Bertram Gathering on the Crystal Coast
BY BRIAN CLAREY
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SCOTT TAYLOR
It's Saturday morning at the Beaufort public dock and the Rapscallion has been here all night, moored by the fudge shop among a small fleet of her sisters.
Owner Lin Spears has been here all night too, schmoozing and deck-hopping from his Rapscallion over to the Annie C, the Buddy Boy, the Island Girl, owned by others who share his penchant for this classic boat: the Bertram 31.
"The 31 is more than just a boat," Lin says. "It's like a love affair." The run to Harriers Island rolls at nine this morning. It's an annual event, like an anniversary or the prom, and Lin had trouble sleeping in his V-berth the night before. After cleaning the Rapscallion and preparing her for the jaunt across the mouth of the North River and through the Intracoastal Waterway to Harriers, Lin makes rounds on the dock, greeting the other Bertram owners as they arrive and tie to the pier. Some he's known for 30 years, since before his own passion for the 31 manifested itself in the purchase of a classic Bertram in 1984. Others are more recent acquaintances, but good friends nonetheless. They have no formal name, this loose amalgamation of Bertram 31 owners, and this is only their second run out to Harriers – the first trip was a three-boat flotilla to Ocracoke in 2002. They laugh when they say they're part of the Bertram 31 "cult," but not a one of them would ever consider giving theirs up.
The story of the Bertram 31 is the stuff of boating legend. In 1960, Miami boat dealer Dick Bertram commissioned designer C. Raymond Hunt to build a powerboat to resemble a tender he had seen cutting through the chop in Block Island Sound. The concept was revolutionary: a deep-v hull that held its shape to the transom with a dead rise of about twentyfour degrees — common practice was to use a flattened transom to achieve a plane. The two-piece hull was made of the new material fiberglass and featured a system of strakes to accomplish the lift necessary for angle atop the water.
Bertram entered this boat, a 31-foot open cruiser he named Moppie after his wife, in the 1960 Miami-Nassau Ocean Power Boat Race. Conditions were rough that day – some say the seas reached eight to twelve feet – but Moppie sliced through them in a rough and wet run through the Caribbean to cross the finish line in record time.
The legend says that Bertram didn't want to get into the boatbuilding business, but after his much-publicized run he got too many requests to turn away. Before he was done the Bertram 31 came in four configurations: the Open Sportfisherman, with a lower steering station; the Flybridge Cruiser, which added an aft bulkhead to enclose the cabin; the hardtop, which bore the closest resemblance to the original Moppie, and also the Bahia Mar, an express cruiser. In an era of wooden boats with flat transoms, the Bertram was something of a renegade. But its clean lines, ergonomic floor plan and heavy-duty performance made it the forerunner to the modern fishing boat and its influence can still be seen on the waters today. No significant changes were made to the original Bertram hull, and in all of its recorded history there has never been a report of a hull failure.
Like the Shelby Cobra; like the Indian motorcycle; like the 1976 Super Beetle, the 1963 Corvette, the P51 Mustang or even the Model T Ford and the Tucker, Bertram 31's are sought-after collectors' items. Less than 2,000 of them were made between the early sixties and when production ceased in the eighties, but fans of the boat will tell you that you can see them everywhere. Clean lines, a low flybridge and a large stern deck are hallmarks of this vessel's unique blend of form and function, and though all of them are at least 20 years old, they certainly don't look out-of-date on the water. Like a good brick house or reruns of "I Love Lucy," the Bertram 31 has lost nothing over time.
John C. Williams bought his Bertram 31, the Sawdust, in 1973 from the factory in Miami when it was "I paid twenty-six five for it brand new," he remembers. Knowing what they go for now, he wishes he had bought four of them. After 30 years of hard use, it still has the original layout and most of the original parts. The Bertrams came with a stand-up head and a mini-galley and a generous v-berth below. Just about all of them had a flybridge and tower, and the Sawdust has an aft bulkhead which is not molded to the body of the boat, enabling it to be removed or replaced. The decking is original, a composite made by Nautolex which is still on the market, as is the entire body. He's replaced the engines three or four times but has always used gas-powered ones, staying true to the original design.
