WESTFIELD TWP. — Larry Prebis was bitten by the wooden boat bug at a young age, on a 14-foot plywood craft built by his father, Bill, a master carpenter and mechanic.
There were some big adventures in that little boat — including the day it was swallowed up by one of Lake Erie’s infamous, fast-moving storms.
Prebis, his parents and his brother were headed for Pelee Island with a group of friends when the winds rose, the sky turned black and the family’s boat was separated from the other boats. No two-way radio, no radar in those days. Just a small boat with four people holding on for dear life.
“I remember riding up one tall wave and down the other side,” said Prebis, who was 10 years old at the time.
But his dad pulled his skipper’s cap down tight, and with nothing but a compass, guided the boat through the storm.
Prebis, 63, hoped some day to find a wooden boat of his own to restore. In 1997, on his way to work, he spotted one sitting in a farm field — a 1942 Century Sea Maid 171. Two years later, he bought it.
A master woodworker himself and owner of his own business, Architectural Trimwork, Prebis spent another two years researching how to restore it.
After a decade of labor — mostly in winter, when other work was slow — the 17-foot runabout emerged from his barn workshop as beautiful as the day it came off the assembly line 69 years ago in Manistee, Mich.
The word “painstaking” barely describes the process. After many years of weathering, the exterior planks required replacement. Prebis carefully removed each board and replicated it exactly in his shop using Philippine mahogany — the same as was used on the original. For the interior pieces — made from white oak — he built his own steamer and forms to shape the wood.
“It’s duplicated as close as I can get to the original,” Prebis said.
Designed before the era of modern sealants, these boats were meant to last only about 10 years, he said. They relied on the centuries-old practice of counting on the water to swell the wood tight.
Prebis, however, sealed the craft with 21 coats of marine varnish — using 2,000-grit sandpaper for the final sandings between coats. The boat’s surface is so glossy, you could use it as a shaving mirror.
Still, it was an anxious moment the first time he dipped the Sea Maid into the water.
“I said when we first put it in, ‘The trailer is staying under this boat until we’re sure there are no leaks!’ ” Prebis recalled. It seeped water only in two small spots, which were easily fixed.
The boat’s brass hardware and instrument panel — although in need of refurbishing — all survived the decades intact. The original upholstery was beyond repair, but served as a pattern for the new.
The only part missing was the windshield. Prebis located one online in Oregon.
Sometime in the 1950s, the boat’s engine had been swapped with a non-standard replacement. Prebis hunted down an appropriate motor from a 1949 Century. It’s a six-cylinder Gray Marine with duel carburetors. The 112-horsepower engine — which comes to life in a low, throaty rumble when Prebis hits the starter — generates up to 40 mph in the water.
“Forty miles per hour in a wooden boat is pretty quick,” he said, though this model wasn’t designed for waterskiing or fishing. It’s strictly a pleasure boat for a wide-open lake on a sunny day.
The runabout’s distinguishing features include twin cockpits and rounded, barrel-back stern. Thus the name Prebis chose for his craft: “Double Barrel.”
Also visually striking are the deck seams — long, thin channels in the wood on top of the boat, each filled with a precise stripe of white silicone.
Using the craft’s identification numbers to track its history, Prebis learned only 54 were made in 1942. His is one of 12 still in existence. Its restoration plus its rarity means it should appreciate in value. The boat already is worth twice what he has invested in it, Prebis said.
He’s anxious to start his next project, whatever that may be. He’s got his eye on a 1939 Century. Prebis also would like to do wooden boat restoration projects for others. It’s a good winter sideline to the seasonal home-carpentry business. Besides, there’s something fulfilling about bringing a worn-out craft back to its original glory. Old boats have a history, a character, he said.
The Double Barrel already is earning awards — including the prize for best antique runabout in June’s Portage Lakes Boat Show.
“It got a lot of oohs and ahhs,” he said. “There aren’t too many barrel-backs that are left.”
There’s only one thing missing from this boat: a skipper’s hat. Prebis still has the cap his late father wore on those long-ago family outings. He plans to clean it up and place it on the dashboard in time for the next boat show.
It’ll be the finishing touch.
Contact John Gladden at email@example.com or on Twitter @thatjohngladden.