• U.S.

Sport: Boat Fever

22 minute read

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Believe me, my young friend, [said the Water Rat solemnly], there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing . . . Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular . . .

—The Wind in the Willows

Twombley’s boatyard in South Yarmouth, Me. is redolent of clam flats and hot tar, rife with the cries of greedy gulls and little children. At dockside, where scores of boat owners are polishing, scraping and painting, a World War II veteran, paralyzed from the waist down, rolls up to his 32-ft. cruiser in his wheelchair, pulls himself aboard, finds his screwdriver and gets to work.

At the Potomac’s Columbia Island Marina, pleasure boats bake like muffins in the sun. Women in shorts and bare-chested men sweat over engines, hulls and brightwork. Strung along the docks here and there, families perch like terns as they munch their sandwiches, while over at the launching ramp, a black-and-white Pontiac with a black-and-white outboard runabout in tow backs tortuously toward the water. Pontiac and runabout have matching upholstery, matching fins, matching wraparound windshields.

Behind a tiny row house in Baltimore, a boatman scours his homemade runabout with steel wool, oblivious to neighborly wisecracks (“Where you gonna get two of every animal, Henry?”). At Cleveland’s Yachting Club, a big woman in small slacks mounts the ladder of a cruiser, hoists a heavy box of tools, inches into the cabin to repair the head.

In Freeport, L.I., a commuter stops off at a boatyard for a quick look at his newly bought 26-ft. cruiser, admires her lines with the air of Michelangelo studying the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In a Chicago boatyard, a bandanna-hooded woman sprawls beneath her boat to apply a coat of copper paint. In St. Paul, seven families buy seven new houseboats, begin the 322-mile homeward trip down the Mississippi to Clinton, Iowa. In Seattle, 1,000 boat owners, burgees and pennants flapping, parade from Lake Union to Lake Washington to herald the opening of the new season.

Status with a Splash. These last week were typical members of the new fast-growing brotherhood of the sea. In Florida and Kentucky, in Illinois and Texas, in Oregon and Nevada and Georgia—wherever land stops and water begins, and even where the water’s edge is a day’s journey—U.S. families were caught with boat fever. The sport that 20 years ago was confined largely to fishermen and the rich has become a pastime enjoyed by some 40 million U.S. citizens. In just twelve years the number of boats that churn the U.S.’s waterways has more than tripled, from 2,500,000 to nearly 8,000,000. And the boom is still growing. The estimated $2.5 billion that boat lovers will spend this year will be just twice the amount they shelled out three years ago in pursuit of the nation’s biggest, splashiest new pastime.

The fever has strange symptoms. Men who scarcely ever fixed a leaky faucet or pushed a lawnmower are busily hosing decks, rubbing brightwork, varnishing mahogany, bailing bilges. Many a suburbanite, discouraged by the relentless march of Detroit’s forced obsolescence, now happily lavishes on his new boat the loving care he once gave to his car. As a status symbol, the new boat has become a rival of the second car and the swimming pool—and on average, costs about the same.

Sense of Power. What is the mysterious force that makes fervent boatmen? A boat is self-sufficient in a way that modern civilization rarely provides. It can be more isolated than the remotest tourist cabin, and it can be more comfortable. “Out there,” says one boatnik huskily, “a man’s a boy and a boy’s a man. When you’re out of sight of land, life loses its complexity; it’s just you and the sea, and suddenly ‘north’ is important to you.”

To millions, the answer is a lot simpler: prospering middle-income families with new leisure time and dollars have merely found a happier way of life. Traffic has killed the once pleasant Sunday drive in the country; not everybody can play golf, and those who do are growing increasingly weary of the first-tee queues that start before dawn. Most of all, boating has become a full family affair, in which the Mrs. has happily turned from golf (or fish) widow to first mate. Says Mrs. Howard Mordue of Highland Park, Mich., whose husband owns a 25-ft. Chris-Craft: “Howard likes to be captain. At home I’m the boss, but on the water he takes right over. The kids like to take orders. It’s the one thing we can do together as a family where Howard doesn’t get bored. We go to the zoo—he gets bored. We go on a picnic—he gets bored. We go boating —and it’s an adventure every time.”

