The wooden boat offers a timeless elegance and stately ride that has appealed to every generation. The sparkle of freshly polished chrome or the alure of stained and varnished mahogany can be especially intense at boat shows, or on a quiet evening when the low growl of a vintage engine floats across the lake. The natural next thought is to wonder what it would feel like to be behind the wheel of your own classic wooden boat.
Craftspeople have been building and selling wooden boats in Muskoka for nearly 150 years, so a prospective classic boat owner will have lots of choice. There are many points of entry for the world of wooden boating, but above all, the process of learning and discovery should be considered a journey.
The best place to start is by visiting the region’s excellent museums. The Muskoka Lakes Museum is in Port Carling, where several prominent builders had their shops. The Disappearing Propeller Boat Co., Port Carling Boats, Matheson, and Duke Boats all lined the docks here at one time, and the little museum is a great place to learn more about them.
For an overview of all the region’s boatbuilders, you should also visit the Muskoka Discovery Centre in Gravenhurst. This is a great place to learn about the events that resulted in the success or demise of builders like Minett, Minett-Shields, Greavette and Ditchburn. The boathouse at the Discovery Centre also contains one of the finest collections of wooden boats in Canada, letting you see these classics in the water.
Another option is to visit one of a number of local boat builders who are still very active in the trade. The skills of boat building are as old as the oldest boats and every current builder in Muskoka can trace the heritage of their skill through an unbroken line to the first builders of classic boats in Muskoka.
Finding your passion
Wooden boat ownership is a very personal experience. It may be a journey that doesn’t end with just one boat, or it may be a series of new discoveries focused on a single boat, builder, or style. From the skiff to the cabin launch, every boat has a story, and your ownership will be its new chapter.
The rowing skiff is the most functional of boats and the simplest to maintain. It also offers exercise and an intimate connection to the construction and classic design of a craft. Skiffs were perhaps the most common and universal of boat designs made by local builders. There is a “Muskoka” style to our rowboats that lets you quickly distinguish them from skiffs made anywhere else. A few of the local builders did make canoes, but their number is much more limited, since Peterborough and Lakefield builders were so well established and produced them in great numbers.
Stepping up to the world of power boats offers many options, from small outboards and Disappearing Propeller Boats to 36-foot “long-deck” launches and cabin launches.
The golden era of Muskoka wooden boat building lasted from about the late teens to the mid-1930s, and the majority of the most coveted classic boats were created in this 20-to-25-year period.
No matter what kind of boat grabs your attention, don’t expect your classic vessel to be a do-it-all craft. Yes, there are photos that show early water skiing behind the big long-deck launches, huge skis gliding over massive wakes while being pulled at moderate speeds. But that’s completely impractical by modern standards. Similarly, a Dispro putting along at a top speed of six mph is a fun boat for becoming intimate with the shoreline, but they are a terrible all-weather craft, no matter how seaworthy they claim to be: I’ve been soaked on many a “Dippy Trip” on Georgian Bay. However, in the right water, these little motorized rowboats are a dream, and can snake through shallows nearly as well as a canoe.
If you’re planning to go out on the Bay, take a look at Grew Boats of Orillia. They built inboard and outboard family styled boats that were very effective on Georgian Bay.
There are boats that offer period elegance and drama or humble fun for the family. Nothing makes a statement like cruising along at nearly 30 mph in a long-deck launch, with the knife-like cutwater slicing the waves, burgee flapping and a huge stern flag slowing showing its colours. A folding canopy can be deployed if the sun or elements become disagreeable.
Late models and new builds
Even as fibreglass began to dominate the boat world, builders such as Greavette Boats, MacLennan & Sons, and Duke Boats continued to operate into the 1960s, building popular all-rounders or utility boats. Greavette wound up building the most modern mainstream hulls with their Sun Flash series, made using either planks or plywood. They plane easily and perform more like a fiberglass boat, especially models fitted with an inboard/outboard. The Executive model was the most luxurious presentation of this design from Greavette, and you can often find one available through wooden boat dealers.
While it would seem most obvious to look for an existing boat with an established heritage and classic design, there’s also the option of buying a “new classic.” Every year, new wooden boats emerge from the shops of Muskoka. Some are new designs that leverage classic styling with more modern nautical technologies and construction methods. Cold-molding techniques and the use of epoxy resins have opened all kinds of new options for boat building. Traditionalists would say that nothing compares to plank or lapstrake methods, but a new audience is responding to these designs which have the look and feel of a classic but with less maintenance and fuss.
Flipping through period Canadian and American nautical magazines will also reveal many designs and models that are no longer in existence. Even some boats that were famous in their day have burned, sunk, or just been abandoned to decay, leaving only their image and line drawings from the designer. Recreating a historic boat is an exciting way to bring one of these lost boats back to life (and building a brand-new boat can often cost less than a full restoration would!) The replica concept can be particularly appealing when eyeing boats that had remarkable histories, such as Baby Bootlegger, a 1925 Gold Cup winner. Versions of this design remain popular with builders. In time, variations of these classics could become classics in their own right.
Powering your classic
Of course, a powered classic most likely comes with a period engine. Keeping a period engine running dependably should be considered a critical aspect of being the current custodian for a classic launch. The full character of a 1926 Minett includes experiencing it powered by the original 1000 cubic-inch Hall Scott or Packard engine.
These vintage engines do take more care, and some would argue they are best preserved on a shore mounted display, but where is the fun in that? How will you know how it performs if it never does?
The journey of classic boat ownership is a complex and engaging experience. It’s not just a matter of buying a boat: it’s stepping into something that is best shared over a lifetime. And maybe the next sunset silhouette of a Muskoka classic boat will have you at the helm.
TEXT & PHOTOS Tim Du Vernet