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Wooden It Be Nice?

With Gary Lowell at the helm, weathered vessels take on the waters again

By Billy Ingram  

Photographs by Mark Wagoner

There’s a cautionary, oft-shared adage among well-healed seafarers that I’ve heard more than once: “You don’t own a boat; the boat owns you.” That commonly refers to those unwieldy, 130-foot floating hotels with which few of us will ever be financially burdened. But it may also be true, albeit in a much different sense, when it comes to smaller, vintage, wooden watercrafts, where ownership manifests itself as more of an emotional, familial connection.

There’s an unmistakable allure to those magnificent American-made maritime machines of the 20th century — the bold contours and fanciful interior chrome accents of a 1958 Century Arabian; the elegant simplicity associated with a 1949 Chris-Craft Racing Runabout; the playful luxury that defines a 1941 Gar Wood Flagship Streamliner; the distinctive shark-like fin of the 1955 Chris-Craft Cobra, a genuine aquatic hot rod, powered by a 331 Hemi Chrysler Marine Engine; or consider the aerodynamic sleekness of a Glastron GT-150, which James Bond piloted (on land, sea and air!) across the Louisiana bayou in Live and Let Die.

It’s been 30 years since Gary Lowell dropped anchor on a career restoring — in many cases, resuscitating — these highly sought after collectors items, having discovered his love of vintage boats at an early age. “When I was about 10 years old, my dad bought his first wooden boat and I just got into them then,” Lowell says of that initial spark. “My first job right out of high school was in television. I was the director of The Good Morning Show at WFMY and a puppeteer for The Old Rebel Show.” On weekends, Lowell would make a run for the coast to haul back some old wrecked vessel in an effort to make it seaworthy once again.

Emblematic of one’s personal style and appreciation for the finer things in life, any boat from a bygone era is sure to attract attention and spark lively conversations. And ones crafted from wood almost universally are regarded as the most impressive in any harbor, partly because each plank is meticulously handcrafted and laid. These veritable works of art are imbued with a singular personality not merely reflected in their appearance but also in the idiomatic sensations its skipper feels when breaking through choppy waters, rocking to rest in a slip or quietly cruising placid waterways.

Those salvaged boats he dragged home to restore? Inevitably, “Somebody would say to me, ‘That’s nice. Let me buy it from you.’” That pattern continued until Lowell realized he’d unknowingly stumbled upon his true calling. “I started working in my backyard and then I got a little shop — and then a bigger one.”

Lowell expanded his operation from 1,800 square feet to his present day cavernous 18,000-square-foot studio on Blue Bell Road, where dozens of boats are dry docked or hanging from the rafters in various stages of completion. While he has clients here in the Gate City, “the regional lakes like Lake Norman, Lake Gaston, Kerr Lake and Smith Mountain are where a lot of my customers come from.”

The golden age of compact wooden boats is considered to be 1948 through about 1959, which tracks with the rise of automobile ownership in America. “Some of those boats actually took on the look of cars,” Lowell notes of the time when molded fiberglass chassis offered a viable alternative to wood, allowing for more extravagant body types. “Especially in the ʼ50s with the tail fins, cars loaded with chrome and big ornate steering wheels.” Indeed, from 1956 into the early-1960s, independent manufacturers began using more sculptural fiberglass to create outboard motorboats that mimicked the streamlined modernity of automobiles.

For vacationers seeking motorized symmetry, a tail-finned 1959 Chevrolet Impala land yacht could be paired with a virtually indistinguishable (from the rear) Reinell Jet Flight runabout. A ’57 DeSoto (“Tell ‘em Groucho sent you!”) might have been cruising that year over one of the nation’s brand new interstate highways in tandem with its Hurters Flying Fish doppelgänger. The iconic red-and-white 1957 Corvette convertible sporting a powerful, 265 cubic-inch V8 under the hood could easily tow behind it a matching two-toned, Fiber-Glassic Lone Star Meteor speedboat — the ultimate in after-market automotive accessories. But those once-fashionable hybrids are of little interest to Lowell, who focuses his efforts exclusively on refurbishing mahogany- and oak-framed watercraft.

