The First Ride – The Wooden Inlay Artist Comes Full Circle And Is Now A Woody Boater

Charles Bingham Original Image - Hessel, Michigan 2011

In early August, marquetry artist extraordinaire Charles Bingham came to Hessel for his sixth straight year to display his work at the Wooden Boat Show. This year, however, he arrived earlier. He was on a mission from… well, Charles.

Charles created this original wooden inlay artwork from an image of that special summer day in Hessel, Michigan…

Charles Bingham Wooden Inlay Art - Hessel Original

At long last, at age 41, he was going on his first ride ever in a classic wooden boat.

Texx thought it would be fun to have Charles share his thoughts about this experience with the Woody Boater community. So sit back, read Charles’s words, and enjoy the ride with him.

The First Ride – by Charles Bingham / Forward By Alex Watson

I am Charles Bingham, the wooden inlay (marquetry) artist that Alex Watson wrote about for Woody Boater earlier this summer. (You can click here to see that story on Woody Boater)

When I was creating Alex’s artwork, I casually mentioned that I had never actually ridden in a wooden boat, even though they have been the primary subject matter of my work for many years. So Alex kindly offered to take my wife, Kim, and I for a ride with him when we came up for the Hessel Boat Show.

To get to his cottage, you drive right past the Hessel marina where the Show is held. I decided to stop there first and I caught a glimpse of several beautiful wooden boats at the docks. You could feel the excitement as everyone was getting prepared for the annual event. The energy in the air was contagious.

We arrived at Alex’s cottage and noticed he was down at his dock wiping down the boats. (“Lush Life” in the foreground and “Marion E” in behind) My wife and I walked down to the water and, after months of phone and online conversations, Alex and I finally met face to face. He greeted us like old friends and couldn’t have been nicer.

Standing on the weathered dock, I looked down to see the actual boat I had spent so much time recreating in marquetry: “Marion E” a 1949 Chris-Craft 25′ Sportsman. She was far more impressive than any photo could capture.

It was one of those cloudless sunny days, and the light coming off the v-shaped windshield and the abundant chrome on the boat was almost blinding. I remember thinking “what a day for my first ride!”

We wasted no time and boarded. I climbed into the front cockpit and immediately noticed the seats. They were huge, and made of rich, soft leather (a world of opulence beyond the vinyl seats I was accustomed to in modern boats). The suppleness of the sun-warmed hide felt good against the skin. Feeling the leather, seeing the impressive array of chrome dash switches and instruments, and looking over the stately front deck, I was already being immersed in the total experience I intuitively knew could only come from a classic wooden boat.

Alex pressed the starter button and my senses were stirred. The sound, the power! I believe just starting it actually moved the boat forward!

As we reversed from the dock, my nose picked up a delicious mix of un-catalyzed exhaust, fresh lakeshore air, leather, and varnish. I wasn’t prepared to have that sense so engaged.

Once the bow was pointed toward open water, Alex gave a smooth progression of throttle. I was surprised that such a big boat could climb seemingly effortlessly to plane. It reminded me of take-off in a large jet. I’m sure you know the feeling. You wonder how on earth something so big can move like that.

I’ve attended the Boat Show in Hessel (Les Cheneaux Islands, a.k.a. “The Snows”) for each of the last six years. So I thought I knew the area pretty well. But, as we cruised through the main channel, I quickly realized that I’d never really seen the area until this ride, because so much of it can only been seen from the water. After all, in addition to the cottages and homes on the mainland, the area is comprised of 36 islands.

I was amazed at the natural beauty. The sense was of being in a close knit community, yet I could see how the water separating the islands allows residents a feeling of sanctuary. As we traveled through the waterways, I saw cottage after cottage. A few of them were landmark, elaborate wooden and stone summer homes approaching 100 years old. Hardly “cottages.” But most would be considered classic Michigan lake houses.

What really added character to the water views were the many different types of boathouses and crib docks that accented the shoreline. This is not an area of seasonal docks and Shorestations. Most of the area’s cedar, rock-filled crib docks — required, on account of winter ice flows — are decades old and have taken on a wonderful, natural gray color. I remember thinking: now I understand why Alex was so keen to have me capture the character of his crib dock in the work I did for him. It’s not just a dock. It’s a “classic dock,” and the perfect complement to a classic boat.

