The Herreshoffs, Hands and Aldens get top billing when it comes to talking about great designers and builders.
But for years, it was the local guy — the fisherman, the sailor or engine mechanic, with the shop down the harbor lane or over next to the pond — who was the backbone of America’s boatbuilding industry.
Cape Cod boatbuilder Tom Olsen mans the tiller on the 26-foot 1950s MacKenzie bass boat he and his crew meticulously restored.
Take Ernie MacKenzie, for example. The iconic southeastern New England builder was well-known during the 1950s and ’60s in the Cape Cod region around Buzzards Bay for his sturdy open and cuddy-cabin fishing boats.
Made of lapstrake construction, with a single engine, they were in widespread use as guide boats and private vessels up and down Cape Cod, and especially around the ElizabethIslands, where owners fished for stripers. That’s where they picked up their nickname — Cuttyhunk bass boats. The last one was built in 1974.
When Tom Olsen came across one of Mackenzie’s boats about 10 years ago, he couldn’t resist acquiring it, even though the 26-footer built in 1958 was in pretty rough condition.
“It was a partially-started project that somebody had walked away from,” says Olsen, 44, owner of Olsen Marine, located on the southern shore of Cape Cod in East Dennis, Mass. “I took it on because I thought it would be an interesting boat to have.”
Now, after 10 years and uncounted hours, the 50-year-old Truant has come out of the shed, ready for another half-century.
One look, and you can see it’s a no-nonsense vessel designed for the rough waters of Buzzards Bay, with a high bow, cambered foredeck, plenty of freeboard and a distinctive wooden windshield (to deflect a Buzzards Bay chop). The lapstrake construction features 11/16-inch mahogany planking over sawn oak frames with copper rivet fastenings. There’s a steering console with a ship’s wheel to port, and a second set of engine controls aft, next to the tiller, which was designed to allow a single-hander to fish from the stern and still steer the boat.
“It’s a great way to drive the boat; I actually prefer it to the wheel,” Olsen says. “The boat reacts quicker, it’s the driest spot on the boat and it’s a comfortable place to sit.”
Power comes from a new 212-hp Steyer diesel engine, a lightweight power plant made in Austria.
The construction method makes for a solid hull, says Olsen. Where the planks (or strakes) overlap, you get a stringer that’s almost an inch-and-a-half thick.
The restoration began with a new bottom, but escalated from there.
“I started out imagining that it would be less work in my mind than it really was,” says Olsen. “But it always happens that way.”
The new bottom looked so good Olsen decided to add new topsides, then a new deck … and cockpit.
“One thing led to another,” he says. “About all that’s left original is the engine bed and part of the transom framing. So it’s a new ‘old’ vessel.”
The work was done at Olsen’s yard, during the offseason. “It was a fill-in project, and we’d work on it for a couple of weeks at a time,” says Olsen. “I finally decided I wanted to knock it out and get it done. The guys liked [working on] it, it was something different for them, starting from scratch and going through the whole restoration routine, down to the copper rivets.”
The MacKenzie boats started out as 21-footers, but the builder soon expanded his lineup, and the boats got up to 30 feet or so. Olsen’s 26-footer was the most popular size.
“He built, not just in one town, but in various places around here,” says Olsen. The 21-footer was a prototype for the boats that followed, with a little gas engine and a windshield. The guide boats soon became more yacht-like, Olsen says, sporting cuddy cabins and more powerful engines.
Launched briefly last year, Truant had a series of successful sea trials and Olsen managed to run it for a few weeks before cold weather set in. Now, he’s not sure what to do with it.
“I’d love to hang on to it,” he says. “But I have a lot of time invested in it, and I’m afraid I might have to find an owner for it. It’s a wonderful boat for someone — very safe, very strong, very salty.”
As autumn was setting in this year, Olsen had yet to list the boat for sale. www.olsenmarine.com