Fellow Woody Boater Justin Heidtman sent us in this wonderful story inspired by our story on April 19th on the Presque Isle boat show and had to send this story along to you. I know it’s long, but I wanted to get the word out that Bob Swearingen was one of the coolest people you’d ever met and had a love for family and boating that ran very deep. You can see the Preseque story here as a reference.
During the summer of 1993 we were doing our annual trip to Mackinaw on my Grandfathers 32 ft. Carver Aft Cabin. I had just graduated from High School and was enjoying vacation as College and work was bound to get in the way of taking these wonderful vacations.
On our way back south we stopped in Presque Isle, Michigan. My Mom loves Presque Isle. There was nothing there at this time other than a convenience store and restaurant. But it is a very beautiful harbor and VERY quiet. I think that is why she liked staying there.
Well on this trip we were eating at the Portage Restaurant at the end of the dock. I was wearing one of my favorite T-shirts with a drawing of a Chris Craft on the back of it. It was a pencil drawing of an antique Chris Craft cruising along down a river. A guy at all the antique boat shows in Michigan had an entire line of shirts he sold and I bought a new one at each show.
In the restaurant there was a guy in a wheelchair at a table behind us and he kept looking over at me. It was noticeable that he was looking my direction but I didn’t get why he was watching me.
As he was leaving he rolled past me and then stopped and backed up. I could see all this in my peripheral vision but could not see what he was doing. He finally tapped my on the back and asked if I like Chris Craft boats. I told him that I did and that we had just been to the Hessel Antique Boat show. He asked where we were from and we explained that we were on one of the boats in the harbor. He told us that his name was Bob Swearingen and he introduced himself to the entire family. He said that after dinner we should walk up the road about a mile and stop in and see his Garwood and a Chris Craft that he had up for sale. My Mom liked to stay on the boat, but she was not a fan of hours at a time on the open water cruising. So she always drove from Port to Port with the minivan. After dinner my Dad and I got into the van and drove up to Bob’s house. It was right on Lake Huron just north of the Harbor in Presque Isle.
He had a beautiful 1930’s Garwood hard top all refinished in the garage. He told us all about refinishing the boat and all the work he put into it. We then got to see his Ford model A that he had in his garage. He was defiantly a handy guy and enjoyed restoring these vehicles. He said it was tough being in his wheelchair but that he could get out of it and work for short amounts of time.
We told him about what a nice place he had and what a spectacular view there was. He explained that he liked it a lot as he was a retired Great Lakes Ship Captain and he just loved to see the freighters out in the Lake gliding along. Then we started talking about my Grandfather and the old 1931 Dee-Wite that he had and the 1964 Thompson Sea Lancer that was sold off years before.
My Dad told him about boating being a family affair and about all our trips to Northern Michigan.
Then Bob took us out into his side yard. There was a 1938 Chris Craft 21ft. Utility. It was sitting on a trailer and half of its varnish was gone and it was down to bare wood. The original interior was gutted out and there were two 1980’a Chevy Van seats in the front and some really horrible blue all weather carpeting. The boat had a hardtop on it just like Bob’s Garwood. He told us that he had bought it off of a farmer in Alpena. The boat had been sitting out in the field next to a tree for years and that the guy wanted to get rid of it so Bob made him an offer. The boat looked like it was in good shape and it was just want I had always dreamed of owning and restoring. A classic all Mahogany 1930’s Chris Craft. The original style engine was in the boat and the original dash panel, chrome hardware and steering wheel were also there. Bob said that he was thinking of selling it as it was getting tougher for him to work on it. He said that he wanted $2500 for the boat without the trailer. I told him that we would think it over and we went back to the TAKARA, the name of the 32 ft. Carver. We told my Grandpa about the boat and talked it over and then started playing Euchre and settling in for the night.
I spent the rest of cruise thinking about that boat. I had just graduated from High School and had $800 from Graduation. My Dad was mildly interested but my mother thought it was a stupid idea. My parents both pointed out that we had just sold the Thompson 8 years earlier and if I wanted a wooden boat I should have asked to keep it since they almost had to give it away to sell it. What I really wanted was a mahogany runabout. The Thompson was a great boat and had classic lines but one of those mahogany runabouts was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. That was what I really wanted.
