by Dennis Dalman
What looks like an old godforsaken shipwrecked boat bleaching in the sun on a desert island might someday be transformed as if by magic into a sleek, dazzling cruiser.
At first glance, the boat looks like a ramshackle pile of gray timber on the side lot of Little Rock Boat Works in Rice. But passionate boat enthusiasts will know instantly the old wreck is in fact the sad remnants of a 1954 Chris Craft Riviera, 20 feet long.
Although the wood pile looks like it’s ready for a big dumpster, David Watts, the owner of Little Rock Boat Works, knows better. The entire wreck could be restored piece by piece, like a giant puzzle, using some of the original wood and many new replacement parts.
That’s Watts’ long-time stock-in-trade – giving new life to very old classic wooden boats, restoring their sleek beauty, making them water-worthy again. It is meticulous, painstaking, precision work that typically takes up to one year or more to do for just one or two boats.
When Watts began work as a classic-boat restorer, he was always concerned about not getting enough customers, enough work to do.
Now, more than 35 years later, he still worries, even though he has boat owners on a waiting list that stretches six and seven years into the future. Very old vintage boats are becoming more rare all the time; some just do not exist anymore.
As the owner of Little Rock Boat Works, Watts and his workers are widely admired for their impeccable boat restorations. The company has won many prestigious national awards, including “Best of Show,” the “Thunderbird Award,” “People’s Choice” and “Best in Class” honors from the premiere national boat show in Lake Tahoe, Nev. Watts’s boat entries have also won three “Best of Show” awards (2009, 2012, 2014) at the prestigious Keels and Wheels show in Houston, Texas.
Watts is in the process of moving his company from its long-time location at 600 Division Street S. in Rice to a repurposed former wood-cabinet building at 104 9th Ave. N.E., also in Rice.
Currently, the restoration work is done by just three men, Watts and his two assistants – Scott Hinkle of Clearwater and Wayne Carriveau of Rice. Both men were in the construction-carpentry businesses and adapted their skills to restoring beauty and life to the old wooden boats.
Currently, the three men are working on a 1957 Chris Craft boat whose name, still on the boat, is “Little Gem.” The 20-foot watercraft is taking on new life slowly but surely, its warm reddish-brown mahogany exterior totally restored and gleaming, highly polished, just as it was when someone bought it new way back when.
Some of the highly sought-after restored wooden boats go for as high as $300,000. One boat in the huge bay of Watts’ new building looks at first like it could be Noah’s Ark itself. It is a Canadian-built 1964 Shepherd, 50 feet long, which came to Little Rock Boat Works via its owner, who lives in Chicago. Technically, it is known as an “aft-cabin flush-deck cabin cruiser,” so deluxe and so large it would suit a party of floating royalty on a very big lake. When finished, the boat is likely to fetch as much as $600,000, Watts noted.
Parked not far from the huge boat is a humble fishing boat dubbed “LuLu,” an aluminum boat that was manufactured in 1965 at a now-defunct business called Plaziak Boat Works of Rice. Watts got wind of the boat from its owner, a Rice resident, and bought it for his wife, Elaine, for Mother’s Day.
“Once it’s restored, it’ll be our fishing boat on Little Rock Lake,” Watts said.
The Wattses and their son, Benjamin, 17, have lived on Little Rock Lake just southeast of Rice since 1978.
Boats restored at Little Rock Boat Works go back to their owners, but some are sold to proud new owners. Some personal favorites that Watts and his crews have restored throughout the years include:
- A 1928 DeWitt 16-footer, which won awards for Watts’ restoration and is now in the Maritime Museum in Alexandria, Minn.
- A 1932 25-1/2-foot “Dodge,” made in Newport News, Va., a boat of which only two or three were made in that size-category.
- A 1934 Chris Craft, of which only 62 were made and the only one with a V-12 engine in it.
- A 1940 Chris Craft Barrel-Back Triple Cockpit, only 36 made and only five of them now existing.
- A 1953 27-foot Shepherd, which won “Best of Show” at the Keels and Wheels show in Houston, Texas.
Love of boats
Born in Austin, Minn., Watts enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps for several years and served in the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam. Later, he studied criminal justice at St. Cloud State University because he’d been accepted into the U.S. Marshal Service, which had always been a career goal. But then he started working on boat restoration, which had been a hobby since childhood, and he was permanently hooked, a passion that caused his Marshal Service dream to fade quickly.
For a time, Watts worked as a corrections officer at the Minnesota Correctional Facility, St. Cloud. He retired from there in 1986, at which time he started Little Rock Boat Works.
Watts still has vivid memories of the wooden cabin cruisers he would glimpse on the river when he was a boy visiting the La Crosse, Wis. area. He was a member of a blue-collar working family, and he could only dream of the luxury of owning a dazzling cabin cruiser. That longing for a really fine boat is one reason why Watts started buying old boats and fixing them up.
His restoration skills began in earnest when he was 15, the day his father returned home, a 7-foot homemade boat being towed behind the car. One look at that ramshackle boat, and Watts’ restoration instincts kicked in big-time.
“I’ve always loved boats,” he said. “They’re gorgeous, and they have that aura of mystery.”
One reason Watts moved to a new shop in Rice is because of the Environmental Protection Agency toward which he has a sour attitude.
The EPA fined him for not having a storm-water permit. Watts kept asking other businesses about the storm-water regulation, and nobody knew what he was talking about, he recalled. After awhile, Watts had the distinct impression he and his company were being singled out as a form of harassment.
Then the EPA notified him it would charge him for keeping boats on property outside the company’s building.
Watts said the EPA might not have liked his boats stored outdoors but that many, many other people enjoyed seeing the boats, including boat enthusiasts who would stop to take photos of them and artists who would come to sketch and paint them.
Tired of the EPA and hassles, Watts decided to move to the new building.
Need for workers
A good boat restorer is hard to find, Watts remarked.
“The big problem in this country,” he said, “is people have lost the joy of working. We need motivated labor.”
Watts said he could instantly tell, in some workers he hired, what their home lives were like growing up, with no work ethic as part of the upbringing.
“What I need are some good workers who really want to work and who are handy with a band saw and a block plane.”
Anyone interested in applying should call Watts at 320-393-3370.