When I came to Miami in 1956, there were 85 boat builders in Dade and Broward counties. I went to work for Challenger Marine, in North Miami, Florida. We were Dealers for Chris Craft, Trojan (No, the boat), Johnson Outboards, and our own brand of 15 and 16 foot fiberglass outboards, one with a round chine, and one with a square chine. They were built with a system called “Marco Method”, which required matched molds. Both molds were gel-coated, the required amount of fiberglass material draped over the bottom, male mold, and the female mold lowered onto the male. A predetermined amount of catalyzed resin was poured into a trough on the male mold, a vacuum pump attached to the top mold, and left for the night. The next morning, Presto! A new boat, smooth inside and out, that had exactly the correct resin/material ratio and, with a quick trim job around the gunwale, ready for the top deck and a motor. After 60 years, that system has been reinvented, call “Infusion”.
Except for a guy who copied, or “Popped” our system, Squall King Boats, both in North Miami, and Woody Woodson’s Thunderbird, the other boats were mostly wooden. I must say that the difference between a glass shop and a carpenter shop was like the difference between Tugboat Annie and Lady Di. Howard Abbey, Al Martin, Forrest Johnson, Tropicraft, and the rest had small, white, very talented crews. We had not yet invented Cubans or Haitians. The closest we could get to slave labor was an occasional Redneck. Salad days… no itching, no chemical smells, no diamond-like particles landing in your lungs. Mahogany and oak carpentry has a fragrance that is unique and very pleasant. Screws were bronze, and hand driven with “Yankee” screwdrivers. My boss at Challenger, Art Siegel, and I occasionally went to the all-time great, Howard Abbey’s shop after work and helped him. One project that we worked on (read: Drove a million screws with a Yankee screwdriver) was Jim Wynne’s Paris 6 Hour race boat, “Wyn-Mil”. It was only 17 feet long, but I think it had over a ton of bronze screws. At least, that is the way it felt. After screwing for an hour or so, we were forced to stop work, drink beer, and lie!
Another sign of the times came from Washington, D.C. The ‘powers to be’ decided to allow Corporations to buy, fish, entertain, fuel, repair, and replace their boats (Yachts?) at taxpayer expense, including both kinds of hookers. I recall the Teamster’s Union one year old boat, “Yellow Rose”, a 36’ Chris Craft Sea Skiff, coming back after “the season” to the boat yard at Challenger Marine, and the Captain ordering a full repaint, and new engines, propellers, etc. for the coming season, all on the taxpayer. We had about fifty carpenters, painters and mechanics, usually working 6 days a week.
Then, one day, Uncle Sam said “That’s enough of that crap!” We apparently were not leaving enough money in the till for the politicians to steal. Just like that (I am snapping my fingers… visualize it) the boat business went into the dumper. I was drafted into the Army in April 1958, and, by the time I got back, half the boat companies had died, and the largest marine retailer, Sportsman’s Paradise had gone bankrupt. We crept along at Challenger, always conservative, well financed, and accustomed ourselves to the new economic reality. We were down from 50 wood boat guys to 10, and added a couple of mechanics. Remember that we were in the same marina that is today, TNT. They are the cream of the hyper speed boat trade, and charge $110-120 dollars per hour for labor. In 1958, retail labor was $4.50 per hour. Skilled mechanics made $2. At $2.00 per hour, I bought a house, had kids, 2 cars and a small boat. Inflation is around 1,000% for the 60 year period, and has branched into very unequal amounts. Houses, boats and cars cost relatively a lot more. My old $7200 house was listed for sale, during the “feeding Frenzy” of 2007 for $207,500!
The boat building business in Miami seems to have gravitated to the wealthy sportsman, with huge outboards, and lots of them. Computers have sucked the knowledge out of the technical end of boating, nobody builds their own molds, and many “builders” don’t even lay up their own boats. It seems that when this generation of boat building geezers dies, there won’t be any more Howard Abbeys or Forrest Johnsons or Sam Griffiths. I can meld the boat building future and the movie, “2001”. “Hal, I want to build an 8 engined 40 foot outboard today”. In an electronic voice: “I can’t let you do that, Smedley”. “But, Hal! Humans don’t know how to build boats any more”. “Tough shit, Smedley!”