By Art Petrosemolo
The Chris Craft brand makes a comeback
Australian songwriter Peter Allen’s Everything Old Is New Again is a fitting away to describe the iconic Chris Craft company, a boating legend that has reinvented itself for the 21st century.
Gone are the handmade mahogany boats of the early and mid-20th century that turned heads with classic lines and enviable speed. Today, new fiberglass Chris Crafts, built in that tradition of quality that dates back to founder Christopher Columbus Smith, have smitten a new generation of boat enthusiasts.
Here at the Jersey Shore, classic Chris Crafts have found a home with discriminating boaters on the rivers and bays; new models are doing the same.
Originally designed as a lake boat, many classic Chris Crafts still dot the lakeshore boathouses in New England and the Upper Midwest. But the new, more powerful Chris Craft models from the Sarasota, Fla., factory – in lengths to 40 feet – and accommodations for families or friends, are capable of extended coastal cruising on the East and West Coasts.
But the path to the 21st century has not always been smooth sailing with waves and wakes along the way. Smith built his first vessels in 1874 and the family owned the company until 1960, around the time fiberglass boats began to displace handcrafted wooden models.
During the 75-year Smith family ownership, Chris Craft was at one time the largest pleasure boat manufacturer in the United States and the rich and famous, including Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn, John F. Kennedy and others, all owned CC boats.
The hallmark of the Smith boats of that heritage era was meticulous design and the blending of wood and chrome with powerful engines for unmatched speed that made them eye-catchers on smooth, summer lakes.
But time and fiberglass caught up with the Chris Craft brand in the last half of the 20th century. The company was sold and resold. Chris Craft delivered boats not of the quality that built the company reputation. It also added sailboats and houseboats to the inventory. The company lost its way. The boatyard was sold to a new owner while the iconic name remained with a second owner. Companies went bankrupt and new owners went bankrupt. Chris Craft arrived at the 21st century a mess.
Harvard Business School classmates Stephen Hesse and Stephen Julius bought the name and assets of the company in 2001 and started the long, restructuring process to resurrect an iconic brand.
A new line of unique high-end boats had to be designed and tested to appeal to a modern century looking for a high-quality product. Then, the Chris Craft dealership network had to be built up from scratch to attract buyers for high-end Chris Craft vessels – no easy task.
Ray Schrader of Schrader Yacht Sales on Bay Avenue in Point Pleasant is the area dealer for Chris Craft. He became a dealer in 2005 when he saw that the brand was not represented at the Atlantic City Boat Show. Schrader reached out to the new CC management and was brought on as a New Jersey dealer. Schrader opened in Point Pleasant in 1980 and has sold a variety of sailboats and powerboats during his career. Today, he represents Parker powerboats (used primarily for fishing) and Island Packet sailboats that are bay and offshore capable. The Chris Craft brand gave him sporty runabouts to bring to the New Jersey market.
“I was impressed with the Chris Craft quality on the new line,” Schrader says. “It is something that customers see and appreciate. These boats are not inexpensive but the design, quality and attention to detail is impeccable and they hold their value.”
Chris Craft’s major competitor in the high-end runabout ($250,000 range) is a Cobalt, a Kansas-based company that has a New Jersey dealer in Manahawkin.
A Fair Haven Chris Craft owner who was happy to talk about his boat said he looked at a Cobalt but decided on his 25-foot Chris Craft. He uses it in the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers. The owner says the sleek lines with a beautiful hull and flared bow along with the teak trim, sound of the V-8 engine and smooth ride sold him.
Doug MacFarland, Fair Haven, a boat owner for decades, is well known in the Two River area as a marine mechanic. MacFarland has “messed,” as he likes to say, with old boats for years and always has a project in his work area.
For more than a decade, he has been the proud owner of a 1953 mahogany Chris Craft Sportsman. The boat is in the midst of its second major rehab in preparation for a spring 2013 launch.
“One of my favorite toys,” is how MacFarland describes the Sportsman. It was stripped to the bare hull in MacFarland’s workshop this winter for some structural work and cosmetic updates.
The Sportsman is not the only Chris Craft that MacFarland has refinished. “Many of these boats are found in boat boneyards,” he says, “and need different levels of work to make them new again.”
Since 1991, MacFarland has brought back six wooden boats, starting with a 1964 Chris Craft wooden dory. He brought a 20-foot Chris Craft Rivera back to life over nearly two years for a local Red Bank lawyer who had asked MacFarland to keep his eye open for that specific model.
MacFarland’s workshop will be empty soon and ready for another project. “I always have my eyes open for a wooden classic to work on,” he says.
Whether old or new, Chris Craft owners are a loyal lot with clubs and online groups exchanging ideas, buying and selling parts and hulls. A New Jersey marina on Lake Hopatcong touts itself as the home of more than 100 wooden, heritage runabouts, many of them Chris Craft.
Today’s modern Chris Craft factory employs 300 engineers and craftsman and is committed to continuing the quality began by the founder more than a century ago. As one longtime employee tells viewers on a video tour of the Chris Craft plant: “Quality is not what you say, it is what you do and we know we are not just building boats, we are building a legend.”