Originally created 08/30/98

Staying afloat

LEAH, Ga. -- Mark Weinberger bought his first wooden boat in 1992.

He couldn't help it. It was his destiny.

"We were at a manufacturers trade show," the Evans furniture dealer recalled. "I saw an old boat floating in a display they had set up. It was cool. And I wanted one."

As fate would have it, a classified ad a few weeks later led him to a badly rotted runabout that had seen better days.

"It was shot," he said. "The boards came off in your hand."

After two years of sanding, rebuilding, restoring -- and a lot of sweat -- the worm-eaten Yellow Jacket from Denison, Texas, had been reincarnated into a gleaming showpiece.

And Mr. Weinberger was hooked.

"This boat was popular way back when Clarks Hill Lake was first built," he said. "That's one of the reasons we like coming up here so much."

Mr. Weinberger, his wife, Janet, and their two daughters are rarely alone on the lake, which attracts upwards of 6 million visitors a year, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

"We figure, if we add everything up about boating, about 37 percent of our visitors use boats," said Corps Ranger Annette Carter. "That includes your skiers, pleasure boaters, fishermen and everyone."

The grand total? "We think it's about 2.3 million people."

The busiest boating areas are along Columbia County's shoreline, which includes Tradewinds, Fort Gordon and Little River marinas, she said.

The Weinbergers are among thousands of families who maintain weekend homes along the lake's 1,200 miles of shoreline. Mr. Weinberger's workshop, where he restores and maintains his private navy, is also at Thurmond Lake.

"I grew up coming up here to the lake," he said. "In the '60s, my Dad had a mahogany boat. I don't remember much about it, but I liked it."

Among his many boats, there is a favorite: the 1950 Chris Craft Riviera with its original Hercules six-cylinder motor, mahogany planking and chromed steering wheel.

"When we bought this one, we thought it just needed refinishing," he said. "We were wrong."

But the restoration is fun, especially when the final reward is the ability to operate the boat on a reservoir that has entertained generations of visitors seeking recreation.

His latest "projects" include an E.M. White lapstrake mahogany runabout, with a wood-framed windshield.

"For old boats, you can find almost anything in the way of parts," he said. "And if you can't find it, you can have it made."

The work includes replacing and steam-bending new ribs, sealing joints and trying to keep the relentless sun from destroying a lot of hard work. But restoring even one boat can take years.

"I've learned a lot since we did the first one," he said. "But that doesn't make it much faster."

The Weinbergers are members of the Antique and Classic Boat Society, which takes the family -- and their boats -- to shows far from home. "But we mainly like Clarks Hill," he said.

One of the family's favorite boats -- and the one most popular with water-skiing daughters Karly, 10, and Abby, 7, is a 17-foot mahogany Chris Craft, dating from 1965.

"This is our user boat," Mr. Weinberger said. "The kids water ski from this one, and we keep it in the water all the time."

The boat has a 327 cubic-inch Chevrolet V-8 engine that emits a throaty roar as it glides heavily across the water.

"I love the sound," he smiles. "Some people think they're noisy; I think it's great."


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