My teenage fantasies were so thoroughly crowded with wooden runabouts and hot rods that I nearly missed out on girls. I loved the staccato beat of lightly muffled V-8 engines-the sounds that came from the hearts of these old boats and cars were promises of speed and manliness. I was hooked.
Fantasies often change with the times. Although I gave up hot rods for sports cars, wooden runabouts continue to haunt me. I can still remember a day about 50 years ago when I first watched a slick mahogany Chris-Craft rumble past our beach on the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh, Penn. That night, I dreamed of motoring along the river, my right arm resting akimbo on the monogrammed chrome boarding step screwed to the side deck.
I don't own a runabout of any sort, never mind a classic woody (though I've driven a few) but every one I see still raises goose bumps. Modern renditions have the same effect on me-and on a large number of other nautically obsessed individuals, if the current crop of handsome weekend boats is any indication. The reasons for our enthusiasm are not the least bit mysterious. All of us love the styling of these boats, their complicity in our theft of a joyful hour or two after the workday, their quick and sure handling, their speed, the youthful image they create in our middle age and the confirmation that we have good taste. In addition to their emotional appeal, these little beauties-boats such as the Back Cove 29, Chris-Craft Speedster Heritage, Dyer 29, Hinckley T29R, Legacy 28, San Juan 30 and Surfhunter 29-win our hearts with their quality, versatility and lasting good looks.
Although the genetic pool varies greatly, these nifty small boats remain true to their original DNA. Runabouts have been part of the popular boating culture since the early 20th century. They evolved from launches that rode on the decks of steam yachts, ready in a moment to be hoisted overboard for a tour of the anchorage; or they nestled in the boathouses of summer residences for short hops to the nearest island for a picnic. As elegant as Edwardian carriages, these easy-to-drive craft lent themselves to the modest power of their primitive gas engines.
Narrow for their length (compared with modern boats), the early runabouts rarely exceeded 35 feet. The smallest were generally 18 feet and had a single cockpit. The popularity of runabouts reached its peak late in the 1950s, their styling having advanced toward the more graceful curves of the Italian boats, most notably Riva.
By the 1970s, the term "runabout" had vanished into the jargon of marketing departments. As boatbuilding began to mimic the automotive industry in the relative sameness of each maker's models, niches opened and ached to be filled. Just as Mazda created the Miata and Porsche introduced the Boxster, so too do we now head back to the future with these thoroughly modern small boats that recapture the spirit and design of the classic runabout.
Back Cove 29: A Yankee Classic The Yankee spirit lives in the Back Cove 29. Designed by the team at Sabre Yachts and built by North End Composites (now part of Sabre), this New England boat is a wash-and-wear escape vehicle. Only a pinch of wood seasons the exterior, so forget about varnishing every year. The Back Cove is equipped with an optional hardtop that can extend the boating season in temperate climates and keep the sun and heat at bay in the tropics. Although the spoon bow, sweeping sheerline and traditional trunk cabin suggest a semi-planing underbody, the Back Cove rides on a modern modified-V bottom. It has 22 degrees of deadrise amidships and 16 degrees at the transom. The prop spins in a pocket, which reduces draft.
Cruise, picnic, fish or hang out, the Back Cove caters to all your whims. Her single diesel and standard bowthruster make child's play out of maneuvering in close quarters and adverse conditions. Back Cove Yachts, www.backcoveyachts.com LOA: 29'6" Beam: 10'6" Draft: 2'6" Displacement: 10,000 lb. Fuel: 150 gal. Water: 30 gal. Power: (std) 1x 260 hp Yanmar Price: $154,500 (base)
Chris-Craft 20: A Speedster with Heritage Chris-Craft can trace its heritage back to the late 19th century and proudly calls upon its past in the design of new models. The 20-foot Speedster Heritage is the closest to the runabouts of my childhood fantasies. Designed by Michael Peters, who made his reputation drawing offshore racing boats, the Speedster may be dressed in a variety of colors or gussied up with teak trim via the Heritage option. With or without the wood, she's a handsome little five-seat runabout.
Powered by a 4.3-litre V-6 of 225 hp or a 5.0-litre V-8 of 270 hp, this gem has a top speed of about 45 knots and will cruise comfortably at 30. You tuck down into her helm seat, your legs stretched out as though you were in a Porsche Boxster. A small steering wheel, analog gauges, a glove box and cup holders complete the illusion of a road-going counterpart.
