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Wooden Girl Friends

The first year we were married, husband Gary decided to build a boat in our living room. The idea seems absurd now, but back then it didn’t seem like such a wild idea. The only piece of furniture in the living room was a pool table, which didn’t fit entirely in the living room, but protruded from the living room into the kitchen. Why not?Wooden Girls 1

Gary told me he was going to build a hydroplane. I wasn’t sure what a hydroplane was. All I knew was it was some sort of boat that was about the size of our pool table. Even though we’d only been married for a few months, I already realized that Gary loved the River and that meant he loved boats. If this marriage was going to work, I’d have to, at the very least, tolerate and hopefully come to share in Gary’s passion for boats.Wooden Girls 3

I went to the lumber yard to help pick up the lumber. As we strapped the plywood to the top of the car, I had to ask. Why a hydroplane? Gary explained his desire to build his very own hydroplane started when he was thirteen, while living in Clearwater, FL., His neighbors and best buds, Dave and Steve Kitenplon, had found plans for a hydroplane and decided to build it. Gary and a mutual friend, David Kelley, decided to help. The project started in the Kitenplon’s garage and ended up racing about the calm waters of St. Joseph Sound. Twelve years later, Gary still had the plans and he wanted to re-create the hot Florida summer of ’65, during an icy cold Central Illinois January of ’77. We didn’t have a garage, so the living room seemed like the only option.

So, for a month or two, our tiny home was filled with the pleasing aroma of freshly cut wood.Woode Girls 5

Gary started with two pieces of quarter-inch plywood and a pile of 1 x 4 fir.  He sawed and shaped, drilled and screwed. By the time spring rolled around, it was time to take the boat outside, so he could fiberglass it. It was at this point when Gary wondered if his boat would fit through the door. That made my heart skip a beat. Thankfully it did. From that point on, the boat resided outside on sawhorses on our gravel driveway.

Gary explained that this contraption, which didn’t seem deep enough to be a boat, had to be fiberglassed. The fiberglass fabric was like thick satin with holes in it. Gary carefully applied it over the wood, careful to make sure there were no air pockets. Over the fiberglass cloth, he applied epoxy. I raced inside and quickly closed the windows to hopefully shut out the airplane-glue type fumes. After the epoxy dried, Gary sanded the surface smooth, applied another coat of epoxy and sanded it smooth again. Gary decided on royal blue paint. Since he worked for McDonald’s Corporation, he painted golden arches on the bow and the gunnels and named her “Little Mac.”Wooden Girls 8

When our allotted week at the River rolled around, we loaded Little Mac on top of our Ford LTD II and drove her 855 miles to Fishers Landing and towed her to Grenell Island where she has been ever since. Gary purchased a used 18-horse Johnson motor from Chalks Marina and we waited for a calm day, so he could put Little Mac in the water and let her stretch her legs.

The bow was only about 2 inches thick. It is an ironing board, with a motor on the back. Gary’s mother bought a helmet for him and stenciled Little Mac, on a lifejacket. Gary decided not to put a steering wheel on Little Mac so he could sit as far back as possible to keep the bow tilted up. The plans called for a 10-horse engine, so Gary’s ironing board was a little over-powered. To me, Little Mac was a disaster waiting to happen. I held my breath as he zipped around the cove. Around and around he went. I’m sure the high whine of the engine was probably as annoying to our neighbors, as a mosquito in their ear. No one complained—at least to our face—but a few came out of their cottages to see what was causing such a ruckus.

I didn’t think of it at the time, in fact, I didn’t think of until now, Little Mac was Gary’s first boat and a wooden boat at that.

That was 40 years ago! Since then, Gary has acquired an entire harem of wooden boats:

  • Little Mac lovingly crafted in 1977
  • Say When – a 1955 Jafco Runabout, acquired in 2002
  • Say What—a 1967 Chris Craft Cavalier, acquired in 2004
  • Lindsey Lynn—a 1922 Lindsey launch, acquired in 2011wooden Girls Time

Each spring, when we arrive at the islands, neighbors drop by and ask, “Where’s Gary?” I say, "He’s with his wooden girlfriends.” We have a plaque on the boathouse wall which reads: A Wooden Boat is a Hole in the Water into Which You Throw Money. I should add the word “time.” Gary spends almost as much time in the boathouses as he does in the cottage. But wooden boats are high maintenance. So much to do: getting the boats soaked up and ready for the season, wiping them down after an evening boat ride or winterizing them before we depart. In between, it seems there is always something to paint, replace, repair or varnish. All I can say is he’s lucky he has a low-maintenance wife.

Little Mac was moved from the skiff house to the East Boathouse this year. She is perched on blocks and tied securely to the boathouse wall in case of high water. I can’t remember the last time she zipped around our cove and frankly, I'm hoping Little Mac is permanently retired; I was always terrified she would flip. Still, Gary wouldn’t think of getting rid of her She’s the smallest of Gary’s wooden girlfriends, but she is his first love.  As for me, it’s been forty years of sharing Gary with his “wooden girlfriends.” I do more than just tolerate the time he spends with his girls; I’ve come to love them as much as he does.

By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island

  • Gary's first Wooden Girl

    Gary's first Wooden Girl

  • Hydroplane cutaway

    Hydroplane cutaway

  • Our neighbors were tolerant of the noise.

    Our neighbors were tolerant of the noise.

  • Our kids and their cousins wait for a ride.

    Our kids and their cousins wait for a ride.

  •  A calm day is the perfect day to take Little Mac for a spin.

    A calm day is the perfect day to take Little Mac for a spin.

  • The 18-horse Johnson required a lot of tweaking and was eventually replaced with a 9.9 –horse Evinrude.

    The 18-horse Johnson required a lot of tweaking and was eventually replaced with a 9.9 –horse Evinrude.


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Todd Jones
Comment by: Todd Jones
Left at: 2:54 AM Thursday, November 16, 2017
Lynn, this story and your photos warmed my heart this cold November morning. Nicely done!
Janet Staples
Comment by: Janet Staples
Left at: 6:17 AM Thursday, November 16, 2017
Great story! I now own a wooden boat and can attest to it being a hole in the water that we pour money into and (nicely added) TIME as well ! :)
John Kunz
Comment by: John Kunz
Left at: 7:36 AM Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Love this. These old wooden boats are 100% part of a marriage. My wife has become a great painter, varnisher, upholsterer and engine mechanic. Oh and she can work a come along with