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The Story Next Door: Classic cruiser
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The Story Next Door: Classic cruiser

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Bob Brown leaned into the cockpit of his still-unfinished homebuilt motorboat, sitting on a trailer in his driveway after returning from its first shakedown cruise, and hit the starter.

The boat’s 350-cubic-inch Mercury V-8 power plant coughed a few times, then turned over and settled into a steady, throbbing rumble, like a Detroit muscle car idling impatiently at an intersection waiting for the light to change.

“That’s exactly what I wanted,” Brown said with a satisfied look on his face. “I love that sound.”

Brown’s had an itch to build his own boat since his teens in Grants Pass in the 1970s, when his dad enlisted his help in constructing a sled boat, a flat-bottomed craft designed for running the Rogue River.

“I still have it,” Brown said.

But the boat of his dreams is something else, a style known as a mahogany runabout. Generally measuring between 20 and 35 feet long and designed to carry four to eight passengers, runabouts are built for speed, with sleek, bullet-shaped lines and beefy inboard or outboard motors. The style gained popularity as a pleasure craft in the early part of the 20th century, and some of the most classic examples were built of mahogany.

After seeing a mahogany runabout cutting through the waves at Lake Tahoe some years back, Brown decided that was the kind of boat he wanted to build.

“It’s along the lines of those classic Chis-Craft-type boats from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s,” he said.

So 10 years ago this month, Brown dropped 200 bucks on a set of plans from Glen-L Marine Designs and set to work in his Corvallis garage on his very own 23-foot runabout. (The plans, Brown notes, might be the cheapest element of the whole undertaking. By the time he’s finished, he estimates he’ll have sunk about $30,000 into the project — although that’s less than a third of what a similar vessel would cost new.)

Using a bandsaw he purchased for the job, Brown began cutting sheets of plywood into gracefully curved frames in the shape of the boat’s cross-section. Those were mounted on stringers to create the skeleton of the craft. Over that framework he laid criss-crossing layers of 1/8-inch plywood strips, set at opposing 45-degree angles, to form the hull. Last came the warmly glowing mahogany veneer, shaped to the hull’s gracefully curved contours to give it that classic runabout look.

By cutting the plywood thin enough, he was able to use a technique called cold-molding to bend the boards to the proper shape.

“The old method is you would steam the boards, steam them or soak them, so you would be able to get the bends, and this enables you to do them without that process,” Brown said.

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“The real secret to modern boat-building is epoxy resin,” he added. “It’s good, strong glue, and it’s waterproof.”

At first he worked on his passion project on weekends, making steady progress, but various life events intervened and slowed him down. Now, two years into retirement, he’s been able to pick up the pace.

With the hull finished, the engine installed and the running gear in place, Brown decided it was time for a test run. So last Friday, even though the boat still doesn’t have a deck and the cockpit isn’t finished, he and his son took it up to West Coast Classic Boat Restoration in Vancouver, Washington. The owner made some adjustments, and then the three of them took the runabout for its maiden voyage — on the Columbia River.

Brown said he was nervous at first, but the boat performed like a champ.

“We were hitting some pretty good-sized waves, but this cut through them pretty well,” he said, giving the hull an affectionate pat.

Brown still has some work to do before he’s done with the project. The interior needs to be finished, including installing a dashboard, the two front seats and two sets of bench seats, and he hasn’t started building the deck yet. With luck, he hopes to have everything wrapped up by next spring.

After that? The real fun begins.

“I think it would be fun to take some friends out and just go for a nice cruise,” he said.

Among the destinations he has in mind are the Willamette and Columbia rivers in Portland, some of the lakes near the Oregon coast and some of the great lakes of the West.

“Tahoe would be great,” he said. “That’s sort of the classic wooden boat lake.”

The big Merc under the hood has plenty of power — Brown thinks it will do 40 mph without breaking a sweat — but he’s no speed demon.

“One of the things I need to be careful with is that’s a lot more engine than they were designed for, so I won’t run it flat out,” he said.

“My son might, but that’s a different story.”

Bennett Hall can be contacted at bennett.hall@lee.net or 541-812-6111. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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