$8,500 would get you a nearly new Chris-Craft 26

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Soundings at 50 - Celebrating a half-century of boating

I had fun perusing the first issue of Soundings, which included the ads you see here. A little water has flowed under the keel since that April 1963 issue and the publication has obviously evolved from its original black-and-white tabloid format.

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One big difference is the first issue was free. It also was primarily composed of advertising, with a small local boating news section called Spray as editorial bait. Here we learn the encouraging news that a male’s chances of drowning are six times greater than a female’s. That’s probably still accurate since a few of us males tend to “ready, fire, aim” a little too frequently, including on the water.

In 1963, Hal Lyman, SaltWater Sportsman’s editor, predicted a banner year for striped bass, and as a small boy at the time, I remember lots of stripers coming over the rail. Cape Cod Bay was littered with stripers in those days, which we caught with everything from live mackerel to reverse atom plugs.

In addition to SaltWater Sportsman magazine, a number of today’s boat brands were alive and well at the time. Most prominent by far in the ads is Chris-Craft, the “World’s largest builder of motor boats.” I remember reading through the various Chris-Craft brochures a few years later — Roamers, Constellations, lapstrake Sea Skiffs, Corinthians and Cavaliers. Very exciting stuff, these boats.

Chris-Craft unfortunately became just another me-too brand, losing its roots sometime in the 1970s or ’80s as it traded its originality and design brilliance for a focus on run-of-the-mill cruisers that looked like every other builder’s. Some 20 years ago, now-defunct Outboard Marine Corp. started to turn Chris-Craft around with some great new designs, and chairman Stephen Julius and president/CEO Stephen Heese have restored the brand closer to its roots, with gleaming retro boats that run well and put a smile on your face.

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In 1963 you could buy a 2-year-old, 26-foot Chris-Craft Cavalier with 85-hp gas inboards (32 hours) for $8,500. Chris-Craft also was marketing its new Cavalier 26 Futura, a precursor to today’s express cruisers and, for me, in some ways a better boat. It had huge cabin windows, side decks you could walk along comfortably, a windshield high enough to keep the spray off you and a flat cabin top and flat foredeck that you could stand on without fear of sliding into the harbor. From the bow you could stand flat-footed and throw a bow line to the dock or raise the anchor comfortably.

That boat has a lot more appeal to me than some of today’s style-driven cruisers. It was safer to move around on and its sun-drenched cabin and function-over-form layout produced a practical, yet very nice-looking boat. You could start with this basic design and use modern materials — leak-proof (almost) window glazing systems, more reliable and lighter engines, modern head and galley appliances, GPS and wonders of the 21st century — to make the boat even more pleasant.

A number of boatbuilders from that era are no longer with us, probably more due to management not keeping up with the times than to any fault of the product. Lapstrake boats such as Lyman, Thompson and Penn Yan runabouts with inboard, outboard and sterndrive power were popular in those days. Round-bilge boats made of wood, they moved along easily on a third of the horsepower of today’s boats, although at slower speeds commensurate with their flatter, more easily pushed hulls.

I had a 20-foot 1960 Penn Yan with a 100-hp Ford Falcon engine and an Eaton sterndrive that did about 30 mph. It was Spartan by today’s standards, with a compass, AM-FM radio, CB radio, four cleats — that was pretty much it. I wish I still had it. Soon Penn Yan and others transitioned to fiberglass, a practical move for many reasons but one that left out the individuality; the smell of paint, vinyl, teak and varnish; and the quirks that made each of those production boats a bit different from the last one.

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The average boat was a lot smaller then, with most listings in the 20- to 30-foot range. The ad language is straightforward and without the hyperbole we’ve become accustomed to, with everyone’s boat nowadays going faster on less fuel than all the other guys — 20 knots on 4 gph in a 30-footer — and with a smoother ride, more room forward and other fictions.

There’s a 19-foot 1957 Century listed with a 76-hp Gray inboard, which probably pushed it along at 25 mph or so on a calm day. William Petzold was busy selling boats, listing Trojans from 21 to 34 feet. Trojan also morphed into building mostly standard express cruisers 20 years later.

Of course, that’s what was selling, so you can’t blame the builders for jumping on the floating-motorhome bandwagon, but we’ve lost touch with the pure fun of simply messing around in boats when the object becomes stuffing as many beds and cooktops and as much headroom as humanly possible into a trailerable 26-footer that’s half again as tall as it is wide. You can live on a 26-footer, but you’ve also given up some of the elements that make you feel you’re actually on a boat.

There’s a Pacemaker 29, built in 1958 with a single 125-hp Chrysler inboard — good for a comfortable 13 or 14 knots. Price: $6,500 in excellent condition. A friend of mine had a Pacemaker 29 in Rock Harbor, Mass., and that’s the boat I, as a 12- or 13-year-old, learned to drive onto a trailer 6 feet from the jetty without sinking it. What a thrill to drive a boat from up on the bridge — in charge, no one telling me what to do — and to be trusted to not sink the boat.

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There is a lot to be said for the modest power these boats had. Propulsion systems were well-suited for the hulls they were driving. These boats could safely be entrusted to a responsible young person, and there was little chance he or she would get physically hurt at 15 knots, though they could still run aground or T-bone someone upon a miscalculated landing. There’s a lot to be said for a 12-knot boat in terms of safety, economy, low noise levels and gentle motions. Twelve nautical miles is a long way, and it only takes an hour or so to get there at that speed. You even get to notice the tide and current at those speeds — and learn firsthand what set and drift are.

Lymans were the prettiest lapstrake boats of the day, in my view, with their clipper bows and sheer lines just so. They were a little sharper forward, too, so you could run them a little faster in a chop as long as you kept the bow reasonably low. And what great fishing boats they made, with their gentle roll period, courtesy of round bilges.

Also listed are a few Posts, the New Jersey-built fishing boats. The builder took the 40-foot wooden boat, so I’m told, and made it into a plug when shifting to fiberglass construction. It could be a hard-riding boat, with its flat sections forward, but it’s distinctly New Jersey in looks and feel. Post Marine Group acquired the assets of Post Marine in 2011 and moved production to Chestertown, Md., on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.

Luhrs was also building wooden boats back then, and it joined the shift to fiberglass in the ’60s. A 22-foot Luhrs skiff built in 1958 is listed for $2,250 with a 95-hp Chris-Craft engine. Chris-Craft-branded engines — that tells you something of the company’s dominance in those days. Another New Jersey builder, Silverton, is represented by a 25-foot Sea Skiff with a 175-hp Gray Marine gas inboard — comfortably equipped for $3,500.

Engines were a lot smaller in 1963, as you’d expect. Outboards listed include a 35-hp Evinrude and a brand new 75-hp Johnson for $965. This was a big outboard for the day, though the Johnson was trumped by the tall and skinny 100-hp Mercury that came out during that decade. It was hard to imagine a 100-hp outboard.

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The prices sound pretty reasonable, of course, but they weren’t quite giving these boats away. The average household income in 1963 was $5,800, the average new house cost $12,650 and gas was 29 cents a gallon.

Soundings readers may be compelled to add to — perhaps correct — my recollections, but I can tell you 1963 was a great time for a young boy to be on the water, messing about. It was a simpler time on simpler boats, boats that for me, in their plain-spoken ways, were very satisfying to be aboard.

See related article:

- 50 years of Soundings

- Soundings enters the digital era

June 2013 issue