By Richard Shorney, photos by the Shorney Family
This story is about “Little Joe”, a somewhat lost, 10 1/2 foot step plane race boat originally manufactured by the Brooks Boat Company in the United States of America. Little Joe is a vintage step plane originally designed and manufactured as a “kit boat” that one could purchase pre-assembled for $55.50 in 1930.
Perhaps before I take you through this amazing story, I might tell you how my interest in wooden boats first started. In the mid 1950s as a young boy of seven, my late father, Cliff Shorney, encouraged my older brother Bill and I to learn the art of building small wooden model boats. Many a winter evening and weekend was spent in assembling, sanding and finishing these small balsa and mahogany wood boats.
As the years went by, my Dad, who founded the Metro Marine Modelers Association was approached by the late Harold Shields to assemble a small “fleet” of wooden model boats and to put them on display at the Toronto International Boat show in mid winter. This very popular exhibit blossomed into demonstrating both electric power boats and sailboats in a man-made pond located on the upper level of the original “Automotive” building in the C.N.E. grounds and continuing for many, many years.
As I grew older, my interest in small wooden boats expanded in the early sixties to building an eight foot hydroplane – known to many as the Minimax. Later, my project building expanded to include an inboard Glen-L ski boat, the “Thunderbolt” powered by a 430 cubic inch Lincoln engine.
College, marriage, fatherhood and my career left me little time for hobby interests. However, in 2005 and 2006, my interest in old wooden boats was rekindled at the Toronto Boat show where I saw a beautiful display of timeless treasures in the ACBS booth. At the time, I decided the wooden boat hobby had remained dormant far too long. To reawaken this wonderful interest, I joined the ACBS knowing there was much knowledge to be learned. My hope was to relive the past and try to find an old original hydroplane, like the type Bill and I raced back in the early 1960s. The search began.
In 2006, I signed up for the Winter Workshop as well as the Muskoka Spring Tour. By the time I spent the day at the Winter Workshop at Dwight Boyd’s, I really knew I was “hooked”. Destiny must have accompanied me on the Muskoka Spring Tour because on that day, April 22nd, I discovered “Little Joe” by sheer accidental luck. When touring the fabulous boathouse and workshop display at Dukes Marine in Port Carling, I was standing in the lower level at Dukes boathouse admiring the beautifully restored mahogany boats and launches moored inside. As I carefully walked across the wood floors from one boathouse area to the next, the top of my head accidentally brushed against something suspended from the rafters. I suddenly stopped, raised my right hand to the top of my head and it hit something metallic. I froze and cautiously looked above to see what I had bumped. At first glance, I could see a small piece of circular black foam rubber tubing that was taped covering a small shiny surface. Low and behold, it was an aluminum racing fin. As I looked closer, this aluminum fin was securely attached to the bottom of a small wooden boat that had a “step” running side to side across the bottom of this little craft. Carefully taking a few paces backward, not wanting to fall into the icy water, I looked up and realized that this was an old outboard race boat with the name “Little Joe” hand painted on each side of the hull. Further observation told me that this craft had a small transom for an outboard motor, a most unusual bow design along with a front and side stretched red canvas covering over the deck framework. My heart was pounding with excitement and my digital camera was busy capturing this special moment.
After a short period of time and with great excitement and anticipation I went to ask several people if they knew the owner of this little vintage speedboat suspended in the boathouse rafters. I was directed upstairs to the main workshop to ask for a gentleman named Ed Skinner. He was pointed out to me by a staff member and I cautiously approached him with guarded excitement. I then explained to this gentleman about “bumping” into this little boat downstairs in his boathouse. Many questions nervously followed about the boat, it’s history and if it was available for sale. With a warm friendly smile, Ed was gracious enough to answer most of my questions. He cautiously said that Little Joe was not owned by him but his aunt, Mrs. Helen Knox who at that time was in her 90s and resided at the Bracebridge Villa Retirement Residence. He told me that over many, many years several inquires to purchase Little Joe had been refused for one reason or another and that Aunt Helen was not prepared to sell this little boat until she felt comfortable with the perspective buyer. My racing heart sank, feeling there was little chance of acquiring this boat. With sincere thanks to Ed and Linda Skinner, I left for the Community Hall and enjoyed a delicious hot lunch. But all I could think about was Little Joe. Before setting out to see a couple more Muskoka restoration shops that afternoon, I just had to return to Dukes boathouse one more time to see Little Joe.
