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Shop owner has an eye for the uncommon

The Homewood Landing 24 is, among the portfolio of boats Bill Donahue has for sale, unique.

The Homewood Landing 24 is, among the portfolio of boats Bill Donahue has for sale, unique. He calls this cold-molded open center console launch, which is finished bright so that her cedar, pine and mahogany glow naturally, a “creek crawler.”

With lines reminiscent of a traditional fishing boat, she seems suited for both leisurely gunkholing or for classy yacht club arrivals. Donahue bought the rights and the prototype from the widow of an Annapolis boat craftsman who built only one, and he will sell customers finished reproductions starting at $57,500.

If that price is too steep, then consider some other offerings by Donahue’s three-year-old business, Annapolis Classic Watercraft: A 1958 lapstrake Lyman 18-footer for $17,500, or a fiberglass 1959 Buehler Turbocraft jet boat, also for $17,500 (trailer included), or a Ken Bassett “Firefly Double” 22-foot pulling boat for ... sorry, that one’s sold.

If there seems to be no theme in the line of boats for sale, Donahue’s Web address explains:

“I started the business with the intent of doing restorations,” says Donahue, who sold a consulting business and used the proceeds to launch Annapolis Classic Watercraft in a shop in the Eastport section of Annapolis. “I realized early on that my shop is too small to do the type of volume restoration work we would need to do. We can have three good-sized projects going at a time and that isn’t big enough. So we decided to get into the sale of already restored boats.” While he remains prepared to build new boats and do some restorations, Donahue says that the “sale of really high-quality classic boats is the backbone of our operation, what pays the bills right now. The only classic boats that we take are ones that are in excellent condition, top quality, unique and rare. We don’t handle project boats.”

Donahue, who says he worked in the banking industry before starting a company that did “sales performance consulting,” has publicized his new business by exhibiting a sampling of his brokerage boats at antique and classic boat shows. At the Antique and Classic Boat Society show last June in St. Michaels, Md., his exhibit won an award for “best land display.” Visitors saw a 1937 special race boat; a 1929 Lawley tender; a prototype of a Talbot 20 (a boat Donahue plans to build to look like a classic); a 1958 Chris Craft Capri; a gaff-rigged sailboat; and the most popular display boat, a 1942 Old Town skiff with an antique outboard motor.

“A customer found it. He brought the boat and motor down for some restoration work and I told him: Don’t touch it. Just leave it alone as it is. It’s absolutely untouched. Like any antique, the most valuable ones are the original ones.”

According to Donahue, it is not uncommon for him to reject restoration work that customers are seeking.

“A lot of people call up and e-mail us asking for advice. They found such and such a boat in somebody’s backyard. They’re thinking of restoring it. What we tell people is if you want a project and you want to work on the boat yourself and enjoy restoration and have some degree of skill and tools, by all means, do it.”

No doubt, they hear the “but” coming, he says. “If you buy a boat like that and bring it to us, the cost of restoration is almost always going to be more than the value of the boat. We counsel customers if you want a classic boat in good shape, buy one that’s already been restored. If you buy one in good shape and keep it in good shape ... you can probably get your money back when you sell it. Which you can’t say about a new boat.

“Otherwise, for the regular run-of-the-mill classic boat, the cost of restoration is going to be more than it’s worth,” Donahue says, who built his first boat, an eight-foot pram, when he was 10 and whose vessels have primarily been sailboats.

The little shop will oblige a customer with a boat they want restored regardless of cost. “We have a couple of projects in the queue right now that are like that,” Donahue says. “It is almost always an emotional decision to acquire one of these boats. People want them for any number of reasons: they’re pretty, they perform well, they don’t look like every other boat in the marina.”

One of the things Donahue says he tries to do is match the customer to the right boat. “A lot of times they will come in and will have seen one of our runabouts. They are so neat looking and so sexy. They’ll say I want a runabout. I always say before we start down that road, let’s talk about how you want to use your boat,” he says. “Very often, a runabout is not the right boat for them” because it needs protected water and is not suitable for the Chesapeake’s open spaces.

When he determines the boat that is best for the customer, Donahue says, he will search the market. Chris-Craft, for example, “built over 250,000 boats and produced over 700 models. Since Chris-Craft is probably the most available, we’ll sit down and go through the directory of the Mariner Museum in Newport News (Va.) and look at different boats and help the customer narrow down what they want. Then we have plenty of sources we have that we can go out and find that boat.”

While the focus of Annapolis Classic Watercraft is on boats under 35 feet because “these are the kinds of boats that interest me right now,” Donahue will help customers looking for bigger craft.

“There are some other brokers in town that we work with pretty cooperatively with,” he says.