With a modest output of mahogany boats, each built by hand and customized down to the smallest detail, the Hacker Boat Company has established itself as an American icon. We paid the storied boatbuilder a visit in upstate New York.
Lake George is known as the Queen of American Lakes; with 32 miles of crystal-clear water and more than 100 islands—44 of them state-owned—the town is a major attraction for outdoor enthusiasts. In winter, the lake can turn into a two-and-a-half-foot sheet of ice, thanks to sub-zero temperatures, but come spring and summer, trucks towing pleasure boats make their way up the mountainous roads as boaters eagerly take to the water. Adirondack chairs line lawns sloping down to the waterfront and, with any luck, tucked into the charming boathouses that dot the shoreline are classic mahogany Hacker-Crafts. The Hacker Boat Company, one of the world’s largest builders of all-mahogany boats (possibly the largest), has been part of this small community for more than 50 years.
John Ludwig Hacker began building speedboats in Michigan in 1908, around the time that his good friend Henry Ford started building cars. The two young men shared a workspace, and odds are they inspired each other to greatness and exchanged ideas. There is a bit of Ford’s Model T in Hacker-Craft: the wheel, dashboard and instrumentation share their design with the car Ford launched in August 1908. John Hacker, an architect credited with the invention of the modern V hull, demonstrated sheer design and engineering genius. He is credited for designing what likely was the first dual landing floats for one of the Wright Brothers’ airplanes. The boats he built claimed multiple speed records. For example, the 26-foot El Lagarto, “The Leaping Lizard of Lake George,” was the first three-time consecutive winner of the APBA Gold Cup in 1933, 1934 and 1935.
Despite this winning legacy, Hacker-Craft suffered during the Great Depression, but in 1939 launched the 55-foot commuter Thunderbird, considered one of the most beautiful wooden vessels of the 20th century. In 2007, the boat, which still rumbles across Lake Tahoe, was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with her own commemorative postage stamp.
In 1959, just two years before John Hacker’s death, William Morgan, a boatbuilder from Silver Bay on Lake George, acquired a controlling interest in the company and in the 1970s began building Hacker-Craft boats at his facility. An odd collection of small, shingled buildings on Silver Bay’s waterfront became Hacker-Craft’s home for decades. The humble surroundings never stopped the Hacker-Craft craftsmen from taking pride in their work. Alan Montbriand, vice president of operations, has worked for the company for 17 years. Give him any hull number and he can provide you with all the boats’ details, from memory. “I’ve seen hundreds of boats go through, and each time I’m still in awe, they feel like my children.”
It is part of what attracted George Badcock, an international businessman and wooden boat collector, to Hacker-Craft. He bought into the company a few years ago and in June 2011 acquired sole ownership. One of the first projects of the now president and CEO was to build a 32,000-square-foot production facility on three acres of land in nearby Ticonderoga, N.Y. The original location in Silver Bay is now used for offices and a beautiful new showroom. The spirit of Hacker-Craft is very much alive here. Smack in the middle of the showroom is a 30-foot Gentlemen Long Deck Racer, with a red bottom, white waterline stripe, red piping interior—a show stopper. The design is inspired by the Gentlemen’s Racers of the 1920s. This design showmanship goes hand-in-hand with another distinctive feature: The Hacker-Craft boats produce a very distinctive rumble. Pull into any dock and, sight unseen, motorboat enthusiasts will know that sound. And then they’ll stare.
It still amazes Ken Rawley, Hacker-Craft’s director of communications, how the boat turns heads. “Arrive at a restaurant and people just stop eating and stare in admiration. It’s an absolutely gorgeous boat, like art on the water,” he says. “People are attracted to a Hacker-Craft because they want to be seen in something that is dramatic and distinctive from the vast majority of boats out there. If they can afford it, they buy a Hacker-Craft because they want to buy something that is high quality, well made and has panache.” This could explain the prestigious roster of Hacker-Craft owners, which includes celebrities such as designer Tommy Hilfiger, singer Bon Jovi (who bought one for his father) and popular TV chef Rachel Ray (who keeps one on Lake George).
A handmade Hacker-Craft takes an estimated 1,600 hours to build and costs an average of $200,000. These days many boat owners choose to order their boats online without ever feeling the need to visit the facility, such is the reputation and integrity of the company. But, to visit the facility and watch a Hacker-Craft come to life is worth the visit. The beauty is in the details. To make the Hacker-Craft name on the side of the boat, for instance, an artist lays out the gold leaf, swirls a pattern into the gold and then outlines the name in black by hand. If you look at the screws on deck, you’ll notice all the screw heads match up. And the varnish? Fourteen coats are applied, all by hand. The deck is comprised of individual, grooved planks. After staining and varnishing the wood, craftsmen use their fingers to press into the grooves a compound that results in beautiful white stripes. Without revealing trade secrets, suffice to say that the hull construction is a meticulously time-tried and tested process. The boat bottom is made of mahogany sealed with epoxy sealer. Construction involves two layers of crisscrossed plank and then longitudinal outer plank. During the entire construction process, including the making of the bottom, interior frames, the keel, sides and deck, the boat goes through 30 to 40 hours of fairing and sanding.
Currently, Hacker-Craft is working on a new yacht tender design. The famous Christina O already has two Hacker-Craft tenders. The intent of the new design is to build a more seaworthy hull with increased freeboard. Naval Architect Jeff Brown says greater maneuverability and the ability to customize each tender specifically for the mothership are key to the new design. “Typically our tender will be the second of two tenders: The first is more of an utilitarian design, reserving the Hacker-Craft for special-occasion use and functions such as taking the lady of the ship ashore or functioning as a cocktail launch,” he says.
For Badcock, who has spent his summers in Lake George for 30 years, ownership of Hacker-Craft is a dream come true, the capstone of his career. “There is a growing market for Hacker-Craft: They’re beautiful; we’ve significantly improved the quality; and we have very talented people building them. We have a good future.”
For more information, visit hackerboat.com