Every classic boat comes with a backstory, having weathered the elements for a half-century or more. Gesturing to a gas-powered Sea Skiff designed to ferry a dozen or so revelers, Lowell explains, “A teacher over in Wake County bought this because he used to spend a lot of time on the lakes up in upstate New York.” After stripping away the paint on both sides, “We found carved into it the name ‘Canoe Island Lodge.’ We looked it up and [that resort] is still in operation. So I contacted them and sent them a picture of it, and they sent me a photo from a 1958 brochure that showed people on their lake in this very boat.” The boat’s owner told Lowell his grandfather used to vacation at Canoe Island Lodge. “By coincidence, he’d bought a boat that his grandfather had actually ridden in.”

Naturally, what every client wants to know up front is: how much is it going to cost and how long is it going to take? It’s a great deal more complicated estimating how much time and effort will go into reconstructing a craft that spends most of its life in the water, which lends itself to harboring unseen damage that doesn’t come to light until peeling back the lower layers. That’s why, as an investment, the return is not going to be a financial one. “It will cost more to restore a boat than the resale value,” Lowell says. “You have a boat that you might be able to sell for $25,000 but we’re going to have to put $75,000 into it. But if it’s your grandfather’s boat and you want to fix it up for your grandkids, which some of these projects are, then it’s worth it.” Sentimental value? Priceless.

While an automotive “barn find” is unusual, it does occasionally still happen; the maritime equivalent might more likely be uncovering a watercraft that’s been sleeping with the fishes. “I had one project we called the ‘Fish Boat,’” Lowell recalls. “It belonged to an older couple, one of whom had a grandfather who kept a boat on Lake Norman.” To their dismay, the couple discovered the boathouse had structurally collapsed, causing the boat inside to become fully submerged for an extended period. “When we hauled it up, it was full of fish, hundreds of them. It stunk for months so we kept it outside here, ripped it apart, hosed it down and restored it. It’s just a gorgeous boat that’s now on the show circuit going around the country.”

While he’s taken in fixer-uppers from as far away as the West Coast and New England, most of Lowell’s clientele reside in the mid-Atlantic area. “This is the typical boat that we do today. This one is in for a touchup,” he says, pointing to a compact Chris-Craft runabout. In the past, he’d already worked maritime magic on this very boat. “We ripped everything off, flipped the boat over, replaced the broken framing, then installed an all new bottom on it.”

Utilizing tools and techniques boatbuilders have employed for hundreds of years, there’s very little that can’t be accomplished under this studio’s towering roof. “The engines, if it’s minor, like the external workings and regular tuning up and all of that, we do in-house,” Lowell says. Many of those old boat motors were originally installed in tractors, tanks, and landing craft during World War II. “So there’s a lot of that left over, but the actual mechanical parts are sometimes hard to find.” As for the seat coverings, some higher-end boats are appointed in marine leather, others covered in a marine vinyl with a faux leather texture. These can be repaired using remnants on site. “In a lot of older boats, you’ll find the upholstery is in good shape. If it needs all new foam and cushions we have vendors that specialize in that.” Lowell turns to a local artist for the calligraphic flourishes that spell out the often clever nicknames inscribed across these crafts. “There’s a guy in town I use, Mike Gregson, who does all the gold leaf on the county’s fire trucks.” Lowell insists one of his hardest tasks was coming up with names for his personal vessels. “Most powerboat names are tacky or even crude,” he says referring to double entendres often based on the term “wood.” “The best are ones that are named after someone’s grandmother, such as Lena, Maren, Mozel or Amelia Jean.”

