Thomas Fabrication & Boatworks
P.O. Box 1158 Soda Springs, CA 95728
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Steve Thomas drives a restored Fay & Bowen launch on Lake Tahoe.
BY BROOKS TOWNES
Steven Thomas sat basking in sunshine and success
aboard a 32’ Albany triple-cockpit runabout at Lake Tahoe Yacht Club’s
Concourse d’Elegance. He’d just restored the 1923 Albany in partnership
with Alan Firth, president of the Southern Pacific Transportation Company
(the old Southern Pacific Railroad). Life was sweet for Steven Thomas
that day, and it was about to get sweeter.
“I was sitting in the
boat, and Tom Gentry came up with a couple of other people. They were all
dressed in mountain biking clothes. He asked me if the boat was for
sale,” Thomas said. (The Albany, incidentally, is one of only three then
listed in the Antique & Classic Boat Society registry; it is powered by a
Scripps straight six, making nearly 3oo hp.) It was indeed for sale and
Gentry bought it on the spot. “I just about went through the ceiling of
the boat!” Thomas said. “Here I was face to face with a real celebrity
in my world, and…!”
Thomas poses next to a replanking job.
Gentry, a Honolulu
millionaire real estate developer, was a varsity offshore powerboat racer
who was starting to collect old boats. At the time, he held the super
boat speed record of 148.238 mph and was trying for 150 mph. He was a big
name in offshore racing and on Lake Tahoe, partly because that’s where he
began his boat-racing career. In contrast---even his restorations had
been winning awards---Steve Thomas was from Redding, California, a fair
sized city near Lake Shasta that’s often confused by big city folks with
Red Bluff, a cow town. “At Tahoe some thought I sleep in a shack with my
dog,” Thomas grinned. Still, meeting Gentry was something of an event.
Gentry had plans: He
intended to build an enviable collection of classic and antique powerboats
and create a museum for them in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or may be Las
Vegas. Thomas, though star-struck, told Gentry he wanted to be a part of
that plan---“and he hired me on the spot.”
The relationship went
well. Gentry gave Thomas so much business he practically became the
Redding’s shop’s only customer. At one time, Thomas pointed to six Gentry
boats sitting in his shop that were worth all in all some $500,000---and
Gentry did not rush the restoration work or want any corners cut. He was
the patron restorers dream of. It all went very nicely until 1995 when
Gentry flipped a race boat off Key West and was pinned underwater for more
than three minutes. He was rescued, but remained in a coma until his
death two years later. It was tough losing a pal and patron like Gentry.
Thomas missed his friend---and his own future seemed to roll onto its
beam-ends: Gentry had told Thomas he wanted him to run the museum. “He
was going to have his race boats in there and the antiques as well. It
could have been a life-ling thing. I looked forward to running that
museum. He was going to move me down to Southern California or Vegas….
I’d put all my eggs in one basket, but for a gamble like that I’d do it
again---in a second,” said Thomas. “It took a while to spool up again
after Gentry’s demise. I worked for Tom for almost two years and didn’t
take any local work in, therefore the other shops picked up the clients.”
During their too-short
relationship of some 18 months, Thomas refinished or totally restored for
Gentry a 1924 Fay & Bowen launch (Thomas’s second Fay & Bowen job), a 1913
Fry launch, a 1922 26’ Hacker Gold Cup racer, a 1934 18’ Electra Craft
canoe-sterned electric launch with a surrey top, and a 1928 32’
Vonderworth commuter, and he maintained the Albany.
Picture right: A 1923 Albany
triple-cockpit runabout rests in the shop. Restored by Steve Thomas,
in partnership with Alan Firth, the 32' boat shifted Thomas's career into
word spread that Thomas Fabrication & Boatworks was available again, it
didn’t take long for new business to appear, and this summer Thomas said
this is the best business year he’s ever had, with boats coming from near
and far for new bottoms, total restorations or rebuilds----even for just a
plank repair or varnish. Without sounding boastful, Thomas said, “I’ve
had stuff go all over North America, and stuff sent in form Florida,
Washington D.C., New York, Canada, Illinois. It’s really flattering when
you consider there are probably a couple hundred restoration shops in this
country, maybe more.”
Picture right: This
1954 Chris-Craft Racing Runabout, another Thomas restoration, won first
place at Lake Tahoe Yacht Club's Concours d'Elegance.
His boats have taken
numerous first-place prizes at prestigious judgings. Several have won
first place in their categories at Lake Tahoe. “Last year, three boats I
did won a first, second and a third in three separate classes.” A 1954
19’ Chris-Craft Racing Runabout took first in its class, a 1964 19’
Century Utility took second in its category, and a 1914 Fay & Bowen launch
snagged third in another class. It is startling to learn that Thomas
started out building aluminum-sided travel trailers and motor homes. That
was in his dad’s retirement business where Thomas began working as a
teenager. By his early 20’s he’d gone out on his own building
aluminum-sided houseboats---not those rentals called “kamikaze” houseboats
on pontoons that always seem to be aiming at your prized woody, but a
swanky summer-home houseboats costing up to $100,000 and measuring 15’ x
56’ and a couple of stories tall.
Though it still seems
like quite a leap from those things to making pristine a 1914 Fay & Bowen
launch, Thomas made it sound simple: “I sort of slid out of houseboats and
hooked up with Art Knolte,” a respected Redding boat builder. All sorts
of work came into Thomas’s boat works, including wooden boat repairs from
Lake Shasta, which Thomas took to Knolte’s shop “and Knolte kept me from
screwing things up. When Art retired, I took over where he left off
repairing and refinishing boats for his old customers.
self-taught. I read and subscribe to everything I can find, and talk to
other restorers. One nice thing about this business is we all share our
problems and answers.
love the work.” He told a local reporter, “It’s a privilege to work on
these boats. We are preserving history. What we do will be around
forever, barring some disaster.”
completed over 40 major restorations had won ten first place in concourse
judgings before this summer---two more of his boats were entered at this
year’s Tahoe concourse---plus some 80 more boats have gone through his
shop for simple repairs and refinishing.
Picture above: Thomas prepared this Old Town canoe for
Tahoe's Concours d'Elegance. He replaced the original canvas with 6
oz. fiberglass and finished the hull bright, although he expected to be
"nailed" for the modifications.
Article reprinted from WoodenBoat Magazine®
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