Getting ready for Vintage Weekend at Ocean Reef was a repeat of last year, with the same results: Last minute preparations gone awry. Not a cloud in the sky but as soon as Bernard Smith put down his brush, finished with painting the deck, a cloud slid over the boat and it rained. Since this was again at the last minute, there was no time for a re-do. I had to laugh – through gnashed teeth.
This year was a first for me, I backed Aurora II in the slip like pro. Having never done it before with Aurora, it would have been embarrassing had I messed up at Ocean Reef. I don’t know if it was luck or Vicki Goldstein’s magic but we ended up docked for the show next to Cindy and Buddy Purcell of Huckins Yacht Corporation. We have known each other for years. Before Aurora’s lines were cleated, Buddy and I struck up a conversation. I recently read something that was interesting and blurted it out to Buddy. “I just heard that cold molding was invented in the 1970s? Is that true?”
Cindy joined the conversation then to set the record straight. Cindy is the granddaughter of Frank Pembroke Huckins and boatbuilding is in her blood. She said, “I’ve heard that too but my grandfather was building cold-molded boats in WWII but they called it plywooding.”
Then she handed me this beautiful book, “Huckins, The Living Legacy.” I didn’t know it at the time, but she was giving me the book to keep. It’s an incredible book and the more I read, the more I wanted to read. So let me share some of what I found out about cold molding.
Franklin Pembroke Huckins started building boats in the 1920s. His boats were fast and had a very distinct style. By the time that WWII was in full swing, the government wanted smaller, faster and disposable boats for the war effort. Frank jumped in feet first, crashing the party. Navy didn’t invite Garwood either.
Elco and Higgins built most of the PT boats, but Huckins produced 18 of them. The Huckins-built PT boats were known in the Navy as “the yachts,” and sailors who served on them were ribbed for having it easy from the guys getting their brains pounded on the lesser PT boats.
In July 1941, there was a plywood derby. The Navy was ready to pull the plug on the PT boats because of myriad problems. In particular, the boats were tearing themselves into pieces as well as beating up the crew on them. So when Frank Huckin’s prototype, PT 69, turned faster, took rougher seas and outperformed the competition, the Quadraconic Hull design, a hull that planed without the pounding, proved superior. Huckins also introduced diagonal planking so he was quite the boatbuilding innovator.
Henry Baldwin, Huckin’s partner and corporate CEO, negotiated for the hull design royalties, which didn’t turn out too well since Elco adopted the design and produced most of the PT boats. Huckins didn’t see a cent from others co-opting the design under the Navy’s direction.
The process of plywooding was simple. Laminate mahogany boards at 90 degree angles and glue together with resorcinol glue, a form of formaldehyde-based glue. It was tough stuff and it still is today.
The term cold-molding was used at Huckins until 1976 then they moved to Airex core construction. So how much did Frank Huckins make on his first PT 69? It cost him $115,000 to build in the 1940s and his profit was $28.60. I am sure he did a little better on the next one but that was a gutsy gamble. And his Quadraconic hull design still is as great today as it was in 1941.
So as we sat on the back deck of Aurora II, sipping wine and swapping boatbuilding stories with the Purcells, Nate and I couldn’t be happier sharing our passion for wooden boats.
We spent a lot of time together that weekend and when it was getting time to leave, Stephanie told me to make sure we returned the book. Cindy said it was ours, to keep it. As I had more time to look through the book, I realized it was a limited edition, 2,917 out 3,000. The Huckins book has an honored place on Aurora II. While you can’t have mine, they are available on Amazon.
There was a nice mix of boats at Vintage Weekend: “Stringray,” a Ray Hunt design; the Trumpy “Bernadette,” the former Litchfield Lady, fresh out of a major refit and the Trumpy “Washingtonian,” now in charter at the club.
This year was the year of the Burgers, with 17 of them at the show from different eras of various styles.
Leaving Ocean Reef, and heading north into 25 to 35 knot winds, we reached Biscayne Bay with its short steep chop. Aurora’s bow plowed through them sending spray all the way over the top deck and the smokestack, washing away the sparkling weekend. When we reached the Intracoastal, it was hard to see out of the salt-crusted window. We washed the pilothouse windows and quietly motored on home, back to our regular routine.
