Issue: October 2000
An Education in the Classics

Why should wooden boat devotees have all the fun when it comes to making something old beautiful once again? Mike Fierstein of Baltimore gets his kicks restoring fiberglass boats.

 

    Say the words “classic powerboat” and what immediately comes to mind? Acres of shimmering mahogany. Hours and hours of sanding. The minor deities-Chris Craft, Garwood, Hacker, Lyman. Right? Not if Mike Fierstein has anything to say about it.

     “I’m so sick, sick, sick of people saying ‘classic’ is mahogany,” says Fierstein. Not that he doesn’t appreciate the beauty of a mahogany boat-he owned a classic Chris for a while. But at 40 years old, the “classics” Fierstein grew up working on and boating in were built of fiberglass, and he doesn’t see any reason why some of those great boats of the 1960s and ‘70s shouldn’t be characterized with the same adjective. To that end, Fierstein, owner of M&M Boat Sales and Service in Baltimore, has made it his business’s hobby to restore some gorgeous old boats. He insists that he does it to make a profit when he sells them, but the enthusiasm he brings to the projects leaves one suspecting there’s a little more to it than that.

    For example, take the 1969 Sea Ray Pachanga that’s sitting on a trailer in M&M’s tidy shop near Middle River. Looking at today’s Sea Rays, you’d never guess this little rocket was built by the same company-it more closely resembles an 18-foot Donzi. But when a customer who had eyes for a 28-foot Bayliner on M&M’s lot almost sheepishly offered the little boat as a trade-in, Fierstein jumped on it.

    “As soon as he said it, I’m like, ohmygod,” he says. At first, the boat looked like little more than a fat banana-solid, bright yellow with an all-white and somewhat ratty interior. Fierstein’s crew spent last winter transforming it into a head-turner.

    He worked with Terry Restivo at Creative Arts in Baltimore to develop a cosmetics scheme for the boat, retaining the original yellow gelcoat (which is still in good shape) as the background color but adding miles of pizzazz with a black-checkered-flag design on the foredeck and topsides, interlaced with shimmery stripes of magenta and purple. He hired Hill’s Upholstery in Essex, Md., to revamp the interior, matching the new cosmetic scheme. M&M custom-built the low, tinted windshield and added details like pop-up cleats and running lights. They rebuilt the entire dashboard, customizing it with anodized gauges, tilt steering and a CD player. Another local business, Tom’s Marine Service in Baltimore, did all the rewiring for the new gauges.

    To accommodate water-skiers (and to make it easier to socialize when anchored or moored), the helm and passenger seats were built to swivel aft. M&M through-bolted the entire hull-to-deck joint with stainless steel bolts to help stiffen the boat and covered the seam with a thin, customized rub rail. A single chrome eye in the middle of the transom makes for a quick and clean-looking ski towline hookup. The boat’s original OMC engine had already been replaced with a MerCruiser 350.

    “The next step with this would be to take everything off, fix all the little nicks, then clear-coat it,” Fierstein says. “That would be the next step, if you were really a fanatic.”

But Fierstein insists he is not a fanatic-he’s in this (at least ostensibly) for practical reasons. So he’s happy to go, as he says, to 80 percent and still make a profit on a project like the Pachanga. Except that really, he likes the little boat too much. With a top end of 55 to 60 mph and a cruise speed of about 40 mph, the hull’s 24-degree V shape makes for a remarkably gentle ride for a boat of this nature, he says.

    “The more time I ride in the boat, the more I’m thinking this is pretty trick,” he says. He routinely takes his wife Bonnie, their golden retriever Rusty and members of his crew out water-skiing, tubing and just playing in the boat. “To take it to Hart-Miller Island is really cool. Nobody can really tell what it is. It’s got storage, you can stretch out, there’s lots of room. It’s just a cool little bullet.”

    The comments he gets, he says, usually go something like this: “Geez, I can’t believe it’s a ‘69 boat! I used to have one as a kid,” or “My father used to have one as a kid.” And that’s exactly, Fierstein says, where he finds the value in classic fiberglass boats.

    “The boat will be here when you and I are dead, as long as you maintain it. And the hull design is still around, people are still using it,” he says. “Here’s a fishing boat, here’s a speedboat-I don’t care what we restore as long as it has the lines we’re looking for.”

    Fierstein grew up in Bladensburg, Md., and when he was 17 he went to work for one of the two Sears (as in Roebuck) marinas in the country (one was in Bladensburg, the other in California). He was a self-described “yard ape” for a while and attended school for OMC and MerCruiser but acknowledges that not much of it stuck-he’s not a mechanic. Eventually he went to work for the now defunct Safford Marine on the Anacostia River in Bladensburg, doing all of its on-the-road service.

