Crackpot starts revolution in boats

Almost 50 years later, fiberglass is common
February 5, 2004


It's the perfect example of someone who was in the right place at the right time.

A BOATLOAD OF POSSIBILITIES: To water-loving Michiganders, the Detroit Boat Show starts the countdown to the season

What: Detroit Boat Show.
When: Saturday through Feb. 15.

Where: Cobo Center.

Schedule: Noon-10 p.m. Saturday, Wednesday and Feb. 14; noon-6 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 15; 3-10 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Feb. 12-13.

Tickets: $11 adults, under-12 free with adult, 62-older free Monday. 800-224-3008.

Richard Raber was working in the research division at General Motors in 1955 when the company was experimenting with fiberglass for automobile construction.

That same year, he heard about experimental 14-foot runabouts the U.S. Navy had built with the revolutionary material.

It didn't take long for a man who had already built two wooden boats to put two and two together and come up with the Crackpot, a 24-foot cruiser thought to be the first large fiberglass boat in the world. It was launched in 1957.

The visionary Raber died in 1999 at the age of 82, three weeks after taking his last ride on Crackpot. But the boat is still run every summer by David Hodges of Lake Orion, a relative by marriage who will display it at the 46th Detroit Boat Show, which will run Saturday through Feb. 15 at the Cobo Center.

"Richard was a real innovator," Hodges said. "He and his brother built wooden 24- and 26-footers, but they skinned them with aluminum that they riveted on."

Modern fiberglass boats are made in boat-shaped molds. Raber used a far more difficult and traditional technique.

"He welded together a rigid steel frame, just like a wooden boat has," Hodges said. "Then he stretched the glass fiber cloth over it and covered the cloth with resin. They built the hull up out of several layers of glass and resin until it was about a quarter-inch thick."

The boat originally had axles and wheels molded into the hull so it could be towed without a trailer. Its cruising speed was about 6 m.p.h., so the drag from the wheels had almost no effect on performance or the remarkable fuel economy of about 6 miles per gallon from the 170-horsepower, six-cylinder Ford engine.

Crackpot is among several historic boats and marine oddities that will be displayed at the Detroit show, including a boat shaped like a guitar and a boat that flies.

But the big draw will be more than 1,000 new boats ranging from 10 to 50 feet.

It's no accident that Detroit became a powerboat center. Christopher Columbus Smith lived in Algonac in 1847 when he built a rowboat that was the founding vessel of what became the Chris Craft Co. And the internal combustion engines produced by Detroit's automakers prompted designers from Chris Craft and other area boat builders to create the first recreational powerboats 50 years later.

Ninety-nine percent of what you will see at the boat show is what you would have seen at last year's show.

Boating is a conservative industry, and manufacturers tend to make small, incremental changes in their products rather than major makeovers.

Consumers mostly will see more features for less money than even a couple of years ago. But the show is one of the few places buyers can see nearly all of the boats available in their size or price range and make side-by-side comparisons.

NO. 2: California surpassed Michigan for the national lead in boat registrations in 2002, the latest year reported, said the National Marine Manufacturers Association. California registered 1,051,000 boats, Michigan 1,000,337, followed by Florida at 922,597, Minnesota at 834,974 and Wisconsin at 650,280. Michigan still has more than three times the number of boats per capita as California. The Golden State's population is about 35 million; Michigan has about 10 million residents.