December is not my favorite month. Everyone wants their boat finished and there’s so much to do with shopping, parties, and more shopping. We launched “Dune” in time for the holidays and the owner, Simon Decker, and I go way back. We did a major structural rebuild on Dune in 2000. Simon, back then, was a man of the world, traveling everywhere from Tanzania to Paris to Switzerland to Argentina. He is fluent in a half-dozen languages. He’s cut back on his traveling now that he has a family, but Simon still leaves the country more times in a year than many people do in a lifetime.
We started on “Dune” with a few small projects, based on a highly regarded surveyors’ report. There turned out to be major problems and Dune became a major project. Back in those days, cutting-edge technology was a Sony digital camera that used floppy disks. I would make 15- second movies and send them to Simon around the world. This year, Simon told me what he really thought of my little movies: He was appalled and horrified.
New to wooden boats, Simon thought the boat needed a little wood work here and there, and I was showing him giant holes in the side of the hull. He felt he was being taken advantage. Meanwhile, I was having nightmares about the boat sinking off the coast of Africa, where he initially planned to take her. I was trying to figure out how to solve her problems and make her stronger, within a budget. There was a lot of communication barriers back then since we went through representatives.
Since that time, Simon has taken Dune everywhere, to the Caribbean Islands and back. Somewhere along the line, he realized of all the work that Dune has had in the decade he has owned her, the work we did was in fact looking out for the best interest of him, his family and the boat. As we stood on the dock, Simon said, “You are the only one looking after Dune now.” That capped the year for me. I try not to take things personally, but I do. Sometimes, it even tears me up. And Dune was one of those projects.
Simon put one motor in forward and one in reverse and hit the bow thruster switch and Dune glided away from the dock and then was gone, back to her berth in Coconut Grove.
Then we helped Frederic Marq on Cora Marie launch his 107’ Ted Geary design. We just helped him with some minor worm damage and caulking, and showed his guys how to putty and paint the bottom properly.
My next story I hope you will find funny although it’s at my own expense. Sometimes, the best laid plans can have a glitch or two. James and I planned on taking Aurora II on an adventure during the holiday break. All I had to do was haul out, block and laser target a 60 foot Trumpy then off we would go.
As these things typically do, it took a little longer than expected. We finally got off the dock and headed north. With the days being shorter this time of year, we passed Jupiter and I knew we would just make Peck’s Lake before darkness. Arriving 20 minutes before sunset we set anchor between a bunch of sailboats. As the hook set, the guy anchored beside me said he had 90 feet of anchor rode out. I replied, “Thirty foot sailboat in six feet of water. Don’t you think that’s a little much!” Anyway, we moved and then moved again.
Finally, just as the sun set, we were finally hooked and watch a movie. Then the moon and stars came out and we went to bed. About 1 o’clock in the morning, I heard little waves lapping the hull. So I went up on the deck. Aurora was softly setting aground, with James sleeping soundly. I pulled at the anchor and it was bit. So I thought to myself we will be off in the morning. But then I didn’t check when low tide was. I didn’t figure the tide still had three feet to drop. I went back down below and went to sleep.
By 3 a.m., all the furniture in the pilothouse had shifted or skidded on tables, books had fallen, fresh fruit had floated from one side of the galley to the owner’s stateroom. James called out, “Dad, there’s water in my bunk.” Aurora was heeled over like a racing sailboat on a windy day. We pumped the water out. When the tide came up, I swallowed my pride and call Towboat to pull us free. My son said, “Why didn’t you wake me, and we could have …”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that hindsight is 20-20.
“I promised you an adventure you would never forget.” With the seriousness only a 13-year-old boy can muster, James replied, “I will never forget this!”
Oh, his laptop took a swim as well as his mom’s Ipad. Thankfully, Stephanie was in a good mood visiting Koreatown in L.A. where she had just come out of a day spa. She had just been steamed, baked, boiled and scrubbed like a dirty Irish potato, Stephanie said. For Koreans, even relaxation can be grueling.
After Towboat let our lines loose and pulled away, we were on our way as well. The engines hummed, and Peck’s Lake slid from view as we continued on our journey. Our adventure was just beginning. James won’t be 13 again and I don’t know how much more time he’ll want to spend with his old dad. I thought to myself, "I’ll remember this trip, too."
Until next time,