Most boaters admire a wooden boat.
Dan Wilson loves them, and it’s been a passion since childhood when he watched a neighbor cruise aboard a 1932 Winthrop Warner raised-deck cruiser named Happie.
The retired Severna Park, Md., radio personality was to meet up with Happie again later in life, but in between he pursued his love with several other wooden beauties. Wilson has owned or captained eight wooden boats through the years, from a 15-foot Penn Yan to the former presidential yacht, USS Sequoia, from a captain’s gig off the aircraft carrier USS Hornet to a 75-foot motoryacht turned “treasure ship” for a summer.
And he’s not done yet. His latest acquisition, a 42-foot Matthews, is nearly ready for the water and some long-distance cruising. “This is the last in line, though,” says Wilson, a former syndicated radio host, singer and entertainer. (He’s performed at the White House three times). “At 65, I must admit it’s a younger man’s quest.”
Call them Dan Wilson’s fleet. Park them bow-to-stern, and they’d stretch the length of a football field and through both end zones. Eight boats, 398 feet of history, each artifact different and each important.
“Every wooden boat makes a statement,” says Wilson. “First, it’s a statement of the architect and next a statement of the shipwright who made it with his own hands. Then the yacht makes a statement of its own, how she looks and feels, how she sits in the water, and she will say where she comes from in heritage, craftsmanship and design.”
Few yachts make a statement quite like USS Sequoia, the former presidential yacht. For Wilson, the 104-foot Trumpy design was the “celebrity yacht.” He was captain early in the Reagan years, when he was living aboard his own wooden boat, the 75-foot Sakonnet, and again in 1998. Washington loves a good stage, and the Sequoia was an ideal backdrop for the panoply. Receptions brought political, financial, industrial and civic leaders to the yacht, with its spacious afterdeck, its lustrous wood interior and famous saloon, which was the scene for many receptions. It was a people-watcher’s paradise but, along the way, Wilson met some guests who truly seemed to appreciate the yacht and its history through nine presidents. Then-Gov. John Chaffee of Rhode Island took the time to learn all the crew’s first names; Edwin Meese — Reagan’s counselor from 1981 to 1985 — enjoyed singing and playing the famous piano (a favorite of Truman and Nixon). Wilson recalls Gen. Colin Powell as “the most gracious” of all.
“That was a wonderful experience, and afforded me the opportunity to meet many dignitaries,” Wilson says. “And I found that the truly important people were most respectful of the yacht.”
Wilson calls Sakonnet, the yacht he was living on at the time, a “dream boat.” Built in Annapolis by Chance Marine Construction and launched in October 1929, it was the last vessel to leave the yard before the Depression began. Powered by a pair of special high-rpm GMC 6-110 diesels, she was ruggedly built to Navy patrol boat specs. She was also a sweat-equity boat. “I coaxed her back to supreme condition with very creative maneuvers of budget planning, sweat and cuts and bruises — and help from outside talent,” says Wilson.
“She was beyond me in many ways at first. I had never operated anything so large, and managing such a massive boat in the small, confined channels with winds and currents that seemed to spot me on arrival was something new. But Sakonnet was my best teacher and I learned by mistakes how to do ‘Large Yachts for Dummies.’ ”
The learning paid off. For the next three years, Wilson cruised Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina, keeping up with his radio work (including a syndicated show carried in 10 states) in a recording studio he built in the forepeak. Tapes were sent out from whichever post office was nearby. Along the way, he built a reputation as “a guy who knows old boats.”
That’s why author/adventurer Clive Cussler hired Sakonnet in the early 1980s as the lead boat in his quest to find the Confederate ironclad, USS Merrimack, in the Elizabeth River off Portsmouth, Va.
“We ran from before dawn to long after dark, cruising to the site with upwards of 30 people on board,” Wilson recalls. “And we carried all this special equipment: magnetometers, graphing monitors and bottom contour equipment.”
Cussler — founder of the National Underwater and Marine Agency — found the remains of the Merrimack, scuttled by the Confederates in 1862, near Norfolk, Va.
“Clive was very natural to be with. He didn’t act as if he were important at all,” recalls Wilson. “We gave him a forward cabin when he stayed overnight, and he never complained.” Later, in a book, Cussler described the cabin as ”uncomfortable and stuffy, with only two portholes,” Wilson says. “I liked Clive a lot.”
Sakonnet’s third incarnation was as a gourmet dinner cruise vessel, running out of Baltimore harbor in the mid-1980s. “I had to put her to work to earn her keep,” says Wilson. “And I was able to exercise my hobby of inventive cooking, entertaining on the main deck by the bar and milling about with people, all of which I love to do. It was a very successful venture.”
In 1988 Wilson bought his next vessel, Victoria: “The loveliest to look at,” he says.
The 54-foot Murray Peterson motoryacht started out as a $2,500 project boat. Armed with “a romantic vision and the ability to work as pretty much anything except a ship’s carpenter,” Wilson undertook a complete restoration that took six years and cost $40,000. There were new decks, cabin-side repairs (which involved scarfing pieces of new, matched 1-1/2-inch-thick mahogany) new canvas and a new paint job. The interior was stripped and refinished — in fact, there was so much to do that Wilson installed a permanent workshop in the forepeak.
The result was more than worth it. “She was a true sparkler,” says Wilson. “But it was never clear if the applause I got when turning around in Ego Alley in Annapolis was for the boat or for the Harlequin Great Dane I had sitting on the helm seat next to me.”
In 1994 Wilson came full circle, buying the boat he calls “my first love.” Happie is a boat that Wilson, a southern Connecticut native, grew up with: a 39-foot 1932 Winthrop Warner raised-deck cruiser that belonged to Cornelius (Happie) Miller, a friend of the family in Essex, Conn. “When I was 10, I thought it was such a stately yacht. I thought this was it,” says Wilson. “I spent so many happy hours on that boat — and now, my wife and I have had such a wonderful time with her. And she hasn’t missed a boating season in 77 years.”
Now, Wilson and his wife, Kathy, are planning some long-distance cruising, and Happie is up for sale while he’s working on the “last in line,” a 1956 Matthews 42. There are 17 cracked ribs to fix (Wilson hit something off the Jersey coast on the boat’s shakedown cruise) and some cosmetic work to do. “We needed something a little bigger, a little more convenient than Happie,” says Wilson. Speed and range were another concern. The Matthews is powered by a pair of International Harvester 492 gas engines. And though it’s in need of hull repairs, the boat is in good shape with new wiring and hull paint and a clean interior. “In due time, we’ll have our last dream boat up and running,” says Wilson. The Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence call to rugged adventure. Florida and Nassau’s white beaches beckon.
As each boat has come and gone, it’s given him something, says Wilson.
“I feel as if I’m carrying on the legacy of the former crew and of men and women who have made these craft come to life before me — and that’s an awesome feeling. I think about all the basic skills I would never have attained: a knowledge of marine construction, electrics and engines and the chemistry of wood and the elements.”
Being on the water in a wooden boat calls to “the romance in one’s heart,” he says. “It’s no different than those people who love the mountains or the plains. For me, it’s the sound of the soft slap of gentle waves against a wooden hull when you are sitting on the hook. It’s the sight of a bow wake and the boat itself cutting through the water under way. It’s the smell of the sea.”
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This article originally appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Home Waters Section of the June 2009 issue.