If You Build It, They Will Come

Dennis Montgomery has spent a lifetime working on and using wooden boats. Here he inspects progress of repairs to the stern of the "When and If." Photo by Alexander Solla

There is nothing like a beautiful, traditionally built wooden boat to evoke the romance of the sea and voyaging. But the demanding environment of wind and water takes its toll on biodegradable boats. They are fast vanishing, as each year more fall victim to rot, chainsaw and landfill. Finding materials for repairs – and craftsmen who are capable of performing them – is increasingly difficult as few marinas have skilled woodworkers on call. Even do-it-yourself boat owners may have difficulty finding needed supplies. Try asking for a new lignum vitae deadeye, some rift grain oak or pine lumber at your local marine supply store, and see how far you get.

Far from the salt water tides and foaming seas, a boat shop in the Finger Lakes Region is gaining international renown for its wooden boat building and repair expertise. Cayuga Wooden Boatworks on the shores of Cayuga Lake started up 22 years ago when Dennis Montgomery and a business associate began a “have tools will travel” mobile boat repair service. Since that modest start, Montgomery has gone on to repair everything from 50-ton passenger boats to canvas-covered canoes, mahogany runabouts and Penn Yan car toppers.

Keeping a legend alive

About 10 years ago, Montgomery and his staff recreated a legendary racing schooner, the Malabar X, for Doug Hazlitt, owner of Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards winery in Hector. Hazlitt captained the boat on Seneca Lake, offering day trips and private charters, and also took it off to southern salt water for several winters of pleasure cruising. Then he sold Malabar X to a multimillionaire in Spain, where she is now racing and cruising on the Mediterranean and Atlantic.

Montgomery considers the 59-foot, 30-ton Malabar X to have been a high watermark for Cayuga Wooden Boatworks. It took two years and 20,000 hours of skilled labor to recreate the hull for the famous racer. He told me she was built to last a hundred years. The boat was constructed of top-quality, rot-resistant tropical hardwoods with custom cast bronze reinforcements to its framing. She was planked with a light, strong and clear grained Central American wood called silver bali. Her planking was fastened to timbers with durable copper rivets. The tropical woods were obtained from a specialty lumber importer, and the 30-foot log for the keel was custom-milled in Ithaca. Malabar X’s deck beams were crafted of Douglas fir salvaged from old wine vats. You could still smell the wine when they were milled, Montgomery recalls.

During the Malabar’s two-year construction, wooden boat “nuts” came from afar to stand in the shop among the wood shavings, and gawk in awe at the looming shape of 50-plus feet of perfectly formed craftsmanship and joinery. The project was published in several boating magazines, and hundreds of people attended the launch in May 2002. A nationally known marine surveyor did an appraisal of the completed yacht for its pending sale, and said he had not seen any better built boat from the best of the East Coast builders.

After her sale, Montgomery and his staff continued with less glamorous but equally exacting repair jobs as they kept various private and commercial vessels operational. Montgomery points out that he and his crew have tackled an unusually wide variety of boat projects over the years. They aren’t afraid of tackling a big job, either, like fitting 3-inch planks or barn beam-sized timbers on a 40-footer. But they also rebuild delicate, lightweight lapstrake rowing boats, cold moulded hulls, laminated hulls, and lapstrake, double-planked and plywood hulls. “We do them all, even steel,” declares Montgomery.

A boat fit for an army general

These days, Cayuga Wooden Boatworks operates at two locations: the Beacon Bay Marina at the north end of Cayuga Lake in Cayuga and in Ithaca. The Beacon Bay site – with its 10 acres of parking and boat storage space; heavy duty, 50-ton boat lift; and access to the New York State canal system and the rest of the world via water – is an ideal location for handling big jobs. And that’s where Montgomery has his latest schooner project under way.

Last fall, the Malabar X’s former owner commissioned Cayuga Wooden Boatworks to do another schooner restoration, the When and If, which was once owned by army commander General George Patton. Sixty-three feet on deck and 80 feet over all, the When and If was built in Maine and launched in 1939, even as the distant war drums began to sound. Patton named his new yacht, saying he would sail her when he returned from Europe – and if he survived. Although he did live to see the war end, he died in a freak auto accident two days before he was to return to the United States. But his schooner lived on and remained with the family for over 20 years. They eventually sold the boat to a school for use in summer sailing programs. The Landmark School specialized in helping dyslexic children (Patton himself was dyslexic), and they used When and If in their programs for many years.