Color Schemes & Curtains. The man who perhaps more than any other put the U.S. family afloat is a lean, greying Midwesterner named Harsen Alfred Smith, 51, board chairman of the Chris-Craft Corp. From Pompano Beach, Fla. Harsen Smith runs a complex of nine U.S. plants that turn out more than 8,000 water craft a year, from 15-ft. runabouts (at $1,995) to 66-ft. motor yachts ($139,000), dominating the powerboat field with sales of $40 million. More important, it was Harsen Smith and Chris-Craft that recognized, early in the 1930s, that the future of the U.S. boating industry lay not in speedboats or luxury yachts but in family boats designed for Everyman.

Chris-Craft launched its revolution in the teeth of the Depression. Boats had been pretty much a man’s domain. Smith set out to build appeal for women. Chris-Craft designers worked up new ideas: bunk space, once kept to the Spartan minimum, was enlarged; cabins blossomed in bright color schemes and curtains; galleys, once closeted in deep isolation, were moved into the light and chatter of cabin life; heads (i.e., toilets), once hidden in the inaccessible reaches of the prow, were enclosed in privacy and placed amid-ships.* With mass-production know-how unmatched in the industry, Chris-Craft simultaneously managed to cut costs. The result was a comfortable cruiser that slept four, yet cost only a modest $3,500—the first time such a boat had been built within reach of the middle-income pocketbook.

Harsen Smith had long thought in terms of family. The Chris-Craft business itself is a closely knit family enterprise. It was founded in 1894 by Harsen’s grandfather, Christopher Columbus Smith, when he installed a naphtha-gas engine in a homemade rowboat and began selling rides. Today, 54 members of the Smith family still firmly control and share in the direction of the company he started.

Fish & Fiddle. Christopher Columbus Smith was born in 1861 in the treetopped village (pop. 1,200) of Algonac, Mich, on the St. Clair River. Algonac was a tough sailors’ town situated in the midst of busy Great Lakes maritime commerce. There were a few small hotels, a general store, plenty of canvasback and redhead ducks, walleyed pike, yellow perch, black bass and an occasional sturgeon—and lots of sitting in the sun.

Chris’s father James Smith ran a blacksmith shop but seldom worked in it (he always said it was too much trouble holding the horse up). He liked guns better, and he could also scratch out a middling tune on the fiddle. Young Chris’s closest companion was his older brother Hank, who regularly got one haircut a year (from his mother), boasted that he never changed his winter underwear in summer. The brothers spent most of their time hunting and fishing on the flats and marshy lands that flank the river. Chris Smith never bothered with high school; instead, he shoved off as a deckhand on the steamer Arundel, worked summers on the lake boats. But as vacationing sportsmen came to Algonac, Hank and Chris began building small boats for rent. Hank and he would search the woods for a walnut stump, dig it out and work up a naturally curved boat stem from stump and roots.

After Chris married Anna Rattray in 1884, ne settled down to raise a family—four boys, two girls. As soon as the youngsters were old enough to hold a clamp, he set them to work in the waterfront boat shop. In 1896, two years after his success with his first naphtha-gas boat, he and Hank tried a 2-h.p. Sintz gasoline engine. “It never ran well,” says Chris’s son Jay, 74, “until Charles Sintz showed up from Grand Rapids two years later with a gadget he called a carburetor.”

By 1906 Chris Smith was turning out a 26-ft. boat that did 18 m.p.h. Remembers one son: “One day we ran a race with another local boat and won. We didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of the speedboat boom.” Beginning in 1908, Chris Smith built about 36 racers a year, sold them for $550 apiece.

Gallused, collarless and tieless, his straw boater firmly planted on his head, brush-mustached Chris Smith spent a lot of time sitting in the sun whittling decoys, puffing his big cigars down to a stub (held with a wooden peg), and just thinking. He got to wondering about the waterbugs he saw skating the waters around Algonac. “Some day,” he told Jay, “somebody is going to build a boat like those bugs-one that will goon top of the water instead of through it.”

Baked Magnetos. Chris did not wait for somebody else to try. Though he cared little for theory, he knew the basic law of displacement (a body in water displaces an amount of water equal to its own weight), had read newspaper accounts describing the theory on which the hydroplane is based. To get the bulky, rounded hull out of the water, and thus reduce drag, Chris Smith devised a step in the underside of his hulls, experimented by moving the position of the step in one-inch progressions until he got it placed where it would raise the hull and plane the water.

