Built in November 1946, 'Slàinte' is a 27-foot Chris-Craft Super Deluxe Enclosed – resplendent in her gleaming bright-work and original chromed fittings – looking pretty much as she did on the day she was first launched.
Hull #507, she’s one of only a handful remaining of the 864 of this specific model that rolled off the Chris-Craft production line in Michigan, on the shores of Great Lakes, in the years after the Second World War.
How she came to be cruising around Lake Rotoiti – some 72 years later and half a world away – is a fascinating story, and one that once again illustrates that boat restoration projects are often born in the most obscure, improbable circumstances.
A good place to begin unravelling this odyssey is with her name. It’s Gaelic and derives from the Scottish toast – Slàinte Mhath – ‘to your health’, a salutation used by her Tauranga owner on more occasions than he’d like to admit. And one usually exchanged with his very good Scottish friend – the chap central to this story.
“A few years ago, when this good friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I asked if there was anything I could do for him. He said: ‘I’d like you to take me fishing on Lake Rotoiti.’
This was a simple enough request, though not ideal in my ski boat. But as it turned out, it was just the excuse I needed to start out on what has been one hell of a process – and I’m not sure it’s ended!”
That ‘process’ was buying and restoring the Chris-Craft – a bigger, more comfortable boat which would see the pair trout fishing on Lake Rotoiti in style, grace and comfort, no doubt with a bottle of Scotland’s finest single malt close at hand.
“I found her – online – while holidaying in Rarotonga, killing time surfing the net, as you do. She was another victim of the 2008 GFC, with her then-owner walking away from the restoration project after running out of cash. She was lying in Idaho – at Lake Coeur d’Alene.
“The boatbuilder had taken a lien over her – due to the unpaid debts – and he eventually took ownership. About 90 percent of the exterior restoration had been completed – inside she was a mess, just a shell – and after a fair bit of discussion I bought her and shipped her home.” On arrival the boat was delivered to Paengaroa’s Craig Marine (near Lake Rotoiti) for what was estimated to be a 12-week refit. She left the boatyard approximately a year later…
Boatyard owner Alan Craig is something of a timber boat restoration specialist, servicing clients mainly around the central North Island. Lake Rotoiti itself is home to a colourful cult of heritage and wooden boat enthusiasts, and it’s fair to say Alan’s team has worked on the majority of their vessels at some stage.
Chris-Crafts are magnificent boats, says Alan, and always a privilege to work on.
“On the face of it, this one didn’t pose any major problems. Fortunately, she came with most of her original fittings. So we were mainly looking – or so we thought – at a rebuild of the interior, repairing a bit of rot, and repainting.
“But the owner’s brief was a little unusual. He’s also a classic car enthusiast and his vision for the boat is best described by a term commonly used by car-buffs – ‘Resto-Mod’. While keeping the boat as original as possible, incorporate modern technology into the refit – but keep it all hidden, out of sight.”
The first hurdle Alan’s team encountered was power – the boat arrived without an engine. Originally, these Chris-Crafts were usually equipped with a 110hp Hercules straight-six engine. Its replacement would be a 5.7-litre, 330hp Crusader V8 with a ZF63A 1.5:1 gearbox.
“Modifying and strengthening the engine bed was relatively straight-forward – though we did have to fit a new stern tube for the altered prop shaft angle. But the real problem was the Crusader’s height – the only way we could accommodate it was by raising the cockpit sole 100mm.”
The new sole is a work of art – a glossy study in mahogany with ash inlay, and it wears multiple coats of Awlwood varnish. It’s seamlessly integrated into the vessel’s existing structure and, along with the interior panelling and floors, absorbed most of the project’s new timber.
Also missing from the boat was the strut, shoe, shaft and rudder – new versions were sourced locally – as well as a prop. “We settled on a four-blade Bri-Ski – 14-inch by 14-inch – and after initial test runs had the pitch altered slightly, adding a little cupping to the blades.”
It’s unclear what sort of speed the boat did with her original engine, but the Crusader drives her to a stately 28 knots, and a healthy measure of sound-proofing keeps the V8’s enthusiasm to a muted roar. Adrenalin-spiking stuff!
