Classic Action

From economics professor to antique boat restorer

by Will Lindner

michael_claudonIn 2010, after retiring from a 41-year career teaching economics at Middlebury College, Michael Claudon rehabbed and outfitted his Weybridge sheep barn and launched Snake Mountain Boatworks, where he restores and preserves antique and classic wooden boats.

In an entirely professional sense — but a sense, nonetheless, grounded in an appreciation of beauty and meaning — Michael Claudon of Weybridge and Sue Haigh of South Hero were made for each other. They are, respectively, artisan and customer.

Claudon is the founder and owner of Snake Mountain Boatworks (named for a nearby ridge with a commanding view of Lake Champlain). He and his skilled employees, John Lafountain and Roger “RJ” Towle, restore vintage wooden boats.

Haigh is the inheritor of a 1949 Lyman Leader, 17 feet 4 inches long, which was purchased new by her father in Dallas in 1950, before she was born. Her older brothers had kept it patched together, more or less, before Haigh and her husband, Dana Bromley, rescued it from a Pennsylvania barn last June, where it had lingered, unused, for more than 15 years.

Wooden boats of a certain age are not mere vessels to their owners.

“I have a picture from a photo album, from the first day the boat arrived,” Haigh explains. “When you have a boat like that in your history, a fiberglass boat just isn’t the same. You can’t have the same kind of affection for it.”

When Claudon started Snake Mountain Boatworks in 2010 after retiring from a 41-year career teaching economics at Middlebury College, he was certain that potential customers like Haigh were out there. In a Middlebury course designed to inspire future entrepreneurs, Claudon had framed what he believes are the three key questions for start-ups: 1) What problem are you solving? 2) How else is it currently being solved? and 3) Who is your customer?

“When it came my time, that’s the same way I started this business,” he says.

The problem to be solved was restoration of historic wooden boats. Others were actually addressing it (number 2). Indeed, Burlington resident Bill Truex, a member of the Lake Champlain Chapter of the Antique and Classic Boat Society, and a wooden boat owner for 68 years, says the area has three or four good practitioners of the craft.

But Claudon concentrated on question number 3: identifying his customers.

“There are maybe 10,000 wooden boats in the Lake Champlain basin and surrounding region,” he explains. “But there’s a small subset with the emotional investment and the financial capacity to do this to the highest standards.”

Among his mentors, Claudon counts Peter Markowski, founder and CEO of Restoration and Performance Motorcars of Vermont in Vergennes. He adopted Markowski’s view of an appropriate customer: “(They) don’t ask how much, and they don’t ask how long.”

Haigh’s experience with her Lyman Leader demonstrates why. She and her husband delivered the boat to Snake Mountain last July, and, says Haigh, “I was expecting it would be done in September or October.” But as Claudon and his crew began stripping away coats of aged varnish and taking the boat down to its skeleton, problems revealed themselves one after another: the transom (rotten); a makeshift plywood deck added years ago by her brother Tom.

“Then I get a call from Michael. ‘Susie, we’ve gone this far; do you want to do the keel?’ I said, ‘Michael, you’re talking about major heart surgery on the boat?’ He said, ‘No, that was the transom.’”

Throughout the process, Claudon documented the work with homemade videos, a practice that shows customers not just the deterioration that Claudon, Lafountain, and Towle are encountering, but the slow and deliberate progress they’re making. Necessary patches are laboriously integrated into the seasoned, stable wood; coats of new varnish are given ample time to dry.

In March, Haigh’s boat was one of seven in Claudon’s shop (others were on a waiting list), but the work was nearing completion and Haigh was thrilled.

“We’re going to have a boat this summer, and we’re going to take it to the Vintage Boat Show in Burlington. I’ve always dreamed of this!” she exclaims.

One might think that such a business, launched after an arduous academic career, was the long-awaited fulfillment of a lifetime dream. But one would be wrong. Claudon, who is 73, grew up in Millbrae, California, and had no exposure to, or particular awareness of, vintage boats until the year before he retired.

“But I’ve been an entrepreneur my entire life,” he explains.

Before boats, it was antique clocks, and before — more accurately, concurrent with — clocks it was sheep. Claudon met his future wife, Shirley Kratky, in Baltimore, in the 1960s. He was pursuing his Ph.D. in economics at Johns Hopkins University, and Shirley, a recent graduation of Goucher College with a degree in education, was teaching English in Baltimore. At some point in their courtship, Claudon recalls, “It was time to meet the parents” (hers), and that meant driving to South Royalton, Vermont. They crossed the state line in a raging snowstorm, “and I thought I’d gone to heaven.”