In the next few years Chris’s step-boats outran European boats twice their lengths and with up to nine times their horsepower. Son Jay was the “mechanician” during races, stopped leaks at full speed, at race’s end took the magnetos home and dried them in the oven. In a 1916 race Jay and his brother Bernard smashed the world’s speedboat barrier—a mile a minute—with 63.77 m.p.h. Despite these successes, Chris was never much of a businessman. As soon as he could, he turned over administrative jobs to eldest son Jay, who ran the shop while Chris sat in the boiler room with his cigars and his decoys, thinking of ways to make boats go faster.

Swimming Lesson. The eldest of Jay’s three children, Harsen was born in 1908, grew up among a cluster of relatives and the sights and smells of the Algonac shop. By the time he was nine, he was hanging around the launching slips so much that father Jay, a firm, nonsmoking teetotaler, ordered him to learn to swim before showing up again in the factory. “This really upset me,” says Harsen, “so I practiced for two straight weeks, then told my fa ther I could swim. He threw me off the dock and I made it back.”

Harsen left Algonac long enough to attend the University of Michigan and play Big Ten football, returned after three years to work in the shop. One day a flutter of 40 sorority girls showed up in Algonac for a boat ride. Harsen took them out and, says he, “picked the best of the 40.” He and May Doherty of Detroit were married in 1929.

The Smiths’ business was good. By this time, they had adapted their hydroplane racers to produce a fast and popular runabout. They were also turning out luxury yachts. They sold $1,200,000 worth during the big boat show of 1929 in New York (including 58 plush 36-footers at $15,000 apiece, equipped with fine linen, silverware, even original paintings). Enthralled with visions of a future America putting to sea all at once, two partners from the House of Morgan laid out $350,000 as an option to buy one-third of Chris-Craft. It never happened. That was the year of the Wall Street crash, but fortunately, because of a clause in their contract, the Smiths got to keep the $350,000 when the deal fell through. “It saved us,” says Jay.

Young Harsen, already being groomed to take over from his father, soon hit upon his idea for bridging the gap between sporty runabouts and luxury yachts with a fast family cruiser. The decision required some redesigning. Hydroplanes were obviously too skittish for family cruising; and so the Smiths designed a modified displacement hull with V-shape entry that combined planing speed with seaworthiness. With father Jay, Harsen helped develop new and cheaper engines. In 1939—the year grandfather Chris died —Harsen launched Chris-Craft’s first major expansion by building a new plant in Holland, Mich, to boost production of the new, low-cost cruisers.

Family Affairs. The family cruiser was an instant success, and Chris-Craft advertising began to feature pictures of breezeswept families afloat. But five days after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy took over Chris-Craft production, set the Smiths to building steel-plated LCVs at $8,000 apiece. Having already engineered new mass-production techniques, Chris-Craft soon pulled construction costs down to $4,000. turned back to the Government between $4,000,000 and $5,000,000 a year for the duration.

By war’s end, father Jay was moving aside to give Harsen plenty of elbowroom, and Harsen’s ideas were to expand. Lapstrake Sea Skiffs, once chronically leaky, were put into production tightly sealed with war-developed Thiokol. The company started up the Roamer Steel Boat division to meet a demand for cheaper and leakproof hulls, but Harsen admits that Chris-Craft’s heart still remains with wood. “I don’t think you could sell a metal violin, and some people don’t like a metal boat.” This year Harsen’s old college friend Harry Coll, 49, an aggressive, rumpled executive who helped build up the steel-boat division, was made president. But as board chairman, Harsen remains undisputed boss. The company, on its way to an alltime sales record, has a backlog four times bigger than last year’s, is providing its new boats with low-cost power plants by converting Corvette and Lincoln engines for marine use. Result: a 1959 40-ft. Conqueror sells for $2,690 less ($29,990) than a 1958 38-ft. Corsair.

The biggest thing in Harsen Smith’s life is the conviction that the Smith family—and not any single Smith—is responsible for Chris-Craft’s success. When the company moved its headquarters from Algonac to Pompano Beach last year, the family followed as a matter of course. Today, most of the Smiths live within miles of the Pompano Beach factory (19 of them recently attended a Smith bridal shower). Harsen calls “family meetings.” not board meetings, still listens to the advice of his semiretired father and his uncles, Owen, 61, and Bernard. 70.

