Virginia native Jim Williamson is no stranger to the water. Born in Radford, his mother took him to Claytor Lake often. “I’ve been water skiing since I was 7,” he says. “Just about every month we’d come to the lake, even in the dead of winter.” The water craft of choice on cold days was the jet ski, since it was the quickest vessel to winterize. “Just add a little anti-freeze and you’re good to go,” he recalls. “It’s great to slalom behind a jet ski because it doesn’t produce a huge wake.”
Williamson is a self-proclaimed boating fanatic. He owns six boats: a Mastercraft professional ski boat, a Mobjack sail boat, a Polaris jet ski, a Carolina Skiff fishing boat, an older boat he bought to use the motor and trailer for the wooden boat he is building, and his beloved 1956 Chris Craft Sportsman, aptly named “The Virginian.”
This flame red beauty was originally called the “Woo Baby,” and she turns heads wherever she goes. One of a couple thousand ever made, she was sold to a marina in New York not long after rolling out of the Chris Craft factory doors in Cadillac, Mich., 61 years ago. He doesn’t know how she made it to Lexington, N.C., but that’s where he purchased his dream boat three years ago. He eyeballed the North Carolina craigslist posting more than two years until he had the money, and she was still available.
The 17-footer has a Tango Red interior and is built entirely of mahogany planking. She is powered by a Hercules 95 horsepower flat head 6 cylinder with a single, Zenith one barrel updraft carburetor. “She will run about 30 miles per hour, which was pretty fast for a boat in 1956,” Williamson boasts.
Although Williamson didn’t build the boat, he knows a thing or two about boatmaking. He is a two-time graduate of WoodenBoat School’s two-week course in boat design and restoration on the coast of Maine. “I like to buy things on the cheap and fix ‘em up myself,” he reveals. “It’s more of a challenge and can be exciting, too.” When he bought the Chris Craft classic, he loaded her on the back of his truck and drove — without stopping — straight to Claytor Lake and put her in the water. “I just couldn’t wait!” he says, smiling from beneath the brim of his vintage white captain’s hat. “Every time I looked at pictures of guys driving these old speedboats, they were wearing a captain’s hat, so I had to get one. Funny thing is, I probably get more comments on the hat than the boat!”
He added an American Yachting Flag to the stern, as well as a traditional light and pole to the bow. The Chris Craft factory has helped him get aftermarket and refurbished parts. The Marine Museum has allowed him to look at the original parts list and wiring diagrams. Williamson probably has the boat looking better now than the day it rolled off the showroom floor.
“One of the things I find interesting is the hull being made of mahogany planks. Wood swells as it takes on moisture and contracts when it dries out, so all wooden boats of this time came from the factory with a ‘soak bottom’.” Fiberglass was not used in boat construction until the mid-60s, so if a boat from this era has been out of the water for a long period (i.e. winter layup), its planking has lost moisture and contracted — leaving gaps in the hull sometimes 1/8” wide. “When you put it in the water for the first time in the spring, it leaks like crazy. You better have a good bilge pump or the boat will sink. After a few days in the water the wood swells and the gaps close.”
As Williamson pulls the boat back into the harbor, he tells us about his “Lake Shack” down the road and his favorite local hangout, the “Rock House.” He is enjoying life as the faithful captain of The Virginian, and has many more adventures up his sleeve. “I’d like to travel all of the Intercoastal Waterway in Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina,” he says. The Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway runs from Boston to Key West.
If you’re interested in seeing The Virginian on the water, check out the 1981 movie On Golden Pond with Henry Fonda. “My boat and the boat in the movie are similar. Both are Chris Craft Sportsman Utilities; mine is a 1956 17-footer and the one in the film (Thayer IV) is a 1950 22-footer. The boat was built so well that when they tried to crash it into the rock for the movie, it bounced off with hardly a scratch! They had to rebuild the front with plywood to make the scene work,” Williamson laughs. The Virginian is certainly an NRV Ride to be proud of, and after all these years, she has found her true captain.
Text by Emily Kathleen Alberts | Photos by Kristie Lea Photography
Emily Kathleen Alberts is a regular contributor to New River Valley Magazine who thoroughly enjoyed her spin on the water in The Virginian to capture this story.