Bob Saunders’ boat is what you might call a “real museum piece.” In the early 2000s, The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, in keeping with its focus on the history and culture of Chesapeake Bay, took part in a boatbuilding program. Well-known artisans were brought in to build a deadrise design that became known as the Mariner. A dozen of them were produced.
Saunders bought Mariner IX two years ago for about $135,000. The 48-footer was built in 2003 by local builder Jimmy Drewery, well-known for his Bay boats. “My son was the instigator on the Mariner,” says Saunders. “It had been for sale about a year. I’d looked at it and decided it was too much money. But Rob pestered me, as sons will do, so I made another offer.”
SPECIFICATIONS LOA: 48 feet BEAM: 16 feet DRAFT: 3 feet WEIGHT: 18,000 pounds HULL TYPE: semidisplacement PROPULSION: single diesel TANKAGE: 400 gallons fuel, 200 gallons water
There was something different about buying a boat built by a museum, Saunders says. “I saw it was a well thought-out program, with reputable builders,” he says. “One boat went to a group of high school kids who went out oystering in it, so I look at my boat now as having a nice pedigree.”
Saunders grew up on the James River in Newport News. “I got my first boat when I was about 10 years old,” he says. “It was a 12-foot rowboat that had been sunk and floated up on the beach. I took possession, patched it up, painted it up, and that was my first boat.”
He’s been boating on the same waters ever since, first with a series of sailboats, from a Hampton One Design to a Hunter 40.5 Coming back to boats after a few years’ hiatus, “powerboats seemed like a good idea,” Saunders says. “We bought a Mainship 44, moved on to a Viking 44 motoryacht and then to a 34-foot Fountain sportfisherman cruiser with two 300 Mercs on it. That was a good boat, well-built, fast. … But I wanted something with more room.”
The Mariner had much of what he was looking for in a boat. “I grew up with deadrise boats, and I like the entry, the way it flares out toward the stern,” he says. “And there’s a tremendous amount of room on board.” The single diesel is economical, compared to the triple outboards on the other boat Saunders owns — a 38-foot sport cruiser.
The cold-molded hull is built of glassed-over cypress and plywood, making it relatively light. There were no plans for the boat; Drewery worked by “rack of eye and rule of thumb.” The result, Saunders says, is a traditional deadrise hull that’s “strong, light and pushes real easy, as the watermen say.”
Power comes from a Caterpillar 3126 diesel, rated at 420 hp. Cruising speed is around 20 mph, with a top end of 25 mph. “We might run at 20 mph for an hour, then be running around slow, idling for an hour,” says Saunders. “I think we use about 4 gallons an hour.”
The Mariner handles easily in and around the James River and Newport News, but Saunders has tested her in more challenging conditions. “We were heading out the river to go to the workboat races,” he recalls. “When you get out past the Hampton Roads bridge-tunnel, you’re out in the open ocean. It was rough as hell that day, [seas] running a good 6 feet. I slowed down to around 10 knots, and we slogged through it.”
Saunders has redone the interior, replacing the Spartan accommodations with more up-to-date amenities throughout, from galley gear to electronics to a bow thruster — all to make the boat more comfortable. “We stay local, right around Hampton Roads,” he says. “We go to the workboat races at Poquoson and the harbor festival. We belong to the Hampton Yacht Club, so we take the boat around to Hampton Creek. It’s a great boat for entertaining. I belong to what you might call a hot rod club, and once a year we get the whole club on board.”
With its V-berth, enclosed head and simple galley, the Mariner makes a good weekender, too. “The kids use the boat and take the grandchildren out for a weekend,” Saunders says.
A boat with more room, with Bay tradition, easy to handle and fun to run — Saunders’ museum piece has delivered. “It’s just a neat boat,” he says.
The Chesapeake Bay deadrise is a workboat design steeped in tradition and well-suited to Bay waters in all kinds of conditions. Mariner IX was built in the traditional way, upside down, using cypress planking sheathed in plywood and glassed over. The long, narrow hull is easily driven with a single gas or diesel engine. Mariners were custom-built, so interior layouts differ. On Mariner IX, the deck layout is simple, with a protected wheelhouse and a large open cockpit with a hardtop. The helm is to starboard with a companion settee to port. The cabin is accessed by a center door. There’s an L-shaped settee to port and a galley to starboard, equipped with a sink, a refrigerator and counter space.
Mariner deadrise boats were built at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, which provided a shed and workplace so the process could be viewed by the public. Following tradition, no plans were used. The boats ranged from 36 to 52 feet. (See “Billy Moore and the Chesapeake Bay Workboat” on YouTube for more.) In all, a dozen Mariners were built. Prices on the used market begin at around $130,000 to $150,000.
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue.