IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THINGS I HAD EVER SEEN. MERCEDES WAS A MAHOGANY SPEEDBOAT, ABOUT FIVE AND A HALF METRES LONG. A CHRIS-CRAFT, I WOULD GUESS MANY YEARS LATER, THAT HAD COME FROM THE UNITED STATES. ITS VARNISHED WOOD AND POLISHED STEEL SPARKLED IN THE WĀNAKA SUN. MY DAD THOUGHT IT WAS TOO NOISY. I LOVED THE SOUND.
I was around twelve and walking past the slipway west of Bullock Creek where the larger wooden boats were moored when I heard that noise the first time. The late afternoon north-westerly was rising with a chill. Mercedes appeared around the willows, turned to the shore and was beached into the gravel. The skipper, the only one aboard, waved me over.
Am I going for a ride? He tells me to jump in, then with an eye to the weather hands me a long oar. Can I hold it off the beach at the stern while he gets the trailer? My heartbeat slows. I nod and wonder if he notices my disappointment. I’m holding the oar on the lee side in the gravel, pushing against a wind that is trying to wheel the hull around. Mixed aromas – warm leather, the tang of water on wood, a tinge of hot oil from the engine – capture me. A trailer appears. The skipper winches Mercedes out of the water and waves me off. Secured to the trailer behind a big American car, the boat disappears along the lakeside road in a cloud of dust and gravel.
I never saw Mercedes again. But the craft lay quietly lapping on blue waters in the recesses of my mind for nigh on fifty years. Such is love.
Exquisite wooden runabouts can be found anywhere there is sheltered water. In Britain, Europe and Canada, they tended to be custom-made for people who could afford them. In the United States, like the early automobile, they were fashioned on factory production lines. Chris-Craft, along with companies like Garwood and Hacker, produced mahogany (or stained Philippine hardwood) boats that were reasonably priced and available to the average American. Thousands were produced over the years. Those that outlasted years of neglect and wood-rot often ended up in boatyards awaiting the enthusiast who would give them a restored life.
When I lived in Massachusetts in the nineties, my wife and I had a deal. On a weekend excursion I could visit one boatyard and she could visit an outlet mall. It worked fine, though she got many more bargains than I did boats. Then one Saturday at – I even remember the name – Boyd’s Boatyard in Connecticut, I found a beautifully-maintained 1940s Chris-Craft runabout sitting in a dark corner of a shed. It was from a deceased estate. The fellow said to make an offer, it had to be sold. He said he could send boats to New Zealand. He did it often to Australia. Throw it in a container with old mattresses. No trouble at all, he said. We agreed on a tentative price. He measured the boat. It was around 200mm too long for a single container. A bigger container would double the freight cost. My pleas were in vain. Another one that got away.
Years later, back in Wānaka, I was reminded by a friend of a wooden runabout named Lady Vauxhall. It had a chequered career. This included a court case involving some prominent Dunedin names and a charge of manslaughter after the craft struck a group of swimmers on Otago Harbour. The case was dismissed, but it led to the poor Lady lying neglected in a series of sheds for possibly thirty years. After some sleuthing, I uncovered the boat in a barn on the outskirts of Dunedin. Lady Vauxhall had been bought by an antique dealer who had made a shoddy attempt at restoration.
I mentioned the craft to an engineering acquaintance who had once raced power boats on Otago Harbour. He advised me not to touch it. If I wanted a wooden runabout, he said, I was to see a certain boatbuilder in Christchurch who was about to retire, but who intended to build one last boat before he did.
The boatbuilder’s yard was on a side street in an industrial estate in Bromley, near New Brighton. Jack Ryan was just as my Wānaka acquaintance had described: gruff, amiable and not likely to suffer fools gladly. I discovered this when I turned up with my plan. There were long heavy blocks of mahogany stacked along one wall of the boat shed; they had been in the same place for nearly forty years waiting to be crafted into a boat. The wood was abandoned in the sixties when the trend to build boats with fibreglass began. There was another stack of wood, light pure-grained kahikatea from the West Coast, covered in dust.
My drawing was inspired by a 1930s runabout from Seattle designed by Edwin Monk, a respected naval architect. The boats of this era had a higher transom that, during turning, kept the seats in the cockpit at the back end dry. In later decades, a lower stern made those boats a notoriously wet ride. Jack looked at my work and, as the minutes passed, I started thinking he must be impressed. He reached across to his printer and pulled off a blank sheet.
