I’ll admit that when I hear the words vintage or classic used to describe a boat, I picture an impeccably refinished Chris-Craft runabout from the 1940s, mahogany and stainless gleaming. I think of an antique that’s been painstakingly preserved. I don’t think of a racing-class sailboat or a 1930s motoryacht repowered with pod drives. And I certainly don’t think of the yachting equivalent of a hot rod: a classic hull repowered with modern technology and redone with new materials that show the owner’s personal style.

The restored and modified Avocette III combines retro looks with modern performance.

The restored and modified Avocette III combines retro looks with modern performance.

Bill Morong is trying to change all that. The founder of Yachting Solutions, an all-purpose marine services provider in Maine, Morong is an enthusiastic evangelist for restomods, a term borrowed from the car world. Though his team members are involved in all types of custom builds, they particularly enjoy the “garage fun” of their restomod projects, where they use the shell of an old boat to create a new, hypercustomized craft.

Naval architect Bill Prince, a frequent collaborator with Morong and Yachting Solutions, describes these types of projects: “Boats are not being restored as strictly original; they’re being restored to be a cool interpretation of what the boat would have been, and perhaps what the original designer and builder would have done, or could have done, given today’s technology.”

While that may just sound like a particularly extensive refit, true restomods often entail making substantial structural changes to the boat. A refit on steroids. Or, as Prince more eloquently puts it when describing a recent project he worked on with Morong: “We were deciding to give this boat simultaneously a heart transplant and a lobotomy.”

The project was Avocette III, a 48-footer from 1931 and the oldest original Huckins hull in existence.

“The boat from 200 feet away is instantly recognizable as the original Avocette,” Prince says. In part, that is because changes like swapping out the wooden mast have been expertly camouflaged, with the new aluminum one painted to match the surrounding mahogany.

The exterior also belies the radical refit they performed, moving the engines from amidships to the transom, for example, and adding air conditioning, a generator, stabilizers—all kinds of things that were not available in 1931. The original topped out at 26 knots; the new version can reach 37 knots. The IPS they installed changes the way the boat moves through the water, so Prince and his team of six engineers had to redesign the hull shape in addition to creating more displacement to accommodate the extra weight of the tricked-out interior.

Today, it can sometimes be hard to tell whether a classic-looking boat like this vintage runabout is a high-end replica, a restomod or a more conventional restoration. 

Today, it can sometimes be hard to tell whether a classic-looking boat like this vintage runabout is a high-end replica, a restomod or a more conventional restoration. 

But these technical challenges are what Prince loves about his job.

“To us, if it’s difficult, it’s engaging,” he says. “That’s why we like to do this.”

RESTOMODS

It’s not just the designers and builders who enjoy the varied challenges of restomod projects. More boat owners seem to be moving that way as well. As Morong says, “We’ve been slowly seeing [a shift] over the past 10 years.”

Morong uses a car analogy to explain how his typical customer today wants to own a piece of history but doesn’t want to sacrifice performance.

“He doesn’t want a ’68 Chevelle with a basic carburetor, V-8 motor and old-style rack-and-pinion steering,” Morong says. “He wants something that’s going to perform like a car does today, but he wants the old shell. He wants nostalgia.”

For many professionals in the business, collecting their own vintage boats is ‘an occupational hazard,’ Steve White says. Pictured with White’s 1931 38-foot Matthews, Honey Badger, is 1972 Hunt Surfhunter 26 Aurelia, whose restomod was executed by Bill Morong

For many professionals in the business, collecting their own vintage boats is ‘an occupational hazard,’ Steve White says. Pictured with White’s 1931 38-foot Matthews, Honey Badger, is 1972 Hunt Surfhunter 26 Aurelia, whose restomod was executed by Bill Morong

Prince agrees that the marine nostalgia market is changing. “If you look at that market for traditional restoration work on 17-foot and 22-foot 1930s Chris-Craft runabouts, that is waning,” he says.

Even so, Morong wonders why restomods are still not as popular in the marine world as they seem to be with cars, motorcycles and even airplanes. A self-proclaimed gearhead, Morong grew up with boats, graduated from Maine Maritime Academy and has worked in the marine industry his whole life. He’s also always been into cars—his dad was a collector, and they spent weekends traveling to car shows. But this was before the hot-rod revolution, or at least before the revolution was televised.

View from the side deck of Avocette III underway.

View from the side deck of Avocette III underway.

Back then, “the only cars that had any value were ‘matching number’ cars,” Morong says. “That meant that the paint number matched exactly what was sent out of the factory, and the engine number matched with the chassis number, and you knew that car was 100 percent as it was when it rolled off the General Motors assembly line in 1957.”

Then came the reality TV shows featuring hot-rod shops doing top-notch work—creating real works of art, Morong says. Some of those hot rods even began selling for more than the matching number cars, forever changing the industry.

Morong says he never had plans to pioneer the marine restomod. He simply found himself doing the types of projects he always wanted to do: “taking old boats and putting all the new componentry to make them function as if they’re a new craft.”

Slowly, he started to challenge customers’ ideas of what a restoration could be. When an owner approached him with a boat to restore, he might say, “Ok, but do you really want to put 1930s Sterling gas motors in it?” And often, just considering putting in new propulsion opened up a larger conversation about what they could do with the boat if they thought about it as more of a shell than a strict blueprint.

SPIRIT OF TRADITION

The term spirit of tradition sounds so elegant that it seems the concept could hardly be related to restomod, yet these styles have the same underlying idea. Designed to evoke classic yachts of yesteryear, spirit-of-tradition boats are built to perform like the modern vessels they are. These boats fuse old and new much like a restomod; the main difference is that the designs begin with a blank sheet of paper rather than an existing shell.

