Classic Boating (July/August 1999)

Stan Young’s Blending of Art & Machine
By: Bob Boldt

When it became time for me to make my initial purchase of a classic boat in 1991, I was completely blown away when I first saw Big Sky. You could say it was love at first sight. I was fortunate to know the owner, Alan Furth, and when he decided to trim his collection, I was one of the first to get a shot at buying the boats he had decided to let go. I had carefully reviewed the list of available boats and was determined to buy the Greavette Streamliner Canadienne, a Chris-Craft Cobra, or one of three very special Gar Woods. But the first boat I saw was Big Sky and it was all over. bigsky_lake1I couldn’t then, and still can’t, imagine a boat with more perfect lines than Big Sky. The boat simply looks great to me from every angle and it even looked good dusty and on a trailer in one of Alan’s barns that first day. Although I would have bought Canadienne also because of its beautiful lines, I was beaten to the punch by another buyer while I fussed over Big Sky. The Cobra and the Gar Woods weren’t even in the same league, to my eye.

Like many people interested in classic wooden boats, I am also a collector of classic auto-
mobiles. There are basically two types of boat and auto collectors: those who collect on the basis of mechanical design and performance, and those who collect on the basis of emotion and visual design. Although I am an engineer by training and greatly appreciate mechanical design excellence, I definitely fall into the visual design or styling camp of collecting.

To my eye, my two prized auto and boat possessions have a lot in common. My favorite auto is my 1966 Jaguar E-Type roadster. The Jaguar and Big Sky both have beautiful, sensual, curving lines which evoke speed even when at rest. Neither has a bad viewing angle. Both Big Sky and the Jaguar were distinctly different from prevailing contemporary designs. Both have power plants which were considered innovative and effective at the time. And despite their 20 year difference in age (1946 for Big Sky and 1966 for the Jag), both have that ageless design quality which makes them attractive to the full range of observers, from the refined tastes of auto and boat aficionados to the visceral feelings of the casual fan.bigsky_pearce

Big Sky’s appeal spans country lines as well, as the French magazine Moteur Boat ran a several page feature including a two page color picture of Big Sky entitled "Tahoe… Le Lac Incroyable Aux Mille Runabouts En Bois Vernis!" (October 1994) following the 1994 Tahoe Concours event.

Apparently my attraction to Stan Young’s design is widely shared. Big Sky has won "People’s Choice" at the Tahoe Concours four times, including three times in a row (1994, 1996-1998), and came within a few votes of winning the award six times in a row (runner up in 1993 and 1995). No other boat has won "People’s Choice" more than twice, and interestingly, the only boats to win twice were also once owned by Alan Furth. These "People’s Choice" awards are especially satisfying since they result from the votes of spectators at the events and demonstrate the aesthetic appeal of Stan Young’s design. Big Sky also won the Thunderbird Trophy at the Tahoe Concours for "most unique design" in 1995.

The original prototype Stan-Craft torpedo-style runabout was designed and built by Stanley Young in Seattle, Washington, in 1943-1944. Stan Young had moved to Seattle from Polson, Montana, in order to manage the boat-building operations at Shain’s Boat Yard during World War II. While at Shain’s, Stan supervised the construction of many 26’ through 65’ military vessels which proved to be very valuable to the war effort.

The design and construction of the prototype torpedo was a welcome creative outlet from the focused wartime effort, and Stan hoped to produce more torpedoes after the war. The prototype was powered by a Chris-Craft 6 cylinder K engine; most of the hardware was Chris-Craft as well. Stan named the first torpedo Joysid after his two children, daughter Joyce and son Sydney.

bigsky_constructionJoysid was originally promised to Alton Pearce, a pharmacist in Kalispell, Montana, whom Stan had known for many years. However, in an interesting twist, Stan actually sold Joysid to a car dealer in Seattle just before returning home to Flathead Lake in Montana. With Joysid loaded with the family’s possessions, Stan sheepishly called Alton Pearce to say that the car dealer had made an offer he simply could not refuse. Would Alton wait for Stan to build a new and improved torpedo immediately upon his return to Montana? Alton reluctantly agreed and the original torpedo remained in Washington.

With the war over and his work completed in Seattle, Stan returned to Flathead Lake, setting up his boat-building shop in Lakeside. Because of his work with the military during the war, Stan had access to "strategic war materials" which included mahogany and other hardwoods, materials many other boat manufacturers simply could not get. In fact, even Chris-Craft, which had certainly been very active in providing boats for the war effort, was forced to offer painted runabouts constructed of cedar and other substitutes because of the severe shortage of mahogany and other hardwoods.bigsky_construction2

Making good on his promise to Alton Pearce, Stan immediately began work on the second torpedo prototype. Stan elected to build the second torpedo out of Honduran mahogany above the chines and Alaskan cedar for the bottom and framing. He preferred Honduran mahogany because of its finished beauty and because the nature of the wood was well-suited to the complex, compound contours characteristic of the torpedo design. Of course, Honduran mahogany was very scarce and very expensive. Therefore, the bottom and framing of the torpedo and many subsequent Stan-Craft boats were constructed of Alaskan yellow cedar because of its workability, durability, availability, and cost.

