Different Boats for Different Folks
Buddy Slack builds a legacy
Buddy Slack, reitred Marine Crops aviator turned vintage boat builder, finished his first boat in 2009. It resembles a vintage “gentleman’s racer” and includes a 50-year-old Mercury outboard motor.
Photography by Jeff Amberg
Every spring and summer when the cold, harsh effects of winter weather have subsided, a myriad of boat advertisements and boat shows abound throughout the United States. This is mainly confined to areas, like South Carolina, which are blessed with access to water. Hilton Head Island, Georgetown, Charleston and Myrtle Beach immediately come to mind.
Contained within any marina or any boat show display is a world of fiberglass vessels in all shapes, sizes and designs, possessing a combination of amenities that could only be dreamed of. However, among this endless display of fiberglass and metal conformity, a unique creation stands out. There it is, out of the corner of the eye, a vessel that makes one pause, look and admire –– a motorboat made of wood, a boat reminiscent of days in the northeastern part of the United States. Conjure up vivid images of New England: Cape Cod and Nantucket, Mass.; Newport, R.I.; Kennebunkport, Maine.
The beauty and uniqueness of these boats are exquisite. Features of years past include the pretty wood; the inlaid trim defining sharp, clean lines; the vintage motor; the steering wheel and gauges; the padded bench for seating, the sleek, shining varnish finish; and the shimmering, aluminum hardware.
One talented and busy builder of these vintage boats is a retired Marine Corps aviator named Buddy Slack, who resides in Northeast Columbia. During a distinguished career that included five tours in East Asia, Buddy was stationed in Columbia where he served five years as the professor of Naval Science at USC. After retiring from the Marine Corps, he has spent the past 19 years as the senior naval science instructor for the award-winning Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Chapin High School.
Buddy grew up in Knoxville, Tenn. and spent summers boating with his family on Douglas Lake. On his 16th birthday, his parents surprised him with a 15-foot Superglass runabout and a 1959, 45-horsepower Mercury engine. His father loved watercraft and raced C Service runabouts in the late 1930s and 1940s, winning numerous events. By June 1940, he had only experienced two defeats in four years of racing in the Service Runabout Class.
The type of boat Buddy builds is a “Zip,” using plans that were drawn up by Glen-L Marine Designs in 1954. It’s style is called a runabout –– popular in the boating culture since the early 20th century. Buddy is virtually a one-man operation and builds boats for fun and as a hobby. He enjoys racing boats and cruising the lakes. The Zip boats are strictly for family, to be handed down to the next generations.
Buddy owns two Zips: the first boat, Logan’s Run, he built for his first grandchild, Logan. It resembles a vintage “gentleman’s racer” and is intended for use in lakes and rivers. It is not meant or designed for ocean travel due to swells and rough waves. His second boat, still in progress, is intended for his second grandchild, Evalina. Working leisurely from fall to early spring –– mostly on weekends –– the Logan’s Run took nearly five years to finish. “Construction time will have to pick up considerable speed should a third grandchild come along!” Buddy says with a laugh.
Both boats are constructed in his garages, which additionally house his construction tools, machinery and materials. Buddy begins the process by initially contacting a company out of California named Glen-L that offers more than 300 boat design plans for review and purchase. He indicates that the site also offers a Boat Builder Forum, which allows boat enthusiasts from around the world to converse, share tips and experiences, problem-solve and learn of successful outcomes.
Buddy selects a plan and then modifies it to suit his purposes. The majority of the plans are schematics that would take an engineer to decipher. With plans in hand, he surveys his materials and decides what he will need to begin construction. Buddy keeps a healthy inventory of African and Philippine mahogany in varying sizes and widths. He prefers to use solid sheets of wood for the panels (as opposed to thin strips) which are bordered with thin strips of mahogany or oak to define the various lines on the stern and bow. Buddy takes a nonchalant attitude about making mistakes while using the valuable wood. “When I make a mistake, I say to myself, it’s just a piece of wood and can be recycled for another purpose.” Instead of stressing out, he just searches his inventory for another piece that will work and continues construction.
Traditionally, the Zip is built upside down on a frame until the hull is finished. When Buddy painstakingly secures the panels to form the bottom of the hull, initially he uses inexpensive screws to fasten the two sides together. He then goes back and substitutes bronze screws for the inexpensive ones. He acquires the steering wheel and gauges from marine suppliers when he can find them. The wooden seating bench for two is padded and covered by white leather obtained in Tennessee.
In order to maintain vintage integrity, Buddy fitted the Zip runabout with a 50-year-old motor. His preference is an outboard Mercury, similar to the engine his parents gave him when he was 16 years old. As the availability of these vintage engines is rare and their operation fickle, he entrusts the remanufacturing of his engines to Walt Slominski, a friend and expert boat racer in the Chapin Lake Murray area. Walt’s expertise in working with old “Mercs” ensures reliability and consistency, and the motors look as if they have just come from a showroom. The power of these engines normally ranges from 50 to 85 horsepower.
Buddy crafts the boat’s metal plates and brackets himself, using sheets of aluminum he purchases from metal suppliers locally. As to all other hooks and minor metal features, he buys those at marine stores as they are available. He handles every facet of the construction in his large garage “boat factory” among the sheets of wood, aluminum, saws and lathes needed for cutting.
Twenty coats of varnish were hand-applied to Logan’s Run to protect the wood and enhance its natural beauty. The trailer that stabilizes the Logan’s Run for travel was from Hustler Trailer Company in Norris, Tenn. Custom-painted to match the boat, it was purchased through DB Marine in Chapin.
When Logan’s Run was completed in December 2009, and the time for “righting” the craft arrived, Buddy held a “flip the boat” party, inviting neighbors and friends to help. Each participant received a holiday ornament, along with snacks and drinks, making it a fun and social time for everyone.
“The company I use, Glen-L Marine, is the same one with a boat featured in the CBS drama series called NCIS,” Buddy chuckles. “Jethro Gibbs, the main character, is played by actor Mark Harmon and, coincidentally, is also a retired Marine. He handles naval criminal investigations for his job but builds boats in the basement of his home as his hobby to unwind after a hard day of law enforcement.”