There is nothing more picturesque in the eyes of a boater than the site of a classic Chris-Craft, Gar Wood or Hacker-Craft glistening in the sun as it runs along the shore of a treelined lake, or, in this case, as it sat still at a dock reflecting the minimal light penetrating a hard bank of clouds. Literally staring down at the glossy, narrow-beamed 27-foot Hacker under my nose, I was filled with an appreciation for craftsmanship from a time passed, an era lost with the onset of easier-to-build-and-maintain fiberglass hulls. And then I had to remind myself: This boat of old at my feet was not a classic. It wasn’t even old. It was as new as the Cobalt 276 sitting 10 feet away. Both boats were alluring. Both among the elite. But as I would discover, they couldn’t have been more different, inside and out.
What is it about mahogany boats? If we’re so attracted to them, why did their day in the sun so long ago set? The answer: work. They took time to build and even more time to maintain, which is why you see so many old wooden boats sitting in various stages of neglect in sheds around the country. For nearly 50 years the overwhelming majority of production powerboats has been constructed of fiberglass.
It’s gotten to the point where the mere sight of wood on a boat entices the question: “What year is it?”
This Hacker 27 Sport? Model-year 2010.
Next question: “How does it stack up against today’s elite fiberglass model?”
I had gone to the Adirondack region of New York to find out for myself.
How We Got Here
First we have to understand that we owe our modern boating legacy to the great wooden boatbuilders of a century ago. Hacker-Craft’s founder, John Ludwig Hacker, built his first production boat in Michigan, a 32-foot-6-inch boat powered by a 55 hp Speedway engine that hit 23 mph. In 1911 he built the first boat to top 50 mph in the United States. Hacker is also credited with building the first “runabout” style boat, when he moved the engine midship and set the helm controls in the cockpit forward of the engine box.
Following John Hacker’s death in 1961, the company went through ownership changes, a period of virtual darkness and finally a move east to one of the hot spots of the wooden boat subculture: forest-ringed Lake George, New York.
Most boaters believe wood-runabout building disappeared for good a few decades ago, with the exception of those created by weekend woodsmiths. While it’s true that they’ll never again be true production boats because they take so long to build, wood runabouts are still alive. In a barn sitting a few hundred feet off the shore of Lake George’s Silver Bay, I took in the smell of fresh sawdust and the sounds of woodworking tools. Upstairs, two boats sat in different stages of construction. Craftsmen would be working with the mahogany for eight to 10 weeks. Next, in the finish shop, it would be another eight to 10 weeks to install the engine and hardware and finish off the decks. The topside would eventually take 12 to 16 coats of hand-brushed varnish, sanded between every application. All told, it would take four to six months to deliver one of these boats.
“It’s very labor intensive,” said Lynn Wagemann, the current owner of Hacker Boats. “We’re selling the labor and craftsmanship, not the raw-material costs.”
About 1,000 board feet of mahogany planks went into building the 27 Sport, named Heartbeat, that sat against the dock next to the Cobalt, waiting to be tested. The hull bottom is actually a hybrid of wood and epoxy, which makes the boat completely watertight and prevents the wood from expanding and contracting as is so common with antique boats. Its tri-directional bottom is comprised of two layers of crisscrossed, one-quarter-inch-thick mahogany planks and an outer layer of longitudinally laid planks. This technique means that, on the ownership end, the boat will no longer be what we’ve come to expect from wood: a time-intensive labor of love, or just a royal pain in the ass. The materials, as I was about to find out, also make a big difference in the on-water comparison with fiberglass.