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Rocket Ride

A restored Owens has new life as a working photo boat.

“Free Boat.” Many of us who are boat-obsessed have turned our heads to a classified ad such as this at one time or another. For most of us, reality sets in quickly, and we move on.

When Bildahl saw the free boat, he immediatly fell in love with her lines - good thing because she was looking pretty rough.

Not John Bildahl. The Annapolis, Maryland-based marine photographer was looking for a new photo boat, having finally sold Xposure, the 1970 Allmand 25-foot runabout that he had resurrected a decade earlier.

She had been a serviceable, if not exactly yacht-grade, working platform, and keeping her running reliably had honed not only his own mechanical skills, but also his network of technical helpers.

What caught Bildahl’s attention now was the make of this free boat. The ad said “Owens Runabout.” The Owens Boat Co. had begun in the 1920s in the boatyard-rich Eastport neighborhood of Annapolis. As demand for the boats grew in the late ’30s, the company moved to a larger facility in the waterfront Dundalk section of Baltimore, and the three Owens brothers who owned it began adapting mass production systems from the auto industry to build wooden powerboats. During World War II they shifted production to military contracts. In the postwar economic boom, they turned back to double-planked mahogany cruisers of 22 to 42 feet with single and twin gas inboards, which they continued to send all over the United States until they sold the company to Brunswick Corp. in 1960.

In the late ’50s, Owens also had moved into a promising new venture: fiberglass runabouts. After some initial stumbles imitating another brand, they hired noted industrial designer Brooks Stevens, who styled decks and interiors to mate with hull designs drawn by naval architect Norman Owens, one of the three brothers.

The classic fiberglass runabout's reverse chines and lifting strakes put some pep in her performance,

When Bildahl saw the free boat, he immediately fell in love with the lines of the 17-foot Stevens/Owens runabout built in 1960. Good thing because she was looking pretty rough: She had been sitting on her trailer in a patch of woods outside Annapolis for years. She was full of leaves, and her transom was rotting, as were the trailer’s tires. “It was a tough extraction,” Bildahl says. “I actually drove her home [12 miles] on the trailer’s steel rims.”

He got the leaves out and cleaned her up. She was still rough, but she was also lovely to Bildahl’s practiced eyes. He was especially struck by her Stevens 1960s-style tail fins and her sweet Owens hull. The latter is surprisingly modern for her era, with a flared bow, wide reverse chines and lifting strakes that serve her well today.

He repaired the trailer and towed her to Bodkin Marine, between Annapolis and Baltimore, where Jody Leonard completely rebuilt the transom, including the splash well and the Stevens tail fins, and made other necessary fiberglass repairs. He also nicknamed the boat the Rocket, and the name has stuck, at least informally.

The job cost Bildahl a modest amount of cash. (So much for a “free” boat.) What he had now was a typical 1960s-era runabout with a one-piece fiberglass foredeck, gunwales and transom splash well. Its windshield, of course, was trashed, as were the seats, steering system and control cables. Bildahl was in no hurry, though, so he embarked on a course of low-budget restoration built heavily on barter and scrounging. A top-grade marine photographer can get away with that kind of arrangement much better than, say, a boating writer. His biggest coup was trading some well-crafted images for a four-color Awlgrip job by Dave Cherubini and his crew at Cherubini Yachts. (The boat also served as part of the inspiration for Cherubini’s new retro-styled but thoroughly modern 20-foot runabout.) 

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Reid Bandy, a multitalented Annapolis body-shop owner and boatbuilder who also loves old outboards, found the boat a racy-looking 1975 75-hp Johnson Stinger on a lake in upstate New York. He found a source for new graphics for the engine’s cowling, repainted it, installed it on the new transom, ran the control and steering cables, and added a rubrail to the gunwales.

Bildahl towed the boat to Ron Oakes of nearby Oakes Marine to get the engine into top running condition. (Among conventional 2-stroke outboards with carburetors, that 3-cylinder engine series from Johnson and Evinrude was one of the best.) Then the Rocket went to Gilbert Shiflet at GS Auto Upholstery in Severna Park, Maryland, for a ladder-back helm seat salvaged from a big sportfisherman and an ingenious removable companion seat. Peter Paglia at Atlantic Woodworks constructed a new full-beam stern seat. Wade Technology rechromed five cleats, and Keith Manuel of Annapolis Maritime Plastics laser-cut a new windshield. Lastly (but very important on a classy runabout) Andy Fegley at YES Marine Electronics installed a powerful sound system (along with other necessities, such as running lights).

The transom was rebuilt, a ladder-back helm seat and a removable companion seat were added, and a new full-beam stern seat and a laser-cut windshield were incorporated.

Bildahl served as general contractor on the restoration, helped with much of it and tied up loose ends. “I kept thinking how cool the Rocket could be and went from there, especially meeting experts who gave me new ideas. I’ve done a lot of listening.”

So what makes the Rocket so cool? “She looks cool,” Bildahl says, “but she also performs well. I love the beauty of the design and the performance of her well-crafted hull. There’s the satisfaction of running a 54-year-old sports car-type boat. She corners like a sports car with all four wheels in the right places. It’s good fun to see how much people appreciate her. She’s not a true restoration but a sort of retro re-creation.

“Remember that she works for a living. She’s a capable, stable photographer’s platform. And the fins undoubtedly make her faster,” he adds with a chuckle. “She’s also a great trailer-boat explorer, both efficient and able. I’ve really enjoyed some of the new-to-me waters we have traveled together. It’s so easy just to hitch her up and go.”

Today, Rocket is a head-turner in every harbor.

Performance? Like sports cars of her era, the Rocket is not as fast as her 21st-century 17-foot sisters, which would typically have at least half again the horsepower driving them. In sea trials, she generally topped out at 30 knots, cruising easily at 16 to 18 knots while the Stinger happily turned 3,500 to 4,000 rpm, burning 4 to 5 gallons an hour. That’s plenty of speed for her photo jobs, and her efficiency is a serious asset when Bildahl exploresthe Chesapeake’s lovely tidal rivers. Even more important, her hull form and balance enable her to plane at speeds from 10 knots to 30. That range allows Bildhal to adjust his speed to a range of sea conditions.

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Remember that runabouts such as the Rocket predate center console skiffs. They were the workhorses of their era, for everything from beach picnics to fishing. And time has not changed that essential utilitarian character. Cool does not preclude handy or able.

If you find yourself on the Chesapeake around Annapolis, look for Bildahl’s Rocket. This reborn classic is a busy girl.

January 2015 issue