And, much to my delight, peaking out from nearly every one (and I’m not exaggerating with that) of those shrines to classing boating was one or more mahogany transoms. It made me want to stop and take a peek to see what treasures were berthed within.

Something I noticed early in our ride is that these heavy wooden boats have such a different feel going through the water. The weight of the boat could be sensed as it absorbed the chop and the wakes of other boats without fuss. The ride was smooth and stable. Despite the breezy conditions and the number of pre-Show boaters, not once were my wife or I phased by the waves.

Alex told me that the ride is enhanced, beyond the 25′ Sportsman’s weight and hull deign, by 4″ thick seat cushions containing original Kapok filler, which sit atop a delightfully unsophisticated box springs. I felt a familiar, warm fuzziness that that only old-school simplicity can bring. It’s the same feeling I get when I dial a rotary phone or wind up an old Victrola.

Alex had slowed to about 1,000 rpm and was pointing out areas of interest on the shore, when a boat went by that caught his eye. So we turned around and he gave it full throttle to catch up with them. WOW! We powered out of the water like we were going to take flight and the engine roared like it was on a mission. I was stunned such a stately boat could move like that!

The other boat eventually slowed down to enter the Hessel marina and we matched speed. Alex pressed the ring on the steering wheel and I heard the elegant trumpet of 40’s era classic horns. Having an ‘important’ sound like that was a perfect match for this boat. I now understood that the music of a classic boat goes beyond the motor and the exhaust note, to include the vintage horn. (The boat we chased, incidentally, was a 1968 20′ Grand Prix. — Alex)

After we finished talking with the guys in the other boat, Alex offered me an opportunity to take the wheel. I paused for a moment. First time in one of these. And I was supposed to drive? This boat? You bet!

I had heard that the steering on a fixed prop boat has a bias in one direction over the other. Still, I wasn’t expecting how much bias there would be. It took a little muscle to turn the wheel to the right. (So different from an outboard motor.) Like the wheel of a classic car, the steering was not “quick ratio.” However, there was no ‘play’ in the wheel and it responded elegantly. It took quite a bit of steering input and space to turn the boat, a testament to a less-hurried, more graceful time. But the substantial enameled-metal wheel gave me enough leverage to keep us between the buoys. The sheer inertia gave me the feeling that what I was commanding was some serious equipment.

Driving this big, beautiful boat, I simply felt like a king.

Despite the waves, Alex guided the boat back into its protected slip without a fuss. He made it look easy. He told me is actually is easy, because the weight of a 25’ Sportsman helps stay the course in windy/rough conditions. He’s been driving a 25’ Sportsman since he was a pre-teen. I suppose that’s what makes it second nature to him. Like learning a sport, instrument, or second language, one learns best when one learns young.

Taking my first ride, and drive, in a wooden boat was definitely the highlight of my trip to Hessel. I was so appreciative to have had the opportunity to experience the grace and elegance of one of these remarkable vessels first hand. Without a doubt, I will never forget my ‘first ride.’

Next step, buy one of my own, right?

“Oh Honnnneeeeyyyy?”

Charles Bingham – Battle Creek, Michigan

Thanks Charles. You and Kim were delightful guests. It was my pleasure to share the wooden boat experience with two people so eager to soak it all in, and with the artist who had rendered the very boat you drove into an emotional, heirloom piece of art for our family.

Next year (and for your next lesson, ha!) another boat ride in another boat. You’ll see why no two models are remotely alike, and why it is so difficult (impossible for some, including me) to stop at just one.

Charles will be attending the International ACBS at Lake Geneva this week, starting on September 22. He will be there with a full display of his marquetry, including the incredible piece he made for me of my 25’ Sportsman, which was featured earlier in WoodyBoater. (The Teeny Tiny World and the Enormous Artistry of Charles Binghamclick here)

Stop in and say hi. And if you bring to the Show a few choice pics of your treasured boat(s), Charles can provide you with a quote on-site to render your boat in marquetry.

Remember, Christmas is coming.

Can’t you just see it under the tree? “To me. From me.”

