Dream Boats: Boating’s past is boat builder’s present

This article originally appeared in the Daily Inter Lake in 2004. View published clip (PDF).

At 4 a.m. one morning in January 2000, the lights in Bob White’s hospital room in Kalispell went on. Ol’ Doc Williams walked in, presumably to see how Bob was doing. At the age of 70, his heart had been giving him some problems.

Doc Williams sat down on the bed.

“Now about this wooden boat…”

Bob, now 74, laughed at the memory. “Didn’t ask me how I was,” he said.

The boat in question was a dory. The doctor had been looking for one, and Bob, a local boat builder since 1953, happened to have one that he had built but not yet sold.

“How much does a boat like that cost?” Williams asked.

“Well, how much are you billing me?” was Bob’s reply.

A month or so later, Williams showed up at Bob’s Ferndale shop and sat in the boat, taking the handmade wooden oars in hand.

“I’ll take it for my bill,” he said.

Done deal — almost. Bob never names anyone’s boat, but this one was different. To the stern he affixed a small metal plate, inscribed with his name, the date that Williams had operated on his heart, and the boat’s name: Queen of Hearts.

When Bob was 16, there were “probably seven” boat shops along the west shore of Flathead Lake. Though he knew he first would join the Navy, “I told my dad, ‘When I get out, I’m going to build boats on this lake.'”

He left the Navy after five years, joined Lee Craft in Somers in 1953 as an apprentice for 97 cents an hour, and eventually moved on to build boats at nearby Stan Craft.

Even back then, 97 cents an hour wasn’t enough to support a family, so he always held another job in auto garages or parts stores, but he always had his own boat shop at home to return to.

Boating is in Bob’s blood.

Bob was an honorary judge at last weekend’s second annual Classic and Antique Wooden Boat Show at Harbor Village in Bigfork. “But you don’t have to call me ‘Your Honor’,” he said.

About 40 boats were entered in this year’s show, and they all were docked in a section of the marina separate from the modern fiberglass boats Bob said look like “refrigerators.” He walked slowly along the slips, examining fit and finish and looking for what he calls “unusual boats.”

Bob wasn’t looking for strict adherence to original design. “You take a boat, say 60 years old, and you have to consider what it’s been through,” he said. “None of them are perfect.”

J.P. Awalt of Bigfork, who entered his 29-foot custom trawler Picnic, isn’t beyond updating a classic design. “A lot of the old designs are a lot to be desired,” he said. “Some say they don’t make them like they used to. It’s a damn good thing they don’t.”

One of the boats entered in the show, a 19-foot Stan Craft named Timing that was built in Lakeside in 1957, Bob remembered well. “I worked on it,” he said. It’s but one of what Bob estimates to be 75 boats he has worked on that still ply the waters of Flathead and Swan lakes, including Flathead Lake Lodge’s Mustang. He spent almost two years adapting that 42-foot 1968 Chris Craft cabin cruiser into a party boat for almost 40 passengers.

Timing’s design is known as a torpedo, in which the stern tapers to a rounded point. Bob said the design was influenced by cars that guys were building and racing back then.

Actually, many of these old boats resemble big American cars of years gone by, with spacious cockpits of comfortable-looking vinyl seats, metal shifters jutting up from the floor, rows of gauges, and huge steering wheels.

But for sitting on the wrong side — for American roads, at least — those who piloted these boats during Saturday’s parade to Bigfork Bay, left arm splayed on the wheel and right arm resting on the starboard sill, look as if they were taking a Sunday drive in, say, a massive 1940 Chrysler Newport convertible.

“That’s why they call [those cars] boats!” said Bob’s wife, Jeanne.

Of course.

Bob and Jeanne rode in the parade with Michael and Jill Whistler of Bigfork in their 23-foot Clipper Craft, Tosan, built in 1993 in Portland, Ore. It’s four feet shorter and nine years newer than the Clipper Craft that Bob is updating as his own boat. It’s a stable craft built for rough water, which means it doesn’t go as fast as most of the other boats. Tosan was soon left behind in the parade, but who’s in a hurry?

“You’re right, Bob,” joked Michael. “We should have left 10 minutes sooner. We were passed like we were sitting still by a pontoon boat.”

The Whistler’s previous boat was a sailboat. “We’re used to going slow,” Michael said. Looking for a newer boat, they considered fiberglass, but Bob had sold them on buying the wooden Clipper Craft.

Serendipity played a part, too. Tosan is Japanese for father, and Michael was born in Japan. Father also has spiritual meaning for the Whistlers.

Tosan soon enough joined the rest of the parading boats as they circled Bigfork Bay. People lined Grand Avenue and boat docks all around, waving at the skippers and their passengers. A fisherman in a 12-foot inflatable boat looked confused and out of place.

These days Bob is building a boat for another doctor, this one from Missouri. It’s a replica of a 1940 Chris Craft, a 19-foot Barrel Back Deluxe Runabout, and Bob has taken some liberties with the design.

“I’m not a purist,” he said. “If we’d have had the materials then, we’d have used them.” Like the epoxy that will make the boat watertight, and the rotary engine from Mazda’s latest RX sports car that will provide about the same horsepower as the original Flathead Six, at roughly half the weight. Its fewer moving parts will make maintenance easier, too.

Boat builders also have acquired more know-how over the years, such as a better bottom on this design will make a faster boat, so Bob builds accordingly.

But still it’s a wooden boat; that part will never change. Bob chose Engelmann spruce harvested locally, and African mahogany shipped in from Port Townsend, Wash. He also hand-built some of his specialty tools, such as the roll-over cradle used to flip the boat during construction, and he prefers the cold-molding technique, in which thin strips of wood are allowed to bend naturally, rather than by using steam. After assembling more than 700 pieces of wood on this runabout, he hasn’t broken a single piece.

All told, the boat will probably take a year to finish, but Bob says he is a patient man by nature. “I raised seven kids,” he offered as an explanation.

Is it difficult to let go of a boat, after working on it for so long?

“No, I can build another one.”

The Whites’ Clipper Craft is nearly ready to hit the water. It probably would have gone to the Whistlers before they found Tosan, but Jeanne intervened when she walked inside and “saw all that teak.”

“It’s going next month,” Jeanne said.

“Going where?” Bob asked, confused.

“In the water.”

“Yeah, it might be sooner than that.”

Whenever it does, it’ll be christened Walks on Water.