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Wings & Water: First Loves

Michael Schulze

Dick Sligh runs a finger along the prow of a 26-foot mahogany runabout. “I’ve been in love with these since I was a kid,” he murmurs. “I’ve owned fiberglass boats over the years, but I’ve never enjoyed them as much.” He squints at the hull a moment, then bends to rub away a smudge. “Everyone,” he says, smiling, “remembers the boats their fathers had.”

 

Sligh’s company, Grand-Craft, builds these boats at its small plant in Holland, Mich., located on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan near a Heinz pickle factory. There is no robotic equipment here, and the two dozen craftsmen whom Sligh employs do not work at assembly stations. At the moment, one of the workers is bent over a mahogany plank, smoothing it with sandpaper. He runs his thumb over the plank, peering hard at the line. Then he continues sanding.

His employee’s scrupulousness pleases Sligh. The company president is not counting the minutes that it takes to complete this task. He is not thinking about cost-benefit ratios. This employee will finish when the plank is properly sanded, and then he will move on to the next one, continuing the process until enough planks have accumulated to build a runabout.

 

In the 1920s, 20- to 30-foot wooden runabouts offered an elegant form of transportation on the Great Lakes and beyond. For 50 cents, a family on a day’s outing could purchase a memorable 15-minute experience in one of these craft. On the East Coast, J.P. Morgan Jr. and other financiers employed larger versions of runabouts to commute from their homes on Long Island to Wall Street, casting a competitive eye on each other’s vessels as they passed in the Sound.

 

Following the Depression, the world’s largest builder of these boats was Chris-Craft, based near Detroit. By the 1950s, the company offered nearly 160 models, most featuring liberal amounts of mahogany and teak. But wooden boats had some significant drawbacks. Most notably, the seams between the planks opened during cold weather, forcing owners to recaulk the hulls continually. In addition, the boats often developed dry rot, caused by a fungus that attacks wood when it is left wet and unventilated. When fiberglass craft emerged in the 1960s, boaters flocked to them. Chris-Craft, seeing its fortunes waning, began making fiberglass boats, and in 1971 ceased production of its last mahogany model. The company never regained its market dominance.

In 1979, however, Chris Smith, the grandson of Chris-Craft founder Christopher Columbus Smith, and a fellow named Steve Northuis began making wooden boats again. Northuis subsequently launched a boatbuilding company that he called Macatawa Bay Boat Works, but managing a business was not his strong suit. When Sligh and his wife purchased the outfit in 1984, it was failing. Renaming the company Grand-Craft, they worked with Chris to obtain old Chris-Craft boat patterns from the 1930s and used them as models for new runabouts. The boats retained the appearance of vintage Chris-Crafts but had up-to-date equipment.

The plan succeeded. In the past two decades, Grand-Craft has delivered about 200 of its wooden craft, including runabouts in its Sport line (with an open design suited for socializing, fishing, and swimming), its Classic line (with two- or three-seat cockpits), and its Commuter line (hard-top boats suited for entertaining or for ferrying passengers), as well as custom designs. And now the company is preparing to launch a fourth line, called the Racing Runabout, based on a jazzy, 19-foot Chris-Craft from the 1940s.

At the Grand-Craft plant, Sligh stands near a runabout under construction, a 36-foot Commuter that will be named Wild Goose II (see “Ferry Tale”). “When I was a teenager,” he says, “my father staged waterskiing shows throughout the Midwest, and I maintained the boats. Then, when I was getting my master’s degree from Michigan State University in the 1950s, I designed a boat as an assignment and became hooked.” Sligh ran a marina for 13 years, and then, when his back began bothering him, joined his family’s business, Sligh Furniture Co. “But,” he says, “I never forgot the boats.”

 

By the time Sligh and his wife, Marti, acquired Grand-Craft, technology had come along that made building and owning wooden boats much less problematic. In 1971—the year Chris-Craft stopped building wooden craft—Gougeon Brothers Boatworks of Bay City, Mich., had introduced the WEST system (or wood epoxy saturation technique), which enables a boatbuilder to seal every wood surface in a vessel. The epoxy eliminates dry rot and forms a permanent bond with the wood, so seams do not open. “WEST,” says Marti, “was the key to our success.”

 

Marti, a personable, easygoing woman who is about 10 years younger than her 76-year-old husband, runs the administrative side of the business, but clearly she is well versed in boatbuilding. Standing with Dick by the Commuter craft, she explains the vessel’s construction. “Every piece of wood in this boat is Philippine mahogany. This kind of wood absorbs shocks from waves better than Honduras mahogany and certainly much better than fiberglass. We were in rough water in Lake Tahoe recently, and a glass stayed where it was on the dash.”

Each vessel is constructed from a remarkable amount of wood. On most Grand-Crafts, the sides of the hulls consist of two layers of mahogany planks laid in a crosshatch pattern, and the bottoms have three layers. In the big Commuters, an extra layer is added to the sides and the bottom. About 6,000 screws go into a boat before it is epoxied and painted. Then, over the course of about a month, workers apply 15 to 18 coats of varnish.