When I re-entered the boathouse, I was filled with mixed emotions. Would I be able to purchase Little Joe with the owner’s approval or would I become just another disappointed perspective buyer? I took a few minutes to shoot several more photographs of Little Joe from every conceivable angle, said my thanks and goodbye to Ed and Linda, leaving to continue with the remainder of the afternoon tour. The following week I could not get Little Joe off my mind. I decided to write Ed and thank him for taking the time during that busy Saturday to answer my questions about this little race boat and to let him know just how interested I was in securing this beautiful treasure. I assured Ed that I would take good care of Little Joe. Several days later I telephoned Ed to see if he had an opportunity to discuss the possible sale of Little Joe with his aunt. He had spoken to Aunt Helen but as yet no decision had been made.
On the 12th of May at 12:30 p.m., I received a telephone call from Ed saying he had an opportunity to talk with Aunt Helen and a final decision was made. As my heart pounded with excitement, Ed told me that Aunt Helen felt that I was the “right” candidate for her little race boat. Terms and pick-up time were quickly discussed and accepted by all. I was ecstatic! On the morning of May 15th, Bill and I drove to Muskoka with a small borrowed utility trailer to pick up Little Joe. We arrived at Dukes about 8:15 a.m. and with assistance from staff, we proceeded downstairs to lower Little Joe from the rafters after many years of isolated solitude. The delicate craft was carefully lowered and placed in the cold dark water. Because of the harsh winter snow and ice build up, the only way to move Little Joe out of the boathouse was to paddle it out and around the end of the boathouse over to Dukes boat launch ramp. Before I could blink, Ed jumped into the boat with the custom paddle in hand and wearing the original racing helmet. The helmet still had the original race number C-26 and its hand painted name on it. Ed proceeded to paddle this little craft out of the boathouse slip and so its journey began. Within about ten minutes, he had safely paddled over to the ramp dock. We carefully lifted the boat up onto the trailer, noticing there was less than a cup of water that had entered the hull. The boat was carefully secured and I was ready to finalize the purchase with Ed. At the time, he said he could not accept the payment as it had to be given to Aunt Helen in person at the Bracebridge Villa Retirement Residence. Arrangements had already been secured and she was there awaiting my arrival.
With thanks to Ed and his staff, Bill and I drove down to the Villa with Little Joe in tow. We met Aunt Helen and had an enjoyable visit asking her a few questions about Little Joe and then settled our account. Prior to leaving, I asked her if she would like to come outside to see Little Joe again after all these years. With a big smile she gamefully agreed, put on her jacket and proceeded outside for one last look. Seeing this little boat again after so many years brought back many wonderful memories for her. She told us that her late husband raced the boat at Picton, Ontario and at the summer C.N.E. boat races in August back in the fifties. She even remembered how it was strapped onto their car roof racks with the outboard motor inside the trunk. After taking more pictures, we said our goodbyes and headed to our cottage just outside of Dwight on Lake of Bays to put Little Joe away in his new home.
In July of that year, I decided to take Little Joe out for its first public showing at the ACBS Gravenhurst boat show. The response was tremendous with many questions being asked. This vintage race boat brought a whole new meaning to the phrase “boathouse fresh”. My intentions were to restore this boat to its full original potential. However that was not the general feeling I received from the public and many avid antique boat collectors. Over the past two plus years, it has been displayed at the Gravenhurst show, the Clayton Race Boat Regatta and the Buffalo Launch Club meets. Most recently, it was displayed this January at the Toronto International Boat Show, lovingly cradled in its shiny new custom designed tandem “rolling boat house” trailer. Consistently from show to show, the majority of collectors and onlookers have all said the same thing. “Don’t restore it; just preserve it as part of Canadian race boat history”.
Early February last year, I received a courtesy call from fellow member Ken Kirk who saw on an eBay site, an old boat plan book for sale that had a picture of a step plane kit which looked very similar to Little Joe. Ken was kind enough to give me the eBay item number and I quickly sought out my computer. Low and behold, it was an original 48 page 1930 sales booklet showing a picture of the identical boat design called the “Champion Junior”. Within a few days, I secured that plan book, thanks to Ken’s response. There are four pages showing this step plane design in different stages of construction.
This example of open communication to help other fellow ACBS members again strengthens the many reasons why being a member of this great organization is so helpful to all of us. The numerous resources we share are invaluable. I will never forget Ken’s thoughtfulness.
Now I find myself in a real quandary – do I restore or do I preserve? With careful consideration, I have decided to first try and find an original set of drawings for this step plane boat. If successful, I would like to build a new replica called Little Joe 2 and have one for “go” and one for “show”. This year my research will continue, hopefully being fortunate enough to secure some plans. If found, I shall set forth in constructing a new Little Joe 2.
As things develop, I will keep you apprised. Until then, I look forward to seeing many of you at the next ACBS meet. Remember, keep your eyes focused and your head alert as you never know what you might “bump” into. For you vintage speedboat racers, may the water be flat and your green top run at peak performance.