Wooden Boats, Lifeblood of Les Cheneaux Islands in Northern Michigan

Soon, I’m sitting on a boathouse deck with Al and Pam Reilly and their daughter, Sarah. The Reillys didn’t have a place on Marquette Island until 1987, but their deep love of wood boats helped them quickly assimilate. This afternoon Al has a big book in hand, each page-spread a different boat that Chris Craft made, covering 70 years of production. As he discusses minutiae of various models, a boat motors by in the channel.

“That was a 22-foot utility,” Pam says. Often she identifies boats just by the sound of their engines. When discussing a wood boat around here, I learn that unless otherwise specified, it’s a Chris Craft.

Al bought the family’s first wood boat, a 17-footer, back in 1983 while traveling in Connecticut and hauled it back home to Cincinnati. “It was pretty,” he says, “but “like all boaters, you always want a bigger, faster boat.” Plus he wanted to restore one. “There’s something about restoring your own mortality when you bring your own boat back.”

Eventually they set their sights on Chris Craft’s sexiest wood boat of all, a triple-cockpit model; people call them “triples.” They named it Cherokee, because the woman they bought it from was of Cherokee descent. Al squeezed the triple into his garage in a Cincinnati suburb, but still, a third of it stuck out the door. He spent untold hours stripping the boat, dismayed to find 10 layers of aqua-green marine paint on the bottom.

“He would come into the house looking like the Jolly Green Giant,” Pam says.

Within a couple of years, the Reillys got involved in a somewhat clandestine event that has become part of Les Cheneaux lore: a 1-mile drag race of triples, usually three of them, but some years up to five. Date and location are agreed upon and passed by word of mouth. Spectators arrive on boats of their own to watch the bit of 1930’s Great Gatsby-esque time travel on the water.

Well, sort of 1930’s. What spectators can’t see is the modern arms race of horsepower that goes on in the engine compartments. The participants have each swapped out and/or super-charged their engines over the years. “At one point I was told I better improve the speed of the boat if I was going to stay a member of the family,” Al says, and casts a wry smile at his wife. Al has won most of the races, but in 2008, a guy came in with a 710 horsepower Ellison racing engine. Al’s voice takes on a soft note of resignation as he says his own engine puts out 525 horses.

Up here, people trace the lives of old boats like others do family genealogy, the Reillys tell me. “They know which boathouse a boat lived in. Who owned it. With every boat, somebody has a story, and they take on real personality,” Al says. For locals, “it’s a thrill to get a boat back that was in the family 60 or 70 years ago.”

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