Some re-caulking also ensured the team’s heritage skills were put to good use. “The hull’s Oregon planking over oak frames,” says Alan, “and while the boatyard in the US had repaired the hull to the waterline – and glassed over it – the topsides needed work as the planks had opened up. It involved digging out the tired caulking and replacing it with new.”
Many of the sliding windows – still carrying the original glass – leaked and needed new frames and tracks. The curved mahogany frames, in particular, required delicate laminations of 1.5mm layers.
Slàinte is this beauty’s name – but it’s not her original name – nor her second, third or fourth.
She was purchased (new) in 1947 by a Mr Tripp who lived on Idaho’s Lake Coeur d’Alene – and he christened her The Tripper. In 1984 she was sold to a Mr Perkins who spent six months restoring the boat and renamed her Sally Ann. A few years later, Perkins sold her to Norman (‘Corky’) Meyer – and he, bless his soul, has provided much of this history.
At 72-years old – exactly the same age as Slàinte – Corky remembers the boat with great fondness.
“I renamed her Angel Baby after a 1960 rock & roll song by Rosie and the Originals. David, my brother-in-law, was a cabinet maker and he kept her in pristine condition – in return for using her occasionally. Sadly, he passed away in 1999.”
Corky sold the boat to a chap from Montana in 2004, who in turn on-sold it to the most recent
American owner. He delivered it to the Hagadone Marine Center – on Lake Coeur d’Alene’s Blackwell Island – for a complete restoration. With unpaid debts, that never happened.
And that was seemingly the end of the line for the grand old dame – until a bored Kiwi on a Rarotonga holiday began surfing the net.
THE CHRIS-CRAFT HERITAGE
Synonymous with refined boating pleasure and exceptional craftsmanship, the Chris-Craft story began in 1874 when Christopher Columbus Smith built his first boat at the age of 13 in Algonac, Michigan. It wasn’t long before he and brother Hank began building wooden boats in earnest.
Something of a speed fiend, Smith produced a succession of innovative designs, a quest that led to considerable racing success. He won the American Power Boat Association Gold Cup six years running, his revolutionary designs setting multiple records. By 1927 Chris-Craft was the world’s largest manufacturer of mahogany boats.
Smith died in 1939 and the company’s reins passed on to his son Jay. Contributing to the war effort, Chris-Craft built more than 10,000 landing craft. They featured prominently in the Normandy D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.
After WWII Chris-Craft began commercial boat production with renewed zest. By 1959 it had 10 factories and more than 5,000 employees. Wealthy patrons who bought the boats included Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst, Dean Martin, Katharine Hepburn, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
In its 130 years of existence, Chris-Craft has built more than 250,000 boats. The company was sold by the Smith family in 1960 to NAFI Corporation. In June this year, after various ownership changes, the company was acquired by Winnebago Industries.
But by far the trickiest part of the project, says Alan, was fitting modern technology to the boat – and keeping it hidden to preserve the old lady’s character.
Consider the original mechanical rod steering – now replaced with a hydraulic Seastar system. Fitting it required an innovative solution involving a custom-designed, chain-driven steering box. The installation was further complicated because there are two helm stations – saloon and cockpit.
And the galley’s original ice-box. On the outside it’s still the period accessory – but within it’s been converted into an electric fridge. You’ll be pressed to find the stereo, speakers and fish finder. They’re hidden in the forepeak, behind the helm. Both are controllable via Bluetooth, with the fish finder being displayed on an iPhone or iPad.
Craig Marine’s team built a new saloon table, and it’s a far more ‘flexible’ design than the original: it can be lowered and, using the settee squabs, converts into a modest double bed. I particularly like the tap over the galley sink. Still the original manual ‘pump’ model, it too has benefitted from an electric modification.
Slàinte is the only Chris-Craft of her kind in New Zealand – and what a glorious addition to the Lake Rotoiti classic launch fleet she is. As one overseas admirer has observed: this is a beautiful boat, beautifully done, in a beautiful part of the world! What more could one ask for?