Christmas In Hessel, Michigan – By Alex Watson

You know what Christmas is like for a kid, don’t you? Three hundred and sixty four days of rising anticipation all comes down to one ginormous day, filled with toys. And then… it’s all over so quickly, it’s like it never happened. What follows is a serious letdown. But wait, only 364 days left until the next one! Woohoo!

The Les Cheneaux Antique Wooden Boat Show 2011 has come and gone in exactly this fashion. When you’re in big seasonal areas with lots of people, I expect there are plenty of events and festivals going on throughout the summer. But when you’re in tiny Hessel, Michigan, and your season measures 7 weeks maximum, the highlight of your entire year is this: Boat Show.

I remember my Mom telling me every year: “It never rains on Boat Show weekend.” And for about 3 decades, that’s how it was. So when the forecast was for rain, and when one awakened to a radar screen that was 70% light green and 30% dark green, it was a hard nut to swallow. Nevertheless, despite the forecast, and then its actuality, the 2011 Les Cheneaux Antique Wooden Boat Show was still a great success.

How can that be, when Show attendance was cut in half by poor weather, and when our little micro-season area so needs the dollars Show attendees bring to the community? It’s all in how you measure success.

There were 144 boats registered, and 112 showed up. The many volunteers — set-up and tear-down, traffic direction, launch support, courtesy vehicle drivers, etc. — were all there, working, smiling, joking, and making the Show come together for participants and guests. The diversity and quality of boats this year was excellent. Guests of the Show were weathering the rain, laughing, and really enjoying the beautiful boats. And, despite the added risk of working on an around slippery docks and extremely slippery, beautifully varnished decks, no one was hurt. Ignoring lower attendance, how else could one measure the success of a boat show?

Your writer invited over 20 families to come see the Show and hang at our cottage, and I entered 4 boats in the Show. As a result, the day was very, very busy. I wish I could “go all Texx” on you, and do detailed justice to the boats in the Show, their owners, and the stories that come with both. But the fact is, I barely had time to position my boats and look after my guests. So what you’re getting from Hessel this year is mainly what most of us visually-motivated people salivate for anyway: pics of very beautiful boats. Enjoy.

You know it was raining here when even the traveling Duck Boat wouldn’t venture out. (Ok, it did later on, but I had that funny caption in mind when I took this pic.)

Here’s “Shab-Wa-Way”, a 1929 Chris-Craft Triple. The big-hearted, bigger-than-life owner of this superb triple — a man called “Moose” — passed away last winter, leaving this much loved boat to his heirs. And so it goes with boat ownership in Les Cheneaux.

Not all top notch Gars were in Tahoe. Here’s “Copacetic”, a gorgeous, locally-owned 1940, 19’ 6” model. The color of the blonde wood simply popped in contrast to the grey sky.

Here’s “Conquest”, a stunning 1924 Chris-Craft 26’ utility with a rear cockpit of epic size. Zoom in on that brute of a motor. It’s a Curtis OX5 engine.

“Barbara”, a 1928 Chris-Craft 26’ Runabout, is owned and carefully maintained by my cousin, Bobby Brown. The boat has been in this area its entire life. Every board is original, including the bottom. Last year, when Bobby was bringing this boat up a very steep drive at his house, it came uncoupled. Boat and trailer went flying downhill and crashed into his house. Damage to the house was considerable. Damage to the boat was miraculously minuscule: pushed in exhaust pipes and an almost imperceptible dent on the left spray rail. The trailer saved the boat. Try, just try, to imagine how Bobby must have felt when he stepped out of his truck! (Shudder!)

“Friendship” is a 1949 Chris-Craft 25’ Sportsman with rare twin engines. This boat was custom built for one of the Chris-Craft owners as a “fishing runabout.” It is equipped with its original fishing rod lockers, recirculation tanks, and ice box. Note the twin shifters mounted on the steering wheel. And get this. The front seat has, in addition to springs, shock absorbers. (Hey, we’re talking the Great Lakes here. Big waves!) The boat reminded me of that line from The Blues Brothers: “this mall has everything.”

Around this time, the rain began to come down harder. Going from drizzle to rain reminded me of the hilarious line by Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: “The first ten million years were the worst, and the second ten million years, they were the worst too. The third ten million I didn’t enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline.” Then I heard the cheerful sounds of the Soo Swing Band. I was reminded of Titanic. Despite all the water, the band played on.