When we got back to Bay City I talked to my parents (as I stilled lived with them and would need to store any boats I bought in their garage) and said that I was interested but didn’t have the $1800 that Bob wanted. My Dad told me to call him and see if we could work something out. I’m not sure why but I decided to call from the TAKARA versus sitting at the house. So I drove down to the boat and called Bob. I talked to him for a couple minutes and explained my situation, I told him that I had $800 from my graduation party and that was all that I had. I told him that I didn’t want to insult him, but I was really interested in the boat and I didn’t think I’d be able to save up the $1800 for a couple years. He turned away from the phone and asked his wife, “Do you care if I sell that Chris Craft?” There was a murmur in the background and Bob spoke back into the phone, “It’s all yours for $800.”
I drove home so fast I was amazed I did not get a ticket. I was so excited. I made arrangements with our neighbor to borrow his truck and flatbed trailer to go get the boat. My friend Jon, my Dad and I all piled in the truck early on Saturday and drove back up to Presque Isle.
When we got back there Presque Isle was hosting a Parade of Homes and Bob’s was one of the houses being shown. There were people everywhere. And everyone in the area knew Bob and wanted to know what he was doing with the boat. There were a lot of people interested in buying the boat but he told them all that we were from Bay City and we were taking the boat down there to restore it for him. In the mean-time he pulled my Dad aside and said that he was very happy that I had bought the boat. He was impressed with a young kid that vacationed with his parents and Grandfather. And he always loved working on boats and projects with his father and he knew that the three generations of Heidtman would have a good time working together on this boat. It made him very happy that the boat was not being sold to a money hungry person that was going to turn the boat for a profit. He wanted someone to buy it, keep it and love it for what it was.
After a lot of messing around moving the boat from the nice boat trailer that it was on over to a flatbed trailer not designed for boats we were ready to take the trek South on US-23. For those not familiar, US-23 is a two lane highway running up the East side of Michigan along Lake Huron. It is heavily trafficked on the weekends and is often backed up. I was not happy being part of the problem but we backed traffic up in every direction. At one point when I looked back in the mirror there was a solid 30 car line behind us. But I could not drive much faster as we were pulling this monster trailer and there are a lot of hills along US-23. I did not want to turn my new acquisition into a pile of toothpicks on the side of the highway.
We finally made it home and Grandpa was there to check things out. I backed her into the driveway and we all climbed up to look her over. We noticed that some of our bracing to hold the boat on the trailer was missing. It must have been somewhere along US-23, but the boat made it back in one piece.
It took the better part of the next year to get the boat stripped down, cleaned out and ready to put back together. I sent the dash to Pat Powell a specialist outside of Chicago to have the gauges redone. It cost me $790.00 to get the dash done. That was $10 less than I had paid for the entire boat. Every penny I made went into the boat.
I worked on turning the engine over. It was free and turned but I could not get any spark. So I took the distributor out and rebuilt it. I took the starter to Armature Rewind in Bay City and had them re-build it. I installed new spark plugs and wires and hooked everything up. I got the engine to turn over but one of the valves was stuck. So I took the head off and ordered a new gasket. I got the valve free and everything was moving good. I got a new impeller for the water pump and rebuilt the carburetor. I reassembled the engine and gave her a turn. She fired right up. Since these engines have updraft carburetors when they get started the air flows up and opens the butterfly valve wide open on its own. So the engine runs all out. After I figured this out I was able to idle her down and the engine had a wonderful throaty deep sound. I took the engine back down to the block and cleaned her up for painting.
Since it was winter there as limited work I could do, but I was able to get the van seats out and strip the interior down. I got pictures and copies of plans for making the original style front seat. I took out all the blue outdoor carpet and pulled up all the rotten floorboards.
I did all the carpentry work that I could in the winter. We built the front seat it the basement. The dash had been returned. I had striped the hull sides and sanded the boat. I had pulled all the chrome and taken it to a company in Saginaw, Michigan to have it all re-chromed.
All I needed now was good weather to start staining and finishing the boat up. It may sound like it was easy and took just a little bit of time but it was a ton of work and cost a small fortune. My Dad, Grandpa and I got the boat stained and the bottom painted. Now we had to wait for calm days to try to varnish the boat. My Dad had the patience for the varnish job that the boat needed. I was working 30 hours a week and going to college. So I needed all the help I could get in order to get the boat in the water for the summer antique boat show.
