Better with Age
An antique cruiser and an old-fashioned owner provide fresh perspective on boats and boating.
Tucked away along the Connecticut River in Hamburg Cove, Cove Landing Marine is emblematic of vintage beauty that persists in a modern world. This is a particularly peaceful spot on the river, secluded and quiet, surrounded by rolling hills and wooden boats resting at the docks and on the moorings. Boats outnumber humans here, and the few people who are around seem busy with work around the yard, despite the blazing heat.
The reason for my visit: a wooden yacht resting at the dock. To me, there is just something inherently appealing about wooden boats. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re becoming increasingly uncommon among the brigades of fiberglass production boats, or perhaps it’s just the beauty of finely crafted woodwork. Regardless, this boat demanded more than just a glance.
I find John Leonard in a boat shed, working diligently on a sailboat and apparently unbothered by the humidity on this 90-plus-degree day. He stands out in the peaceful serenity of the cove, thanks to his salty and brutally honest tell-it-as-it-is character. He does not conceal his disgruntled attitude when I ask him to take a short break from his work to walk me through the yacht.
John begins to open up as he talks about his yard and his projects. Walking through a few different sheds, he informs me that Cove Landing Marine is the only wooden-boat restoration facility of this caliber in the area. He has been the owner for 39 years, though with a slight smile he admits, “It owns me.” The yard is complete with a house that John designed and built, various work sheds, and a dock-house facility that John says can be rented out “for divorces, weddings, that type of thing.” His projects are impressive, and include a Penn Yan that is being refinished and rewired, a Chris-Craft he is restoring, and a Nova Scotia schooner under restoration.
He gets talking about the boat that has brought me to the yard and we climb on board for a tour. The 40-foot yacht was built in 1950 by Sound Marine Construction in Greenport, New York, and was custom-finished as an aft-cabin cruiser. She has been restored by Cove Landing Marine. John bought her 38 years ago after finding her in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. He brought her back to Cove Landing to begin the boat’s first restoration. He describes her as a “basic family boat—simple.” Three cabins sleep six people and a simple head and galley make her ideal for day or weekend outings. I have to dodge missing portions of the deck to climb into the cabin that is packed with bunks, but that does not detract from the attractive woodwork that has been well maintained and the ease with which I could envision a family filling the space for an overnight on the water.
She was built and commissioned as Stella Maris but won many awards under the name Duchess. Her years with John have been spent with trips to the Mystic Seaport Antique and Classic Boat Rendezvous, where she would lead the parade and come home with awards for first-in-class, which are displayed on the wall inside her cabin. She stopped going to Mystic because of her current restoration, but she may be back in the future. Along with cruising locally for years, the yacht took a trip through the Great Lakes circuit.
She is currently in her third restoration. Most of the structural work was done in previous restorations, including opening up and replacing the stern, refinishing the aft cabin, and replacing the boat’s original Chrysler engines with twin 300-horsepower Ford gas inboards. The work now is primarily cosmetic. He needs to finish the forward cabin interior, finish the exterior paint and varnish, replace the freshwater system, and replace the exterior canvas covers. John says there are only about four weeks left in the project to make her usable. “I just need to have four weeks uninterrupted,” he says, and then he will haul her out of the water and devote his full attention to her. “The most challenging part is getting it done.” His final goal, he says, is to sell her, under her original name StellaMaris. It may be that John ends up using her rather than selling her, but the current priority is to get her usable again. “I’m trying to get it so that the crew [at Cove Landing] is more independent and then I can spend some time on my own stuff,” he says. “Because right now I can’t use any of the boats that I own.”
John has invited boats to completely consume his life, and the softening of his salty character when he speaks about them leaves no doubt that he is a true aficionado. He says that he has been an enthusiast ever since he was a little kid, when he would play, mow grass, and work on boats at the Shennecossett Yacht Club in Groton, Connecticut, claiming that is “where I got sucked into this.” His first boat was a 12-foot custom-built sailboat similar to a Lightning, which was followed by a 23-foot Shamrock. Since then, he has owned a variety of other boats, built and sold five Bluejays, and run a boat down and back from the Caribbean.
Boating has changed since John was a kid running around the yacht club. “What’s happening today is that the kids aren’t interested. It used to be that the kids would go off with the family and go off on the boat. They don’t want to do that anymore. They want to come down and do kayaking and paddleboarding and look at their cellphones and iPads or whatever and do virtual reality as opposed to real reality.”
It’s a trend that is disappointing to someone who has sustained such an unwavering passion since childhood. It is not only family outings that are fading into oblivion, according to John. Powerful new boats are taking over the water. “A lot of the old classic boats just aren’t here anymore,” John says. “You just don’t see them around. Most people today want to own a center console with six engines on it, and it has to have more on it than their neighbor has and they don’t go anywhere and use it.”
It was an impactful statement when heard from the deck of an antique wooden yacht saturated with character and clearly designed to be used by a family. Sure, it is not as luxurious as many of the boats on the market today, but I cannot imagine the charm of this boat ever truly being replicated.
I asked John for any words of advice for someone contemplating the purchase of a classic boat. His response: “Have lots of money. You typically end up putting more into the boat than you bought it for.” Surprisingly enough, two of the people who have expressed interest in the boat John’s working on are in their late thirties with families and some money. Older people with money just don’t want to put the work into an antique yacht. They are looking for a boat that is ready to go. John tells me that “they don’t want to go through the process because it’s not something that happens overnight.”
It takes a very devoted person to sit working on a wooden boat for hours on end in the middle of summer. Most of us would rather be on the water. However, witnessing the fulfillment John has achieved through restoring boats makes me think that those who bypass the process are missing out on something larger.
- Builder: Sound Marine Construction
- Model: Hatteras 40
- Year: 1950
- LOA: 46'0"
- Draft: 3'0"
- Beam: 11'0"
- Displacement: 26,000 lb.
- Fuel Capacity: 160 gal.
- Water Capacity: 30 gal.
- Standard Power: 2/300-hp Ford gas inboards
- Cruise speed: 10 knots
- Top speed: 14 knots
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.