He jumped at a job offer from Middlebury College. “I accepted the offer and began teaching in 1970,” he says. “Then I finished my dissertation in the spring of ’71 and went through graduation then.”

Shirley took a teaching job at Otter Valley Union High School — later transferring, for most of her career, to Middlebury Union High School. They bought a small property in Addison, and a quartet of sheep to, as Claudon says, “mow the lawn.” But the lawn mowers went forth and multiplied, several times over. So in 1975, to accommodate a commercial sheep operation on its way to embracing 200 ewes, they purchased 93 acres in Weybridge, where Claudon built a house and barn.

However, in 1987 he co-founded a nonprofit business-development consulting service called the Geonomics Institute. It grew to require extensive overseas travel, particularly to aid Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic reforms in the Soviet Union. The sheep operation became a casualty, and the barn (beautifully and innovatively designed) became just another storage building.

Claudon’s initiatives in applied economics continued at Middlebury through his retirement in 2010, just one example being the Middlebury Solutions Group, through which college students coached local startup founders. But still no boats.

That changed with a chance invitation to a former student’s family estate in the Adirondacks, where the Claudons got a ride in a 1928 triple-cockpit Chris Craft. The precision, the handicraft, and the style reminded him of an earlier interest that he had developed into a business.

“Looking at the gauges and the woodwork, it was like I’m sitting in a beautiful classic clock that goes really fast!” he recalls.

Suddenly there was a new use for the sheep barn.

He hired Lafountain, whose carpentry skills he had long admired. They rehabbed the barn and outfitted it for its new occupants — climate-sensitive aged crafts — and found a few, admittedly unimpressive, boats to work on. Then, in 2011, Claudon got hold of Little Chief, a deteriorated 1948 Chris Craft, and bought a copy of Don Danenberg’s 2008 Complete Wooden Boat Restoration Guide and they set to work.

“All we had was Little Chief, the book, and tools, and not much knowledge,” he says. But they restored the boat, applied 20 coats of varnish, and through their YouTube site, were found by a buyer in Salzburg, Austria, where to this day, Claudon is told, it’s a “traffic stopper.”

Claudon’s primary marketing tool is the YouTube channel he developed, which features the kind of videos he made for Sue Haigh while her boat was being rehabbed. It has thousands of subscribers, he says. “Ninety-five percent of our business comes from those YouTube videos.”

Since that breakthrough with the Little Chief, business has picked up appreciably. Through their association in the Antique and Classic Boat Society, Bill Truex has seen Claudon’s skills and reputation flower. The Society, whose Lake Champlain chapter includes 125 members, organizes occasional workshops, where some particular restoration challenge is addressed. Claudon and Truex attend workshops together, and Claudon sometimes hosts them in Weybridge.

“There’s just a small group of professionals who do this kind of thing,” says Truex. “Michael is one of the newcomers, and he’s gotten really, really good at what he does.”

Claudon also makes himself available as a resource to others, just as Don Danenberg has graciously accepted calls from him.

“We’re all in this to save old wood boats,” he says. “If I can help someone not put fiberglass on a wooden hull, I’ve saved one more.”

Shirley has retired, too, but like her husband, has founded a new enterprise — a jewelry creation business called Vermont Amber Designs. Their son, Paul, and his wife, Lynnette, live in Monkton, where Paul runs PC Medic of Vermont.

At home, on their property with beautiful, windswept views where a trio of solar trackers and a small wind turbine provide most of the power for the Boatworks and the house, the Claudons are enthusiastic gardeners, growing vegetables and perennials. They also own a lakeside getaway and a sailboat — a J/105 named Foxy Lady.

But Claudon is not immune to the lure of powerful, wooden inboards. Last summer he drove up to Ontario to rescue a 1953 Shepherd runabout, which now holds a prominent place in his shop as he and his crew restore it.

This one’s not for sale. “The boat is a Model 110-S runabout powered by a 331-cubic-inch V8 Hemi Dual Quad Four V-Drive 300 horsepower engine,” he says, almost sighing.

Its wood shines, and though Claudon hasn’t driven it yet, he’s sure it will go real fast. •