Annual wooden boat show this weekend
August 3, 2004
TAHOE CITY – I could get used to this.
I could get used to leaning back in the Thunder Chick, a restoration of a 1930 wooden commuter boat that will be displayed at this year’s Concours d’Elegance wooden boat show at Lake Tahoe.
I could get used to the Chick’s curving art deco flanks – like a teardrop stretched out – as they scythe through Tahoe’s afternoon chop, owner Dave Olson at the wheel. I could get used to the wind in my hair, the sun on my face, the sheen of mahogany and, I admit it, the admiring stares of boaters in less swanky craft.
Earlier, I had conducted a hurried search for an old pair of Topsiders, figuring “proper boating attire” was in order. I needn’t have bothered. Olson showed up wearing navy walking shorts, a vaguely tropical shirt and what looked like driving mocs. There wasn’t an anchor insignia or yachting cap in sight.
“It’s down home people,” Olson said of the classic craft crowd. “It’s not an elitist deal. We have major collectors, but we also have young people starting off in this, T-shirts and shorts. It’s really about the boats and the people.”
That said, it’s undeniable that even the simplest wooden boat will set the buyer back several thousand dollars. Still, after speaking to Olson and other boat owners – and after spending time in a boat shop, the air heavy with varnish and elbow grease – I realized Olson has a point. Along with enjoying a measure of glamour, wooden boat owners also appeared deeply committed to preserving some boating history and to sharing that history with others.
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Olson owns a steel fabrication and construction business in the San Francisco Bay area. He has four re-creations of classic boats, or “retros,” as they’re called, and eight original craft. He says his collection is worth at least $2 million.
Besides the Thunder Chick, the collection includes a spunky, 151Ú2-foot Chris-Craft runabout from 1932, a boat that will be presented at this year’s Concours, and a 1924 Rochester runabout, only three of which remain.
Olson traces his interest in wooden boats to his Tahoe roots.
“I built a kit wooden boat when I was 11 with my father,” he said. “We went to the boat show here at Tahoe many years ago. I was fascinated with classic wooden boats. In 1988, I bought a 1930 Garwood runabout. I got very involved with restoration and met a lot of nice people.”
Like Olson, Doug Ball, a Reno accountant, has longtime ties to Tahoe boating.
“I grew up in Lake Tahoe,” he said. “My parents worked for one of the boat companies in Tahoe City. They happened to be the Chris Craft dealer. When I was in high school, I can remember these boats being delivered as brand new. They are gorgeous. I always dreamed of owning one.”
Today, Ball captains a 1956 Chris-Craft Capri, 19 feet long, with an aft engine – “like driving your best piece of furniture around,” he said.
Ball has owned the Chris-Craft for about a decade, and he’s almost finished restoring it. In the wooden boat world, the restoration process can run years and years.
“There’s labor, ” Ball said. “The guys doing this woodwork are true craftsmen, and that takes time. The original parts are not manufactured anymore. You’ve got to go on a search by way of the Internet or a known parts supplier. Your average cost for replacing one plank is $1,000. This is the only wooden boat I own.”
Along with cleaning, covering and scheduled coats of varnish, planks are especially important.
“When a wooden boat loses a plank,” Ball said, “they go down like a rock. There’s not much flotation to them.”
Some would call Ball and Olson obsessed, investing significant time and money in wooden boats. But it’s all a matter of perspective.
“They would say wooden boats are very expensive to maintain,” Ball said of some contemporary boat owners. “I would say I see the large cigarette boats go charging by at a million miles an hour sucking up fuel like you can’t believe. It probably costs them $350 to go around the lake!”
Wooden watercraft summon the leisurely Tahoe of yesteryear, an era when traffic didn’t clog the roads and public boat ramps weren’t crowded. Ball, Olson and other enthusiasts said they considered owning wooden craft a privilege, a way to honor the memory of old Tahoe and to preserve the spirit of classic American boating.
“We’re just the caretakers of some national treasures for a period of time,” Olson said. “Wooden boats were being sold off, being thrown away because of the advent of plastic. Now, there are 400 wooden boats on the lake. These are treasures that need to be kept and maintained.”
For some owners, that means their boats are treated mainly as museum pieces, in the manner of many classic car buffs. Olson prefers to take a different approach.
“Some of my boats are for sale now because I’m not using them,” he said. “It’s important for people to see them, to use them. I’d rather see a boat with a scratch or a nick on it. When they are being used, that means people are enjoying them.”