For Patrick Gallagher, back in the day, it was all about the Streblow. That was the wooden boat of choice on Lake Geneva, a playground for city-dwellers from Chicago. Today, he says, the lake is filled with Cobalts and Chris-Crafts, but back when Gallagher was a kid spending summers there with his family, he saw mostly Streblows.
“It was the only flavor that people seemed to know,” he recalls.
The nostalgia of those wooden boats helped to ease his mind after the Covid-19 pandemic descended in early 2020.
Gallagher was thinking about how he was going to turn 50 years old, and about how, after 20 years as a co-owner in his family’s highway-paving business, he wanted to do something different. His wife, Rose, had spent 14 years as an attorney. She wanted to make a change, too.
So, he sold his shares in the family business to his brother and cousin, and in early 2021, the couple used the proceeds to acquire the wooden boat company Grand Craft Boats in Holland, Michigan. Patrick became CEO, and Rose took the role of executive vice president. They moved the company to Genoa City, Wisconsin, right near Lake Geneva. Their vision is to pair Grand Craft’s mahogany-boat craftsmanship with modern management practices and production
Grand Craft was founded in 1979 by Steve Northuis and Chris Smith, grandson of Christopher Columbus Smith—the founder of Chris-Craft. The builder reportedly has had celebrity clients including Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Tim Allen and Kid Rock.
But there have been fits and starts in terms of production. As of 2007, Grand Craft was said to be building about 18 boats each year. In 2009, amid the Great Recession, the company shut down. It got a new owner in 2010 and restarted production after that. More recently, Gallagher says, Grand Craft was building just one boat in the 20-foot range each year.
Gallagher hopes to be turning out 20 hulls a year by 2024, each with a build time of four months. “We’ve put two boats into production since March of 2021. The first one took about eight months to complete. The second one, we think, will take about six months. The third one, which we’re putting into production this month, we think that will take about four months,” he said in January.
“We not only want to shave the build time on each boat, but we also want to increase the overall level of quality, fit and finish on the boats. We think you can have your cake and eat it too in that regard. We think you can work smarter and save time, and devote more time to quality and craftsmanship.”
Grand Craft offers five models along with custom builds. The model they’ve homed in on for the spec-build process is the Burnham, a newer 26-foot, 4-inch design with U-shape cockpit seating, a 430-hp engine and a bow thruster. Retail price is about $350,000.“We’re putting our chips on that initially because we believe it’s what today’s wooden-boat owner is looking for,” he says. “It’s something that has been modernized from a configuration standpoint. It’s less of a utility design and has more of a conversation pit.”
To shave construction time, Gallagher and his team created computer-assisted design drawings of the model, and then started using a CNC machine to cut things like the framing. The craftsmen who used to do that work by hand are now freed up to focus on different parts of the construction process.
“The craftsmen, who initially one might have thought would shun this, they said it makes total sense—this is perfect,” Gallagher says. “That kind of stuff is not really where they want to spend their time. They want to be spending time more on the planking, the fairing, the staining, the varnishing, the bringing of all the exterior pieces of the boat together. But the internal skeleton of the boat? If that was going to be pre-cut, so be it. It makes sense.”
Grand Craft will also expand its operations in other ways, he says. For instance, the company is now building a 36-foot Winchester model commuter for a resort in Florida that is replacing a pair of Grand Craft commuters used there for more than two decades as water taxis in salt water.
“They want to have the hull be fiberglass, but they want the deckhouse and everything else to be mahogany with teak soles, as originally intended with the Winchester,” he says. “We’re working with a fiberglass-hull manufacturer, and once the hull is completed in about a month, it’ll be shipped up here and we’ll begin installing the wooden deckhouse.”
A fiberglass version is also on the drawing board for the Burnham model, possibly by the second half of this year. “And certainly sooner if we get an opportunity,” he says. No matter how Grand Craft boats are ordered going forward, Gallagher adds, the company will remain focused on the styling of wooden boats that drew him to the brand in the first place.
Like many boaters who gaze lovingly at classic mahogany boats out on the water, Gallagher feels that part of his job is to protect the heritage and craftsmanship that make those kinds of boats special.
“What’s so fun is that our craftsmen feel the same way,” he says. “One of them said to me recently, ‘This is my boat until somebody buys it.’ He meant it in all the right ways. He meant that I take this very seriously, and I want this to be a flawless, beautiful work of art.”
This article was originally published in the March 2022 issue.