Here’s Mark Andreae. In the background, his exquisite “Lady El”, a 1936 19’ 5” Earl Barnes. I figure he was probably busier wiping drool, not rain, from its decks. That character in the CPA hoodie? That’s Dennis Klepadlo, my great friend and accountant. (No kidding.) Dennis brought along bags of money. We thought we could woo “Lady El” from Mark, but to no avail. I got the sense our cash wouldn’t even buy a tank of the single malt gas this boat probably burns.

I loved this little race boat. It is a 1958 11’ runabout, custom made and owned by Cleon Moss.

“My Bill” is a 1917 Kramen 26’ launch, owned by Bill Campbell. The boat was built by Kramen Boat Works here in Hessel, just 200-300 yards from the Show! It is powered by a Graymarine Lugger Model Four-112 engine. The boat can be steered from the front, side, or rear. (Although not at the same time. Ha.) This boat is in superb shape and, like the boats of this area, is used every year.

“Relic” is a 1939 18-1/2’ Century. How rare? Century Boat Club believes this is the only one of this size, model, and year left. (Hey look. A Sedan that Paul doesn’t own. Yet.)

“Dream On”, a lovely 1940 Chris-Craft 22’ Utility. Note the rare, rear steering and throttle. Oh, and the rear horn button too. I figure that’s there because driving one of these babies from the rear off plane means driving blind. I can just see the 1940‘s owner’s manual… “Insert key. Start motor. Shift into forward. Throttle up. Sound horn: CONTINUOUSLY.”

“Herman 1” is an uber-rare, uber-pretty 1934 18’ Lyman Lapstrake Skiff, powered by a Gray marine. Check out the cool sliding sunroof. I kept looking for a For Sale sign, but alas, there was none.

And still it rained… Seeing these three boats with three yellow-jacketed volunteers, I thought someone had given the order to man the lifeboats.

This 1961 21’ Chris-Craft is owned by Arthur Dion. The boat is “Awesome!” No. Really. That’s its name!

This 1895 30’ Truscott Launch owned by Ralph and Petra Shoberg of the area was something to behold. Work the numbers. That’s 116 years old. So, so pretty in the rain. Don’t miss the lantern on the stern, and a flagpole so long, you could practically put a crows nest on top.

Here’s “Scotch”, my 1968 Chris-Craft 20’ Grand Prix. (I sure wished I had displayed the boat with a bottle of 16 year old Scapa. Cause I was getting wet, and getting chilled.) Beautiful preservation by Katz’s Marina, and beautiful varnish and show prep by Classic and Antique Boats made this boat a double winner this year.

This year, the Boat Show Committee decided to test the waters and, for the first time, invited a really cool, colorful selection of 6 Classic Glass boats to participate: a 1971 18’ Chris-Craft XK-18, a 1970 19’ Chris-Craft XK-19, a 1965 16’ Evinrude, a 1956 15’ Fleetform, 1956 19.5’ Arena Craft Barracuda, and a 1969 19’ Chris-Craft Commander Super Sport — all locally owned. Here’s the awesome Commander, owned by Jeb(ba) Hunt.

As the goal was to gauge Show attendee interest in the Classic Glass category, the 6 boats were not judged. Good thing too. My XK-18 (Super Fly, Woody Boater of the Month) wouldn’t start, owing to a fuel system glitch. Hey ARRRG! Can I license your boat name for a bit?

Here’s a close up of Rick Gill’s 1965 Evinrude, one of the 6 Glass boats in the Show. Some like it, some don’t. (I really do.) But no one can deny it has character up the wazoo, whatever a wazoo is. This boat positively screams 1965.

Here’s “Runt”, a superb 1941 Chris-Craft 16’ Runabout. Not a big water boat to be sure, but on a perfect morning or a perfect evening, this boat single cockpit boat simply looks like a blast.

“Wuzz A Fuzz”, formerly known as Fireball, was here. It is a locally owned 1931 31’ Hacker Boat Company owned by Tom and Mary Flood. This is a retired Detroit Police boat, so you can just imagine the action it’s seen and the odds it’s beaten. Mr. Flood, a long time Hacker enthusiast and boat collector, restored the boat himself over three years. Every frame reportedly needed replacement. Original power long gone, the boat now sports twin 454’s.

