Local crafter of vintage wooden boats gets on board with newer, cleaner technologies

From right: Andrew Lee, owner of Sirens, with Patrick Luloff, head of mechanical at Sirens, and Skipper, a 32-foot Norse hardtop replica boat they restored in 2020.

As aesthetically pleasing as they can be, vintage wooden boats, by their very nature, are noisy, water-polluting crafts that guzzle fossil fuels. 

However, a new generation and changing attitudes are driving a shift in the wooden boat industry, says Andrew Lee, owner of Sirens Boatworks in Merrickville.

“Vintage wooden boats usually run on old, carbureted gasoline engines and they run dirty. They’re smoky, they’re smelly and half the customers — those that have been brought up on them — that’s what they love about them and that’s what I love about them,” chuckles Lee.

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A lot of Sirens’ business is restoring older boats; the company currently has 30 restoration jobs to complete over the winter. But Lee sees his future moving toward building new.

“Long term, it’s easier to build a boat than it is to restore, as far as knowing how much it’s going to cost. You can plan things when you build new, you can know all the steps,” says Lee, who employs 10 skilled craftsmen.

New wooden boats are no longer made from heavy planks, explains Lee, but rather use a lighter and tighter technology. 

“The new technology is cold-molded, where you’re cross-laminating your woods together to create your own plywood, but thicker — there’s no actual plywood,” says Lee.

A Maritimer by birth, Lee has been living and breathing boats since he was a child. His dad worked in the corporate world but built boats in his basement as a hobby and Lee was often called on to help.

“I didn’t enjoy it at the time, we never worked well together, but it planted the seed,” says Lee with a slow smile.

At age 19, Lee went to Rosemount Technology Centre in Montreal for a 15-month intensive course in cabinet-making. Shortly after graduating, a friend of his dad’s hired him to help restore a wooden 1930 Chris Craft boat.

“It was a 26-foot boat that had been converted to a tugboat in the ‘50s and it was actually the Hudson-Oka ferry boat,” recalls Lee.

Once the project was completed, Lee, his dad and the boat owner took the fully restored Chris Craft to a wooden boat show held at the old port in Montreal. It was an experience that opened Lee’s eyes to the magnitude of the wooden boat industry.  

From then on, word of mouth led him to restoring wooden boats for collectors. One thing led to another and he ended up taking a job at Aylings Marina in Merrickville with Steve Flewitt. Lee fell in love with Merrickville and decided to stay. When Flewitt sold the marina to the owners of Voltari Marine Electric, who wanted to develop a “Tesla of the water,” another opportunity opened up for Lee.

“A like-minded wooden boat guy, Sean McCann, bought the property next door to Aylings Marina and said, ‘Andrew, you could be set up over here.’ So I did. There’s lots of room to grow here,” says Lee.

Lee and his team at Sirens build new custom boats from time to time and, when they do, they contract internationally renowned yacht designer Steve Killing to do the design work. 

“There are a lot of boaters thinking about electric power at the moment and, as a summary statement, I would say the major limiting factor is the energy storage,” says Killing.

From a design perspective, Killing explains, there is a lot of space needed within the boat for battery storage, which also becomes significant weight.

“The fact that select manufacturers are making it work with the current technology means that, as the energy storage becomes more efficient in the future, the electric-powered boat will become more practical,” adds Killing.

Spartan Rubacha, Sirens craftsman, working on the forward bulkhead of Skipper.

In the last three to four years, Lee says he’s seen a shift toward cleaner-running wooden boats along with a growing market for custom builds.  

“Half of my customers now are bringing it up. When power is brought up, they’re asking me what’s available in electric,” says Lee.

At Sirens, all customers are encouraged to at least consider more efficient, less polluting engines.

“That was one of the recommendations that we had from Sirens,” says Michael Venables, owner of a 1960s wooden boat and a Sirens repeat customer. “Our boat came with a 1960s motor. It was a two-stroke and very fuel-inefficient. Every time we started it up there was this blue cloud and it was very noisy. So with Sirens’ help we now have a modern four-stroke, much quieter and literally three or four times the fuel efficiency.” 

A combination of environmental awareness and changing regulations is providing the push toward cleaner and more efficient propulsion systems.  

“A lot of the guys in the lower Laurentians are not even allowed to have gasoline engines on their lakes,” says Lee.

Lee believes there’s always going to be a demand for restoration work, but it’s shrinking.

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