The big schooner then passed on to private hands, and her various owners continued to take good care of her. She was built of top quality materials, and, Montgomery notes, is considerably more rugged than the Malabar X, which was designed for speed and ocean racing. When and If’s sturdy construction stood her in good stead when, in 1990, she was driven ashore during a storm. Though badly damaged, the historic yacht was deemed worthy of a rebuild and got a thorough one. Hazlitt purchased her in 2012, and spent the summer cruising the coast of Maine. When and If motored up the Hudson last fall, down rigged and passed through the canal to arrive at Beacon Bay Marine in October. Here, the yard hauled her and blocked her up, and Montgomery’s crew built a plastic-covered framework around her so they could work through the winter.

The craftsmen are addressing several “issues” back-aft, where a few rot pockets and some structural problems have arisen after 70-plus years of active life. The crew is also laying a new teak deck, and doing work on the teak hatches and the skylight, among other things. Those who rebuild old boats know inevitably little surprises come along once you “open her up.” Montgomery expected the project to keep three or four workers busy through the winter. He told me that the owner “wants her done right,” and that he was willing to spend the time and money needed for that to happen. The goal in early 2013 was a launch sometime next summer, or “whenever she’s done” as Montgomery says.

At the time the When and If project was underway, the shop also had a 26-foot Navy motor whale boat built of white oak and cypress undergoing full restoration and repowering for a customer in Vancouver, British Columbia. This particular boat had once been aboard a U.S. Navy seaplane tender called the San Pablo, which was based on the East Coast after World War II.

Sought and found

I asked Montgomery how people find Cayuga Wooden Boatworks. Many of them use the Internet, he told me. “The Navy whale boat was advertised on Craigslist. They (the customers) Google wooden boat repairs, and they find me. We also do advertising in special interest publications like Wooden Boat magazine.”

And then there are the repeat customers like Hazlitt, who can’t resist the romance of a beautiful traditional wooden sailing vessel. His particular passion, says Montgomery, is the strong, powerful fisherman-style schooner yachts designed by John Alden. These were boats modeled on the lines of the hard sailing Grand Banks fishermen, made famous by the New England designer in the 1920s. Seakindly, able, easy to handle and beautiful, the two-masted schooner has appealed through the years to many famous and wealthy yachtsmen. The combination of utility and graceful lines draws even landlubbers to such a vessel. In a time of planned obsolescence and superficial gimmickry, we respond to the classic wooden yacht for its honesty and fundamental purpose – to get her crew out on the water and back home again in comfort and style.

Driven by passion

Montgomery himself has an intense and wide-ranging interest in boats dating back to his childhood in Florida. He has owned a succession of boats, and currently travels Cayuga Lake with a 38-foot motor cruiser that was built in Nova Scotia by a professional boat builder. Montgomery also holds a Coast Guard license to carry passengers for hire, and helps run the M/V Haendel for another of his endeavors – Ithaca Boat Tours. Like many a boater, Montgomery’s appreciation for the natural environment of the Finger Lakes runs as deep as the lakes themselves. The steel-hulled Haendel operates as a floating classroom to get kids out on the water, and is also used for “eco tours” for the general public out of Ithaca.

Keeping grand, old wooden boats safe and operational is not a task for the faint of heart. Yet these vessels, crafted with care of once living material, continue to have a powerful draw. Their appeal has kept Cayuga Wooden Boatworks in business for two decades, and new jobs keep coming. Our region of clear waters and fair farmlands and forest is a splendid setting for these classic cruisers and sleek racers. Ramble the canal, cruise the Finger Lakes or even go north toward the Big Lake and Canada – it’s all available to explore if you’re master of your own little ship. Those of us who enjoy classic mahogany runabouts, graceful sailing vessels, or sweet-lined canoes and rowing craft are fortunate to have the skills and knowledge of Cayuga Wooden Boatworks to keep them afloat.


by Susan Peterson Gateley