This beautiful classic sailboat was kind of an orphan at the Show. As best as I could tell, very few people took a close look it it. I sure hope they looked at it from afar though. It is so graceful to behold. It is a 1962 Herreshoff. I feel embarrassed to say I had heard of the Herreshoff name, but knew nothing of its importance to boat building. So I looked it up. The man is so accomplished in boating, at the risk of distracting from the theme of the Hessel Show, I believe it is worth attaching a link so others can learn what I discovered. I hope the owner of this fine boat will return to Hessel next year. Perhaps he can spark the interest in attending of a few more sailing vessels. Then we’d have “Hessel Vessels” (groan). To learn more about Herreshoff the boat designer you can click here.

You’ve gotta love it when you see a young man interested in owning and restoring wooden boats. Here’s a pic that young Man, Will Lockerbie, age 10, standing by “Miss Lizzie”, the 1948 Wolverine Wagemaker he and Bill Ticknor, whom I believe is Will’s grandfather, restored.

The boat was found behind a barn in Portage, Michigan. Ok, now I’ll “go all Texx” on you. Here is what Will wrote and displayed on a sign next to his boat: “The Threatened Boat. Antique boats are cool. They are very old boats that could become extinct. Old boats should be saved because if someone does not save them they become firewood. There are many reasons why antique boats should be saved. You can learn history form old boats. You can recycle wood from old wooden boats. It is less money than buying a new boat. If you fix up the boat it might be worth a lot of money some day. It is also really fun to restore old wooden boats. Right now I am doing my part because I am restoring a Wolverine Wagemaker. It is actually really very fun to restore a 1948 wooden rowboat. I’m it’s only hope for survival.”

Congrats Will on a fantastic job. You should be proud. You saved your boat. Now go make memories in it, because that’s how it will remain dear to you.

“Tomahawk” is a superb, 1952 27’ Chris-Craft Semi-enclosed Cruiser. The boat was re-powered this winter with twin Yanmar E, 260 hp diesels. Talk about thinking big! Henry Mast, owner, says the boat speeds over 40 mph and achieves amazing mileage (although probably not at THAT speed).

Les Cheneaux Islands (Hessel and Cedarville) is an incredibly special place for wooden boats and for wooden boating. Thirty-six islands nestled on the upper coast of Lake Huron give the best of both worlds for woody boaters: protected, interesting, and beautiful channels to navigate and explore, and the big water freedom to venture anywhere in the Great Lakes and, by extension, the world.

I hope people of the WoodyBoater community will include this spot in your short list of Shows to attend. You will see boats that haven’t ventured outside these waters since they were first launched here 25, 50, 100 or more years ago. This is not an area of trailer queens. This is an area of well maintained user boats. There are so many in use here, every day is a boat show day. Using these boats is what made them survivors, because it guaranteed the joy and responsibility of ownership was passed on from generation to generation. You can smile knowing the hundreds of classic and antique boats of Les Cheneaux, while aging artifacts of a glorious past, will remain here tomorrow.

Alex Watson

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29 Responses to “Christmas In Hessel, Michigan”
  1. Texx

    Wonderful report from Hessel Alex, you have captured the essence of Hessel and Les Cheneaux Islands once again.

    I just love the depth and range of boats in the area, and those rare special order boats are so cool… and “Scotch” the 1968 Chris-Craft 20’ Grand Prix looks awesome, I hope to see it in person this year.

    Nice work Alex!

  2. Matt

    Amazing story! And I thought I had boat show burn out today.. Way to go Alex!

  3. chad

    Still my favorite show. Rain or shine.

    Thanks for going all TEXX on us!

  4. allen

    We enjoyed it as well, rain or shine and then the Maritine Museum and Great Lakes Boat Building school tour only three miles away in Cedarville. Chris Crafts 1st dealership in Hessel and their restoration shop on the edge of town are all things of interest…..not to mention fresh white fish sandwiches. Wow what a place……don’t miss it next year…

    • Bob VandeVusse

      Love that whitefish sandwich! But don’t forget the pancake breakfast in Mertaugh’s shed and the maple syrup sundaes!

  5. WoodyGal

    Wow! Great story Alexx! Beautiful, unusual boats, used the way they were intended.

    If that ’69 Commander was purchased this year in Texas, with OK registration numbers, it has a very interesting history!

  6. Al Benton

    Very enjoyable story and report on the Show . Sure makes me want to be there rain or shine to be a part of this great gathering of antique and classic boats next year.

