Between 1965, when the first Grand Banks splashed into the water at Hong Kong, and 1973, American Marine launched more than 1,400 GB and Alaskan yachts.

Each was meticulously hand built of wood by Asian shipwrights. The hulls were planked with heavy, durable mahogany; the frames were yacal, a tough tropical hardwood. Finely-fitted and richly-hued teak was used generously throughout the interior and in hand and cap rails.

Over three decades little has changed at Grand Banks, except the material from which yachts are built. Today, fiberglass rules with teak continuing in a decorative role.

An expert looking across a crowded summer anchorage can't tell the difference between a well-kept 1973 woodie and a 1993 fiberglass yacht. The company has made no major design changes since Ken Smith drew the lines for the first Grand Banks, a 36-footer, in the early 1960s.

The company gave its boats a few more inches of beam and length in the late 1980s. Yachts of this millennium probably are glossier, sexier, and more sophisticated, but at heart they are no different than the first woodies delivered nearly 35 years ago.

Regardless of age, Grand Banks yachts are well-built, comfortable sea boats much in demand because of their well-deserved reputation for quality.

Today, the base price of a new 36 is $350,000. Taxes and commissioning easily will push the total to $400,000 or more. A 42 Classic - the famous tri-cabin- today has a base price of about $550,000. Larger engines, electronics, heat and air conditioning, and other goodies and taxes will kick the final price somewhere close to $625,000.

Here's why woodies are interesting. A 32-footer of the teak-and-mahogany generation today will fetch between $40,000 and $60,000 depending on condition; when GB quit building the baby yacht a few years ago, it was priced at $200,000. A wood 36 Classic, with two staterooms, two heads, and a modest-sized saloon, will range from $60,000 to $80,000: superb specimens will go for more.

The 42 woodie will be priced from $100,000 to $125,000, depending on age and condition.

Boost those prices by 30 to 50 percent, to cover work that may be needed to make the woodies near perfect, and they still are affordable yachts costing $150,000 or less.

American Marine built wood 48 and 50-foot GBs, too. They are not often on the market and usually are priced in the range of $200,000-$250,000, well above our arbitrary precie cap. Those big yachts, however, along with the entire fleet of Alaskan pilothouse cruisers, represent the best on the market for those looking for a boat to live aboard.

With large saloons and cockpits, galleys with home-sized appliances, ship-like pilothouses with watch berths and settees, and multiple staterooms and heads, the big GBs and Alaskans remain much in demand today, despite their age.

When American Marine switched to fiberglass in 1973, it perhaps could not afford building molds for a fleet of GBs and for the bigger (at 46, 49, 53, and 55 feet) Alaskans. Perhaps the decision was to concentrate on the boat for which American Marine was best known - the Grand Banks.

Whatever the reasons, American Marine missed a sure bet and a big market by dropping the Alaskan line. Others picked up the style, and Ocean Alexander and De Fever, among others, now produce boats whose styling comes directly from the Alaskans.

The company is developing a new pilothouse boat, to be called the Aleutian. It has built a model, pictures of which may be seen on the company's website: grandbanks.com. Construction has not been scheduled for the 64-footer, a yacht sure to cost close to $2 million, because the American Marine production lines in Malaysia and Singapore are booked solid with orders for new GBs and their sistership line, the Eastbay.

For most of us, it will not be an affordable boat. For those with a strict budget, or who don't want to spend that much discretionary income on a boat, the new GBs simply increase the lure (and the value) of the old woodies.

Constantly rising prices for new boats enhances the value of wood GBs too. These aging yachts sell for several times their original cost, and good ones will continue to increase in value.

For those willing to search diligently, there are some great buys out there.

Ugh, Wood

Wait a minute. Wood gets old, it cracks, it rots, it needs paint and varnish. It takes expert skills to repair and paint a wooden boat, an if a boat is 30 years old its engine is probably shot. Wood boats can smell of mold and mildew, and diesel fuel that has impregnated bilge planks.

All true.

On the other hand, advocates say wood boats are quieter and that wood offers excellent insulation. And, in an argument from the heart, they say that wood is real, organic, and living, not muck from the bottom of a chemist's vat.

True, too.

Most problems occur because a boat has been neglected, because it has not been painted and bedded, because window leaks have not been fixed, because its mechanical systems have not been upgraded and babied, because it has been ignored.

Doesn't mean it's a bad boat.

It does take more skill to paint a wood boat than to clean and polish fiberglass. However, once a wood boat has a tightly clinging coat of paint, once the hardware and deck fittings have been bedded, once corrosion control has been reestablished, and once the engine room has been brought up to snuff, most of the problems that can damage a woodie have been brought under control.