Alex Watson – Hessel, Michigan

Here’s Alex by day with his son Salter, being photographed by Charles in the classic Chris-Craft 25′ Sportsman “Marion E”…

And Alex enjoying life after dark in his favorite place on the planet, his families cabin in historic Hessel, Michigan. (Texx)

Woody Boater Hessel, Michigan Reporter - Alex

19 replies
  1. Texx
    Texx says:

    I wonder how many people here remember their first ride in a classic wooden boat? I do…

    Charles was fortunate that his first ride was aboard a beautiful Chris-Craft SP-25 in Hessel. For many folks their first ride was in Uncle Wilbur’s Dock Boat on Lake Mosquito!

    Hey Woody Boater Community – Tell us what your first wooden boat ride was, if you can remember…

  2. m-fine
    m-fine says:

    I don’t remember my first ride, but I do remember my first time in MY OWN woody boat. They are something special, that years of driving glass boats doesn’t fully prepare you for.

  3. Randy Rush-Captain Grumpy
    Randy Rush-Captain Grumpy says:

    My first ride was in my first boat a 59 Penn Yan Magellan 16′ with a 1959 40 hp outboard. Not from a boat family, hell I was never on a lake till I was 35, so I didnt know anyone with a wood boat but thought it was cool. Boat leaked awfull but I learned alot from it.

  4. Alex
    Alex says:

    Ha. No. But that fire was epic. Lots of different wood content including some old, shall we say, “oil-infused” bottom pieces from a boat I’m bringing to Lake Geneva (Wisconsin, not Switzerland).

  5. Al Benton
    Al Benton says:

    Hey, a very enjoyable story today. To me, the mention of Hessel means “Woody Boat Paradise”.

    My first wooden boat ride was actually before I recall ever remember seeing a fiberglass one. It was in the early fifties in a Chris-Craft Kit Boat that my cousin had assembled in his basement. We took it to Crab Orchard Lake in Southern Illinois where he taught me to water ski. I was maybe 12 or 13 years old and skinny as a fence post. There were always many fancy wood boats on the lake then. They are now the antique and classic ones that have created this lifestyle.

  6. WoodyGal
    WoodyGal says:

    First ride, I don’t really remember because I was a baby. My parents would wrap me up in a blanket & stow me under the foreword deck of the Rocket while they checked the trot lines for fish. Because of the gentle rocking & the engine rumble I went to sleep very quickly, I was told. I’m sure they were tempted to just leave me there so they could have some peace & quiet! Those oily exhaust fumes, the rumble of an old inboard and the smell of the air at night on the water are potent sensual experiences.

  7. WoodyGal
    WoodyGal says:

    Great story! Look forward to seeing Charles on the water in his own woody very soon! Thanks Texx, Alex & Charles. See you Friday!

  8. Alex
    Alex says:

    Dang it, dang it, double dang it!!! Just thought of this…

    Hessel has a runway. I coulda given Charles the boat solo, hired a plane, brought along my video camera, and filmed him from the air. He could have been sitting up on the seatback, doing big sweeping sparkly turns in open water while the camera circled overhead. Just as Billy did in OGP. What a missed opportunity!

    (Of course, if he were in Paul’s boat, we would also have him on film running out of gas. Jab jab.)

  9. Alex
    Alex says:

    Forgive me Paul. I’ve got a case of pre-Geneva giddiness. I’m bringing Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and some Scapa to make amends.

  10. Philip Andrew
    Philip Andrew says:

    Now that was beautiful. Thank you. I am leaving for the 40 minute drive to work with a little bit of varnish and gas in my veins.

  11. Josh Hagen
    Josh Hagen says:

    That was a great story. My first ride was only a few months ago after we bought our 1959 Thompson, but that was after years of watching my dad glaze longingly at classic boats as they drove past us on the lakes. I can officially say that I have been bitten by the classic boating bug, and only hope my wallet has the slightest chance of keeping up…

    See everyone in Lake Geneva on Saturday!!!

  12. ranger
    ranger says:

    Beautiful story. in the original story i stated we had probably spent more time on it than any other WB story and i enjoyed clicking on the link and reliving it all over again. what an amazing artist charles is and how cool that alex was the first to give him his first wooden boat ride! charles could easily be a writer, too…what a wordsmith!

    does life begin at conception? if so…i might have a leg up on this unofficial WB contest. i was conceived on board a tramp freighter in the port of new orleans bound for england on my mom & dad’s honeymoon! whoppie!!!…oops, i meant woo-hoo!

    (i know i’ll probably be disqualified cuz it wasn’t a wooden boat…but still what a fantastic way to make an entrance, right!)


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