When Wood Could
Antique and Classic Boats Are a-Callin’
Published: May 15, 2013
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
His-Her Enterprises is a little office attached to a warehouse in Millersville, Md. The warehouse is filled with cardboard boxes which contain the fixtures—lights, display units, and the like—from Hallmark stores. That’s what the company does. It owns and manages a bunch of Hallmark stores.
But the warehouse contains two non-Hallmark items. One of these is a Chris-Craft Cadet, triple-cockpit speedboat. It is 22 feet long. It has a fold-down windshield and a six-cylinder flathead engine that weighs almost half a ton. The boat itself, built in Michigan in 1927, is made almost entirely of mahogany.
“There’s only five new pieces of wood on the whole boat,” Rick Sharpe, the boat’s owner, says as he pulls the tarp off.
The boat is made almost entirely of mahogany that was milled during Prohibition.
If you have never seen a 1927 Chris-Craft Cadet—and chances are you haven’t, since only a few dozen were made—try to imagine a jewelry box the size of a school bus, complete with a school bus engine, but the engine is as clean as a coffee table, with chrome acorn nuts jutting through the top of it. Though taken by a professional, the pictures on this page will give you only a hazy idea about this thing’s beauty. You can see the curves of her hull, the chromed brass fittings, the four-spoked wooden tiller with a chrome throttle and choke attached at the center, an arrangement as quaint as it is dangerous. But the grain of the 86-year-old wood, encased in 16 coats of Epifanes varnish, takes on a holographic sheen that is impossible to describe, let alone photograph.
“It’s straight out of The Great Gatsby,” says Sharpe.
Aimed at the jet set of the roaring ’20s, the boat’s list price when it was new was $2,450, Sharpe says: “That’s one reason they are so well preserved. Only the well-to-do had them.”
He named her Pearl, after his grandmother. He says he wants to sell her for $40,000, which sounds like a bargain. A previous owner spent, according to a detailed account, more than $61,000 to restore her 16 years ago. “He brought it to shows,” Sharpe says. “He treated it like a piece of furniture.”
Since acquiring her in 2001, Sharpe says he has used her a lot. He has twice stripped her to bare wood and refinished her.
How such a rare and fine thing came into the possession of Sharpe, a man who works daily at a computer terminal in the office and weekends with a palm sander, doing boat restoration, is a story of passion and community centered on the Antique and Classic Boat Society, whose 300-member Chesapeake chapter stages a substantial show every Father’s Day at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.
The show, according to club publicity chairman Chris Brown, draws showboats from as far away as Florida and Texas. The dizzying variety of Chris-Crafts alone could make a show, but there are also rival makes like Century, Gar Wood, Riva, Hacker, and Lyman, plus classic fiberglass models. They are judged, like classic cars, on cleanliness, originality, and rarity. As with the classic-car set, there is some tension between those, like Sharpe, who use their boats regularly and those who would never let any water from anything but a hose touch their boats, preferring to keep them sealed up and show-ready.
Sharpe’s introduction to this world came when he was 28 years old, living in Chicago, working propane sales. Sharpe’s father, Joe, tells the story: “He discovered this ’61 Century in someone’s yard,” the elder Sharpe says. “He finally stopped and talked to the guy. He’d done a lot of restoration, but there was much left to be done.” Rick bought it and then changed jobs. He trailered it to Maryland behind his car and, once here, sanded, varnished, and wrenched it into shipshape. That boat, also beautifully crafted of mahogany and powered by an AMC V8 engine, rests under canvas next to Pearl.
“We didn’t know anything about ACBS,” Joe Sharpe says. “We were in Severna Park inventorying a store. . . . The boat was in the parking lot, and a guy dropped a card on it [that] said, ‘Nice boat, have you considered joining the ACBS?’ It was Chuck Warner.”
Warner is an Annapolis heavy-machine salesman with a Chris-Craft cabin cruiser. He is one of the chapter’s founders.
Sharpe joined and soon found himself a key member, one of the 30 or so who make things run at the annual show. He served as president in 2005 and ’06.
In the meantime, his father got the bug. Rick “switched allegiance to Chris-Craft,” Joe Sharpe says, and sold the Century to his father, who also joined ACBS. “I have never been as gung-ho as him,” Joe Sharpe says. “But . . . well, I decided I needed a cruiser.”
Joe Sharpe found a 37-foot Egg Harbor in Tall Pines Harbor, Temperanceville, Va., and bought it. He spent the summer working on it, had the ancient twin Palmer engines rebuilt professionally, then drove it up the bay the day after some heavy weather, a 12-hour September run to Kent Island. “Scary,” he says. Four-foot rollers sent his wife below decks, and the two sons “forced me to drive.”
Later, both engines got replaced (“they were not trustworthy”), all the canvas, the refrigerator, the water heater, a 6-foot section of the keel that worms had gotten in, and a lot of other things. “It was a journey,” Joe Sharpe says. “In the six years, I probably spent four times, maybe five times the original cost of the boat before I sold it. You know the old story—a boat is just a hole in the water you throw money in?”
Two years ago, he sold it, citing his advancing age and “other interests.” The people who bought it—a couple in their 50s, he a carpenter with mechanic skills, she good with the sandpaper and brushes—“were the right people,” he says. “One guy [who offered to buy it] I knew was going to be a live-aboard who would stay until it was ready to sink.”
That would not do.
“As a kid,” Rick says, “I remember these boats on the lake. I just loved the sound they made.” He learned to water ski at age 9 or 10 and never forgot that feeling, that sound, and the glistening look of mahogany under wet varnish.
“If you want to be a rock star, if you want to act like you’re a celebrity, you go anywhere in that boat,” Rick says, nodding at Pearl. “I wouldn’t have to buy a drink, people are giving me beers left and right. I would be talking for eight hours anywhere I go, which could be a problem when you bring your kids.”
His daughters are teenagers now, with swim meets, lacrosse, and other teen activities. The 86-year-old boat is no longer a thrill to them; they prefer the more modern one he keeps.
And so he will let her go, to the right buyer.
“I talk to people and they’re interested,” he says. “But they think that putting a cover on it is the same as ‘under cover.’ It’s not. You need a garage.”
Rick explains that condensation under a canvas cover will destroy the finish in just a season or two. It took him the better part of a month to refinish the boat—twice in 12 years isn’t so bad; every year or two would be. “It has to be easy,” he says, “or people will lose interest.”
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