The Speedster will look great perched in chocks on the boat deck or dancing softly at the float behind your summer home. Look at the time-five o'clock. Let's dash over to the club for cocktails and dinner. Chris-Craft, www.chriscraft.com
LOA: 20'2" Beam: 7'11" Draft: 2'10" Displacement: approx. 3,000 lb. Fuel: 34 gal. Water: N/A Power: 1x Volvo Penta Gxi SX 225 hp V-6 sterndrive Price: $40,000 (base)
Dyer 29: 351 Owners Can't Be Wrong An icon of the New England style, the Dyer 29 recently celebrated its 50th year of production. An avid fisherman, Bill Dyer built the Nick Potter design in 1955 as a seaworthy little boat to cast a line from. During its phenomenal run, this lovely bass boat with gleaming brightwork has attracted 351 owners. The 29 has ridden to success on its classic penetrating hull -also called semi-planing or semi-displacement. Powered by a single 250 hp diesel, she'll cruise all day at 17 to 18 knots and reach a top speed of about 21 knots. What's more, you can maintain a comfortable cruising speed in fairly snotty conditions, because her fine entry parts the seas, leaving behind a subdued patch of water. The boat's substantial keel protects the prop and rudder and gives her excellent directional stability.
Dyer builds the 29 in five versions-the original flush-deck Offshore Bass Boat; three cabin versions, one with a soft top, two with a hardtop; and a center-console boat. Almost each Dyer is different as owners can customize the interiors and specify what type of engines they want. Interiors are often gleaming classic white with cherry or teak trim. Although each model has its endearing qualities, the spirit of impulse boating shines most brightly in the Offshore Bass Boat. She's sleek and sporty, will entertain a crowd in her large cockpit and shelter chilly children in the cuddy beneath her flush foredeck. Dyer Boats, www.dyerboats.com
LOA: 28'5" Beam: 9'5" Draft: 2'6" Displacement: 7,500 lb. Fuel: 130 gal. Water: 24 gal. Power: 1x 250 hp diesels Price: $134,900 (base)
Hinckley T29R: Styled Like a Sportster The T29R perpetuates the spirit of the 1950s runabouts in an artful blend of automotive and nautical themes. As you perch on the form-fitting bucket seat behind the Nardi wood-rim steering wheel, you can easily imagine yourself piloting a 1959 Ferrari 250 California Spyder along the coast from Cannes to Monte Carlo for a night at the casino.
Step away from her at the dock, and you see the tumblehome of a vintage runabout imprisoned in the T29R's stern, hints of a New England bass boat in her windscreen and side windows, the sheerline of a Bunker and Ellis lobster yacht and the spoon bow of a 1950's Riva Aquarama. A small cabin beneath the foredeck can shelter you from the storm, swallow all the trappings of a daylong outing and cosset your sleepy kids during the run home.
Below the waterline, the T29R's fine entry transitions to a moderate deadrise at the transom, which makes her a much better sea boat than any of the original runabouts. Hinckley's patented JetStick controls the Hamilton Jet, letting you move forward, aft and sideways as though you were David Copperfield. The jet drive also lets you explore the thin waters of tidal meanders. Hinckley Yachts, www.hinckleyyachts.com
LOA: 29'2" Beam: 9'1/2 Draft: 1'6" Displacement: 7,500 lb. Fuel: 100 gal. Water: 20 gal. Power: 1x 440 hp Yanmar 6LYA-STE diesel Drive: Hamilton 292 water jet Price: $339,000
Legacy 28: One Big Little Boat Designed by Bill Langan of Langan Yacht Design, the Legacy 28 may deceive you. Is she a big little boat or a little big boat? The way you use her will determine the answer. The dual personality is standard issue, having been part of the design brief. Langan combined the handiness and performance of a sporty day boat with the accommodations of a cruiser and wrapped these characteristics in a variation of the New England bass-boat theme. The bass-boat heritage is more than (very nice) window dressing. Owners who like to chase stripers will appreciate the large cockpit and rod holders in the washboards.
Belowdecks, we find a cozy V-berth, a two-burner propane cooktop, a sink, a refrigerator/freezer under the counter, and a stand-up head. Cherry trim and ceilings add warmth to the interior spaces. Powered by a choice of 250 hp or 315 hp Yanmar diesels, the Legacy cruises comfortably at 19 or 22 knots respectively and has a range of more than 350 miles.
