In early 2011, a 1996 Riva Aquarama Special Hull 774, a wood speedboat inspired by a vintage Hacker-Craft runabout, sold to an anonymous bidder at auction for $975,000. It was the biggest item in terms of dollar volume sold at this particular auction.
Why would someone spend nearly a million dollars on a 15-year-old runabout? Part of the reason is likely that this particular boat, considered by some to be the Ferrari of the boating world , was the last of its kind ever produced by the legendary Italian builder. An equal part, however, would arguably be the growing fascination with vintage wooden boats.
Nostalgic nods to the sport’s golden era, vintage models fetch premium prices at auctions and inspire enthusiasts to sand and varnish till their knuckles bleed, all for the pleasure of simply gazing at (and one can hope cruising in) a piece of history. For these select few, owning a classic wooden boat represents one of boating’s great joys.
Here are some of their stories, as well as suggestions on how to acquire one of these classic beauties for yourself.
Who Buys Woodies?
Fans of antique wooden boats run the gamut, in terms of finances, passion and motivation. For some at the highest ends of the market, it’s admittedly the desire to own something few others can obtain. Jim Genovese, owner of Sandy Beach Marina in Akron, Ohio, recently spent $130,000 on a pristine 1955 Chris-Craft Cobra, a design distinguished by the prominent gold fin protruding from its afterdeck. Genovese first saw a Cobra 20 years ago. He’d wanted one ever since.
“It’s a very unique boat,” explains Genovese. “It has a fin; it has a Hemi motor. There are approximately 60 to 70 of these boats left out of the 105 that were built, so it’s very rare.”
Genovese admits to being the kind of guy who likes to show off his collectibles. That Cobra sits in front of a lakeside house that features an indoor showroom for a collection of classic cars, readily seen from the water behind $150,000 worth of plate glass. “I guess it’s just another thing to feed your ego,” he offers. “I feel like I have the holy grail of Chris- Crafts. If you’re going to have one … that’s the one to have.”
For others, owning an antique boat is a chance to hold onto something special from the past. Dr. Bob Johnson, a retired family physician, remembers his uncle letting him steer classic woodies as a child, and being drawn to the gleaming speedboats tied up in the local marina. As an adult, he has purchased a succession of open speedboats. His favorites? The iconic Chris-Craft U-22 Sportsman, of which he’s owned four or five, and the recent addition of a 1929 Hickman Sea Sled.
“Hickman was a very unusual guy,” Johnson recounts. “He developed a surface-piercing propeller and a tunnel hull, all in the 1920s.” In addition, the builder used engine technologies now popular more than 80 years later, such as oil coolers. “A lot of these people were ahead of their time,” Johnson says.
Pining for the Past
Obviously, there’s more to this picture than simple lust over a finely varnished mahogany plank. Wood is the obvious constant, a material both beautiful and functional, and one that, historically speaking, was frequently used in intricate, aesthetically appealing ways.
“Architecturally, the designs are just fantastic,” says Classic Marine owner Dwight Davis, a man who not only grew up with wood boats, but one who also now shares his knowledge at a local maritime museum. “Wood is just so alive and so beautiful. The way a boat comes together when it’s built out of wood, all the pieces, all the ribs and the structural parts, to me it’s just really fantastic. Wood’s strength equals its beauty.”
Look at the most coveted models and you’ll see wood in all its glory. Pre-World War II models are perhaps most rare and, as a result, most sought after by high-end collectors. Boats like the Gar Wood Triple Cockpit Runabout or Baby Gar, or anything from Dodge, Hacker, Dolphin or Gold Cup. Prewar Chris-Crafts are also a hot commodity, as are postwar models like Genovese’s Cobra.
Wood, however, also tells a story to those who’ll listen. “You find a 1937 Gar Wood 28-foot Triple Cockpit runabout with a Scripps V-12 302 in it, and that boat’s been owned by Marshall Fields, or some high-powered guy out in LA,” Freedom Boat Service partner Aaron Kelly explains. “It has a lot of history, and that’s what draws a lot of people into this.”
It’s these elite models of the 1920s that typically draw the big bidders. But like other fine works of art, they often need middlemen to arrive in the hands of their collectors. For the elite investor, that might mean using a specialty firm like Freedom. Here, specialists such as Kelly and founder Dave Bortner interview clients to determine which boat best fits their needs, research what’s available and then provide detailed dossiers on the potential candidates. Once a sale is negotiated, Freedom also offers full restoration services, from hulls to vintage engines.
“A lot of times on some of this prewar stuff, you can’t get parts anymore, so you have to fabricate stuff,” Kelly explains. “We spend thousands of dollars sometimes just remanufacturing a cleat or a windshield bracket or a navigation light. It’s big business, and it takes money to do what we do.”