Issue: December 2000
A Boat for All Reasons

Whether they’re taking your family out for a day of Bay fun, cruising a bunch of your buddies to a hot rockfish spot or dashing you to a waterfront party in stunning style, the Bertram 31 has become one of the Bay’s most coveted classics.

 

     Sometimes, as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. John Patnovic and his wife Libby had been boatyard owners less than year when a gamble and an opportunity came along in the form of three rode-hard-and-put-up-wet Bertram 31s. What Patnovic knew about the boats you could fit on a soggy cocktail napkin. But he knew enough: that Bertram 31s had a great reputation, he liked their looks and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission was selling three of them by sealed bid. He’d been looking for a slow-season project for his Worton Creek Marina crew, so he rolled the dice and put in an aggressive bid on the boats, banking on the idea that his boatyard could make thoroughbreds out of the workhorses and sell them at a profit.

     He won the first bet-the boats were his. His plan was to strip them completely, then rebuild them from the ground up with the most modern materials, methods and equipment, customizing them to the owner’s needs and wishes. He figured he’d have to do at least the first boat on spec, just to show people what he could turn them into. At best, he could find a buyer. At worst, he would have a nicely rebuilt Bertram 31 to run around the Bay. Certainly, there are worse ways to gamble. But the dice had barely left Patnovic’s hand for the second time when his first buyer-well known Chesapeake Bay yachtsman George Collins-walked into his office and said, in a nutshell, I’ll take it.

“It” was Rappahannock, built in 1972 and bought that same year by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) for $28,389. In her new life as a stunning dayboat and commuter-right down to the burled walnut dashboard and plush leather helm seat-Collins’s Bushwacker has become the first in Patnovic’s series of completely rebuilt, yacht-finish Bertram 31s, selling in the well-to-do neighborhood of $200,000 each. Worton Creek Marina this winter is finishing up the last of the Virginia boat make overs (Northampton has become Making Memories II), while rebuild number four is well under way for a New Jersey buyer and two more 31s are in the wings.

     The role of glamour girl is a fairly new one for the Bertram 31, which was built from 1961 to 1983 in Florida pretty much as a no-nonsense, manly man’s offshore fishing boat. Built like a brick, the breakthrough deep-V design by Ray Hunt, powered with twin gasoline engines, quickly earned an enduring reputation as a tough, capable, wet little workhorse that would take you there and get you back, no matter what. Visit anyplace on big water anywhere in the world, and chances are you’ll find a Bertie 31 or two bobbing on a mooring or tucked into a slip. And all of those qualities that have made the Bertram 31 known and coveted the world over-seaworthiness, durability, versatility and classic good looks-make it a popular Chesapeake Bay boat. Whether they’re taking a family out for an afternoon of swimming and frolicking, trolling the Middle Grounds, muscling a VMRC officer through the wildest night to a search and rescue case or cruising a couple to dinner in the finest style, these Florida immigrants have found a home on the Bay. And for those in the know and lucky enough to own or run one, there’s none other that even comes close.

     Ironically-especially for those Bay powerboaters who make sport of dumping on sailors-the man who brought Bertram 31s to the boating world was first and foremost a ragbagger. In fact, Dick Bertram, who twice won the Lightning class international championships, was crewing in the America’s Cup trials on Vim in 1958 when he first saw Hunt’s deep-V design manifested in a 23-foot powerboat cleaving the waves off Newport, R.I. He rode in the boat the next day, and then asked Hunt to design one for him: Moppie, a 30-foot, deep-V, open boat. Designers at the time believed that pushing a boat’s deadrise further aft would make it much harder for a boat to get up on and stay on a plane. But Hunt carried Moppie’s deadrise all the way to the transom-where it measured 23 degrees-and added strakes along the bottom to provide more lift without needing more horsepower. He also believed the design would improve handling and minimize pounding.

     Bertram entered Moppie in the 1960 Miami–Nassau powerboat race, a brutal, 60-mile sprint across the Gulf Stream. In winds up to 30 knots and eight-foot seas, Moppie crushed the competition and set a new record-eight hours. Another Hunt-designed deep-V boat (only 24 feet) finished second, two hours behind Moppie, and the rest of the field either gave it up or limped in the next day. 