Mahogany and oak are the main boat-building materials so, with Greensboro’s proximity to the furniture capital of the world, there are ample avenues for acquiring hardwoods. Currently, Lowell is restoring several mid- to late-1950s, 18-foot and 23-foot Chris-Craft Continentals, an almost iconic mid-sized model adorned in dark mahogany siding with white pin striping up top. “Just a fluke that we’ve got all of these Continentals in at the same time,” he quips. He’s also putting the finishing touches on a 1954, 18-foot Riviera, which connoisseurs regard as the “quintessential 1950s Chris-Craft runabout.”

Some of the more unusual water crafts Lowell and his crew have on deck are a fleet of small electric models from 1934 and 1935. “They reside at a lake up in the North Carolina mountains,” Lowell says. “Most people don’t realize there are electric boats that old.”

While it wasn’t uncommon for manufacturers to install easily attainable automobile steering wheels in their boats, customized chrome ornaments, frames, and dial casings can be difficult to come by at times. “Even with a rare car, they still made thousands of them. Some of these boats, they maybe only made two of some models.” Making such a limited number wouldn’t have been the plan but, “if they made a 16-footer in 1953, but everybody bought the 18- or 20-foot versions, the next model year they’re not going to make the 16 anymore. You end up with a rare 16-footer you can’t find parts for, so you have to recreate them yourself.”

When it comes to bending those long mahogany planks to conform with a boat’s outline, Lowell explains, “They go into a big box that we hook up to a beer keg with a burner under it to boil water and we steam the wood for about an hour or so. When it’s ready, we pull it out and fold it around a mold or sometimes directly on the boat so it takes in not only the curve but the twists as well. That’s kind of a fun process.”

While he and his precision-oriented crew will take on any type of boat as long as it’s wooden, sailboats are Gary Lowell’s true passion. What’s their “it” factor? “Something about the mast and the rigging that I like better than the mechanical power.” Not to go all Christopher Cross here, but there is a majestic quality to the art of sailing where sun, wind, canvas, punctuated by the ocean’s salty spray, induces an unparalleled level of serenity that, for thousands of years, sailors and adventurers have continued to chase.

“It wasn’t until years later that I came to find out that I’m part of a famous Lowell boat-building tradition that dates back to 1793.” Distant relative Simeon Lowell is credited for producing the earliest shallow-draft American Dory fishing vessels, for which his shop became famous. Positioned alongside the lower Merrimack River shore in Massachusetts, Lowell’s Boat Shop, the nation’s oldest, still operating, remains dedicated to the art of “preserving and perpetuating the art and craft of wooden boat building.” Lowells are still building watercraft in Maine and throughout the rest of New England.

Born in Greensboro but raised in Maine, Lowell returns to The Pine Tree State every summer to visit family and to teach restoration, marine painting and varnishing techniques at the prestigious Wooden Boat School in Brookline, which he’s done for 25 years. Closer to home, he’s conducted seminars at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort. Plus, one of his crew is a graduate of Cape Fear Community College, where a degree in traditional woodworking skills and precise joinery techniques required for assembling wooden boats is offered, as well as a diploma in composite boat manufacturing and service.

Lowell also invites interns and school groups to drop by the shop. “With one intern, we’re making several oars to be donated to Greensboro Parks and Recreation to use on row boats they rent.” He’s also a part of TWSBA, Teaching with Small Boats Alliance, an international organization of boat builders educating young people on subjects related to boating, such as geometry.

Wooden boat shows, like their classic car counterparts, are always a big draw, where 40 or 50 antique crafts will be gawked over by thousands of boating enthusiasts converging from around the country. In September, Smith Mountain Lake will host one of these festivals, where you’re bound to encounter an array of Lowell’s cultured pearls-of-the-sea. If you’re thinking of dipping your toe into the water, so to speak, the 34th annual Georgetown Wooden Boat Show in South Carolina will be held in October, an event that kicks off with the Goat Island Regatta Auction. Bring your checkbook, but leave room for plenty of zeros.

Perhaps one of these gatherings will ignite your own infatuation for navigating cool waters in a vintage custom-crafted wooden boat, unleashing your inner James (or Jane) Bond.  OH