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Here’s a builder with roots that stretch back to the earliest days of recreational boating in the U.S., yet it’s still producing beautiful machines today. The Hacker Boat Company in upstate New York makes the Hacker-Craft brand—classic runabouts and old-school racers based on traditional designs, some of which are 100 years old. Each is painstakingly coaxed into existence from solid mahogany by craftsmen with rare talents. Owners include celebrities, royalty and enthusiasts with an appreciation for wooden vessels originally imagined by John L. Hacker, the company’s founder who at one time was known as the Dean of American high-speed boat designers.

Hacker designed the first production powerboat to break the 50-mph barrier back in 1911, and another that exceeded 60 mph not long after. He designed and built a racer in 1922 that went on to win three consecutive Gold Cup World Championships and was the undisputed “fastest boat in the world” well into the 1930s. Born in 1877, he was fascinated by boats from childhood. During his 60-year career, he designed everything from skiffs to yachts, but his prowess was in the racers and runabouts that gave birth to the Hacker-Craft brand in 1908. Edsel Ford raced a number of these designs, and his father, Henry, was a lifelong friend of Hacker’s. (The two men met at an engine builder’s shop in Detroit in 1911.) 

 A boat takes shape as a craftsman  builds it by hand.

 A boat takes shape as a craftsman builds it by hand.

Many of Hacker’s early creations have been restored and can be found on the water and in maritime museums around the country. Today, the company is owned and managed by George Badcock and his daughter Erin. To visit their headquarters on Lake George is to step back in time to a period when boatbuilding was an art form and all construction materials were organic. Most interesting, Hacker-Crafts are still made to the rigid construction standards that earned the company the nickname “the Steinway of Boats” all those decades ago.

I met Erin Badcock, the company’s COO, at the Hacker-Craft test facility in the sleepy lakeside hamlet of Silver Bay a little after first light. Recent builds rested under a covered slip area alongside a building where boats have been made since the early 1950s. One was a classic 30-foot triple-cockpit Runabout model that retains the design features of the original built by John Hacker in the 1920s. There were two new versions of the company’s popular 30-foot Sportabout models, and another Sport that was in for service. Each boat showcased Hacker’s fluid lines, intricate woodwork, mirror-like varnished finishes and period hardware. The boats were powered by modern V-8 inboard engines. The propulsion can provide performance equivalent to or surpassing that of modern fiberglass boats.

The helm of a new Runabout resembles a historic Hacker-Craft.

The helm of a new Runabout resembles a historic Hacker-Craft.

“Almost every boat we make is custom in some way,” Erin said. “They are built on standard frame sets, but each model is produced by the hands of skilled craftsmen and no two are exactly alike.”

The company builds a few stock boats to display at boat shows and sell from the showroom, but most are made to order, with varying levels of customization that can include length, engine, cockpit arrangement, stain pattern and colors, upholstery, flooring, electronics, and music systems. “We build about 15 new boats each year, refresh numerous customer boats and offer a full restoration service for any vintage wooden boats in almost any condition,” Erin said.

A new Sportboat model is powered by a V-8 inboard.

A new Sportboat model is powered by a V-8 inboard.

While in their new manufacturing facility in Queensbury, New York, just south of Lake George, I noticed that restorations were underway alongside new builds. It was fascinating to watch a craftsman work on the skeletal structure of what would become a new 30-foot Gentleman’s Racer while another was taking measurements for the restoration of a boat that was over 70 years old and required a new running surface. The skills and techniques required for this type of work are a far cry from what one sees at a mass production fiberglass boatbuilder.

I talked with a carpenter as he sanded the hull of a Sport model prior to moving it into the dust-free booth for the final vanish coat. I asked him if he ever got tired of all the sanding. “Apply a coat of varnish, sand it off, apply another, sand it off,” he said. “I love the process. Each boat is like a work of art when it’s done.”

Vintage windshield, steering wheel and upholstery in a new Sportboat

Vintage windshield, steering wheel and upholstery in a new Sportboat

I was surprised to learn that all varnish coats are applied by hand using a brush. They’re never sprayed, and as a result the finished boat looks like it’s encapsulated in a thin layer of crystal that reflects water as it cascades down the side of the hull when underway. Each boat is finished with the original Hacker-Craft logo on the hullside and the boat’s name on the transom is done in 23-carat gold leaf.

It’s not always easy to build boats with these materials. The process requires sourcing and ordering procedures that are often years out. Take hardware, for instance. Each boat features hardware that resembles pieces found on the earliest models, including windshield frames, floor shifters, ring-style cleats, engine room ventilators and the signature cutwater that graces the bow of each Hacker-Craft. Cast pieces are produced in the U.S., but others are sourced from foreign suppliers. Securing high-grade wood can be a daunting task. The company has a specialty importer who travels to Guatemala to pick out the mahogany trees that meet its requirements for framing. He also oversees the felling and milling of lumber. After it’s shipped to the U.S., it’s kiln- dried for the final milling and then delivered to the builder’s storage facility. This process takes a minimum of one to two years from order to delivery. Another mahogany stock is sourced from the Philippines and used to create the hull planking and decorative woodwork in the cockpit.

Then there’s propulsion. Many of the engines, including supercharged V-8 and V-10 models, come from Ilmore Engine Company and provide a level of performance one might not associate with vintage designs.

Three recently launched Hacker-Crafts in the early  morning mist on Lake George.

Three recently launched Hacker-Crafts in the early morning mist on Lake George.

“Hacker Boat Company addresses a niche market, and our goal remains unchanged,” said Erin. “We want to build boats that live up to the Hacker name and legacy.” Toward that end the builder offers several standard models from 23 to 35 feet in length. The Legacy Collection includes the Sport, Runabout, Sportabout and Sterling, along with a hardtop commuter called the Bespoke. Popular are the Gentleman’s Racer models, available from 22- to 35-feet. They offer the look and exhilarating performance of a Hacker-designed racer from the golden era of Gold Cup racing.

Jeff Brown, the in-house marine architect, works hand in hand with each customer to make their vision a reality.

There are new designs in the works from the Hacker Boat Company. The Evolution Collection, for instance, will feature a new addition—the Monaco—that Erin said represents a new frontier for the builder. In addition, the company recently began building limousine tenders for yacht owners that exude a European air, kind of like “a Venetian water taxi,” as Erin describes the look. Some feature an open helm cockpit forward and hardtop-protected compartment amidships. Others are built on the template of a classic commuter model, with the helm under the hardtop.

John L. Hacker was one of the 20th century’s most distinguished boat designers. I imagine that if he could observe the caretakers of his legacy constructing boats today, he’d be quite proud. Boats that bare his name still ply the waterways of the world and are a sight to behold. 

This article was originally published in the October 2022 issue.

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