I had also been wrestling with a name for the boat. My Grandpa Heidtman was into boating and got me into it. He had a 1920’s Penn Yan, a 1931 16ft Dee-Wite runabout, a 1964 18ft Thompson Sea Lancer, a 1984 24 ft Bayliner Ciera, a 1985 28ft Bayliner Contessa and a 1986 32 ft Carver Aft Cabin. I grew up on his boats and cruising the Great Lakes from Sandusky Ohio to Traverse City Michigan.
My Grandpa Callaghan always told stories about going to the Detroit River and Belle Isle as a child to watch the Gold Cup races. He always talked about Guy Lombardo and Gar Wood out racing for the Gold Cup and the huge V-12 Scripps Marine engines with straight exhaust pipes that ran so loud you could not hear yourself think. Since both of them talked about boating and I respected them both so much I could think of no better name than “Grand” Memories. The “Grand” for both my Grandpa’s and the memories because every time I look at the boat I think about them and all the fun stories they told and all the fun I have had boating over the years.
My goal date for completion was June….1994. That was the Bay City, Michigan Wooden Boat Show. I wanted the boat to be ready for that date and had my entrance fees all paid up. Every penny I made, and some my Dad tossed in, went into the boat that year.
My Dad, Mom, Grandfather, future wife and I worked all kinds of nights leading up to the show. We installed the hard top. My Dad got some more coats of varnish on the boat. We got it fitted to the trailer that my Dad bought for it. We installed the motor and hooked up all the electrical system. It was a crazy rush to the end.
The morning of the show I took the boat over to the launch ramp in Veteran’s Memorial Park in Bay City. I back the boat into the water. The engine fired right up. We were ready to go. I opened the engine cover and the rear seat to make sure everything was good to go……when I noticed a lot of water coming in. Unfortunately the hull was so dry and had been out of the water so long that it needed to swell up and tighten up. That could take hours or days. Time I did not plan on prior to the Boat Show. So we took the boat over on the trailer and parked it on shore. I was a little bummed but it beat the heck out of the boat sinking in the marina in front of a huge crowd.
I took the boat home and got it soaked up and was finally able to take the boat out on the River. It was just what I had dreamed of. The nice quite rumble of the motor. Chugging and gurgling water out of the exhaust pipe. It had a wonderful ride but never really got up to full speed.
I ran the boat for that summer and the next when the rudder fell out in front of B dock at Brennan Marine. I managed to get the boat out before we took on to much water. Upon closer inspection of the hull, the keel was actually broken in two. The hull planking had swelled and contracted so many times over the years that cracks had opened in the bottom and the water proofing that was between the inner and outer planking had all disintegrated over the years. I had no choice but to roll the boat over and replace the entire bottom in order to make it safe for use on the water again.
To my dismay I got the bottom off. And the damage was more extensive that I had imagined it could have been. As I would later find out, the bottoms of these boats look OK from the outside but they hold all kinds of secret issues and are unsafe to ply the waters without major work.
I priced out what I needed to do the repairs and started to attempt to save money to put the boat back together. At this very moment the boat is upside down in my barn awaiting the repairs. Between jobs, school, buying a house, going into business for myself, getting married and having two children there has never been enough time. My goal now is to get the boat back in the water after a complete hull refinish is completed. I half refinished the boat before and I don’t want to make the mistake again.
The hard top is not original and needs to go and the hull needs attention. Now that things have settled down after having kids and remodeling the house my hope is to focus on this project over the next couple years and be able to hit the water again with her.
I owe this entire adventure to Bob Swearingen. Without him and his generosity I never could have done any of this. And I don’t see a time in the future where I don’t live up to my end of the bargain. He wanted me to work on the boat with my Dad and Grandfather. I did that, but it looks like I’ll be able to work on it with my children and they will be able to work with their father and Grandfather on it. So although I’d love to have the boat in and using it today, it keeps me motivated that I have lived up to Bob’s agreement and I’m hoping I can go beyond what any of us thought that day in 1993, that another generation will be able to work together on wooden boats and pass the love of them along.