Chuck Bank’s father's hobby was building wood boats, a skill and love he passed down to his son when he would visit his Northwest Indiana home during summers. But Banks took it one step further, building and maintaining boats not only an avocation but a vocation.
“I guess you could say I’ve been building boats all my life,” says Chuck Banks, owner of CMS Marine in Portage which specializes in boat repair services and salvage and also offers rentals. “It started when I was 14 and visited my dad—my mom and stepdad lived in Germany then—and we would work on boats.”
One of the boats Banks and his father worked on included a 31-foot Richardson, a wood cruiser they used for years for fishing and piloting on the lake. Banks also had other wooden boats for rent at his marina.
Wood boats, sleekly made with high polished wood, are said to be a smoother ways to ride the waves muting engine noises and lessening the impact of vibrations. But even more compelling for many is the romance of this ancient craft of fashioning wood into vessels, whether they’re sailboats or motorized. Besides history, part of their beauty if the wood itself. Dazzling colored and grained teak—the most rot resistant wood around often is used for hulls and planking; trim, rich mahogany, strong and rot resistant, beautifies hatches, doors and decorative accents while the strength. While pine, fir and cedar are also good for planking because it swells and helps keep the boat water tight, oak with its strength, bendability, long lasting and rot resistance is fashioned into keels and ribs. Spruce with its durability is formed into the mast and other spars.
Mike Dougherty came to his passion for wood boats by a much different route. Now the owner of two Cheoy Lee classic wood sailboats made by a company in business since 1870, Dougherty says he never had much interested in sailboats.
“I never was around sailboats, had never been sailing and never had a sailboat,” says Dougherty, who lives in Whiting. “I was retired and doing some plumbing work and for some reason I went upstairs to the computer and typed in wooden boats.”
The result was a 36-foot 1969 Cheoy Lee and a 1973 45-foot Cheoy Lee ketch which he keeps at the Indiana Harbor Yacht Club and for years has taken people out on Lake Michigan through his business Wooden Boat Adventures.
But despite the beauty and mystique of wood boats, they have one drawback and it’s a big one. Unlike fiberglass which is used in making most boats manufactured today, wood boats require major annual upkeep. After all, water rots wood. One of the mantras for wood boat maintenance is sand, varnish, sand, varnish. The bottom needs to be coated with marine grade paint. The wood accents also need to be maintained. Keep the boat clean and make sure there’s no standing water to avoid rot.
“My boat is all teak except for the hull with a lot of deck work that needs to be done frequently,” says Dougherty who having worked as an engineer in nuclear power plants is now in Wyoming for a few weeks on a job and is considering not putting his boats in the water this year even mentioning they’re for sale. “About the time you’re finished doing all the maintenance it’s time to start over.”
All this makes it understandable that fiberglass which was first used for boats during World War II. Banks mourns the loss of wooden boats.
“No one is doing them anymore,” he says. “Wood boats are pretty much over. All that is all but gone. It’s fiberglass now.”
Maintaining fiberglass boats are a piece of cake compared to wood boats says Banks.
Banks and his father lost their 31-foot Richardson in an early season storm.
“We left it in the water that year because we wanted to take it out on nice days even in the winter,” he says. “But we had some high water come up, it knocked over a tree which destroyed the boat. It’s too bad, it was such a gorgeous boat.”
“With a fiberglass hull and upper deck all you do is wash, buff and you’re good to go,” he says. “For every hour you put into the fiberglass you put 100 into maintaining a wood boat. There’s always varnishing, caulking, something to do.”
Enclaves of wood boats still exist.
“If you go to some of the older freshwater inland lakes you’ll see some wood boats,” he says. “People in upper Michigan see a lot of wood boats. When you get into Chris Crafts and Packard boats worth a lot of money, you get people who can afford to keep them up. But labor rates for wood boats can run $100 an hour and not many people can afford that.”
As an interesting side note, a 1930 24-foot Chris Craft Triple Cockpit Runabout costs about $84,500 and a 27-foot double cockpit runabout Packard Heritage can cost $125,000.
Though Banks sees the passing of an era, he still loves working on boats.
“I took a job at U.S. Steel seven years ago because I needed the health insurance,” he says. “And I’m still running this business too, but it’s hard working 60 hours a week at U.S. and then another 30 here, but I just can’t seem to quit it.”