Ode to Excalibur

Coming home from another day's adventure
Coming home from another day’s adventure

For instilling a love and respect for boating, Excalibur had no equal. This was one of the vessels I was fortunate enough to spend time on as a boy. My father bought the boat in the early 1970s from a neighbor on Lake Winnipesaukee, NH. Bitten hard by the antique and classic boat bug, my Pop owned various boats through the years, primarily Chris-Crafts, ranging from a 1946 26’ Sportsman runabout to the grandaddy of them all, Excalibur. She was a 1929 38’ Chris Craft Commuter powered by a Scripps 375 hp V-12 engine.

I wish I had a set of lines from which to draw a more thorough design brief, but from photos and memory I can give a general idea. She was big without being overly flashy. The Chris Craft crew of the late 1920s built boats to some degree like cars with mass production techniques. Construction was plank on sawed frame. I don’t know how many Commuters they built, but they followed the same formula as the runabouts of the day. Her bow, not quite plumb, fell to a deep forefoot. Her chine started very close to the bow and ran in an uninterrupted sweep aft. Her entry was fine and did a great job in rough water, while her topsides exhibited moderate flare rounding back out to a slight tumblehome aft. Her underbody sections from keel to chine were concave rather than convex and ran aft with decreasing deadrise to the transom. I recall her beam did narrow somewhat running aft which would in part contribute to her considerable bow up running angle at speed. At 38’ LOA and about the same LWL she sported a Length to Beam ratio of about 4:1 meaning she delivered a great turn of speed for the installed power. Pops never pushed the Scripps hard, saying something about a ’50 year old crankshaft’ but she was probably capable of upwards of 30 kts.

Her unbroken sheerline ran straight aft with a subtle drop, setting the tone for her superstructure. Above the covering boards she was well proportioned and functional. There was no crown to speak of on her foredeck which housed the anchor locker. Her forward cockpit sat about six adults (or ten kids as I recollect) and sported a steering station complete with a voice tube that ran aft to the bridgedeck helm. Pops tried running her from up there but said he was never comfortable with all that boat behind him. So far removed from the engine, which was not exactly quiet, it was a very soft, hushed and elegant ride up there. I remember being able to hear the hiss of the cutwater parting the waves.

Her cabin top perched over four rectangular glazings on each side which went up and down via rotating handles. Moving aft through the cabin from the forward cockpit there was a galley to port and head to starboard, then p&s facing settees in the main cabin that converted to Pullman berths. We spent many a night in there on those bunks. Then a couple of steps up and aft led to the bridge deck. Originally this deck was split about halfway aft to the transom with a cockpit that offered built-in seating, but somewhere along Excalibur’s life the cockpit was decked over so the bridgedeck ran all the way aft to the transom.

The helm station was simple if not authoritative. Here within close reach were perched three magnificent chromed pieces; her gear and throttle quadrant, binnacle and searchlight. The helm area was protected by a simple, pleasingly raked windshield which was echoed in smaller proportion by the forward cockpit’s.

I’d like to think that even as a young boy I knew how lucky I was to be messing about in a boat like this. What I couldn’t realize then was how powerful a force that upbringing would exert later in life. This is not just the stuff of fond memories. No, these were key experiences that in many ways defined who and what I am.

I learned how to be a good deckhand. I gained an appreciation for the skill and finesse that close quarters maneuvering in a single screw inboard vessel of this size required. I watched and listened and soaked up the always patient and quiet words of instruction from my father. He was the first one that told me one of the greatest truisms of dockside maneuvers: “don’t go any faster than you’re willing to hit something”.

Excalibur served as a community magnet for kids and adults alike. I can’t count the number of day trips we took with the boat loaded down with friends and neighbors. It was as though time stood still while on the boat. She was our water-borne base for adventure. We swam, snorkeled, picnicked, slept and sunbathed. Many a day her cockpit would be filled with kids, deck chairs, masks and fins, interesting driftwood and whatever other treasures we found on the lake bottom or shoreline.

It was then that I learned boats were meant to be used. This was my dad’s mantra, and Excalibur was the magnificent tool he used to teach us all. I love this key lesson perhaps more than any other. In the 1970s there was a surge in popularity of antique and classic boat shows around the country. Lake Winnipesaukee had her share of these and Excalibur was a frequent attendee at one of the largest annual shows in those days at Weirs Beach, N.H.  There were boats at these shows that were in simply magnificent, pristine condition without a scratch or blemish. They came on trailers, were carefully washed, dried with a chamois and staged, awarded trophies and then pulled after the show to sit on their trailers. Pops scoffed at this notion of boat ownership and taught us that not using the boat for everyday enjoyment was missing the point completely. He couldn’t have been more right.

While the boat saw a great deal of use my parents were not at all cavalier about upkeep or maintenance. This was made clear to my brother and I who did our part to maintain the boat. That these vessels required and yes, deserved, constant attention left an indelible stamp.

Pops is at the helm, I'm manning the bow line
Pops is at the helm, I’m manning the bow line

I pitched in where I could. I was the only family member small enough to crawl around that behemoth engine to clean the bilge. I’d go down there with a bucket and rags and have at it, coming out looking like a befouled chimney sweep. I loved that duty because I liked getting dirty and because it was the only task that was all mine. The Scripps had a tendency to, let’s just say, throw a little oil here and there. I remember how Pops would peer down at me from the hatch opening that seemed so high above. I think he worried about me getting stuck down there.

My father felt like he was a caretaker more than an owner. He knew that he wouldn’t own it forever and felt like it was his responsibility to care for the boat until he passed it on. I’m truly blessed to have experienced part of my life on board that very special boat and I will remember it always.

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