In a restomod, this antique helm might be integrated with a state-of-the-art propulsion system.

In a restomod, this antique helm might be integrated with a state-of-the-art propulsion system.

Steve White at Brooklin Boat Yard is one of the most well-regarded builders in this tradition. The son of yacht designer Joel White, he now runs the yard his father founded in 1960, despite his best efforts to escape Brooklin, Maine (population 800) as a teenager. Going away to boarding school, skiing in Aspen, skiing in Switzerland, finishing college and then skiing in Aspen again—he tried everything. But he missed the ocean. White returned in 1978 and worked side by side with his father until Joel died in 1997.

White defines a spirit-of-tradition build as “a boat that looks classical or somewhat traditional above the water, yet has the shapes and equipment in the boat that produce modern speed, and modern comfort and sailing ability.”

These boats are recognizably vintage, even though their wooden hulls are cold-molded (versus traditional plank-on-frame construction) and new technology is used throughout, often including race-ready fin keels and spade rudders.

White says the classic look is achieved by using specific design elements, “those kind of things that make a person that doesn’t really know about the boat at all go, ‘Oh wow, that looks like a cool old boat,’ when in fact it isn’t an old boat, it’s a really cool new boat.’”

As with traditional restorations, restomod projects hinge on executing the ‘fussy details,’ as Bill Morong says. But getting the details right doesn’t necessarily mean matching the original.

As with traditional restorations, restomod projects hinge on executing the ‘fussy details,’ as Bill Morong says. But getting the details right doesn’t necessarily mean matching the original.

REPLICAS

A replica, a complete re-creation of a specific cool old boat, is another way to combine classic looks with modern performance and amenities. This kind of project might be for the customer who likes the aesthetic of an 1890s steam-powered lake boat, for example, but who is not quite as nostalgic for coal-fired propulsion.

This was essentially the case for a client Prince worked with who wanted the “finest, most beautiful and largest day yacht.” The resulting boat, the 81-foot Lake Geneva Day Yacht Henry Knox, looks absolutely historical. But with eight banks of BMW lithium ion electric car batteries in place of steam power, she’s one of the largest all-electric boats in the world.

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Another high-profile replica Prince worked on is under construction at Brooklin Boat Yard. Ernest Hemingway’s fishing boat Pilar, a Wheeler 38 Playmate, is being re-created by Wes Wheeler, great-grandson of Wheeler Yachts founder Howard Wheeler. Looking to reestablish the brand with a line of classic boats, Wheeler wanted to reverse engineer the design to make it “as accurate to the original on the exterior as practical,” Prince says. The luxurious interior Prince designed, however, is all-new, yet quite on-brand for Hemingway, with lots of dark brown leather and mahogany.

The need for a replica boat arises in a surprising number of circumstances, like when you give away your 70-foot custom sailboat and then decide you want it back. White tells the story of a customer who loved his boat but, at age 85, thought he should donate it. After the deal went through, he realized he had made a terrible mistake. So, White’s team built him a replica: the exact same boat, down to the smallest details. White even recalls the owner asking, “Can you buy the same coffeepot? It fit just perfectly in this cabinet.”

A while after that, White’s team started work on another sailboat, a 91-footer, for the same customer, at which point the now 94-year-old sailor confessed, “I don’t need a boat, but I need a project.” That was just fine with White, who enjoyed receiving calls from the man every day at 8 a.m. The customer would ask, “What did you do yesterday?”

While daily check-ins are not the norm, most owners do love being involved with their custom builds. The process, White says, is more fun for them “than just going to a salesroom and saying, ‘I’ll take that one, and let’s put blue upholstery on it.’”

Though the exterior of the Wheeler 38 replica may be hard to distinguish from the original Pilar, even Hemingway would recognize the well-appointed interior as a clear upgrade.

Though the exterior of the Wheeler 38 replica may be hard to distinguish from the original Pilar, even Hemingway would recognize the well-appointed interior as a clear upgrade.

VINTAGE ON DISPLAY

The 24th Vintage Weekend offered an extraordinary collection of classic yachts, automobiles and aircraft.

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Gleaming brightwork, timeless lines, that matchless smell of timeworn wood. If these words just gave you goosebumps, or if you’re an aficionado of classic and antique yachts, automobiles or aircraft, then Vintage Weekend—the only annual event of its kind in the United States—is the event for you. Held in December at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida, the annual event attracts winners from the world’s most prestigious automobile shows and more. This year’s festivities included 70 antique automobiles, 20 classic yachts and 16 vintage aircraft.

Among the yachts exhibited were the 1985 120-foot Hitachi Zosen Buckpasser (People’s Choice Award winner); the 1971 123-foot Feadship Blackhawk (Trumpy Award winner); the 1931 38-foot Matthews Honey Badger (Joe Burr Bartram Award winner); the 1972 Hunt Surfhunter 26 Aurelia (Best Restoration); and the 1971 58-foot Trumpy Somerset (also Best Restoration).

Automobiles on display included a 1938 Peugeot 402 Darl’mat (awarded “Best of Show”); a 1926 Springfield Rolls-Royce Piccadilly Roadster (named “Most Elegant”) and a 1953 Jaguar XK-120-C (awarded “Best Race Car”).

Vintage aircraft included the 1942-45 Aeroshell Team (“Best of Show”); a 1985 Pitts Special (“Best Original Restoration”) and a 1990 Extra 300L (“Spectator’s Choice”) flown by Patty Wagstaff.

This year’s Vintage Weekend is scheduled December 3-6. 

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