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The Boat I Didn’t Buy

The old Huckins in the back of the used car lot had seen better days. Where repairs had been made they seemed to have been made by a person who had never been on a boat before. I did not expect a $4,500 boat that was 28 years old to be perfect, but a bow rail pulled out and put back together with mismatched, wrong size screws, doesn’t leave a good impression about the overall condition of the boat. Calling in response to an ad in a Sunday Asbury Park Press, I spoke to Don, who said the boat would need some sprucing up. To save me a trip from Long Island to the Jersey shore, he said he had people look at it that were turned off by the condition of the boat. I went alone for the first visit to the Huckins. A 44 foot version of the 1938 46 foot sedan, the boat would have cost close to $100,000 to buy new and now, neglected as an old wooden boat could be, it was in my price range – $4,500 or best offer.

Newly divorced, I had a choice. I could sign a lease for a garden apartment in a nice, safe neighborhood, or I could buy a suitable boat and live on it with my dog. I had a quick look at places on Long Island where I could live aboard and went to the 79th Street Boat Basin on the Hudson River. Two of the marinas I looked at on Long Island already had people living aboard. The 44-foot boat seemed like a reasonable size for a single person and a dog to live on and to use on the weekends in the summer. After the broker gave me the flyer for the 46 foot Huckins that was the model for this boat, I saw that the draft, at 2’ 8”, was shallow enough to take the boat into the clam grounds before heading to the beach on summer weekends.
The second trip to Bay Head, the next weekend, was a picture taking trip – pictures I could show a male friend who had volunteered to “spruce up the old girl,” probably thinking that’s all she needed. Her shabby condition meant there would be work to get her back in reasonable shape – I just didn’t know how much. The chances of her being sold before I decided were limited by her appearance. I’d have to run the numbers to see if I could afford to repower and fix all the problems.
The next weekend my friend made the trip to see the boat. When we came back he organized his to-do list – major and minor wood, mechanical, electrical and plumbing problems into a single spaced two-page list. His comment when he handed me the list – “If I won a lottery, only worked on this boat with an unlimited budget, if you were still alive when I finished, you’d be a very old woman.”
The marine surveyor I had used for earlier boats had been tied up on a job out of state when I first called him. Now when I called him with all the bad news, he found a block of time and went to the used car lot during the week. During that week I saw a friend who had spent the first three years of married life on a houseboat. When she looked at the picture of the boat, she said she wouldn’t care if it were in mint shape; it was the wrong boat for living aboard. The picture I had of the Huckins reminded her of how much natural light they had coming through all their windows and all I would have for almost half the inside space was a set of small portholes. She also reminded me I would either have to learn to be very handy or find someone close by for mechanical, electrical and plumbing problems. When the surveyor called and said, “Don’t buy that boat!” I finally broke down and signed the lease for the apartment.
Moving to an apartment gave me more freedom of choice and I bought a 30-foot Chris Craft skiff, but I was still fascinated with the Huckins. I had a collection of old Motor Boating issues that I had a subscription for since I was about ten years old. I had added to that from old issues I found in a used magazine and bookstore in Manhattan. Now, on winter or rainy summer days I’d dig through the old magazines in some of the early issues. The builder did his own advertising. In one ad he invited prospective customers to “describe your boat-desires and we will send a catalog to warm your soul.”
Not many boat builders would have the engineering talents to design the Quadraconic hull used for all Huckins boats and advertise the boats with such creative marketing skills. Frank Pembroke Huckins grew up in Massachusetts, built a rowboat when he was 12, used the boat for a business as a water taxi when he was 15 and went to Harvard. He didn’t finish to get his degree from Harvard but he learned enough mechanical and engineering skills to start a boat business after his father died and he sold the family lumber business. He had a 38 foot boat built and sailed it to Florida. After two failed marriages and two business ventures he borrowed money, married a third time and built a 42-foot boat. He cruised the boat to New England where it caught the eye of tire magnate David Goodrich who bought it. Huckins took a booth at the New York Boat Show in 1929, took orders for six boats and started the Huckins Yacht Corporation. During the Depression he learned how to cut costs when building boats. For a time he built 25 foot boats for $2,000 just to keep his men working.
During the war years the Huckins yard built 18 PT boats, 36 air/sea rescue boats and liberty ships used to transport cargo. In 1947 the Huckins yard shifted from the triple planked hulls they had built from the beginning to double diagonally planked Philippine mahogany hulls. They began sheathing the wooden hulls with fiberglass in 1960 and later applied resin to the interior and created cold molded hulls. They built the largest motor yacht in the US in 1976 with a fiberglass-cored hull, cored with closed-cell PVC extrusion AIREX. By 1984 Huckins built the largest outboard cruising yacht, 50-footer with outboard engines capable of 38 miles per hour. In 1986 Huckins built the largest yacht in the US powered with Arneson surface piercing propellers.
Frank Huckins died in 1951 and the company had just enough depth of management to survive. Each generation of managers picked those who would follow them so that changeovers were not visible from the outside. Each generation of managers was willing to try something new while keeping the quality and reputation of the Huckins brand at top level. The new 38 foot Sportsman, a retro styled boat, reminds you in significant styling details that it’s the same Huckins you know but wrapped in new packaging with the plus of choices in power from the old familiar to the latest hybrid with pod drives.
By 2013 Huckins had built 457 boats and many still survive. The boat I thought I would live on was then 28 years old. In poor shape, it needed a lot of work, time and money. In the last year I’ve come across Huckins boats much older, some needing a little help, some having had a good life with full maintenance and others needing rehab again.
A 58-foot 1984 Sport Fisherman being sold by Huckins has had work done at Huckins and repowering by Detroit Diesel. It’s 37 years old and selling for $220,000. A 45 foot 1954 that the owner had stripped and repowered with Volvo Penta pod propulsion also has a new bottom, epoxy and fiberglass sheathing. Northern Spy is now 57 years old. The 1953 34 foot Huckins for sale in Rhode Island is 68 years old and Avocette III, now 90 years old, is a 48 foot Fairform Flyer built in 1931 that has been completely rebuilt.
If you look at their brochures you would probably say Huckins are among the more expensive boats you could buy and you would be right. When you think of these boats as an investment, they’re on a par with buying Berkshire Hathaway stock. As Warren Buffet watches over Berkshire Hathaway, the Purcells, Cindy and Buddy, and their close-knit family style boat building group oversee Huckins. A broker once said about buying a Huckins, “The boat kind of owns you, you don’t own the boat. You just get to take care of it until the next guy comes along.”