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Classic wooden boat gets ’glass makeover

Though its Maine builder is a fan of wooden vessels, he sees logic in saving money and easier maintenance

Though its Maine builder is a fan of wooden vessels, he sees logic in saving money and easier maintenance

Nothing compares to wood when it comes to boats, says Maine builder Doug Goldhirsch. His latest offering, the 21-foot Handy Billy launch designed by Canadian Harry Bryan, is made of fiberglass.

“I own an 1898 Crosby catboat, I build in wood — I love wooden boats,” says Goldhirsch, 50, owner of Southport Island Marine, in Southport, Maine. “But, when it comes to price and upkeep, I know that they’re not for everybody. Still, I’ve loved the Handy Billy design; it’s handsome and sensible. I saw no reason why we couldn’t make a good fiberglass version that’s easier to maintain and costs less.”

And that’s just what he’s done over the winter.

As of April there were two completed boats in the water, one ready for its Maine owner, another headed for Long Island’s Great South Bay. Two more were heading out the shop door, right on schedule. “We’ve got boats,” says Goldhirsch.

The hull design is all about the ride. Borrowing from 19th-century powerboat pioneer William “Billy” Hand (thus the boat’s name), Bryan gave the open, 21-footer a narrow, 5-foot, 10-inch beam. (Seven feet would be more normal, today). The shapely spoon bow forms a deep, sharp forefoot under the water, and the draft decreases as the hull flattens and moves aft; the transom is narrow, and rests in just a few inches of water.

The result is not a planing ride, but what Goldhirsch describes as “an easy loping” movement.

“It’s not strictly a planing hull,” he says. “It’s designed with a sharp entry to knife through the waves, a moderate beam and a nearly flat transom with little wetted surface. The hull is long and skinny, and very easily driven.” In fact, with the recommended 25- to 30-hp outboard, the Handy Billy should cruise in the 15- to 19-knot range, he says.

While the look is traditional, the construction of the fiberglass Handy Billy is state-of-the-art, says Goldhirsch. The hull and the cockpit sole comprise fiberglass, vinylester resin and closed-cell foam, the side- and foredeck are solid fiberglass. Modern foil-facing sound insulation is used in the motor well. (The well is designed to permit the engine’s lower unit to be raised clear of the water.)

The new Handy Billy 21 is priced at around $35,000 for a basic, powered model that would include such standard equipment as a 4-stroke outboard, bronze hardware, running- and stern lights, a compass, hydraulic steering and a built-in, 20-gallon fuel tank.

The interior is “semi-custom,” the layout revolving around a basic center console design. Seating is built-in, not molded in, so a customer can call for a variety of seating options, says Goldhirsch. “By not using pre-molded parts, we can customize the seating just about any way they want it,” he says. Two stern deck storage compartments and a forward compartment are standard layout features.

For a little more Goldhirsch will “trick out” a Handy Billy, with teak coaming and rub rails, a custom cockpit sole, cushions, canvas tops and more.

Goldhirsch says he had the “Fiberglass Billy” idea kicking around for about five years when a chance meeting got it on the front burner.

“I had talked over the idea with [designer] Harry Bryan, and he was enthusiastic,” says Goldhirsch. “But I was busy doing other projects for a few years after that. Then, I met a boater at a cocktail party and he wanted a Handy Billy, but he didn’t want the upkeep and maintenance involved with a wooden model. I suggested fiberglass and he saw the advantages immediately.”

Goldhirsch, under license to Bryan, rendered the first Handy Billy in fiberglass in the spring of 2006. The first boat, a basic version, was sold and launched by early last July.

Tricked-out or standard version, Goldhirsch sees the fiberglass Handy Billy filling a number of roles, as a pleasure boat for day trips and sunset cruises, a fishing boat for coastal waters or a harbor launch for a yacht club or sailing club. Inland boaters will appreciate its virtues on large lakes and rivers, too, says Goldhirsch. “It’s seaworthy, fuel efficient, quiet and good-looking,” he says. “That’s always been [the] Handy Billy mantra.”

And now — it comes in fiberglass, too.

Southport Island Marine, (207) 633-6009;