On the Rocks. Harsen himself has not yet bought a house, lives with his wife in a simply furnished apartment overlooking the harbor in nearby Fort Lauderdale, keeps a weather eye on the passing parade of boats (“When 70% of them are not Chris-Crafts, I’ll know something is wrong”). Tanned, -blue-eyed May Smith. 51, is a Smith only by marriage, so she is understandably lacking in some of the finer points of salty boatsmanship (she insists on calling the galley a “kitchen.” and on cruises she insists on plugging all boat drains at night to keep out snakes). May likes to tease her father-in-law about the time they were cruising in Lake Huron, and she warned him to look out for underwater boulders. “Don’t worry.” said Jay. “I know where all the rocks are in this place.” Just then the boat ground up over a rock. “See?” said Skipper Smith with admirable aplomb. “There’s one now.”

Though Chris-Craft has the longest history and is the acknowledged leader in the inboard field (its sales are more than three times those of Owens, its closest competitor), the boom is big enough for all. Owens sold $12 million worth of boats last year v. $1 million in 1953. Such companies as Matthews, Wheeler and Richardson, who specialize in custom-quality boats, have shared handsomely in the general boom.

Nor is the boom confined to inboard power boats. The big schooners of yesteryear are down to a handful, but they have been replaced many times over by 35-and 45-ft. yawls and ketches, better suited to an age dominated by the income tax and the high cost of other people’s labor. Harbors from Maine to California swarm with new thousands of prams, skiffs and small sailing craft. Lumped under the heading of non-powered boats, such craft increased from 600,000 in 1947 to 1,530,000 in 1958.

But numerically, by far the biggest noise in the boom is made by outboards, which have undergone a revolution of their own in the last ten years. Traditionally, outboards were low-powered, designed with an eye on trolling fishermen. But after World War II, watching the growing trend to family boating, manufacturers began to produce more powerful engines that were designed to drive a boat big enough for the whole family and perky enough to pull a water skier. Since then, outboard motors have become bigger and bigger, now range up to 75 h.p. Equipped with electric starters, a remote steering wheel and gear shift, a modern outboard runabout can give any frustrated householder a heady sense of power for as little as $1,500. Today, some 5,000,000 Americans own outboards v. 1,300,000 in 1947. Last year Outboard Marine, a combine that makes well over half of all outboard motors in the U.S. through its Johnson. Evinrude and Gale divisions, produced $131 million in outboards. Chris-Craft’s Harsen Smith does not consider the outboards a threat. Outboards. he feels, are to inboard boats as farm teams are to baseball’s major-league teams. Says he: “It’s the nature of boating to step up to a larger boat with sleeping room aboard.”

Caravans & Color TV. Boatmen are happily convinced that they are just beginning to tap the potential market. Banks like to lend money for new boats (the repossession rate is practically nil) and wives who once turned querulous at their husbands’ seasonal desertion plead for bigger, headier boats. Boat clubs blossom in landlocked regions. In Arizona, where the boating public numbered only about 3,000 five years ago, there are now more than 30,000—and many of them fan out from Phoenix as far as 280 miles to find water. There was scarcely a man-sized boat in Kansas ten years ago; today caravans of autos tow runabouts and outboard cruisers 361 miles from Wichita to Oklahoma’s Lake Texoma. The seven-state Tennessee Valley region accommodated fewer than 10,000 boats on 24 TVA-created lakes in 1947; last year the count ran to more than 45,000. Denver had five fulltime boat dealers two years ago; 49 are making a good living today. The boom has also brought with it 10,000 service facilities ashore that range from simple splintered mooring places to multimillion-dollar marinas that offer plug-in water, electric and telephone connections at dockside, nightclubs, marine supply stores and children’s playgrounds.

The newcomers name their craft for women (Miss Sal, Lulu, Shady Lady), men (Jim Jam, Little Bub, Crafty Chris), in memeriam (Last Cent, Mama’s Mink, Overtime), music (Rock ‘n’ Roll, Intermezzo), the sea (Blue Water, Sea Legs); little boats get little names (Yap Yap, Pixie); big ones get big names (Delphine, Trident, Chanticleer); and many are just hopefully witty (Tireless, Tubeless, Yacht-Ta-Ta). They doll up their boats with color TV sets, love to rig up the latest mariner’s aids—radar, sounding devices, ship’s-bell clocks, ship-to-shore telephones (more than 35,000). Their women wear cute nautical jewelry: port (red) and starboard (green) earrings, charm bracelets that spell i LOVE YOU in colorful International Code flags, mast-shaped scatter pins emblazoned with code flags reading K-U-Z-I-G-Y (International Code for PERMISSION GRANTED TO LAY ALONGSIDE).