    Way to go Will Lockerbie!!! Thanks to you for saving that beautiful Wolverine Wagemaker. Your statement says it all and is a good reminder to all of us in this hobby, “Lifestyle”. Great work, Will. Congratulations!!! You are an inspiration.

  7. Alex

    Forgive the odd word repeat and the promised, yet omitted, Herreshoff Wiki link in my story. I completed the story in Hessel’s “Islander Bar” late last night, while celebrating the 44th birthday of a good friend. No hangover from the beer. But a big one from discovering my errors.

    Hopefully roving reporter Texx can come to my rescue when he pulls over to refuel. Unless he goes “all Paul” on me and ends up stationary in some remote spot, begging for fuel.

  8. Alex

    WoodyGal, that particular 19′ Commander was Alan Jackson’s. FYI, the current owner also has a superb late 40’s 25′ Sportsman. Mmmmmmm.

  9. Rob

    Your title just killed me as for the last three years my son and I sing Christmas carols all the way to the show, in the rain from Cedarville by boat. I had to laugh when you titled your article Christmas in Hessel as many of us that attend call it the same. Nice job

  10. Chris / Hagerty

    Great report Alex! Hessel is one of the few places left where these boats are truely used in the same way for the last 100 years…the only way to get to the cottage, to the store or to the neighbors island…Hessel / Cedarville not just a location…a lifestyle….

  11. Paul H.

    Alex – – great report! What a selection of boats. I decided that Hessel and Clayton are two shows I want to do, but probably not in the same year. I think Hessel will be on the list next year after seeing this report. Like everyting for us it is a long way but I now it would be worth it.

        • Bob VandeVusse

          Best CC was awarded to Conquest, the 1924 26-ft. utility with the converted Curtis aircraft engine, pictured above. Chris Smith said CC bought the engines as WWI surplus for not a lot of money, then modified them for marine use. He said the low cost was a big factor in the company becoming a high volume boat manufacturer.

  12. ARRRGH!

    You betcha, Alexx! You have unfettered license to use my name in vane (or is it vein?????)! I am often used in conjnction with XK-18s, which is OK . . . ’cause it’s kinda like “I can call my brother names, but YOU can’t”. Oh yes, that is a great boat show report, obviously needing great volumes of liquid sustanance to complete. And a BIG HOORAY for Hessel allowing 6 plastic boats into their show. That whole situation reminds me of restaurants that are now excluding children . . . .

  13. Philip Andrew

    Brilliant post Alex! Loved reading it this morning. Thanks for pulling all this together so others in wet rainy places can share the love.
    The glass boats look a brilliant addition to the show.
    Thanks again.

  14. Alex

    Time (and rain) prevented me from taking pics of all the deserving boats. And I’m limited to about 30 pics per story, to ensure postings load easily enough. Muse was beautiful, to be sure. But my main regret was not having at least one pic of the superb, multi award winning mid-50’s 31′ (approx.) Mays Craft “Bittersweet,” owned by Mike Van Lokeren of Hessel. Even if I had posted a pic of this boat though, I doubt it would capture the mint condition and sheer impressiveness of this 800 hp, white-sided vessel.

  15. Rabbit

    Tahoe might win if you were tallying price tags or counting cylinders, but this show wins hands down in terms of diversity and interest. Some fascinating boats. Great report.

  16. emertaugh

    Alex, thank you so much for being a lover/collector/owner of boats that make our area and passion alive. I don’t think that it could have been said any better as far as love for this art and for this beautiful community! Thank you so much for your eloquence and appreciation of the beauty of the area and all it encompasses.

  17. Kent McKay

    I hope the purists at LCBS will consider allowing the ugly stepchild Classic Glass boats to continue in the show. I was surprised to see them there, but delighted to know in 3 years, when my classic Hydrodyne is 50 I might be able to display in the show! If Rick Gill’s ’65 Evinrude is screaming “1965” I should moor the Hydrodyne next to it and we can have a shouting match! 1964!!!

  18. Jack Curtis

    I am curious about the 27′ Chris Craft Semi Enclosed Cruiser, “Tomahawk”. Did it recently come from the Lake Tahoe area? If so, it might be the one I used to own it when it was in Newport Beach, CA and known as “Lucky Dutchman”.

  19. Arlen Mike

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  20. red dog

    perhaps you could explain that last comment in plain english. for us michigan folk