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Wooden Boats

For these passionate sailors, it's wood that floats their boats


Catch the rich glow of varnished mahogany in the morning sunlight, notice the sleek, simple lines, and – if you score an invitation – step into a wooden boat for an up-close experience, and very likely you’ll be hooked.

Wooden boats have a special attraction; many are five, six or seven decades old or older, harking back to a simpler, quieter time.

Yes, these boats require lots of maintenance and care, but most owners embrace that. (“It’s not work; it’s a pleasure,” says Ralph Rodheim, who owns a 1938 Rhodes sailboat.)
For those who can’t resist running a hand along a finely grained hull, one thing leads to another. And that’s where the stories begin, of seeking and finding the wooden boat that was the perfect match.

Black Cloud
owned by Don and Linda Schaffner of Mission Viejo

The 1959 Thistle class sailboat was designed by Sandy Douglas in Sandusky, Ohio. Douglas wanted to build a boat affordable for men and women returning home from World War II, and one that could fit in a small garage, explains Black Cloud owner Don Schaffner. The design was immediately popular, and the boat is still made today, though now it is made with fiberglass. Schaffner is the sailboat’s second owner in 50 years. “I bought the boat in 1971 from Omar Rich in Dayton, Ohio,” he says.

The lure: “Wooden boats can outperform fiberglass boats,” says Schaffner, who started sailing when he graduated from Ohio State in 1969. “Wood does not flex – fiberglass boats over five years old will start to flex and lose their performance.“

Bonus: “Wood boats today that are in good shape are increasing in value,” says Schaffner, who was trained as an engineer. “A wooden boat should last 100 years if you take care of it.”

The upkeep: “I have restored the boat three times – stripped off varnish to take it down to bare wood. It needs seven or eight coats of varnish to protect it from UV sun, which will lighten the wood grain.” Yearly varnish touch-ups keep the boat looking its best, as well as making sure rain doesn’t rot the wood.

Fun fact: “We got it when my wife was pregnant with our first child, and we took our baby directly from the hospital to place him in the boat for a picture, for good luck,” says Shaffner. “Now it’s a family habit – my two sons do the same with their kids."

owned by Bunker A. and Kathy Hill of Costa Mesa

The 42-foot cruiser was built in 1924 by Seacraft Shipyard in Wilmington. “The masts are spruce, the hull is Douglas fir on oak frames,” says Hill, who bought the boat in 2007 with Steve Farwell. “The cabin sides are select-grade teak inside and out.”

The lure: “My dad was in the boat business, and we lived near the water and spent almost all our recreation time playing about in boats,” says Hill, a marine surveyor. “I like old wooden boats.”

Why this boat? “I believe this is one-of-a-kind. In the 1920s when you wanted a boat like this – they were too big to transport across the country and too small for passage – you hired an architect, took a design and went to boat builders who would bid the project, then the boat was produced.”

The upkeep: “We keep it coated with marine-grade varnish. We do this about three times a year,” says Hill.

Memories are made:  Hill and his family celebrate Thanksgiving on the boat. “One year we thought, why don’t we anchor the boat in the harbor and cook a turkey?” he says. They played cards on deck while the turkey cooked, then at sundown enjoyed the meal. “It worked out very well – we had six people for a sit-down dinner on the boat.”

Owned by Bob Halderman of Rancho Palos Verdes

The fast 12-foot Snowbird racing boat was part of a fleet originally designed for teenagers and children to race. “It was built by Dorrance McClure Boatbuilding in Costa Mesta in 1948,” says owner Bob Halderman. “The idea was that the younger kids were training to become skippers themselves.”

You owned this twice? “Yes, I had a Snowbird when I was 14,” says Halderman. “I sold it when I was 17, in 1951. Then in 2000, 49 years after I sold it, I bought it again.” A childhood friend who knew the exact number of Halderman’s boat saw an ad for it in a Newport paper and called to tell him about it. “I bought it back – it looked pretty good. It had some problems but I worked in construction since I was 22, so I knew what to do about it. It was a labor of love.”

The lure: “It represents a chapter of your life. You look at it and think, ‘Ah, those were the good old days,’” says Halderman. “There is a nostalgia in redoing a boat that you used to sail when you were a teenager.”  

On the sea: “The Snowbird is a very forgiving boat. It’s heavy and does not tip over easily. If it heels violently with a puff of wind, you can go a long way before you get water. It very
seldom capsizes.”

Cool fact: For the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the Newport Beach Snowbird was chosen as the single-handed boat for the sailing race in Los Angeles Harbor. “It’s a real windy place,” Halderman says. “They decided that a taller mast and shorter boom would be better. I’m not sure why they did it. Strangely it didn’t seem to make a difference in speed.”

owned by Mark and Tracy Widder of Newport Beach

The Widders’ Firecracker, a 28-foot replica of a Chris-Craft runabout, was built in Holland, Mich., in 2003. It’s called a “double upswept” because the wood on the bow gently slopes up to meet the edge of the windshield, and the wood on the center engine cover slopes up from the rear. “The gentleman who built it said he used to water ski behind this type of boat when he was young,” says Mark Widder. There is no fiberglass. The boat is made with spruce frames covered with Honduran mahogany planking. The banjo steering wheel is a 1930 vintage wheel.

Why build a replica? Mark and Tracy wanted a boat the whole family would enjoy – and this includes three dogs. “We opted for a modern replica … rather than an original boat that we would be hesitant to use as much.”

The lure: “I just love the look of old wooden boats,” says Widder, whose father was a wood pattern maker. “Watching [my dad] make things by hand from wood as I grew up made me appreciate the craftsmanship that went into wood boat building later on.”

Typical outings? “If sea conditions outside the Newport jetty are calm, we enjoy taking Firecracker to Emerald Bay or along the shoreline up to Huntington Beach,” says Mark. Most often, though, he and Tracy take their dogs out for a ride in the harbor, or they tie up at the Cannery for lunch with friends.

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