     After that, Bertram built molds for a 31-foot deep-V modeled after Moppie and in 1961 began producing the Bertram 31 Sport Fisherman. Bertram Yachts built 1,860 31s of various configurations-flybridge cruisers, Bahia Mars, express cruisers and hardtop cruisers-between 1961 and 1983. In 1986, Bertram turned out 25 Silver Anniversary editions of the boats. And that’s it. Built in split molds to accommodate the design’s tumblehome, the boat simply became too costly. And like all great works of art, the boats have become more desirable as they’ve grown more rare.

     They remain legendary. In its November 2000 issue, Marlin magazine listed the top 10 classic sportfishermen “that have stood the test of time-boats that are as popular today as when they were introduced.” The magazine polled more than 50 top fishermen, captains, yacht brokers, naval architects and boatbuilders to develop its list. Among the Monterey 65, the Whiticar 54 and seven other big and heavy hitters is the comparatively diminutive Bertram 31. “For those of you who think the 40-year-old Bertram 31 might be past its prime,” the magazine says, “think again.”

     Among the brethren on the Bay, they’re preaching to the choir. Ask any Bertie 31 owners why they believe this is an ideal Chesapeake powerboat, and seaworthiness-along with bulletproof construction and durability-are generally at the top of the list. From there, it’s a variation depending on the boat’s theme-the wide-open cockpit that can accommodate a bevy of fishermen, a dozen friends with umbrella drinks or a small army of kids with all their assorted snorkeling, swimming and crabbing gear; the shallow draft that makes for worry-free gunkholing; the way people’s heads turn as the boats cruise past.

     “I think it’s the perfect size,” says Mike Gaffney of Gibson Island, Md., who owns the Bertram 31 Slainte. “I can take this boat almost everywhere I go in my Grady White [25-foot cuddy cabin], and it’s got tremendous power if you need it. You can cruise at modest speeds and enjoy the day or open it up and at 36 miles an hour you’re really clipping.”

“We were probably in six- and eight-foot seas, which wasn’t a whole lot of fun, but it went like a dream,” says Michael Jordan of North, Va., describing a trip from the Bay Bridge Tunnel to Mobjack Bay in a 35-knot northwesterly on his 31 Retriever. “It was head seas all the way and the first hour every wave was over the bow, but you never felt you didn’t have control of the situation.”

     “We’ve got a saying about what that boat is, and the saying is, ‘If you can keep your teeth in your mouth, you can handle the boat,’ ‘‘ says Al “Junior” Fisher, who retired this summer from the VMRC after spending 24 of his 29 years as a marine officer running the Bertram 31 Wicomico. “You don’t have to worry about beating it to death. You can keep the speed on if you can hang on.”

     Potential dental work notwithstanding, that kind of toughness is what Jim Douglas was looking for when he sought a boat to replace the VMRC’s geriatric wooden patrol boats that, on a good day, might top out at 14 knots. As VMRC’s commissioner from 1971 to 1983, Douglas wanted a production fiberglass boat that could cut maintenance costs and that would have low enough freeboard for officers to raft up easily with the local workboats. Douglas liked the Bertrams for their clean, open cockpits, low profile (the commission bought the hardtop models without flybridges), quality of construction and the deep-V design. In all, the commission bought 17 new and used Bertram 31s between 1972 and 1980, spending from $29,000 to nearly $50,000 each. Of those, 14 are still running as VMRC boats-the other three went to Worton Creek Marina.

Junior Fisher says his jaw pretty much slapped the dock when he saw his new ride. “I was then, and I still am, quite amazed, because the state has a philosophy or a history of buying things cheap, not spending a lot of money, and for them to go out and buy the Cadillac of boats, I was amazed,” he says. “We thought we had died and gone to heaven, by any standards.”

     Fisher was stationed out of the GreatWicomicoRiver and ran from the mouth of the Potomac to the mouth of the Rappahannock and across the Bay at its widest-and sometimes wildest-point. “A lot of times I’ve stuck my nose out there when I wasn’t real comfortable about it because it was so rough, but I never worried about that boat. I never had no fear with her. I’ve had her in ice, I’ve had her in snowstorms. I towed in a 70-foot tanker one time to Reedville!”

     Keith Nuttal has been running the Bertram 31 York for the VMRC since 1977, mainly in MobjackBay, the LowerBay and the York River. He thinks the state could go to a much lighter, newer hull that probably would do as well as the 31 in most instances. And some of the officers, he says, prefer the commission’s smaller, open boats for most of their work. But on a rough search and rescue, Nuttal says, give him the 31, what he calls “the old battlewagon.”

