'...a part of restoring American history.'
Story and photos by Ian Tocher
Thundering across Lake Sinclair, 39-year-old Joel Neff expertly and deftly maneuvers "C-Mego," a period-correct reproduction of a 1934 Hacker-designed wooden racing boat. It does, however, carry a modern Chevy 305 mated to a direct-drive shaft with a four-blade prop that’ll easily push it to 50 miles-per-hour, if not 60, on a good day, Neff says. “I can beat almost any cigarette-type boat to the eighth mile,” he proudly declares.
It’s a fast, exhilarating ride back in time, though every tiny ripple in the water transfers its presence straight through the hull and up the spine of anyone in its two spartan seats. This is no Saturday-night cruiser.
Neff is a liberally tattooed, third-generation boat builder who recently took over the family business from his grandfather Tom, a legendary figure in wooden boat construction and former mainstay on Lake Sinclair. The original sign for his business, Neff’s Classic Boats, still hangs on the boathouse outside Tom’s old shop and Neff the younger admits he can’t resist cruising by at least once every time he visits the lake, just to make sure it’s still there.
Now based near Toccoa, Neff is participating in the Antique and Classic Boat Society (ACBS), which held a fall show at Little River Marina near Milledgeville. Populated almost exclusively by wooden boats, the show routinely draws entries from Florida to Virginia and sometimes as far away as New York and Wisconsin.
It's free to attend for the public and just $40 each for ACBS members to enter. Once there, boaters spend their time much like a car-show crowd, shining parts, answering questions and swapping stories and tips with their show neighbors. Then, at the end of the day, they all head to an informal awards dinner, explains Monty Cheshire, the volunteer organizer for the Blue Ridge chapter of the ACBS, which officially represents Georgia and the Carolinas.
“All during the day, visitors could vote on the People’s Choice Award and there’s one for Best Transom Name and then we have a Captain’s Choice Award, where every entry gets one vote toward their favorite boat,” Cheshire says.
“Then there’s one more special award, the Tom Neff Award, that’s actually a rudder off of one of Tom’s boats that Joel made into a trophy. It’s to recognize the owner who’s done the work themselves, but also did a great job on their boat.”
Among those in the running for the Neff in 2022 was Art Hampton, a recent transplant from Florida to Murphy, North Carolina, who was at the show with “It’s Someday,” his 1958 Chris-Craft Capri, reportedly one of only three intact survivors in the world.
“There's 16 of them altogether,” Hampton says, “but there's only three that float. And this is the only one that's totally original.
“It's even got the original Hercules block with the Chris-Craft marine parts in it,” he adds. “That engine's never been taken apart, never been rebuilt. And if I hit the key and it turns over twice, I have a problem.”
Hampton reveals he actually received the boat as a gift in 1972 upon returning to Greenwood Lake in New Jersey after being drafted into the Army. Its original owner, Bill Gurney, had passed away during Hampton’s deployment and his widow “just handed me the keys” the next time he saw her. She told him her husband just wanted the boat to go to someone that loved it as much as he did.
“I said to her that I'd feel a lot better if I bought it, but she said, ‘No, no, no, Bill wanted you to have it,’” he recalls. “In the end, though, I gave her a thousand dollars. Best thousand I ever spent.”
Since that time, Hampton says he’s been across the country several times showing the boat, one year attending 27 individual events, but he insists it’s no trailer queen.
The 19-foot runabout gets wet on a regular basis, he stresses, although all that travel and use eventually took a toll. So a couple of years back, he and two friends stripped the boat to its ribs and, over an 18-month period, individually cleaned every plank, fastener and fitting, then lovingly reassembled everything just as it originally appeared when Eisenhower was in the White House.
The Neff Award eventually went to Bryan Wheeler of Hartwell, though, for his results on the appropriately named “Resurrected” 1937 Hacker-Craft, which received a total makeover from basket case to showpiece.
“Although I’m certain that many boats in worse condition had been previously restored, I expect few were done as a first restoration project,” Wheeler admitted in an article he posted last year to the Blue Ridge ACBS website (blueridgechapter-acbs.org). “One experienced restorer even said I was crazy after he looked it over.”
Wheeler had his name engraved on the rudder-based Neff Award but will return it for the next recipient this September while keeping a smaller individual trophy to forever acknowledge his remarkable restoration. And apparently his fellow ACBS owners agreed with his win, as he also received the prestigious Captain’s Choice Award.
Meanwhile, the People’s Choice was the 331 hemi-powered, 1954 Shepherd “Born Again” runabout belonging to Kelly Daniel of Newnan; and Best Transom Name was deemed to be “Just Two Boards” on the 1938 Chris-Craft of Ringgold’s Dean Heavener.
“You know, we do these shows for a couple of reasons. One, of course, is to get out and play with our boats. But really, it's to build relationships and to open the door to someone that wants to come in. You know, someone who kind of notices wood boats or antique boats of any kind, they may be living up near a lake or on the lake and just want to know more,” Cheshire says.
He points out how important it is to understand entering the antique boat hobby is attainable, even on a limited budget. Cheshire emphasizes it doesn’t have to cost any more than boating in what antique aficionados tend to call “plastic” boats, referring to modern fiberglass-based vessels.
“You can start with just about any boat,” he insists. “I would guess that almost everybody here started with a little outboard or maybe a fiberglass boat, but they just wanted something different. I mean people with Ferraris or expensive, classic muscle cars, if they go to a car show they'll stop and look at a Volkswagen because maybe they had one at one time.
“So, a show like this is an invitation to learn and get in with a group that would support you and build your hobby, have a good time. It's fellowship. I guess it's almost a ministry,” he suggests. “But basically, it's just about having good, clean fun.”
Neff says he can build a brand-new reproduction wood boat for $35,000 to $50,000, largely depending on the powerplant chosen, which is right in line with many new boating options. He suggests opting for restoring a wooden boat could even be considered a patriotic act by some.
“I've been in the shop since about the age of 6 and just being in there over time, just watching my grandfather and my dad work on these boats, that turned into a hobby for me and then a passion and over time it turned into a full-time career,” Neff says.
“And being a young man in this business I feel the responsibility of restoring the history of wooden boats. It’s like, there were a million cars made that eventually turned into classics, but there's only so many 1936 Chris-Crafts ever made and a lot of them are already destroyed and gone. So, I really see restoring these old boats as being a part of restoring American history.”
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Story and photography by Ian Tocher, published in the January-February 2023 issue of Lakelife magazaine. May not be reproduced or copied without special permission from the publisher.