at a time by workers whose sharp eyes and steady hands created perfect joints regardless of the curves and odd angles found on all boats.

There is not a thruster in the fleet, not a drop of gelcoat. Most are singles and mooring at the port dock in LaConner can be chancy because the current in Swinomish Channel moves at a couple of knots. Boating skills are necessary.

This year, the senior vessel was the Elmore, a 78-foot tug built in 1890 for fish cannery work. She's now a cruising home for her owners. The newest were '60s vintage Chris Crafts. Most of the others were built in the first half of the 20th century and included yachts by Stephens, Lake Union Dry Dock, Matthews, Schwertzer, Monk, Rathford, and others. Many of those names now are footnotes in boating history and few will recognize them.

As expected, all have been beautifully restored. Paint and varnish glisten, chrome-plated fixtures sparkle (there's not much stainless), engines 60 years old look better than they did just out of the box, and on every boat you'll find owners eager to chat. They love their old boats and are rightfully proud of their work, and they all make it sound simple–even though we know it isn't.

My first stop was at Winifred, a Lake Union Dream Boat built in Seattle in 1926. She was designed by Otis Cutting and built by Lake Union Dry Dock for Adolph and Winifred Schmidt, for whom the boat was named. She was built as a 42, but a subsequent owner stretched her to 48 feet to create an aft deck fine for lounging. As I hoped, that's where I found her owner, Greg Gilbert. Greg and I have been friends and fellow newspaper workers for more than 40 years. I bailed from the Seattle Times years ago, but Greg soldiers on as one of the paper's finest photographers.

Greg's first classic boat was a smaller craft named Mer-na. When we heard that he had closed the purchase for her, many of us–his friends–moaned. Greg was not known for being tidy. When I worked an assignment with him we would need to shovel out the front passenger seat before I could get in the car. We feared the worst.

But we didn't know Greg as well as we thought. He became a loving and meticulous owner of Mer-na and maintained her lovingly. My late wife, Polly, and I cruised in Desolation Sound with Greg and his family one summer. I was driving an early 1950s pilothouse 32 by Bill Garden. I didn't know then how special she was, but I do now. She would be at home in any show of classic or antique boats.

He carried on in the same fashion when he bought the larger Winifred in 2000 and became a full-time liveaboard. She remains a beautiful yacht today, and is remarkably original. She was launched with a Kermath gasoline engine. A Lathrop gas burner followed and in 1974 she was repowered with a Detroit 453, a diesel engine.

As built, Winfred was fitted with curtains around her saloon. A later owner, a well-known Pacific Northwest businessman, replaced the curtains with drop-down windows. Held in place by many coats of varnish, the windows are stuck shut. Greg plans to free them, to improve ventilation in the saloon.

With her raised deck styling, the boat flows from the aft deck forward to the helm. Winifred has no radar and there was no evidence of a PC chart plotter; clearly, Greg's cruising style is as original as the boat. The galley and accommodations for a couple are forward and below.

In 1928 the Schmidts entered Winifred in a Northwest classic–a predicted log race from Olympia, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska. (In log racing, participants are given a list of routes and waypoints and are required to turn in their predictions for times on each leg and for the total distance before leaving the dock. The trophy goes to the boater with the least error.) Recently, the family of a subsequent owner gave Greg Winifred's log for the 1928 race. Handwritten in pencil, it is priceless and a fascinating historical document.

Moored aft of Winifred was Sea-Dog, a 55-foot pilothouse Stephens built of teak and Port Orford cedar in Stockton, California, in 1932. That's her original name and it doesn't take much boating background to understand that her first owner was the person behind the Sea-Dog Corp., a supplier of a huge assortment of marine fixtures that continues in business today.

The last of five sister ships, and the only survivor, she's now owned by Lester and Betsy Gunther and is moored in a boathouse in Friday Harbor, Washington. Les, who is 85 years old, bought the boat about three years ago.

