River View Observer exclusive…Boat manufacturer powers past misconceptions and expands legacy by upgrading classic designs with contemporary technologies
At a recent boat show in New York City one vessel attracted a large crowd. Surrounded by a fleet of mass-produced fiberglass hulls was a mahogany runabout with long, sleek contours. Most assumed they were looking at a replica of a timeless classic. They were wrong.
The handcrafted 1920s-style boat was brand-new. Not that it wasn’t an original. The boat was built using the actual plans created by John Ludwig Hacker (1871-1961), the preeminent 20th Century designer of wooden pleasure crafts. The exterior look of the 24-foot rear-engine runabout was pure Hacker. But hidden in the engine hold and hull construction were contemporary marine technologies that have powered these legendary boats into modern times.
Robert Lynn Wagemann, president and CEO of Hacker Boat Company, Inc., says boat show patrons are often surprised to learn that new Hacker-Craft boats are available. “People think the boats are restored. They look that close to the original. Yet technologically they are modern. At boat shows the first thing out of people’s mouths is, ‘We didn’t know that these were made anymore.’ They think of it as a dead art.”
Not people like Malcolm Smith who bought a Hacker-Craft Gentleman’s Racer in June of 2007. A boating enthusiast since childhood, through the years the 65-year-old New Jersey resident has enjoyed cruising in many fine vessels. But his racer takes the trophy.
“The boat is the most fantastic riding boat of this style I’ve ever driven, and I’m very familiar with mahogany boats. My dad introduced me to the pleasure and as a kid I sanded them and varnished them and got to know them well. This boat is absolutely exquisite. It exceeds my expectations.”
His Gentleman’s Racer is a far cry from the floating antiques some collectors might be tempted to buy. “It’s very user friendly. You can enjoy the boat. If you buy an actual antique, unless they update the engine, you have a nightmare. You’d spend more time working on it than running it.”
The Name Game
The various Hacker-Craft boats were so famous in their day they were known by name. The original Pardon Me, for example, was commissioned by a wealthy businessman who chose the name to apologize to the public for being so extravagant during tough economic times. Other memorable models include the El Largarto, Bootlegger, Kitty Hawk, Belle Isle Bear Cats and Miss Pepsi. Even the U.S. Postal Service has a thing for the boats. In 2007 an image of the Thunderbird was included in the commemorative stamp collection called Vintage Mahogany Speedboats.
When Wagemann bought the company in 2004, he was well aware that the runabouts and racers inspired a longing for that golden age of superior American craftsmanship, leisure and innocence. Yet he wasn’t interested in nostalgia alone. He wanted the new boats to evoke a time gone by while guaranteeing contemporary convenience.
“You can have all the great fun, nostalgia and history without all the heavy-duty maintenance. We’ve done the hard work so that there is no hard work for the owners.”
Misconceptions about maintenance grow out of the assumption that the new boats are mere replicas. Back in the day, wooden boats had what was known as a wet bottom. Before they could be trusted on water, the underside would soak for a few days. This would swell the mahogany planks so that they would push against an expensive caulking that was used as a sealant. Even then, the boats would take on water throughout the summer and need to be drained in the autumn. While in dry dock the old caulking would be removed and replaced before the next boating season. It was a tedious ritual.
All that changed by the 1980s. The new boats could improve on the originals because technologies had developed that were not available to John Hacker. As a result, the company’s designers created a dry bottom system that involved layers of mahogany and epoxy. The system made the boats much stronger and stopped the leakage. Each hull now comes with a 10-year guarantee. And the process is the industry standard for today’s wooden boats.
The design team was resourceful in other ways. The original boats were fitted with 110 hp engines. With larger, more powerful engines available, the company realized the new boats could run much faster than Hacker’s creations. But that meant the engine supports had to be strengthened. They knew that when pushed to modern speeds, the bow of the original runabouts would rise out of the water and block the driver’s view. The hull was reworked so the nose would remain level with the water.
“Our designers were very innovative. They were able to get our Hacker-Craft to ride almost level, no matter where the passengers sit. That’s a very nice ride,” says Wagemann.
Contemporary Customized Delivery
When Smith ordered his racer, he knew it would take the Hacker-Craft craftsmen two years to build. He did not realize he would be invited to take part in the process. Yet every three or four months he would get a call from Wagemann or another member of the production team. The boats are built in a facility at Silver Bay on Lake George in upstate New York.
“They called me at various stages of production and asked me to come to see what was going on. They asked where I wanted the chrome hardware and throttle and steering wheel and upholstery. Frankly, I had distinct opinions about what I wanted. And they accommodated those to the T. Not even a screw was out of place. I thought that was amazing and very professional.”
Although power tools are used for some tasks, all Hacker-Crafts are hand built, despite the fact that each has more than 24,000 stainless steel screws, bolts, nuts or staples. On average, 2,000 hours of labor are needed to build the boats, each of which is made entirely from Honduran, Philippine and African mahoganies.
Today, the company builds runabouts, sport boats, launches, utilities and water taxis that range in size from 20 to 42 feet. Their modern day motto is if you can dream it, we can build it. Prices start at $100,000.
Wagemann said he will continue to follow in the tradition of John Hacker, who preferred the challenge of custom projects. But to increase output and speed delivery for boat lovers who don’t want to wait two years, the company now builds some of the more popular models on spec. This allows new customers to put their name on a boat already in production. And those buyers can incorporate some customization late in the process.
Smith, who docks his racer on Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey, said he plans to captain his boat for as long as he is healthy. But should he wish to sell, he knows he has an excellent chance to recapture his investment and maybe even make a profit. This is possible because the cost of the excellent mahogany and high-grade materials used in construction usually inflate as time marches on.
“In some way, I’m reliving my youth. A slow cruise across the lake after dark under a full moon, that’s very enchanting. During the day it’s also enchanting to cruise around the lake seeing the sights. But I admit I also want people to see this boat.”
For more information, contact Hacker Boat Co., Inc, by writing to Route 9N, 8 Delaware Ave., Silver Bay, NY 12877; Phone (866) 540-5546; Fax (518) 543-6732; E-mail: email@example.com; or visit the web site
Douglas Glenn Clark is a writer based in the Los Angeles area.