Wind v. Gas. Such frivolities are often viewed with mixed feelings by the half a million or so sailboaters in the U.S., who pride themselves on skillful ability to match wits with wind, tides and currents, without the crutch of a gasoline engine. To many of them, powerboatmen are simply “stinkpotters.” who think there is nothing more to know about seamanship than how to push a starter button and steer. They in turn suffer the derisive snort of “rag-haulers.” The schism runs deep. After all, say the rag-haulers, we were here first.

The stinkpotters. some sailors claim, have demeaned all that is beautiful about life on the sea. They ignore the traditional rules of courtesy (always ask permission to come aboard, never wear leather soles on a deck, never touch polished brass), insist on such levity as cocktail flags—or worse, flags that show a ball and chain (wife aboard), or a battle ax (mother-in-law aboard). They will foul the fine, salty lines of nautical language with mere jibberish, cool their beer with CO fire extinguishers, are blissfully ignorant of the well-founded Rules of the Road.

“When I see a motorboat coming,” says one shaky sailor from Baltimore, “I say to myself, I am a sailboat; I have the right of way. Then I get the hell out of there.” Investment Banker Julian K. Roosevelt (of the Oyster Bay Roosevelts) recalls the day on Long Island Sound when a power boat pulled alongside his father’s 60-ft. schooner Mistress. The intruder bellowed: “Hey, Mac! Which way to port Jefferson?” Says Roosevelt with deep satisfaction: “I answered him in his own way and said, ‘First turn to your right, Mac!'” Harrumphs a fellow New York Yacht Club member: “I should have told the fellow to go straight down.”

Hot Rods & Greenhorns. The boat boom has brought really only one great menace—the hot-rodder, inboard and outboard, whose feckless abandon yearly kills and maims scores of other boatmen and bathers. New federal and state laws are now tightening requirements on registration and demanding strict adherence to traffic rules. Better still is the growing organization of Coast Guard Auxiliary and Power Squadrons, which give free instruction in seamanship, successfully instill a sense of pride in new boat owners.

Despite this worthy education, the harried U.S. Coast Guard rescue squadrons have more trouble than they can handle, and it gets worse every year. Says one Coast Guard commander wearily: “They run aground, they run into buoys, they run into each other. They overload small boats and they go too fast. If they have enough gas to go eight miles, they’ll go eight miles straight out and then have to be brought in.” Last year a Coast Guard boat chugged out to rescue a man whose brand-new, 36-ft. cruiser had broken down. The rescuers tossed him a towline, whereupon the stalled skipper triumphantly tied it around his waist and hollered “Let’s go!” One of the classic invitations to trouble comes for the outboard owner when the engine quits. The owner lunges to the stern to fix it. His added weight brings the transom, already too low in the water, lower still. A five-gallon wave (roughly 50 lbs.) slops aboard. The next wave comes in easier, and the boat swamps.*

Sparkplugs & Silver. The majority of the U.S.’s new sailors are a happy, capable crew who are willing to suffer minor discomforts for the sake of new discoveries. Waiting for them are thousands of miles of unexplored regions—the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, San Francisco’s Bay, New England’s coves, New Orleans’ delta. Wherever they go, they find others like themselves, eager to share possessions and experiences. Marinas, yachtels and boatels welcome them with everything from ice to beer to sparkplugs to diapers. Cruising families suddenly find that children are better behaved than they were at home, and even other people somehow look nicer—good enough to wave at. They can search the primitive labyrinthine waters of Florida’s Everglades, wake to the spontaneous burst of sound and color of the Mangrove Coast, where thousands of roosting ibis, egrets, anhingas and spoonbills toy, and where silver tarpon jump by moonlight and coons and otters feed and play. They fish under the dawn-pink sky out of San Diego, and in the cool basins of the Colorado mountains. And they can just laze.

The salt in their bones and the water in their blood tell them all they need to know: that whether they arrive at their destination or reach somewhere else, or whether they never get anywhere at all, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing.

*Chris-Craftsmen feel that the fine old seagoing word “head” smacks too much of hair on the chest and tattooed muscles; the company’s admen are looking for a word that nicely defines the head’s function at the same time that it denotes a commodious enclosure.

*Proper procedure: move forward, throw out anchor or a bucket with a line on it for a sea anchor. Put on a life preserver. Fix the engine.

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