"John C is like the godfather to us," Lin says. "He's a purist. When I got my boat I wanted it to be like his." Lin bought his 1970 Flybridge Cruiser in 1984 after spending lots of time on John C's boat. He repaired the deck with the original materials and freshened up the interior. To maintain its seaworthiness, Lin has basically rebuilt everything from the toilet to the steering system and made adjustments to the structural and mechanical components. He's also fitted her with twin diesels.
Aspiring owners look for Bertrams in boatyards, at auctions, in estate sales and, more recently, on the internet, where news of a Bertram up for sale spreads like a holy prophecy among the faithful. Even dilapidated Bertrams in need of major repairs can go for five figures; working units with original equipment can cost as much as a new boat. And Bertrams that have been lovingly restored command a very high price indeed.
"Not bad for a small gathering of Eagles," says Captain Patrick McCrary, having a last smoke on the Beaufort dock before go-time. The eagle is the symbol on the flank of every Bertram 31, and Capt. Patrick is an honored guest up today from Palm Beach, Florida: he's the man who founded www.bertram31.com, the definitive website for Bertram enthusiasts and the place where plans for this cruise originated. McCrary, who restores Bertrams down in Florida, started the site as a bulletin board four years ago and it has since grown to encompass history pages, building tips, a parts database (parts have been discontinued for twenty years), and instructions on how to hold an event like the one we're at today.
"I didn't expect to get 600, 650 thousand hits a month," the captain admits. That's a staggering figure, especially since Bertram made only 1,860 31s between 1961 and 1985. And consider this: though they've been out of production for as long as they were actually in production, Bertram 31s are still in use all over – and I mean all over – the world.
The cops in the port of San Diego have one, as do harbor cops in Thailand. On the website are pictures of 31s taken up and down the eastern coast of the US, in Alaska and Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Canada and Mexico. Hardy Bertram 31s also survive in Portugal, Monaco, Sweden, Japan, Italy, South Africa, the West Indies and Tahiti.
Today Captain Patrick drives the Buddy Boy, a Bertram 31 which he rebuilt for North Carolina boater and Beaufort businessman Jim Bailey. Pat's here at the behest of Lin and the other 31 owners, most of whom are regular visitors to his site and all of whom stop to listen when he's talking about the 31.
In his boots, Harley Davidson t-shirt and nicotine-stained beard, Patrick looks more like a biker than a boater, but he's a celebrity in the Bertram world and his restorations are legendary. For the Buddy Boy, Capt. Patrick planed off some of the more stark angles and glassed in the body and hull to make it all one piece. He added a fish box to the transom — from a kit he designed and sells on his site — and installed a new windshield he built to the same specifications as the original, but he kept the overall Bertram shape, as distinctive on the water as a Carolina flare or Boston Whaler.
"What I'm trying to do is maintain the classic integrity in the exterior," he says. "In the cabin area I take full artistic license."
Inside the teak and maple cabin he's elevated the overhead by six inches and routed all the electricity through a dropdown panel. The head he shortened by a few inches but added a rounded corner door to make the space more efficient. In the galley, what was once merely functional became almost extravagant with an ingenious system of drawers for storage of food, utensils and appliances. "This is Jim Bailey's picnic boat," Patrick says, working the cigarette in his mouth at the dock. "It's his challenge to Martha Stewart."
He snubs the smoke and climbs to the flybridge. It's time to roll out.
"Gentlemen, start your engines," Lin shouts through cupped hands from his own captain's loft. The 31s roar into life, some with the original gas engines and some, like Lin's which have been refitted with diesel. The sun climbs higher in the sky as we peel from the public dock at Beaufort and move out through the channels into open water. Lin takes the point as the other classic boats flank him on either side. Their wakes mingle and roil when they open up in the ICW and the hulls, which, if they were people, would be old enough to have families, perform admirably in the light chop.
At the approach to Harriers Point, the flotilla forms a column nine boats long, a string of Bertram 31s spanning time and space, arcing into the (ICW) on the North Carolina coast.