The Stephens was "drafted" by the Navy in World War II, painted gray, and fitted with a 50-caliber machine gun and patrolled Los Angeles harbor, Lester said. After military service and use by other owners, the Gunthers bought the boat despite nearly 80 years of grime, wear, and deterioration. Or, maybe, that's why they bought it.

The Gunthers have restored two other older boats, including one high-speed commuter craft used to chase rum runners during prohibition and a 1929 vintage 38-foot Chris Craft. So, they knew what was ahead when the bought Sea-Dog three years ago.

First, they had her loaded onto an over-sized trailer, hired flag cars to run ahead and behind, and hauled the boat to Seattle. It was a long and winding journey because the loaded craft stood too tall to pass under freeway overpasses. Then, she was gutted and rebuilt with new tanks, electrical and plumbing systems and fixtures. Some interior spaces were redesigned for more comfortable cruising (but without altering her 1930s styling).

The Gunthers replaced a pair of hulking Buda diesel engines with new 315hp Yanmars. The boat cruises at 13 knots and will top out at 20. As built, Sea-Dog had crew quarters, a head, and the galley crammed into the bow. Everyone chuckled or shook heads in disbelief when Lester said social rules 80 years ago demanded separation of crew and the owners and guests. That meant the crew prepared meals and handed food up to the owners in the pilothouse. When the crew needed to go on deck, they exited the forward compartment through a deck hatch.

Now, that forward space features a comfortable guest stateroom and a full head–and all with easy access to the pilothouse. The pilothouse is original. Aside from electronics, the only "new" things that really were noticeable were the engine controls for the Yanmars. Lester kept the brightly plated Buda controls, although they couldn't be used with the new engines, simply because they looked right.

Space aft of the pilothouse and down a couple of steps became the galley and the master stateroom is aft of that. Woodworkers who remodeled the spaces did flawless work, matching trim detail and color precisely. I walked through the stateroom and onto the aft deck, where I found Lester seated in a wicker chair and holding court with a glass of wine in hand.

A table has the ship's lines–from an architectural drawing–inlaid in the mahogany surface. (There's another like it in the pilothouse.) Heavy bronze plates are inlaid in the deck where visitors step aboard.

"There's five times the work you would ever expect," he explained, while offering a glass of wine. "We took it apart... and we took delivery about six months ago."

Sea-Dog looks perfect to me, but Lester said he has "a lot of little things to do" to make her perfect.

Now, she's kept under cover in Friday Harbor. The Gunthers love to motor to a favorite anchorage and watch the world from the aft deck of their yacht. Let's look at one more special classic.

Ann Hay bought her 1940 model 38-foot Matthews standard sedan more than seven years ago. She used the boat a couple of years, then decided Pied Piper was a keeper and began restoration, doing much of the work herself.

The Matthews was built in Port Clinton, Ohio, of oak and mahogany and came to Seattle in a railroad box car. She was fitted with a pair of straight-eight Chrysler Royal gasoline engines and, despite being 70 years old, they perform like new, Ann says. She does engine maintenance and service work and says cylinder compression numbers still meet factory specs.

She doesn't do it all, however. "I am smart enough to know what I can't do," she told me. She has the number of the guy who knows old Chrysler engines. (It's not unusual to find classic yachts running with their original engines. In LaConner I also saw a 1940 Chris Craft double-cabin with the original 130hp Hercules gasoline engine still purring in the bilge.)

When I stopped at Pied Piper's moorage several visitors were oohing and ahhing over the flawlessly varnished mahogany trim. Ann told them it took "a couple of days." I'm a veteran of varnish work and I suggested to the visitors that more than likely she was busy with that refinishing work much longer than a few days. A trim panel running the length of the deckhouse was as finely and perfectly finished as a piece of dining room furniture.

Like other owners of oldies, Ann goes boating, too. The LaConner event ended a cruise through the San Juan Islands.

Owners of classic and antique yachts deserve tremendous praise for their efforts to preserve a boating style of generations past. I need, however, to be careful in how often I talk with people like Greg, Lester, and Ann. I could find myself going shopping.