“I think we can do better than that.” He ruled a line across the paper.
“Waterline,” he said. “That’s where it will float.”
He then drew the craft’s profile closely following the contours of my drawing. Later, when that boat first floated off the trailer, the white bootstrap of the waterline was exactly where Jack had marked it. No other plans were sketched. Chalk lines on the shop floor and profiles on sheets of marine ply were scaled up from this initial paper plan.
We agreed on a price. Jack would build it for the cost of the materials, plus a margin for contingencies. It was indeed to be his last wooden boat. This was an extraordinary and generous offer. It was about a boat, not money. I could hardly refuse.
The project took two years, which made making payments on the engine, the running gear, trailer and all the bits and pieces you never think of, a little easier. Fitted out, tested and handed over the day before Jack closed down his yard, it was a credit to the builder’s art. This was every bit a real boat, with all the presence, manners and style a wooden craft should have. Jack’s last. We called it Swansong.
Within months of Swansong coming to Wānaka, my wife died. I did not have the heart to take the boat to the lake. It sat forlornly beneath a dust cover in the garage. I almost considered selling, but remembered my promise to Jack that the craft would never leave the family.
People who cherish classically designed and built wooden boats, the aficionados who know about them, talk about them, appreciate them and develop the skills to maintain, fix and restore them, are a special kind of sailor. They know the rest of the world will never understand such diligent attention to a simple wooden boat, or appreciate the way cleverly formed shapes and varnish can expose a particular beauty that was hidden in the substance of a tree.
Three wooden boats that swung on their moorings in the south-east corner of Lake Wānaka during the time of Mercedes stood out to me: Stella, Muritai and Malibu. They were similar, yet so different.
Stella had a white rounded hull and a perfectly-sloping sheer line that ran from bow to stern, plus a well- proportioned steerage cabin and roomy afterhouse. Owned by a prominent Dunedin businessman, he named it for his fashionable wife. From way out on the water, the conspicuous aroma of cigar smoke heralded another day on the lake for Stella’s owner (always in his captain’s hat and white shirt with naval style epaulettes) and his guests.
Muritai was heavily planked and robust, with a large afterdeck that enabled cargo to be plied to and from the sheep stations on the upper lake, like Minaret and Makarora. Owned by the publican of the Wānaka Hotel, Muritai was as it looked: a heavily wooded workboat.
Malibu was different both in purpose and in mystique. Described in the Otago Daily Times as a luxury pleasure craft, Malibu was launched by a Mister Tapley late in September of 1947. Dunedin-born Colin Tapley was an actor famous for his role in the 1952 film Angels One Five, about the Battle of Britain and starring the legendary screen actor Jack Hawkins. Colin himself had been a pilot with the RAF. The name Malibu reflected his acting ties with Hollywood and the sands of Malibu Beach close by. The Tapleys had a summer house, later a retirement home, in Wānaka, and Colin is buried in the Wānaka Cemetery. After he died in 1995, Malibu was for a time used as an excursion boat but was later sold to a fisherman somewhere on the West Coast.
I married again. With the unbounded relief of someone granted a second chance at love, I allowed myself to once again be endeared to Swansong. For twenty years now we’ve shared the freedom that graces the waters beyond the yellow buoys, found joy on the flat oily surface of Lake Wānaka as it is broken by the speedboat’s white wake.
In 2006, Swansong was voted best powered craft at the Lake Rotoiti Antique and Classic Boat Show. This tribute belongs to Jack. We are merely Swansong’s stewards, happy for a time to observe the shapely simplicity of the kahikatea frame and mahogany decking, to smell the blend of wood, varnish, spent oils and fuel, of upholstery and drying bilge water. We sneak alongside to feel the polish on the hull and the cool contrast in the bright steel of the cutwater and other fittings. Close and quiet enough, we may even sense the trace of a soul.
Swansong takes time to launch. At the lakeside ramp, a chrome and plastic wakeboard boat is tethered to a rumbling pick-up whose driver is drumming his fingers out an open window. He’s dragged the thing all the way from Timaru, and minutes are being wasted while some old guy floats his grand piano off the trailer. The driver doesn’t see that the old guy’s gentleness is an act of love. Swansong is not this year’s fashionable lake toy, nor next year’s boatyard bargain. She’s a story that began on this same gravel beach more than seventy years ago.
WORDS AND IMAGES: PETER DUNCAN