Volume 13, Issue 40 ~ October 6 - 12, 2005
On the Job ~ Bill Donahue
Keeping Up an Annapolis Classic Tradition
by Kat Bennett and Steve Carr

The doorway at Annapolis Classic Watercraft stands open in the hot afternoon. Inside a small tugboat on the floor smiles a welcome. “That’s a present my father made for my son when he was born,” says Bill Donahue, owner and restorer, as he leads the way into his office.

His bookcase is crammed with boat building magazines and books. Models of sailboats, half models of hulls, ceramic lighthouses, boat parts, boat plans, decoys and pictures fill every space. There’s a pair of goggles and an item that looks like a skyhook. “Backscratcher,” Donahue says, and he demonstrates. The desk is a clutter of papers, many associated with the Kent Narrows regatta Annapolis Classic Watercraft is sponsoring.

“This is a mockup of the first boat my dad built,” he says, pointing out a motorboat on a shelf. “My father changed the cabin design, so he made a model first,” Next he turns to a large photo. The cabin lines are neat and trim upon the deck of the completed boat.

Alongside the desk is a lacrosse stick. “I did coach some lacrosse and my son played in high school, but that stick stands there in honor of Jessie, my golden retriever,” he explains. “I used that stick to throw balls for her to chase. She passed away last year, and I still miss her. Bill reaches into his pocket. “These are her tags,” he says. A brief moment of bittersweet quiet passes in an office in Eastport, where all a man needs is a good hat, a good dog and a good boat.

Bill Donahue’s favorite dog is a golden retriever. His favorite boat is Valkyr, a 1937 Viking sailboat, the model for his logo and the only boat he has purchased twice. Bill bought Valkyr in 1975 and lovingly restored her. In 1985, he sold her.

“I knew as soon as she was gone that I made a mistake,” he says.

It took some time, but Bill eventually found his Valkyr in North Carolina. He offered to buy the boat back, but the owners refused to sell. Year after year, he kept writing, but he was always refused. Sometimes the letters were returned unopened. Then, about a year ago, Bill received a call. Valkyr’s owners wanted to sell. Without hesitation, he bought and brought her home. The years of neglect had taken a terrible toll.

“I don’t think I have ever seen a boat this badly damaged,” Donahue said, caressing the hard-worn hull. “But I am restoring her, a little bit at a time.”

A Dream Deferred
A barrel-chested guy with thick sandy hair and mustache, Donahue usually sports the standard Eastport uniform: baseball cap, T-shirt, khaki pants and a well-traveled pair of Sperry sneakers.

The mood around his boat restoration and resale business on Severn Avenue is casual and relaxed. In part, styles are relaxed because Annapolis Classic Watercraft is a family affair. Son Jonathan is following in his father’s woodworking footsteps after returning from college at Duke. Working with them are several part-time craftsmen who drop in for a few hours each week to help restore the three or four different boats on cradles that fill their airy, spacious shop at any given time.

Donahue caught the boat bug from his father, who helped 10-year-old Donahue build his first boat, Hallucination, a purple pram with yellow polka-dots. At 15, Bill bought an old Penguin, which he restored and raced off and on for the next 35 years.

Between then and now Donahue’s life took some twists and turns away from his beloved boats and Bay: A B.A. in psychology from William & Mary, a stint in the Air Force followed by a doctorate degree in education from Boston College and a job as a book editor with Houghton Mifflin in Boston.

Through all his wanderings, the sea kept calling and Donahue never stopped listening. In 1979, he heeded the call, heading back to Maryland with his wife to set up a wood-working shop. He found a small boat to restore. He was home again.

“I have always been the happiest when I was working on boats,” he says.

But working on classic boats wasn’t paying the bills, so Donahue turned again to business, training Washington, D.C., banks in latest computer technology. The job was a boring daily grind beginning and ending with a tedious commute.

“It definitely wasn’t for me,” he says, adjusting his baseball cap.

So in 1990, Donahue set up as a consultant in a rented office in the old Trumpy boat yard in Eastport. He could teach banks how to make more money while he looked out over Back Creek at the boats, the tides and the Bay; he could restore boats right in his backyard.

One of those business-first days, he officially registered a trademark for what ultimately became Annapolis Classic Watercraft. It was a cross-section of Valkyr.

“Heck,” he says, “I didn’t even have a website. But it had always been my dream to own a boat shop where I could restore and sell old classic boats.”

The next time the sea called, he listened.

“I tell this story all the time,” says Donahue of the turning point. “It was a warm day in February 2001, and I had an important letter to mail. There used to be a mailbox at the corner of Severn and Second. I had never used the box before, but that day I decided to get a little fresh air. As I dropped the letter in the mail slot, I noticed a For Rent sign at a place just up the street where Annapolis Performance Sailing was located. Long story short, the building would be available in the next few months. I took the plunge and I never looked back.”

Launching a Dream
The first client was a friend who asked him to restore an old Dyer 29. Another buddy asked him to build Hunky Dory, a seven-foot dingy.

While Bill worked on the boats back in Arnold, his son Jonathan got their new workshop ready for business.

“Believe it or not, no one had ever launched a classic boat business in Annapolis,” says Donahue. “So we really didn’t know how to get started. We had no product and no idea where our market might be — or even if there was one.”

Donahue did a little of everything to get started. He offered workshops in Fiberglas restoration and classes in boat-building technique, partnering with The Wooden Boat School out of Brooklyn, Maine. He also drew people in with a website, with virtual tours and a live web cam showing restorations in process (www.uncommonboats.com).

“The webcam has been very popular,” Donahue says. “One young man who was taking a boat course, his mother watched every day. If the camera wasn’t working, she would call and say, I can’t see my son! So we always knew that the cam was working.”

The on-line shop is a learning lab, too. In the on-line column, “Proptalk,” readers share the sea of knowledge Donahue has accumulated. He also challenges website visitors with a five-question trivia quiz about classic boats. Get all five right and you win a prize. No one has won yet.

The classes and the shop were so popular that the growing business made a line of hats, shirts and work aprons, each sporting that cross-section of Valkyr, the logo designed by Charles Mower. The company hired to do the printing became the first customers to have a boat officially restored at the Severn Avenue workshop.

Living a Dream
Classes have been discontinued at the shop, but Annapolis Classic Watercraft is still a place to learn. “Visitors are always welcome,” says Donahue, who calls talking to people about boats the best part of his job. “I could spend most of my time talking about the boats here.”

If you stop by, ask about the sleek antique racer in the front yard. “That’s what the goggles are for,” Donahue says. “The windshield is so low that you have to wear racing goggles. It’s a lot of fun to drive.”

Check out the mystery boat, skillfully crafted to integrate a variety of design elements. To anyone who can identify the builder, Donahue promises a prize.

For his part, most of what Bill Donahue prizes is now his. Together, father and son work in the family tradition,
giving new life to old boats and voice to their stories.

The Questions: Answer All Five and Win a Prize
  1. The Herreshoff 121&Mac218;2 was designed almost a century ago but is still being built and actively raced today. What was the design’s original name?
  2. Chesapeake Bay log canoes could be described as having a ketch rig. However their unique sailplan is typically given another unusual name. What is the common name of the canoes’ rigs?
  3. In the 1950s and early ’60s, Chris-Craft and Century were direct competitors in the small speedboat market. One major construction technique distinguished the two manufacturers. What was it?
  4. The Wasque 32 was an early version of the lobster yachts that have become so popular today. Unfortunately, Wasque 32s can no longer be built. Why not?
  5. What was the first production Fiberglas yacht produced in the U.S.?

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