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A boat from the past delivers new memories

Happie, a 1932 raised-deck power cruiser, seems content and happy afloat and under cover over the winter in a Maryland boathouse.

Happie, a 1932 raised-deck power cruiser, seems content and happy afloat and under cover over the winter in a Maryland boathouse. In her natural element, she has an old stablemate (a cabin cruiser) for company. Tugging at their dock lines, they make a sedate pair of seniors — easygoing sea nags chilling out in a maritime boat barn.

Protected from the weather, they come to life every now and then when an automatic float switch activates their bilge pumps, and gurgles of water break the cold silence of the old boathouse.

After some 36 years as a nautical fixture owned and operated by the late Corny Miller in and around Essex, Conn., Happie left the Connecticut River in May 1994 with a new owner, Dan Wilson, who took her to new home waters off the Chesapeake Bay.

Wilson, 62, of Severna Park, is a hands-on restorer of big old wooden powerboats who dreads being without a boat during occasional empty periods on land. Before acquiring the 39-foot Happie, he owned Victoria a 54-footer built in 1937 that he found in 1988 in “deep distress,” restored, and sold in 1993.

Wilson naturally turned to Happie for solace because he practically grew up knowing this boat. Happie had bewitched him as a youth when his family lived in Old Lyme, Conn., and they went boating with Miller, an old college friend of his father, the late Dick Wilson.

“This boat is full of happy memories for me,” said Wilson as we sat in her cozy main saloon at Sappington’s Boatyard in Severna Park, just a couple miles from his home. Here, in Forked Creek, miles up the Severn River from Annapolis, the heater warmed the cabin as we talked of our boats, past and present.

I kept my first boat just around the corner at a mooring I sank off our community’s waterfront landing. At first, I never got much beyond RoundBay in that 17-foot National One-Design, a centerboarder I rescued in the late 1960s for $100 from a burn pile in Washington.

But after I bought a British Seagull outboard, we occasionally made it all the way to Annapolis, where I could actually see the broad and unknown Chesapeake beckoning beyond the mouth of the Severn. I restored that boat, sold it for $800, and bought a 32-footer.

As I acquired other sailboats and kept them in Annapolis waters, much closer to the Bay, I never returned to Forked Creek until December 2004 to meet Wilson. Sappington’s still seemed to be a boatyard in disarray, with rickety buildings and piers and even an old marine railway.

Wilson’s first boat was a 15-foot Penn-Yan runabout his father bought at Montgomery Ward in 1955. In those days, when the Wilsons and Millers went cruising, Dan (dubbed “Killer” by Corny Miller) played captain and began dreaming of the day he, too, would have his own big wooden boat.

That didn’t happen until 1971 when he found a 33-foot, 1933 captain’s gig from the USS Hornet. Consumed by this boat, Wilson spent untold hours restoring and converting her to a cabin cruiser. Sadly, she would be destroyed in a fire.

The highlight years of Wilson’s obsessive boat-owning life came in the late 1970s and lasted until the late 1980s after he restored Sakonnet, a 75-foot motoryacht built by W. R. Chance and Company in Annapolis in 1929.

It took almost 10 years and thousands of man-hours before Sakonnet was Coast Guard-certified to carry passengers. She operated successfully out of Baltimore’s InnerHarbor with a full crew until the breakup of his marriage (unfortunately with the boat in his wife’s name).

The vessel is now in disrepair in Clearwater, Texas. “I last saw her in 1992 and her condition brought tears to my eyes, and anger,” he says. In search of another boat in late 1993 to replace the one he had sold, Wilson began thinking about the vessel that provided so much happiness in his boyhood.

Happie’s owner and Happie were aging and Corny Miller, in his 80s, began thinking the unthinkable. “I had given my family the option of a summer cottage or a boat” before he bought this Winthrop Warner design, he told a Soundings writer in 1993 when he listed her for sale.

“We decided to get the boat, one that we could comfortably live aboard while taking long cruises,” he explained. That was in 1956 and, 37 years later, there were no regrets.

Miller, however, was looking for “the right buyer, a family willing to keep the boat and make use of it,” he said.

Then along came Killer (Dan Wilson), by then a boat nut devoted to the restoration and maintenance of old wooden yachts who had fallen under the spell of Happie as a boy. The match was made and a sale price offered that made Wilson happy. Corny Miller, who was at the dock when Happie left, died in February 2002.

“On that hell trip south to the Chesapeake, we almost lost her 13 miles off the Jersey coast. She began laboring in 8-foot head seas and the engine conked out,” says Wilson, who dropped anchor in 30 feet and called in a mayday to the Coast Guard, who towed them in to Atlantic City.

After getting the engine running again and proceeding to Cape May and a haulout to check the bottom where a plank had sprung, the next leg was the troublesome Delaware Bay.

“The hell trip then got worse, as winds and tides went against us all the way to the C&DCanal, where we stopped to catch our collective breath,” Wilson adds. “We figured it couldn’t get any worse, but when we got through the canal and out into the upper Chesapeake, it got worse with westerly winds howling and buffeting us broadsides as we headed south.”

Eventually, he retired from radio broadcasting in Baltimore (“The Danny Wilson Show”) and met a boat-loving woman who would become his third wife. Dan and Kathy Wilson now own and operate Elite Reporting, an audio court-reporting service.

They have cruised the Bay in Happie and the boat has a look about her that shows she has been used. She does not have the appearance of a showboat yacht, and that’s how Wilson wants it. “This is a touch-me boat,” he says.

“There is nothing like the sound and smell of a wooden cabin cruiser under way. It is a combination of a soft ride that absorbs the bumps, soft wooden-boat sounds, and sweet smells that have aged well — all of which combine to make wooden boats so wonderful.”

But Happie needs refastening and Wilson is looking toward a “fairly early” retirement when he and his wife buy a larger wooden boat to cruise inland waters in comfort. “Not another project boat,” he says, laughing, “but a well-found 50-footer providing more amenities, like a shower and maybe even air-conditioning.”

Until that day comes, he will continue to work on Happie, hoping, like Corny Miller, to eventually sell her to someone like himself looking for a family boat with character and a personal history of making people happy.