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Angus Phillips

Song of the Whaler

By Angus Phillips
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page E12

They say the old dog still quivers when it sees the quail. As for me, it's Boston Whalers that set my heart aflutter. Everything about these grand old craft, whose creators rewrote the book on small boat design a half-century ago, beckons. The older they are, the stronger the attraction.

I've fallen victim to my own enthusiasm more than once, buying old Whalers with cranky motors or hull defects I never could fix just because I couldn't bear to see them in someone else's driveway. The same guy who stands in a supermarket aisle for 10 minutes weighing which can of tuna to buy takes the plunge on a several-thousand-dollar vessel without a second thought. Go figure.


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to the author, this old Boston Whaler, above and below, is quite a looker. (Angus Phillips -- The Washington Post)

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So it was in a bit of a fever that I raced to Pasadena around Thanksgiving, fresh from the bank, pockets bulging. The ad in the paper had me doing handsprings before I even left the house. It was for a 16-footer -- 40 years old! -- powered by my all-time favorite outboard, the three-cylinder Evinrude 70, complete with galvanized trailer, all for a mere $2,000.

Who could say no? "You'll see," said the owner, a tow-truck driver who'd been using it on weekends for crabbing. "The hull is solid and the motor runs fine, but she's a little rough."

He was out on a call when I got there, which gave me time to absorb just how keenly he'd understated the case. The boat looked as if it had sat in a corn field for a decade or so, then been used to haul mulch. The vinyl rubrails along the gunwales were gone, leaving metal rivets that poked out the perimeter like tiny antennae to snag your clothes. It had been painted inside and out with house paint that was flaked and chipped. The homemade mahogany center console was a weathered ruin, unvarnished in years.

But what some might see as a shabby wreck fit only for the junkyard I saw as a shining opportunity, aglow with possibilities. "I'll take it," I gushed.

They say the two happiest times in a boat owner's life are the day he buys it and the day he sells it. We stood there grinning, the seller and I, beaming with satisfaction. Could we both be right?

It's been over a month now and I have no regrets. Old Whalers are feats of engineering genius, the work of the brilliant designer Ray Hunt, who back in the postwar dawn of the age of plastic hatched the concept of sandwiching light, closed-cell foam between two layers of fiberglass to form a hull.

The Whalers he created back then proved to be almost everything a mariner could want in a small boat. They were light, strong, durable, simple to maintain, easily driven, fast and, best of all, unsinkable.

Hunt's partner, Dick Fisher, shocked the boating world in 1961 by setting off into a lake in jacket and tie aboard a 13-footer, then hacking it in two with a saw. He motored safely back to the dock in the stern half while the bow bobbed in the chop. It was the marine public relations coup of the century.

No one knew back then how long the new foam and glass contraptions would last, and they still don't. Whalers from the 1960s remain in widespread use all over the world. I've seen boats in the Bahamas that were used so long and hard, the deck was worn through to bare foam. A piece of castoff plywood covered the hole and away it went, still in daily service.

Here in the States, owners of vintage Whalers are more finicky. They rattle on endlessly about proper repairs and maintenance on the Web site www.continouswave.com, where thousands of reference articles and bits of advice are available.

One of the key issues they deal with is hull delamination, where the fiberglass skin and foam core come apart, leaving a soft spot in deck or hull where the skin flexes under pressure. Millions of words have been written over the years about soft spots in Whalers, and the approved repair involves a lot of digging, filling and finish work.

I stomped nervously around my new old boat, looking for imperfections after cleaning it up, and found two soft spots in the deck, both of which I fixed by drilling a few holes, then blowing in foam house insulation from a $5 can of something called "Great Stuff" I found at Home Depot. The Whaler police on the Web site were not amused. They say it won't hold up. We'll see.

Everything else I'm doing pretty much by the book. I removed the old, wooden console, which weighed about 400 pounds, and found a light, used fiberglass one at Fairwinds Marina near the Bay Bridge, which boasts a huge warehouse full of wonderful old boat stuff.

I've sanded off most of the old paint, filled all holes and scratches with epoxy filler and laid on a primer coat of proper marine paint, rolling it on and then brushing out the dimples for a silky smooth finish. I'm madly varnishing all the teak and mahogany trim, going for the luxurious gleam that comes with 10 coats. She's starting to look, if I dare say so, like a graceful young swan.

I think I'm falling in love. Again.

GOOSE NEWS: For the first time in 10 years, Maryland and Virginia hunters now have a two-bird limit when hunting migratory geese on the Eastern Shore. Goose hunting was closed in 1994 when the number of nesting pairs declined to 29,000 in Canada, but the population has rebounded since to 175,000 pairs and rules are being relaxed.

The two-bird limit went into effect Friday. Migratory goose season runs through Jan. 29 in both states.

FLY-FISHING: The annual Fly-Fishing Show is next weekend at the University of Maryland's Reckord Armory. Expert lecturers will be on hand and seminars are scheduled on saltwater fishing, trout, bass, winter fishing and other subjects. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and 9 to 5 Sunday. Admission is $14 ($2 for kids under 12). Call 1-800-420-7582 or check the Web site www.flyfishingshow.com.


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