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Vintage wooden boats a tradition at Lake Rabun 1/19/2004 10:33:37 PM
Average reader rating: 8.34  
by By Reagan Walker - The Atlanta Journal

Close-up of the anchor bow design on Jud Laws' 1946 Garwood Commore Bell Geddes design wood boat on Lake Rabun.

LAKEMONT -- It's easy to see why he loves her. She's busty in the front and her back tapers into a perfectly round rear.

She's smooth and she glides when she moves. She's cherry bourbon and red leather and expensive. She's rare and high maintainance -- she doesn't tolerate being ignored. Some might consider her an old dame but to Bob Grigsby, she's a classic.

She's a 1942 barrel back Chris Craft mahagony motor boat, one of an estimated 80-100 vintage wooden boats on Lake Rabun. Chris Crafts, GarWoods, Dukes and other models have become a signature of this privileged pond in the north Georgia mountains, along with the designer boat houses that shelter them. (A new cookbook by the Lake Rabun Association features a painting of a wooden boat on the cover.)

On July 4th, many of the wooden motor boats will line up for the annual Wooden Boat Regatta Parade around the 9-mile lake. The parade has been a tradition for 26 years, first organized by Ray Warren back in 1978.

Judson Laws drives his father's 1946 Garwood Commodore Belle Geddes design wood boat.

"The Fourth of July weekend is always a big weekend at the lake," said Grigsby. "I'll definitely be in the parade. People will decorate their boat houses and gather for cocktail parties to watch the regatta. The Lakemont Fire Department boat leads the parade and is the only boat in the parade that is not wood."

Grigsby, an Atlanta commercial realtor who has been going to Lake Rabun with family since childhood, said wood boats have been a tradition for even longer than the patriotic regatta. "My father learned to ski behind one," he recalls. "I guess it has to do with the mentality up here. You come up here to get away."

And for Grigsby and the other vintage boat enthusiasts, "getting away" means turning away from all that is modern, power and puff. They get plenty of that in Atlanta. Step into a nicely restored vintage wooden motor boat and you step back into time.

A close-up view of Bob Grigsby's 1942 Barrel Back Chris Craft wood boat on Lake Rabun.

At least it's easy to pretend such, because these voluptuous vessels are the stuff of Walter Mitty dreams. Slide onto the red leather seats, crank up the inboard engine, glide across the emerald green water just fast enough to make the little Chris Craft (or GarWood or Duke) flag flutter and you are Earnest Hemingway trolling for his muse. Or maybe a beautiful movie starlet, with Jackie-O sunglasses, ruby red lips and a matching red scarf draped over your hair and knotted underneath the chin, sipping in the sunset along with a gin martini.

We're talking about style here.

"It's true," said Ben Jennings of Atlanta, whose family owns a Chris Craft. "At the risk of sounding like a boat snob, the new boats just don't have any style to them. They all look like Pacers (ugly, ill-fated compact cars) to me."

A full-length view of Bob Grigsby's 1942 Barrel Back Chris Craft wood boat.

An accurate registry of wooden boats in the country is hard to come by, but the estimated 80-100 wooden boats on Lake Rabun combined with the three dozen or so wooden boats on Lake Burton make north Georgia the (unofficial) capital of wooden boats in the South and among the top areas in the country.

Though all the boats on Lake Rabun were made of wood back in the early 1900s (the lake was created in 1915), none of the originals exist today. The older boats that date back to the 1920s-1940s were purchased elsewhere and transported to north Georgia.

But as fiberglass and outboard motors became more the norm, wooden boats became the second or third boat one might own, after a ski boat, pontoon boat or fishing boat. And truth is today, there are more fiberglass boats on the water at Lake Rabun than wooden ones because fiberglass boats come in a variety of models and price ranges and are much easier to maintain. "I've noticed a lot of the new families up here stick with fiberglass," Grigsby said. "I guess wood boats are an acquired taste."

Like most things, once you've acquired the taste, it's hard to want anything but the finest. That's what pleases Grigsby so about his rare Chris Craft -- one of a few because only 14 or 15 Chris Crafts were made in 1942 before war interrupted production. Of those, six are accounted for and two are on Lake Rabun. The boat came from Maine via Connecticut and first spent time in the hands of Jud Law, a passionate wooden boat restorer who has nurtured many of the vintage boats on the lake. (Ben McCracken at Hall's Boat House also does restorations.)

Close-up of the anchor bow design on Jud Laws' 1946 Garwood Commore Bell Geddes design wood boat on Lake Rabun.

With a snowy cap of hair and sun-weathered face, Law has that old man and the sea look. He likes to take his time when restoring a boat and "do it right." After more than 30 years of working on boats, he's slowed down to some personal projects and maintenance work.

But as he uncovers a 1932 GarWood suspended on a boat lift and lowers it for a better view, the brilliant glint in Law's eyes lights up the shady boat house.

"This is totally original. It has never had a full restoration," he said of the impeccably maintained 25-foot, triple cockpit mahagony boat. There are two rows of seats in the front and one more in the back --behind the rare 202 Scripps engine -- with it's own windshield. The cherry-brown wood is encased in 26 layers of thick varnish. The instrument panel charms with it's simplicity -- no computerized gadgets or buttons to push.

Because each boat is different and the older ones require careful restoration work, Law said "it's hard to put a price on a lot of them." A quick search on the internet found vintage Chris Crafts for sale between $10,000 and $50,000. But often, once the cost of restoration is added on, both Grigsby and Jennings said it's not unusual to see the price on a collectible boat climb over the $100,000 mark.

Lindsey Hopkins said "I pay huge gobs of money to let people help me with my boats." But it's clear he's an enthusiast. In his boat house at the moment he has a 1937 Duke Playmate and a 1946 GarWood. He also has two Dodges and, in the non-motorized category, two Wee Lassies, which are handmade wooden canoes.

Like all true believers, Hopkins, Grigsby and Law swear there's more to the boats than their classy looks. "There's no comparison in the ride of a wooden boat and a fiberglass boat," Law said. "Wooden boats are quieter, they run smoother. The harmonics are different. They are just better."

Related Link http://www.ajc.com

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