     “I’ve been in that boat twice when with almost every sea, the bow was going under and powering out of it, but she’s always brought me home. I feel very confident in that boat.”

 

     Versatility has always been one of the Bertram 31’s finest qualities, so it’s no surprise that the attributes the VMRC sought-big, clean cockpit, solid construction, seaworthiness-are also why someone like Joe McClure has been lusting after one of them for years. McClure, who lives in Yorktown, Va., last owned a Grady White 24 and finally snagged a Bertram 31 in October 1999.

     “I’ve been familiar with [the 31] a long time but it took that long to find one,” he says. “They were all $40,000 or better or they were absolutely not even close to me.” Finally, he says, he bought a 30-year-old boat from a charter captain in CapeHatteras for a relative steal-$29,000. The boat had already been repowered with 340-hp MerCruisers, and McClure is debating replacing the teak deck in the cockpit and refinishing the topsides.

     For McClure, who has two kids aged 7 and 9, the 31 is ideal for the Bay. In the summer he takes the family out to Poquoson Flats where the boat’s shallow draft and spacious cockpit create a perfect platform for swimming, crabbing, gunkholing and general summer frivolity. “We’ve had as many as 14 people in it,” he says. “There’s a fighting chair in the back and I take that out and put in a table with four chairs and an umbrella.” Then come autumn, Captain Snag reverts to its original purpose in life: fishing. “Last year we took 11 people out fishing, I think it was the first weekend in November, and we caught 300 rockfish in one weekend.”

     Fishing always was-and remains-the Bertram 31’s reason for being for many Bay boaters, particularly in the LowerBay where the water is wide and occasionally ferocious. Neale O’Bier of Richmond, Va., has been running his 1967 Bertram 31 Barney’s Lady for five years, and 10 years before that he fished in it regularly with her previous owner, his boss. He’s been slowly and steadily upgrading her systems and equipment, but keeping her a simple Bay fishing boat is his goal. He keeps the boat on the CoanRiver, stays in the Bay until December and then runs the boat to Virginia Beach and offshore for winter fishing.

     “I do a lot of chumming and I can fix nine people off our back end,” O’Bier says. “That’s the main thing right there. Crank her up and if it’s rough, fine, if it’s not, don’t worry about it. It’s supposed to be a wet boat. I’ve had water come clear over top the Bimini enclosure, but hell, everything’s wet to a certain extent when you get the wind blowing the right way.”

     “It’s a fishing boat-that’s what all 31s are good for,” says Bill Baird of Richmond, who bought Lady B sight unseen from Mobile, Ala., in 1988. Running out of Deltaville, Va., Baird has since repowered the boat with twin gasoline Crusader 454s, replaced the original teak deck with fiberglass, rewired much of it and commissioned a canvas top and enclosure for the boat. “When I bought the boat it was with the idea of keeping it and not selling it. Mine’s a pretty immaculate boat. I had a friend who bought a brand new Blackfin and parked it right beside it and God bless him if everyone who came down to the dock didn’t look at the 21-year-old Bertram instead of the new Blackfin.”

     Even if fishing is their modus operandi, most Bertram 31 owners are inveterate tinkerers, mechanics and make-up artists. In part, it’s a necessity. Older boats need upgrades all the time-new wiring, repowering from gas to diesel or just upgrading gas engines, revamping interiors, remodeling flybridges, replacing teak decks with lower-maintenance fiberglass. Several businesses in Florida cater specifically to Bertram 31 owners, building decks, windows and all manner of new parts and pieces for the boats, and the Bertram 31 owners’ website and chat rooms are stuffed with information about how to fix or upgrade everything from electronics to the boat’s curved plexiglass windows.

     But talk to enough owners on the Bay and you’ll start to see a revealing trend-most of them don’t stop with the necessities. Before they know it, they’re dolling up this and that, repainting topsides, reupholstering down below, adding heating, AC and most-if not all-the comforts of home. For many, like Michael Jordan, it’s a sound investment-they’ve found a good boat and plan to keep it till the dirt falls on their head. Jordan found Retriever, his 1974 flybridge cruiser, after a two-year search. “I bought the boat for thirty-thousand dollars, which is a really good price, and I’ve got right now about a hundred-thirty-five thousand total into it. That sounds like a lot of money, but if you look at the [new boat] market, what can you buy for a hundred-thirty-five thousand dollars? You could get into a twenty-six or twenty-eight-foot outboard-powered boat. In my mind, I’ve got a new boat for fifty cents on the dollar, really.”

