BY ANDY ANDERSON
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Hanging around New England boathouses, you will eventually come across someone who carries out a beautiful mahogany single. Long and sleek, with a stern that comes to a sharp point, it will draw ooh’s and ah’s from anyone in the vicinity. “It’s a King,” bystanders will murmur. “Look, Virginia,” an older sculler will say, “That is the Ferrari of boats, a Vermeer. The most amazing craftsmanship you can imagine went into it.”
“Yeah, but it must be heavy. It’s wood,” says the disbelieving youngster. “Otherwise, all boats would be wood, right?”
Actually, no. A well-made wood shell is no heavier than the minimum weight specified by the international rowing federation (FISA) for singles: 14 kilograms (about 30 pounds, 14 ounces). (A King weighs between 12.7 and 15.4 kgs., depending on its owner’s size.) Why, even with eights, a well-designed and well-built wooden eight isn’t necessarily heavier than a synthetic boat. It wasn’t carbon that killed the wooden boats; it was the dearth of skilled craftsmen and the difficulty of obtaining great wood.
And that’s where Graeme King comes into the picture. For the last 40 years, Graeme has been building boats in southern Vermont. People who are lucky enough to own a King count themselves extremely fortunate. “I feel like it’s a tremendous privilege to own one,” says Julia Shivers of Boston, who bought a 25-year-old King flyweight single last spring and had Graeme overhaul it. Her husband, James Cusack, adds, “It’s just the best ride that there is. The sound of the water coming off the hull, the feel of it through the water, it’s perfection.” He got his boat as a birthday present from Julia. A very fortunate couple indeed.
When I visited Graeme in his shop in July, we started by talking about wood. I admired the plywood that goes into the skin of his boats. “I had to start making my own plywood from sapele and mahogany from West Africa because the quality of what you can buy nowadays is a problem. Because I make my own plywood, I can match the grain so that, finished, it looks like one big piece of wood.” The outer skin that catches the light so beautifully is three layers of half-millimeter African mahogany.
I wondered how his path had led him here. He’s an Australian, from Adelaide. In his last year of high school, he saw some guys rowing in singles and tried rowing. On leaving school, he started a metal apprenticeship with the Australian Railways. To his delight, he discovered they had a rowing club, where he saw two brand-new racing singles hanging from the ceiling. “I bet I could build one of those.” And he did. He began making boats for rowing clubs, and, before long, one of the Australian boatbuilders began to chafe at the competition. “He wanted me out of Australia,” King said. Not long after, in 1972, after the Olympics, he received an invitation to become the boatman at Harvard.
Making repairs and rigging and truing twisted oars were all good work, but he knew in his heart that building boats was what he really wanted to do. After returning to Australia for a few years, he set up shop in Vermont. His word-of-mouth reputation ensured that he soon had more than enough customers. In 1983, he was talked into placing an advertisement in American Rowing magazine, and “I was swamped with orders; it was pointless; too many inquiries.” That was his only foray into advertising.
As a trained engineer, he has quite a lot of ideas about boat design. One of his pet peeves is that FISA set minimum boat weights by weighing all the boats at a world championship. One third were average weight, one third were lighter, and one third were heavier. The aim was to keep the cost of the boats down. The lighter the boat, the more expensive it is to build and repair. Instead of using the average weight, officials took the average and subtracted 15 percent for each boat class. The result, King says, is boats that are too light and not durable enough.
“There’s a lot that is still not known about shells,” he says. “It’s not clear what’s actually happening in the boundary layer of water and how the hull-shape variation affects the variation of waves.” King puts a lot of work and thought into his hull shapes (he worked with the head of Bell Labs on his designs), “but the balance between boat weight and hull shape is still not something that can be solved definitively. There’s a lot to test and learn. Boat design is a jigsaw puzzle, and every piece affects other pieces.”
One of his most interesting designs was an eight with a 45-degree fin on port and starboard to provide stability for a more efficient hull shape. It worked well, but the fins were constantly getting smacked against the dock when the boat was lifted in or out of the water. He built 10 of these eights but abandoned them after a few years. The course record at the New England Interscholastic Rowing Association championships is still held by a St. Paul’s School boys’ crew in their wooden King winged eight.
The boats hold their value. Indeed, in the Covid era, there is a hunger for outdoor exercise, and sales of rowing equipment have surged. If you happen to find a used boat for sale, it will not be a bargain. People search for years for lightly-used King singles.
Fifteen years ago, he decided to draw plans for some of his sturdier singles for people who wanted to build their own. There are more people who love the feel of working with wood than I had realized. He has not completed the plans, although some people have made boats anyway with incomplete plans. “I have to flee to Australia for my retirement so that I can have time to complete those plans. I’ve got to get away from so many repairs and requests for new boats.”
It’s common to hear people say that “a King is a work of art.” And it is. But it is also a superb piece of design and engineering. As Graeme says, “To make a simple design, there is a lot of engineering expertise that goes into it.”
Graeme is leaving the States and the business he built this fall to return to his native land. He’s turning the repair business over to two skilled craftsmen, Wade Smith and Jim Lauderdale. His legacy will live on in the elegant simplicity of the 500 boats he has built. To see a King–to sit in it, to row it–is to feel it is alive, that it breathes, that it was built with love. “It’s easy to design a bad boat,” Graeme says, “but it’s hard to come up with a better boat.”
Graeme King has devoted his life to building those better boats. Come back to the States often, Graeme, even if it’s only to sit on the porch of the Cambridge Boat Club and listen to people admiring those “beautiful wooden boats.”