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Don’t Look Back

Four boaters remember the first boats they loved.

November 27, 2006
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Don’t Look Back

Don’t Look Back

Don’t Look Back

Don’t Look Back

What is it about first loves? Why are they so unforgettable, getting better as time passes? And why are they usually disastrous to go back to? You call your old sweetheart one night after a few too many. But when you meet again, you feel as if you’d rather be having a root canal. It’s the same with what we once coveted. You drooled over that muscle car as a kid. But now, when you can finally afford it, you discover it can be beaten by a tricked-out Honda Civic. Careful what you wish for, brother, you just might get it. And it’s no different with boats. We found four boaters who tried to revive their memories. For some, the reality was better than the dream, for others, it was a nightmare. Thinking of going back? Read this first.

What was I thinking?

Edward Keith of Cape Cod has a secret. For decades, he lusted after another man’s boat. “I might not have owned it, but I did a lot of fishing on it,” says Keith. He first boarded it in 1985, then spent the next 10 years bonding with the single-screw 24′ Blackfin Combi. “It was the perfect size and a great rough-water performer,” recalls Keith with a grin. Even better was that it was always there for him to use. But all good things end. His friend eventually sold the Blackfin. “I missed that boat and talked about buying one,” says Keith. After six years of searching, he made the leap and bought one. It needed a thorough cleaning, and he replaced the teak, the windshield, and the engines. “The rebuild was a lot of work, but it went without a hitch – or so I thought.” Upon splashing the boat, he found that the 350s he had put in made the Blackfin perform differently than with its original twin 302s – and way worse than with his buddy’s single. “It would pound at high speeds, and it wanted to lay over on one side of the bottom’s deep V,” says a deflated Keith. Plus, repairs in the now-cramped engine room also became a bear. How did he deal with the disappointment? Simple. He sold it, purchased a significantly bigger 27′ Blackfin, and started the rebuilding process over again, this time with much better results. From the now-happy Keith, “It’s not the boat I dreamed of, but it’s close enough.”

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Better Than I Remembered

While growing up on the rough waters off Long Island’s south shore, one boat always stuck out to Charlie Johnson: the 31 Bertram. “With their great-looking lines and rough-water performance, 31 Bertrams were the boat to own!” he likes to tell anyone who’ll listen. Too bad that back in the 1970s he was too young to own one. And when he finally could afford one, they were no longer being built. So the search was on. “I found the perfect boat right off, but I was outbid,” says Johnson. “I kept looking over the next five years until, by chance, I ended up buying that first boat I saw.” The gas-powered flying bridge fit his needs for a dependable, overbuilt, seaworthy fishing machine. So why sell it?

The problem with the 31 Bertram is that it’s a fishing boat first with few comforts, and Johnson wanted to get his wife and three daughters out on the water with him. So he sold the Bertram and bought a bigger boat. “After three years with the big boat, my kids lost interest and I found myself staring at other people’s Bertrams. I wanted my 31 back!” says the enthusiastic Johnson. This time it didn’t take five years. A friend had just put his refurbished Bahia Mar Express on the market. The boat was just what Johnson wanted, and after a little bargaining it was his. It had new Yanmar diesels, dripless shaft seals, new running gear, and a generator. The only thing that needed work was the interior and the paint on the hull. “This second 31 has exceeded all my expectations,” says Johnson. “I can easily fish it alone with its open layout, and it runs faster while burning much less fuel than the bigger boat.”

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Johnson is confident that he’s finally found the boat he’ll keep for the rest of his life. He may say he believes in catch-and-release, but when he finally lands that elusive 50-pound striped bass, I’m sure he’ll hold onto it with as tight a grip as he has on his Bertram.

A Good Idea?

How could I have not loved that 28 Topaz? It was the boat I first went offshore on and learned how to fish in,” explains Joe Riley.

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In 1980 he bought one fresh off the assembly line, seeing it as a great way to spend more time with his fishing-addicted son. Life was good back then off Ocean City, Maryland. As Riley tells it, “Tuna and billfish seemed to swim right to the transom like rats to the Pied Piper.” They got so good at fishing that Riley and son started taking on charters. It was fun, but running the little Topaz seven days a week soon got old. After three years they moved up to an 42 Ocean Yacht, and the charter business grew with it. Then they bumped it up to a 46 Ocean. But times changed. His son took over a dry cleaning business and started a family of his own-the Ocean was put up for sale. “We fished together less and less every year,” says Riley. “So when I found an old 28 Topaz sitting in a yard, this lightbulb went off over my head. What a great way to spend time with my son again.”

The boat was a rebuild from the keel up. Riley admits that the experience wasn’t much fun. He did what work he could, which was a lot, but left the critical stuff to professionals. When the dust settled, he had an excellent boat that could take him and his son fishing once again. Yet way down deep he had to admit that the second Topaz just didn’t live up to the first.

“Don’t get me wrong,” says Riley, defensively. “It was a great boat, performed beautifully, and never gave us any problems. But it couldn’t compare to the original.”

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It took him some time, but Riley now understands why. “There’s something about going out on the ocean for the first time, or catching that first billfish. It can only happen once.” He confides the second time never had that same feel of adventure or, as he puts it, romance. Eventually, he sold the boat. He wasn’t soured by the hard work or complications of restoring it. The magic just wasn’t there.

Get Smart

Stephen Kelly’s 19′ Robalo was his second boat. It was 1982, he was 25, and life was good. “I wasn’t married, had a decent amount of disposable income, and some friends to go boating with,” explains Kelly. He picked up the boat inexpensively, did some work, and bolted on a new motor. Fishing, skiing, and blasting around were par for the course up near Newburgh, on New York’s Hudson River. After three seasons, he sold it and moved on – he’s owned 12 boats since. Yet the siren call of that beat-up Robalo stayed with him.

Kelly’s latest acquisition was a 45′ Hatteras. A nice boat, but not exactly “fun.” So off he went in search of an old 19′ Robalo. Most were in pretty bad shape, in need of major rebuilding. The project looked daunting. So much so that the one he bought sat for 16 months before he even found the time and energy to start. A poor engine installation had left the wood transom completely rotten, and the rest of the boat was a nightmare as well. Instead of finding the great little boat and the fun he remembered, Kelly had found a serious project.

“The reality is that no boat is the same as it was 20 years ago unless someone has done a lot of work on it or kept it in a time capsule,” says Kelly. He eventually sold the boat, quite cheaply, to a young guy Kelly says reminded him of himself. “I would have loved to have had that 19,” says Kelly, “But I just didn’t want to be the one to do the work.”

What Kelly discovered, as did all the others in this story, was that if you’re thinking about rekindling that old flame, let someone else light the fire first. Buy a boat that another person has done the work on. You almost never get your money back on a rebuild, so let someone else go through the hassles and take the hit.

Also, be honest. Was it the boat you loved or just the times? In most cases it’s the latter. All good advice and I wish I could take it. But right now there’s an old aluminum scow in my neighbor’s weeds that’s just like the one I had when I was a kid. Hammer out the dents, caulk the holes – I know I can bring it all back, just like it was long ago…never let the dream die.

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