by Captain James R. Watson
If boat building was ever in a period of renaissance, it is now. One center for the revival in exquisitely constructed yachts is Van Dam Custom Boats near Lake Charlevoix in Boyne City, Michigan. Business partners Steve and Jean Van Dam have a 23 year history of building interesting wooden craft. Although Steve is a sailor, most of their work involves powerboats, custom one-offs and restorations. They are particularly noted for the fine detail of their wood/epoxy composite boats and their willingness to experiment with materials and structures.
We had the opportunity to visit Van Dam’s shop while the 32 ft. 9 in. sport boat ALPHA Z was built. As Steve commented, “We like restoration and maintenance work, but it sure is fun to start with a clean sheet of paper.” The ALPHA Z is like no other boat. It is a stepped V-bottom planing runabout designed by Michael Peters Yacht Design. Michael McLeod of McLeod Design Group in Taylor, Michigan designed the unique interior.
The hull is stringer and frame construction with a layer of Honduras mahogany laminated over two diagonal layers of Okume plywood using WEST SYSTEM® epoxy. During hull construction, dry wall screws were used to provide clamping pressure until the epoxy cured. The screws were then removed and the holes countersunk and bunged to preserve a traditional look. It is powered by a Keith Eickert 825-hp fuel injected V-8 turning an Arneson surface drive. With a displacement of 6500 lb, it can reach 100 mph.
ALPHA Z was finished with a water-based stain over the mahogany to highlight the grain. This was coated with WEST SYSTEM 105/207 Special Clear Hardener and then sprayed with Awlcraft 2000™. Steve reports excellent long-term success with water-based stains over mahogany. Since ALPHA Z is trailered, the bottom was coated with white epoxy paint in lieu of antifouling.
Van Dam built a custom 38′ fast commuter, designed by Michel Berryer of Van Dam Custom Boats. It is powered by two 300 hp Yanmar, 24 valve diesels—pretty lightweight power plants at 800 pounds each. Recessed propeller tunnels allow the boat to operate in as little as 2′ of water. The commuter also uses stringer and frame construction. Its sides are 3/4″ thick—two layers of 1/4″ plywood, one layer of 1/4″ mahogany laminated with WEST SYSTEM epoxy. The bottom is 15/16″ thick.
Van Dam Custom Boats offers a design service and intends to offer some stock plans. Its reputation for exquisite craftsmanship combined with state-of-the-art engineering will help carry the tradition of excellence in wooden boat building into the future.
Editor’s note: This series continues with Mahogany Masters II – Morin Boat Works.