Ignore a new yacht for a year or two, and it will begin to deteriorate. The gel coat gloss will dim, colors will become chalky, brightwork will dry and crack, and the engine room equipment will suffer from a lack of use. It takes a lot of work to keep a fiberglass boat healthy, too.

Starting from the top, trouble on a wood GB is usually first found in the plywood used to build the deckhouse. Water seeps in around windows, eventually causing rot in the plywood side walls. The brow of the bridge and bridge seats also are common problem areas.

Penetrating rain causes some rot. On the bridge, the crew unwittingly encourages it. The seat boxes on the older GBs are not ventilated and lack the teak grates found on newer yachts. Wet docklines and life jackets tossed under the seats for storage are crammed ito corners and hold moisture which, with no way to escape, is an added stimulant for decay.

In the Pacific Northwest, rain drips in around poorly-sealed windows to create science projects in the side walls. In California and Florida, owners wash down their boats and then quickly cover them - in the interest of protection from the sun- with the same ill results.

Cockpit lazarettes on the Classics and Europas harbor the bugs that cause rot. Throw in wet lines and fenders and other damp stuff and decay will show in the plywood base of the hatch cover, and possibly in soft planking at the transom corners.

If owners have been overly zealous in deck cleaning, using coarse sandpaper and damaging chemicals too often, the teak planking may be worn. But it was such thick wood in the first place, the chances are that it is still okay.

Thiokol caulking between the decks plank may be gone or cracked. If so, water may have penetrated into the decks plywood base.

Moisture also encourages decay in deck framing beneath the saloon door on 32s, in the bulwarks on some Alaskans, and at the point where decks change elevation.

While the plywood deckhouse is vulnerable, the mahogany planking is virtually bulletproof. Seldom does a surveyor find decay in underwater planking, and when it does appear, it may be wood burn or electrolysis around a through-hull fitting and not true rot.

Metal decays, too.

After 25 years, fuel tanks could be ready for replacement. On GBs, the fuel tanks are outboard of the shaft logs and salt water sprayed on the tanks quickly causes rust. (How easy that is to prevent: Take a two-liter pop bottle, cut off the pouring spout and split the large part down the middle. Fold it over the stuffing box and quit worrying about salt splashes on the tanks.)

Water leaking around the deck fill plates is equally as destructive to the top of a fuel tank.

The bonding system likely is tired. Limber chains probably are broken and the limber holes filled with dirt.

On some of the oldies, the chine block (timber framing at the chine, where bottom or deadrise planking meets the side of the boat) may pull loose from planks to which it is screwed. This is "one of the biggest ticket items to fix," says Bunker Hill, a Los Angeles-area surveyor with years of experience on wood boats.

However, Hill adds, the chine block probably doesn't need fixing for boats that cruise peaceful, inland waters.

Hill said chine block movement can be seen and felt in distortion along the line where the deadrise turns. From inside, it may be possible to see that a couple of bottom planks have pulled away from the chine log.

Old Grand Banks usually have their original engines. Normally, it will be a 120-hp Ford Lehman diesel, although American Marine also used John Deere and Caterpillar engines.

Even after 30 years, a yacht engine may have less than 6,000 hours of running time on the clock. That's not much for a block that could run 20,000 hours with good care and upgrades.

Parts are available, although it may take some determine scrounging, particularly for the systems GB added to the Deere block it converted for marine use.

American Marine unfortunately chose to install a marine version of the General Motors Toro Flow diesel, in V6 and V8, and turbocharged and naturally aspirated models. It was a truck engine that was not well accepted by the trucking industry.

A Florida company called Daytona Marine added water-cooled exhaust manifolds and turbochargers (on some) and began selling the engines for marine use. While they performed acceptably well, and cranked out a lot of horsepower (250 for the turbo V6), the GM/Daytona/Toro Flow engines today are obsolete.

Parts are not available. Period.

If a decent boat comes along with beat up, high hour Fords or Cats, or with one of the unfortunate Daytona conversions, a wise buyer would negotiate the price to a level that would permit installation of new engines.

(With the engines out, it could be time for a general revamping of the engine room and for replacement of the fuel tanks. Big bucks, no doubt.)

Obviously, anyone shopping for a woodie wants to identify problems BEFORE writing a check. The goal should be to minimize the size of the project by buying a boat that has had generations of loving care, or which has been brought back to life in a restoration.

To find the best boat, a buyer should make some judgements: From a few hours poking around, one can almost always determine if a boat is a loser, or if it may be okay. If a GB passes that gut level test, then one must find skilled surveyors of wood boats, and the best engine surveyors, before making a final commitment. Once the boat is purchased, there may be a need for talented shipwrights, electricians and mechanics.

May is the proper word. Not all old Grand Banks yachts are wrecks. Many have been pampered and/or lightly used.

Reprinted Passagemaker 10/00

Return