Riding the waves of Lake Muskoka in Clarie II–a Gold Cup racer built in 1920 by Hutchinson Boat Works of Alexandria Bay, N.Y.–is a bit like being transported in a 35-foot grand piano, its varnished mahogany deck gleaming like a mirror. The boat's high-backed leather seats wrap you in luxury, and you can't help thinking this is the only way to enjoy the lakes of cottage country.
The man at the helm, Murray Walker, says Clarie II is among the favourites in his extensive collection of antique wooden boats. He takes it out most often, whether it's for a fun-filled day of speeding on the lake or a mellow sunset cruise. The boat epitomizes the glory days of the wooden launches that regularly plied the waters of Ontario's Muskoka region in the early part of the last century. Indeed, 55-year-old Walker first saw Clarie II on Lake Simcoe when he was eight, and remembers how impressed he was by “its speed and size.”
The Rogers family of Toronto–owners of St. Mary's Cement Inc. (and a branch of the family that controls Rogers Communications Inc., which owns Canadian Business)–had Clarie II built to compete in the Great Lakes Gold Cup, one of the prestige events in North American powerboat racing in the 1920s. It competed one season and, though equipped with a 500-horsepower Liberty aircraft engine that hit speeds of more than 80 km/h, didn't win a single race. Walker, a semi-retired entrepreneur who keeps his hand in the investment world, bought Clarie II when he was 30. He is among many cottage owners with an appreciation for classic wooden boats, often referred to in Canada as “Muskoka boats” because they have been such a fixture in the region. But enthusiasts around the world have increasingly seen them as a great investment. Well-maintained wooden boats have increased in value over time, unlike fibreglass ones that depreciate the moment they hit water.
Walker is the driving force behind a $6-million antique and classic boat museum expected to open next spring in Gravenhurst, gateway to Muskoka. But his own assemblage of boats could probably fill the place. He won't say precisely how many he has, or what his collection is worth, but the boathouse at Walker's cottage contains about a dozen fine examples of launches, canoes, racers and runabouts by a variety of Canadian and U.S. builders. More are kept off-site. Walker even has a “disappearing propeller” (also known as “dispro” or “dippy”), a design unique to Muskoka. Patented in 1915, the dispro could travel in uncharted waters because its propeller would push up safely into an interior housing if it hit a rock or other obstacle.
It's hard to give specific prices for Muskoka boats. Walker says the grandest launches probably now cost $300,000 and up; he's heard of one 36-footer selling in the past year for about $1 million. However, vintage-boat lovers say it's possible to spend far less–for instance, a little cedar-strip number in running condition might be found for a few thousand dollars. “You can enter the antique boat market at any level you feel comfortable with,” Walker says.
Walter Koppelaar, a Hamilton-based steel manufacturer with a cottage on Lake Muskoka, says his first wooden boat, an 18-foot 1946 Duke Playmate built in Port Carling, is “a great boat for getting into the market.” They typically go for between $10,000 and $15,000. He also owns a dippy–which can be bought in restored condition for $15,000 to $20,000.
Fine examples of wooden boats were made all over North America. The dominant U.S. boat builder was Chris-Craft, founded by Christopher Columbus Smith, who started making boats in 1874 in Algonac, Mich. In the 1920s, riding the popularity of its successful racers, it became the first mass-production boat builder stateside. Walker currently owns Rainbow IX, a 26-foot Chris-Craft that won the International Sweepstakes Race in 1925, setting a world speed record.
But it was Muskoka-based builders, such as Ditchburn, Greavette and Minett (later known as Minett-Shields), that many say set top standards for craftsmanship and artistry. Take, for example, Walker's 1935 Greavette streamliner, a cigar-shaped runabout that skims over the water rather than through it like the larger displacement launches. Or how about his Eaglet II, a 36-foot mahogany long-deck built by Minett-Shields in 1927? It's a veritable Rolls-Royce of the waterways. Bracebridge-based Bert Minett built boats from about the late 1890s until the mid-1950s, and he probably made no more than 250, each one unique. Eaglet II features a single seat in front of the inboard motor, far from the others, which Walker says was called the “mother-in-law seat.” The boat has an eagle-shaped ornament on its bow, a nod to Eagle Island on Lake Joseph, where the original owners, the Forman family of Buffalo, N.Y., had a cottage.
According to Walker, Muskoka cottage country is the largest repository of classic wooden boats in North America, the result of a happy coincidence of several factors: large, interconnected lakes with miles of unbroken shoreline and stable water levels allowing for permanent boathouses to protect vessels from damaging ultraviolet rays; the growth of tourism and the attraction the region held for the Toronto elite; and the development of gas-powered motors, which made private boat transportation to cottages possible. The Depression ended the heyday of the Muskoka launch, and the advent of fibreglass boats, perceived as faster and easier to maintain, hastened the wooden-boat industry's decline.
The big names in Muskoka boat-building are gone, but many craftsmen still restore and maintain vintage watercraft. Stan Hunter of Port Carling is one of them. “These boats were built for quality and longevity,” he says. “Their loveliness only increases.” Much of Hunter's time is devoted to restoring classics–he recently spent 1,000 hours on a 90-year-old launch made by Henry Askew, a Hamilton-based builder. But he also builds wooden boats for those who appreciate the craftsmanship of yesteryear but want “the convenience of new.” These reproductions, in the 16.5-foot range, sell for between $20,000 and $30,000. According to Hunter, it's a myth that wooden boats are difficult to maintain; a well-tended one can go a decade or more between varnishings.
Some wooden boat owners “baby” their investments, seldom taking them on the water. But Walker says vintage boats should be enjoyed. “You'll have a better time using it and getting a scratch on it than having it sold off at your estate sale.” Koppelaar, who recently added a 22-foot Minett-Shields launch to his collection–a boat that typically sells for $80,000 and up–couldn't agree more. “There's nothing quite like a cigar at sunset and cruising around in a classic wooden boat.”