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Boating Through the Ages: Part X

November 10, 2020

After four very long years of world-wide death, destruction and immeasurable sacrifice (lots of it on beaches formerly trod upon for simple seaside pleasures), by the late 1940’s we American’s were ready to start enjoying ourselves again. Rationing of everything from fuel to rubber was over, no one had to spend time tending their Victory Gardens anymore and our country was ready and now had the time on it’s hands to REALLY be wasteful in search of plain old fun! And is there anything so darn wastefully fun as burning fuel in a boat for no other good reason than fun?! Nope, it’s at the top of the list, the most American thing you can do: an exhaust pipe belching the burned remnants of refined and octane enhanced fossil fuel, just to amuse yourself! It doesn’t get any better!!
Then along came another explorer⎯ possibly the greatest “explorer” in history⎯ to sign his name Columbus. Born Christopher Columbus Smith, he was a builder of duck boats but also loved engines and speed. Although he actually started building boats in the 1920’s, it was the boon years of the 1950’s when his company really took off and his product became a household name. You see, during the war Chris C. Smith was building landing craft for the military. Although “L.C.’s” were essential to the war effort they were hardly much interesting to build, were built with a lifetime expectancy of a single beach landing amidst floating mines, and had little or no appeal to post-war boat buyers who wanted speed, style, comfort and big coolers installed, always at arms reach. So Chris Smith dusted off some old idea, started building beautiful mahogany runabouts and the rest of the legend that is Chris Craft boats came to be. Chris Craft and the Smith family went on to build bigger boats (they even built, shudder at the thought, SAILBOATS!), but now and probably 1,000 years from now the vision of a classic gleaming mahogany Chris Craft runabout slicing across a placid cove will still best define what power boating is, period.
The next decade or so after the war’s end was the ‘Golden Age of Boating,’ and the period spawned many still-spoken legendary names, but it was the mid-century refinement of two things in particular that soon had suburban driveways crammed with boats. First, the brain child of Ollie Evinrude: the outboard motor. Second: fiberglass hulls.
An outboard motor is really thing of simplistic beauty. Open the box, bolt it onto the transom, hook up the fuel line, turn the key and GO! No greasy bilge; tilt it up when you run aground; and no diving under the boat to check the prop. There’s no inboard thru-hull shaft to leak AND, you can always sell it and get a bigger one with minimal muss and fuss. Proper credit must also be given here to Carl Kiekhaefer, founder of legendary Mercury Marine. Sure, his engines rivaled those being built by the Outboard Marine Corporation (O.M.C. = Evinrude and Johnson motors) but it was Kiekhaefer’s uniquely innovative marketing methods that made him a real stand-out. During company pep-rally party’s, he toiled in the huge bar-b-que pit until everyone was satiated to bursting, then finale’d  the party by hanging an OMC motor over the red hot coals like a pinita and dancing around, leading a company chant as the flames charred and consumed the competitors products. And when rumors started circulating that Mercury’s didn’t run very dependably and were only good for speed, not pulling power, Kiekhaefer held demonstrations where boats fitted with Mercury’s pulled waterskiing elephants. During another PR stunt, a boat fitted with a pair Mercury’s single-handedly actually pulled a cruise ship some distance. As it turns out, the forte’ of Mercury did become speed and most racing boats today (both outboards and inboard/outboards) are powered by “Mercs.” God Bless, Mr. Carl Kiekhaefer.
And then came fiberglass! It was first used in the production of a 41-foot sportfishing boat built by Hatteras yachts, but soon the ease, speed and economy of just “popping a hull” made mass production of runabout-sized craft all the rage for the average family. A “glass” boat was tough, durable, easy to maintain and changes and improvements to designs were possible, even in mid-production runs. Soon there were literally hundreds of boat builders making fiberglass boats and consumers ate them up. It quickly became apparent that Fiberglass, with its exceptional strength-to weight ratios over wood, was the ideal building material for racing boats since unlike wood, it could take a real pounding without fear of “popping a plank.” The downside was, when you came down REALLY hard enough off a wave, a fiberglass boat didn’t just pop a seam or a plank… it would literally just smash itself in half. But soon enough, builders learned just how thick to make the stringers and hulls so even if dropped from a considerable height onto concrete, they stayed in one piece.  And here, due deference must be given to the true titans of fiberglass raceboat building: Richard “Dick” Bertram and his design partner, C. Raymond Hunt; and Don Aronow, “King Of Thunderboat Row.”
Bertram Yachts attained instant legendary status with the creation of the first production hull, the 31-foot “Moppie,” many originals of which today fetch higher purchase prices than the day they were first sold as new. And Don Aronow... well, it started with the 23-foot “Formula” brand… which then spawned Donzi… Magnum… and the quintessential race boat name to this day, Cigarette. Back in those days guys like Bertram and Aronow raced their own boats across oceans, they didn’t delegate it to test captains, on test lakes. For several years the two of them used the grueling Miami to Nassau Race as their R&D bench. They thrived and learned upon the relentless waves of the open ocean (seas of over 12 feet were not uncommon), and drove both themselves and their crafts to the ultimate limits. In one race, Aronow’s boat came down so hard off a wave that crewmember Jack Wishnick broke his arm badly enough that he couldn’t take any further pounding in the boat. Winning was all these guys cared about so it was decided that Wishnick be dropped overboard and was picked up later by another boat. Totally true.
Another fiberglass legend was Glastron, a uniquely high-tech styled brand known more for it’s glinting metallic topsides, that came into it’s own in the 1960’s, most usually sporting one of Kiekhaufer’s 100-hp Mercury “Tower’s Of Power” and looking more like a sleek sports car than a boat . None of us will ever forget the bayou boat chase scene in the James Bond film, “Live & Let Die,” when 007 literally flies his boat right over a levy whilst one of his more unfortunate pursuers ends up slamming into Sherrif J.W. Cullpepper’s cruiser. The flying Bond boat was a Glastron… but it did have an Evinrude on the transom. We’ll probably never know why.
Though known more for safety than speed, another legendary name in boating suggestively harks back to the spirit of the men mentioned in Part VIII of this series, those harpoon-throwing ocean harvesters, the Whalers. Yes, most of us had⎯or had a friend who had⎯a 13-foot Boston Whaler. “Whalers” were the first production model boats to be considered “unsinkable” thanks to their hulls being a sandwich of foam flotation material between two slices of fiberglass, now the boat building standard. Most of us have seen the photo of Boston Whaler pioneer, Richard “Dick” Fischer, calmly sitting in his boat, arms crossed and his derby slightly cocked as a huge rip saw literally cuts the boat in half from beneath. Fischer is also credited with accidentally inventing one of the most popular boat configurations ever, the Center Console design. As the story goes, He was in a hurry to rig one of his hulls for an upcoming boat show and needed to move the boat some distance across the bay to install the automobile-style helm console. In order to mount a makeshift area for the wheel and controls for the short ride, he told one of his workers to just temporarily bolt an orange crate right in the middle of the boat. When Fischer was running the boat later that day he couldn’t help but notice the ease and convenience of the “Center Console.” With himself as the only passenger in a small craft it kept the boat on a perfectly even keel, and when he pulled up to the dock, handling the dock lines standing and the “walk around” capability was much easier. It thus became the fulcrum of all Whaler designs to follow for the next two decades. All true, too.
But the original and venerable 17-foot Boston Whaler “Montauk,” the stuff of legends, had a Center Console built entirely of varnished teak, so nowadays, you mostly only see them around sailboats.

Next Time: Boating’s Winners and Loosers
Email comments to: Editorljwallace@gmail.com

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