    “That’s how I got to know the Chesapeake. They sent me all over the Bay, down these little dirt roads,” he says. “I experienced all the different cultures on the Bay as we traveled-Essex is different from Pasadena, Pasadena is different from Annapolis and southern Maryland is in a world all its own. And the Eastern Shore.”

    He and his father began fixing up Safford’s older boats and selling them, and when his father passed away, Fierstein began working more and more in the used-boat market, eventually beginning M&M Boat Sales and Service and working in a variety of locations and marinas. About a year-and-a-half ago he finally settled at his current digs on Back River Neck Road, where he has a 1,024-square-foot shop and a large gravel lot for storing and working on boats outdoors. The company’s primary business is new and used-boat sales and service-M&M is the sole Bay dealer for the South Carolina-built Leader power catamarans. His company also shrink-wraps about 300 boats each fall for various local marinas and boatyards.

    Fierstein admits he could never make a living just restoring older boats because it’s simply too labor-intensive. He looks for a boat or two a year to have on hand when business slows down, and then he’ll turn his four-man crew to a restoration. Because major structural restoration becomes too costly and time consuming, he only chooses boats with solid hulls and decks, focusing his efforts on mechanical and cosmetic overhauls. But he can’t help skidding to a stop wherever he is when he happens upon a potential candidate.

    “My wife and I were riding the Wave Runners last Saturday morning and we’re cruising and I literally stopped. I saw it in some guy’s back yard-it was an eighteen-foot Donzi, an old one,” he says. A potential classic “has to have the classic lines-if it doesn’t have the lines and the look it can’t be considered that. When it’s restored, it has to look like an ‘80s or early ‘90s boat.”

    Another example of what Fierstein considers classic glass is the slightly shabby but solid-looking Aquasport 22 sitting in his yard. With a sweeping sheer, full keel and a 350 Chevy inboard (which M&M is going to install), the Aquasport looks like a modern-day, center-console Shamrock fishing boat. But it’s 27 years old. As he walks around the boat-which he hasn’t begun to work on yet-Fierstein starts rattling off the plan:

    “You get rid of that funky aluminum rail and put stainless on it. You take that clear glass [off the center console] and put on smoked. You take that aluminum rail off the console and put on stainless, and you get rid of that red boot stripe and do dark green. Then it’s starting to come back to life.”

    Much as he is enjoying the Pachanga, Fierstein’s favorite restoration to date was a 1973, 25-foot Wellcraft Nova. Sitting on a trailer, the boat is a sleek white with two sweeping stripes of blue and purple on the topsides. It looks like it’s flying standing still.

    “I’ve been a fanatic when it comes to Novas. This is my third one,” Fierstein says. “It was chocolate brown and it had the original engines, twin 302 Fords.”

    M&M advertises that it will pay cash for boats, and one day a gentleman called who had the Nova but was building a house and needed the cash. Stored out of the water its entire life, the boat-even chocolate colored-was in excellent shape.

    “Again, it’s got that real deep 24-degree hull and it just cuts the water,” he says. “And this boat is built like a tank.”

    Fierstein snapped it up, ran it for the summer and started transforming it. M&M replaced the chocolate brown with white Awlgrip and the striping scheme, which Hill’s Upholstery continued in the interior and cockpit. Wood trim runs the length of the cockpit sides and adds a warm, classic-looking accent. M&M dropped the bow rail by about four inches to give the boat a lower profile and custom-built a new, racier-looking dashboard. As usual, Fierstein insisted on the little details, like painting the registration numbers to match the color scheme, with a black background to offset them and sloping them to run with the sweep of the bow. M&M repowered the boat with twin MerCruiser 260s with Alpha outdrives.

    “This is a profile boat. You take this thing down to Ego Alley and people look at it. It’s a head-turner.” Since he’s not using the boat as much anymore, he’s asking $14,500 for it.

    “The typical comment is ‘You want fourteen-five? That boat’s twenty years old!’ I don’t even take the cover off it if they can’t appreciate it.” Fierstein points to a rather pug-nosed, blobbish Bayliner sitting next to the Wellcraft. “That Bayliner there sells for more than this, and look at it!”

     “You shouldn’t get sentimental about anything but your family and your dog. This is just a boat, but for fourteen-five, the only way I’ll sell it is for somebody who says to me, ‘God, Mike, I love it.’ “

    Fierstein knows of a few other businesses on the Bay restoring older fiberglass boats, and he suspects there are many more boaters out there who can appreciate the boats and the whole idea of classics in fiberglass. He’d like to see a club spring up that could serve as a place where people could trade ideas, information and, of course, stories of great old boats brought back to life.

    “If I kept every boat I said I’d keep, I’d have fifty boats,” Fierstein says. “But that’s how I know I’ve got a boat I want to redo. When everybody says, ‘What are you doing with that?’ I always say, that’s a keeper.”