Wooden boats still rule here


The journeys of midwinter often lead classic boat owners to the water's edge, to small marinas where wooden boats are crowded atop blocks and stands along the rutted paths of travel lifts, awaiting another coat of paint, new planking, ribs or floors -- or, eventually, a crew of wreckers who will break them apart.

"You hate to break up any wooden boat because every one of them has a history," 77-year-old Dennis Carper said late last week, as he walked through Essex Boat Harbor Marina. "But some of them are just so far gone there's nothing you can do but break them down and salvage what you can."

A slew of boats built predominantly of wood until the 1960s -- Chris Crafts, Bellcrafts, Edwards, Matthews and especially Owens -- have passed through Carper's yard on Deep Creek off Back River. Many have left the yard intact and in better shape than when they arrived; others remain only as hard-to-find spare parts stored in sheds and workshops.

It is these parts -- shaft logs, props, shafts, windshields, engine parts and mounts, bells, whistles and horns, for example -- that bring the world to the dead end off Sandalwood Road via fax, phone and automobile.

And it is the parts salvaged from dozens of Owens models, built at that company's plant in Dundalk during the heyday of wood, that get the most attention.

"We get calls from everywhere, from people looking for parts," said Carper, who was line production foreman with Owens for 17 years.

"And that's not so surprising, really, if you understand that for years a 25-footer was rolling off the line every hour, eight hours a day, 40 hours a week."

And on other production lines, other Owens were being built at similar rates, from 18-foot day boats to 42-foot, twin-engined cruisers.

"At one time Owens was the largest boat builder in the world in the 25- to 42-foot range," said Dennis Carper's son, David. "They had distributors around the world, too, including a very big West Coast operation."

In its time, Owens was indeed big business, until the advent of fiberglass in the late 1950s led production companies away from wood construction, and the Baltimore company was bought by the Brunswick Corp., which eventually produced the glass Concorde line.

"We call them Teflon boats," said Dennis Carper, as he stood by the shop's wood stove in the shadow of a 30-footer undergoing restoration. "Think what you like, but there's nothing like a wood boat. Nothing rides the water as well or sounds as good as a wood boat on the move. Even the sound of a wood boat is sturdy, solid."

As the foreman of the production line, Carper knew the skills of his workmen and the strength of his company's product. He still ticks off models and specifications and production numbers.

"Owens made a good boat, and Norman Owens, the chief engineer, was innovative," he said.

The reverse-mounted Flagship engines, for example, were one of Norman Owens' innovations and believed to be the first V-8 automobile engines adapted for mass produced boats.

"We get two or three calls a week for Flagship parts," said Dennis Carper, as he balanced a cup of coffee in two fingers while fiddling with the latch on a storage trailer, inside of which there certainly was a shaft log to match that off a 1961 Owens Sea Skiff.

Flywheels needed in Oregon. Original gauges wanted in Texas. Bow rails, cleats and emblems en route to Virginia. Parts that will help piece together history.

"I have been around these boats so long that sometimes I feel like I was part of the line," said David Carper, who rescued a 35-foot Owens sportfisherman from a river mud bank a couple of years ago and plans to restore it. "I know the history from Dad, and I know the boats from experience. This is the perfect boat for me."

The 35-foot sportfisherman sits blocked a short distance from the water's edge, small sections of its double mahogany planking exposed to the weather, its topside seams opening, the flybridge set on the cockpit floor.

David Carper, who is active in Chesapeake Bay wooden boat clubs, is undaunted by the restoration project ahead.

"I have worked with worse," he said, as he moved around the boat pointing out where previous owners had scrimped on repairs. "A boat like this, you can't find anymore, really -- it'd be a shame to break it up."

Dennis Carper, too, believes the 35-footer can be brought back to the shape it was in when it rolled off the Dundalk line in 1963.

"It's probably 50 percent there and 50 percent still to be done," said Dennis Carper. "I'm hopeful he might finish it while I'm still around."

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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