This year, Legacy will introduce its new 32. Designed by Mark Ellis, she will fill the gap between the 28 and the 34. At this writing, tooling had been completed and construction of hull number one has begun. Look for a full report in the coming months. Legacy Yachts, www.legacyyachts.com
LOA: 28' Beam: 9'6" Draft: 2'2" Displacement: 6,500 lb. Fuel: 120 gal. Water: 40 gal. Power: (std) 1x 250 hp Yanmar Price: $161,764 (Offshore Bass Boat)
San Juan 30: A Head Turner The San Juan 30 may remind you of other boats styled in the New England tradition, but the design cues whisper-instead of shout-their plea for admiration. Owners are likely to park their 30s where they can keep at least one eye on them.
Designed by Gregory Marshall, the 30 begs for casual use. The bridge deck, cockpit and swim platform are on the same level, eliminating ups and downs that can trip a child or a grandparent on the run to your favorite picnic spot. The optional galley lives between the bridge and the engine boxes. You won't cook a four-course meal on the two-burner cooktop, but you may prepare a hot breakfast, make coffee or heat chili for dinner. Your guests will eat at the small removable table and L-shaped settee in the portside corner of the cockpit or sit on the engine boxes and balance the plates on their laps.
Unlike most boats of this size and style, which rely on a single inboard or sterndrive, the San Juan 30 comes with a pair of 260 hp Yanmar diesels, plus all the acceleration and speed (about 35 knots top) the package promises. San Juan Yachts, www.sanjuanyachts.com
LOA: 32'7" Beam: 10' Draft: 2'2" Displacement: 9,800 lb. Fuel: 150 gal. Water: 30 gal. Power: 2x Yanmar 6LPAM-DTP 260 hp diesels Price: $360,000 (base)
Surfhunter 29: One for the Seas The Surfhunter 29 encourages impulsive "running about, but it has nothing else in common with the runabouts of the 1950s. She's the creation of C. Raymond Hunt Associates, and is more foul-weather bibs and sea boots than black tie and evening gown. She's a New England bass boat in ancestry but rides on a Hunt deep-V hull of about 22 degrees deadrise at the transom.
The Surfhunter 29 was designed in response to requests for a larger version of the popular 25, which Ray Hunt drew more than 30 years ago to smooth out the square seas of Buzzards Bay and the shoals off Nantucket. The 29 can deal with any sea state your courage can stand and do so at higher speeds than may seem reasonable.
Although she's the same length as the Hinckley, she has a foot more beam, higher topsides and substantial trunk cabin. She's as fast, nimble and easy to use as any boat of equal length, but her spacious interior-galley, enclosed head and stowage-invites her owners to spend a night or two aboard. The big cockpit adapts to your angling requirements, as well as it does to entertaining the family. Hunt Yachts, www.crhunt.com
Good things come in small packages As the demand for classy little boats grows, more and more builders enter the market. In addition to the ones listed in this article, you may also want to have a look at the following models, some even built of mahogany.
Apreamare Traditional Mediterranean above the waterline, modern under, this 7.5-meter boat is powered by a 165 hp inboard. Price not available. MarineMax, www.marinemax.com
Comitti Portofino A single-engine 8-meter mahogany runabout built in Como, Italy. Price: $185,000. Turner Marine Group, www.turnermarinegroup.com
Fino 30 Watch for a curvaceous twin-engine runabout to appear this fall from Northcoast Yachts. Northcoast Yachts, www.northcoastyachts.com
Grand-Craft Triple Cockpit 28 Modeled after the 1930's Chris-Crafts, this mahogany runabout runs on a single 8.1-litre V-8 gas inboard. Price: $166,000, Grand-Craft, www.grandcraft.com
Hacker-Craft Triple Cockpit 30 Runabout A re-creation of John Hacker's original in mahogany, she's powered by a gas inboard. Price: $125,000. Hacker Boat Company, Inc., www.hackerboat.com
Katama 30 A Down East boat with a single water-jet drive and 440 hp Yanmar diesel, she's as much a weekender as day boat. Price: $298,000. C.W. Hood Yachts, www.cwhoodyachts.com
Packard Heritage A 27-foot double cockpit runabout powered by a single diesel or gas inboard or sterndrive. Price: $125,000. Packard Boat Company, www.packardboatcompany.com
Pilot 24 A traditional New England-style boat powered by a single MerCruiser V-8 Bravo Three sterndrive. Price: $98,271. Holby Marine, www.holbymarine.com
Sheerliner 27 A custom-built wood/epoxy mahogany runabout powered by a 496-cu.-in. V-8 engine. Prices start at $168,000. Hugh Saint, Inc., www.hughsaint.com
Vanquish Runabout A 24-foot modern iteration of a traditional runabout powered by a 350 hp MerCruiser gas inboard. Price: $85,000. Vanquish Powerboats, www.vanquishboats.com