     He’s repowered with big-block 454 gas engines, rechromed every piece of hardware, refinished the deck and topsides with Awlgrip Fleet White, rewired the entire boat and added an aluminum flybridge. (Chesapeake Cove Marina in Deltaville repowered the boat, and Factory Point Marine in nearby Mathews did everything else.) Johnson says he’s kept Retriever strictly a fishing machine, yet one conversation about his boat will yield this comment or variations upon it no fewer than three times: “Did I mention it’s the prettiest one on the Bay? Now, that’s not my opinion, that’s everybody who’s seen it. I wouldn’t say anything like that.”

     You can bet Bob Jones of Virginia Beach would argue that point. He fishes Briar Patch, a 1974 hull that he bought in Houston, Tex. (also sight unseen), out of Rudee Inlet. But not before he and Vail Marine spent four years completely refurbishing and revamping her. They remodeled the interior, adding an enclosed head with a shower, replacing the dinette with an L-shaped sofa, adding a counter, microwave, stereo system-”All sorts of little goodies, and I’m still trying to figure out how to fit more in there.” He repowered the boat with twin 330-hp Cummins diesels and rewired it.

“I’ve had people come up along side of me and say, ‘That’s the prettiest boat I’ve ever seen,’ any number of times,” Jones says. “It’s just the lines or something. It’s sleek.”

 

     So it comes down to this: For all its seaworthiness, solid construction, fishability and durability-all those perfectly laudable and utterly pragmatic qualities-people just plain love the way the boat looks. Its style is enduring. And nowhere is that simple fact more evident than at Worton Creek Marina, where older-than-dirt Bertram 31s are being transformed into drop-dead, state-of-the-art knockouts that are selling for upwards of $200,000 and being used in the same sentence as “Hinckley Picnic Boat.”

     In fact, Hinckley’s Picnic Boat is exactly what Dick Selover of North Brunswick, N.J., was checking out at the powerboat show in Annapolis in 1999. “It’s beautiful but it was out of our reach,” he says. “We were leaving the show and walked by [Patnovic’s] booth and saw that sign for restored Bertram 31s and we went right in.” Selover, whose boat is Patnovic’s fourth rebuild, had owned a Bertram 31 years ago but sold it for a Grand Banks 36 to accommodate a young family. Now the family’s grown, and he’s looking for a smaller, quicker, more easily managed boat. “I’ve always had a soft spot for the Bertram 31,” he says. “I like a boat that’s salty. I don’t like all these new ones, all the carpeting and what have you. I like a boat that’s supposed to be a boat.”

     Mike Gaffney already owned his 25-foot Grady White but had been looking for something bigger, faster and snazzier when his neighbor, George Collins, suggested they visit Patnovic’s operation. Like Dick Bertram, Collins is a grand prix sailboat racer-he’s best known around the Bay for his series of racing sailboats called Moxie, and for financing and running Chessie, the Bay’s entry in the 1997–98 Whitbread Round the World Race. Collins was helping his friend Gaffney find the right boat, but he ended up jumping first, Gaffney says. “I’m talking to Patnovic and I’m trying to ascertain whether he knows what he’s talking about and whether he has the people and the skills and the wherewithall, and I’m not halfway into this discussion and George turns to him and says, ‘I’ll take it,’ ‘‘ Gaffney laughs. But Gaffney can console himself with Slainte (a Gaelic toast, like “cheers”), which Worton Creek finished after Collins’s Bushwacker. “I’m just thrilled to death with that boat.”

     Don and Dianne Cantor were looking for a dayboat they could use for quick getaways from their full-time bed-and-breakfast, Great Oak Manor. They were leaning toward a classic wooden boat like a Chris Craft, until they saw Bushwacker. Like Jordan, Cantor feels that putting money into rebuilding a Bertram 31-even a lot of money-gets him something far more special at a better price than buying new. “A new Tiara is three-hundred-thousand, four-hundred-thousand dollars,” he says. “Look at the market for a new thirty-one-foot anything these days. And those boats are like Fords. This is the Mercedes. This is the classic.”