Just as the war effort had made mahogany scarce, marine engines were also difficulty to obtain. Stan decided to fit the torpedo with a more powerful engine than the Chris-Craft K engine he had installed in Joysid. Calling on his boat racing connections, Stan pieced together a Gray Fireball racing engine with a horsepower rating somewhere in the 160-190 range.

bigsky_dashAs with all Gray racing engines, the engine Stan put together was custom designed to suit the power and space needs of this particular boat. The intake and exhaust manifolds used and carbs chosen ultimately determined the horsepower rating for each individual engine. Gray considered all such engines experimental. The Gray racing Fireball was one of the most successful racing engines of the 1930s and ‘40s, establishing many speed records and winning many races. The Fireball was an excellent match with the sleek hull of the torpedo and the boat’s performance was excellent by contemporary standards.

After making several hull and general design improvements over Joysid, Stan and his brother Merlin completed construction of the torpedo in 1946 and designated the hull number as #2101. The boat was delivered to Alton Pearce, who paid $3,600 for it. Considering the complexity of design and construction, this price seems a real bargain since it is unlikely that a similar boat could be bought today for the current dollar equivalent of about $37,500. It was also a bargain compared to the 23 foot Custom Runabout from Chris-Craft which listed for $4,290 with a 160hp Chris-Craft engine.bigsky_fireball

The strange looking name chosen by Pearce for the torpedo was 77-II. His son Mike explained that this name was derived from the telephone number of the Pearce Pharmacy in Kalispell, which was simply 77. the family’s first boat, an outboard, was named 77, so 77-II seemed only natural and was very recognizable by most people on Flathead Lake. This second Stan-Craft torpedo, production hull #2101, originally named 77-II, is today known as Big Sky.

As was the case for all boats built by Stan-Craft, Stan did all the design and marine engineering work on Big Sky, as well as much of the construction. Although most would agree that Stan’s torpedo design was an aesthetic triumph, the design is very complex and the boats were extremely difficult to construct. The torpedo design demanded complicated framing and even more complicated planking. The covering boards have curvature reminiscent of Greavette boats from Canada. Many of the planks in Big Sky have three dimensional curves.

Stan’s son Syd remembers that, "when we were kids, the torpedo was the wildest boat we could imagine. It’s without a doubt the most complicated boat design I have ever seen. The wood planks were bent and twisted to their limit."

bigsky_construction3This is high praise for father from son, especially considering that Syd has followed in his father’s footsteps to build hundreds of wooden boats himself. Syd’s respect shows. "I never took my childhood for granted. I loved the lake and inherited my father’s passion for boats. I learned everything I could from him."

All of the hardware on Big Sky today, including the ski tow, is original. The ski tow was designed by Stan and added later as a special request from Alton Pearce. The windshield was custom designed by Stan and produced by a small company in Kalispell. Rather than choosing to use standard Chris-Craft hardware as did many smaller manufacturers, Stan elected to design and build most of the hardware for boats produced by Stan-Craft.

Big Sky was originally powered by a 190 horsepower Gray Fireball engine with three carburetors. When the original engine wore out from heavy use, Pearce brought Big Sky back to Stan to be refitted in 1962. Stan elected to replace the original Fireball 6 with a more powerful and reliable 215 horsepower Interceptor V-8 engine. Stan equipped the new engine with 2 low-profile, side-draft, Carter 2 barrel carburetors, often referred to as "boat burners." Stan also elected to change the location of the exhaust pipes when the new engine was fitted. At this time, the Pearces also had the covering boards bleached or painted white, and the name 77-II was removed.

Big Sky was purchased from the Pearce family in 1976 by Bill Redmond. In 1985, it was purchased by Alan Furth and brought to Lake Tahoe for complete restoration by the Tahoe Boat Company. My wife Paula and I, the current owners, purchased Big Sky from Alan in 1991. Additional restoration and refinishing work was done in 1993 by Tony Brown.

To celebrate its 50th year in 1996, Big Sky was returned to Syd Young for a 50 year make-over. Syd and his team at Stan-Craft in Post Falls, Idaho, restored Big Sky to its original glory by reinstalling the original Gray Marine Racing Fireball engine; returning the electrical system to the original 6 volt operation; reinstalling full leather upholstery and trim, including seat cushions with original stuffing material; reinstalling all original hardware; and making several cosmetic changes. The original Alaskan yellow cedar bottom was replaced with mahogany.

We were very fortunate to be able to consult with Stan Young, who originally designed and built Big Sky, his son Syd, who worked on the boat as a teenager, and Michael Pearce, the son of the original owner, who has very fond memories of literally growing up with the boat.

We were also fortunate to have many original photographs of Big Sky taken by Stan and the Pearce family to use as historical references. We used this information and guidance in restoring Big Sky.

Big Sky has been a wonderful source of pleasure for myself and my family. Although I would hardly call it our everyday boat, we do enjoy cruising on Lake Tahoe during July and August when many other wooden boats are out as well. My oldest daughter Brittany has water skied behind Big Sky, an interesting experience given the unusual wake created by the torpedo stern.