A Tahoe Spectacular: The 2018 Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance
The Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance shrunk into the background as we clipped along the water in a 1940 Chris-Craft best known as “What’s Up Dock?” The boat’s flathead six hummed, the bow lifted and we continued to build speed. Spritzes of cool lake water shot over the windshield, raining into the cockpit and forming glass-like beads on the mahogany. From the front bench seat, I watched a small armada of vintage wooden boats following suit, streaking towards the tree-lined peaks of Tahoe’s Eastern Shore. A veil of gray haze still hung from the previous month’s wildfires.
As we shot across the lake, I struggled to take it all in. Should I be admiring the woodwork? Studying the mansions sprinkled along the shoreline? Or waving at the other boaters? Amidst all this, I turned to Chad Knickerbocker—the man not only driving, but also the one responsible for bringing this particular Chris-Craft back to the water after a 40-year dry spell. Donned in shorts and a T-shirt, his hair is white and his skin tan from decades of days out on the lake. He looks nothing if not natural guiding the little Runabout across the choppy blue water. “This is what you call a six to 10 boat,” he shouts over the buzz of the motor. “Because it’s best from six to 10 in the morning. Not like this!” We both laugh.
You see, Chad’s a self-professed wooden boat freak, and this Chris-Craft is the latest restoration to come out of his shop, Pleasure Bent Boats. Originally built in Algonac, Michigan, the 17-foot Deluxe Runabout has lived everywhere from Wisconsin to Southern California throughout the course of its lifetime. Thanks to Chad, his partner Jordan Heath, and owners Tom and Pattie Spillner of Danville, California, there’s no doubt this historic Chris-Craft is exactly where it belongs.
The Spillner’s Runabout was one of more than 50 vintage wooden boats on display at the 2018 Lake Tahoe Concours at Obexer’s Boat Company in Homewood, California. Now in its 46th year, the Concours is revered as North America’s premier wooden boat show, and it celebrates what’s often seen as the Golden Era of boating. As soon as the date was announced, I marked my calendar and prepared for another exciting year on the Western Shore.
Scan the slips and you’ll see the boats, each christened with names as unique as the vessels themselves. “Orange Crate,” “Freedom,” “Big Boy,” and “Mary Bryte.” “007,” “Split Second,” “Thunderbird” and “Miss Puddle Duck.” Walking through the show, I spotted something familiar: a 2×4-fed early Hemi. It was mounted in a black and white 1929 Nunes with the name “Maybe Not II” affixed to the rear in brass letters. I soon found Dan and Barbara Foster, the boat’s current caretakers, relaxing behind it on the dock. Dan’s a diehard, and he was more than happy to tell me about the 22-foot hydroplane’s storied racing career, which included taking home the Tahoe Lake Championship in 1937. In those days it boasted a WWI surplus Liberty V12 aircraft engine outfitted with calliope-style exhaust pipes. That driveline is long gone, but he assured me the early Hemi is plenty of fun out on the water. Oh, and he’s been known to strap on an old leather helmet and flight goggles for an added degree of era-correctness.
Not far from the Fosters sat another favorite, a 1959 Century Resorter called “Confetti.” After ogling over the beautiful woodwork, V’d windshield, and red and white interior, I wondered aloud how this 16-footer got its name. Owners Michael and Ginger Hess of Cool, California, were happy to share.
Way back when, they both used to frequent Confetti—a local watering hole—with their friends. One night, a stranger walked in and told Michael that the girl across the bar was eyeing him. The stranger then told Ginger the same thing, and the two subsequently began to talk. One thing led to another; they started dating and eventually married. As for the Century, the name stuck and it has been an award winner at the Concours since the mid-1990s.
Each and every boat at Obexers that weekend had a story, and as I strolled around I could hear countless conversations blending with swinging sounds from the big jazz band perched up on the great stage. People in Panama hats and khaki shorts cruised along the slips, shooting photos and pointing at portholes, powerplants and whatever else caught their eye. Some wandered over to the Wine Village, while others sat in flimsy plastic chairs and feasted on smoked meats as the summer sun sat high in the sky.
By Saturday afternoon, spectators lined the marina in preparation for the show’s grand finale: the Roar Off. The judges had made their final decisions, and all that was left was for the boats to do what they were designed to do—hit the lake. One by one, the emcee signaled each departure by announcing the boat’s make, model, owner and—most importantly—its name. As soon as he mentioned “What’s Up Dock?” Chad opened up the throttle and guided us out of Obexers onto the great blue waters of Lake Tahoe.