“These vessels can handle just about anything,” Dick says. “In 2000, one of our 28-foot Sport boats collided with a 65-foot motor sailer in Lake Washington in Seattle, and the owner was knocked unconscious. When he came to, he found the craft’s starboard side caved in, but the boat was floating. He believes he owes his life to the boat.”

The boats’ solidity is not their only selling point. Tim Adamski, the plant’s production supervisor and a member of the Grand-Craft staff since the mid-1980s, points to the bow of a 24-foot Sport craft, where planks converge. The color and grain of each plank match the color and grain of the plank that touches it. “We call this a book match,” Adamski explains. “We get it by using sister planks cut from the same board. We even match the grains on the bungs, the wood plugs that we place above each screw head.”

Then the craftsmen add the details: wood windshields with chrome trim, like on vintage sports cars; analog dials and push-pull switches, like those of cars, boats, and planes of 50 years ago; tachometers, voltmeters, fuel gauges, oil pressure readers, and depth sounders. Smiling, Dick touches a piece of equipment on the prow. “We even install an air horn, you see—though ours are stainless steel.”

In her office during a break from the tour, Marti opens a book about Holland and points to some photographs. Some show a downtown only a few blocks long; others show modest but neatly maintained houses. “This is a wonderful town,” she says. “The people work incredibly hard, and they have a tradition of craftsmanship that goes back generations. We’ve never considered moving anywhere else.”

The town was settled in the mid-1800s by Dutch immigrants, who worked mainly as loggers, furniture makers, fishermen, sailors, and boatbuilders. In 1939, Chris-Craft built a plant here to take advantage of the locals’ building skills. Even now, several companies in the area, including the furniture maker Bennett Wood Specialties and the machine shop D&D Machine, use fairly feudal manufacturing techniques, with small groups of craftsmen working on a limited number of products. This is the approach taken by Grand-Craft, with its small, 22,000-square-foot facility that can produce about 15 boats at a time.

This human scale is evident throughout the operation. One Grand-Craft customer, a retired Florida businessman who recently took delivery of a 24-foot Sport craft and has ordered a 20-foot version for his wife, notes that when the new runabout arrived, Dick was at the helm. “Dick and Marti have given us an incredible level of attention,” he says. “They came to know us thoroughly before building the boat and helped us conceptualize hundreds of details. And over the months we’ve become friends.” Dick says he drives new boats to customers whenever he can, and sometimes he even stays in their homes for a few days while they grow accustomed to their new toy.

For now, Grand-Craft is synonymous with the Slighs, but inevitably this will change. Though Dick is spry for his age, climbing over boats like a much younger man, he and Marti eventually will retire. In April 2005 they sold the company to the private equity firm TMB Industries, which then sold it to the firm’s managing director, Tim Masek, last January. Masek, who left TMB to become Grand-Craft’s chairman, is well aware of the need for a succession plan. “So far,” he says, “we’ve brought in new people on both the administrative and manufacturing sides to learn the ropes. Dick and Marti will remain with Grand-Craft as long as they choose to, but if they decide to make an exit, we expect they’ll do so slowly so that their successors are fully trained. Meanwhile, we plan to expand and upgrade the manufacturing plant, but we’ll never turn Grand-Craft into a mass-production operation.”

Grand-Craft offers 17 boat models, ranging from an entry-level 20-footer ($69,000) to a 50-foot Commuter (about $1.9 million). Most of the models are single-engine craft with a range of 400 to 500 miles and a cruising speed of 45 to 50 mph. The most popular runabouts include the 24-foot Triple Cockpit Classic ($128,000), modeled from Chris-Craft designs from the 1930s; the 24-foot Luxury Sport ($139,000), which can seat as many as 10 people; and the Commuter vessels, which begin at about $440,000. The craft typically take three to six months to build.

Neal Shevin, an Internet entrepreneur in New Buffalo, Mich., owns both a 30-foot custom and a 24-foot Sport craft, and he recently sold a 26-footer. “Basically,” he says, “a Grand-Craft is the boat we knew when we were kids, but as modern as any fiberglass craft and pretty much bulletproof. But the thing I like best about my boats is that they make people grin. People remember their childhood when they see these runabouts.”

Nearing the end of their walk through the plant, Dick and Marti proceed to the 1940s Chris-Craft that serves as the model for their new Racing Runabout, which they expect to deliver this summer. It is indeed a beauty, with its front cockpit, rumble seat, roadster windshield, and long, tapered bow—and air horn, of course. The couple plans to build a 20-foot version ($104,000), a 24-footer ($137,000), and a 28-footer ($182,000).

“I have no market research whatsoever to support this decision,” Marti admits, then laughs. “I just love this boat!”

Grand-Craft
616.396.5450
www.grandcraft.com

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