By Andy Adams
A Labour of Love and a Love of labour Makes for the Project of a Lifetime
Perhaps the biggest challenge in writing this article is that few of our readers will be able to remember what a 1969 Chris-Craft Commander 47 actually looked like, especially inside.
First, it was a rare boat. Back in 1969, a 47 was a real yacht and you had to be a captain of industry, or heir to something impressive to buy one of these. Next, the engines and running gear in 1969 were dramatically different from the latest and greatest models available today and that dictated a hull design that had to be significantly different as well.
Express cruisers are the norm these days and we’ve seen some fabulous elegant express cruisers from Sea Ray, Marquis, Cruisers Yachts and other major builders offering boats in the 50 foot range. Some of these are impressively fast, have gorgeous lines and luxurious accommodations to suit today’s wealthy boating couples, but the old Chris-Craft Commander 47 has “family” space.
We were lucky enough to get re-prints of the original Commander 47 brochures (see sidebar) and the first specification listed was, “Sleeps 6-8”. This was a floating vacation home, not a style statement. On the other hand, we still think this is a great looking boat even in today’s world, although the original interior would not be up to modern standards.
On a 1969 Chris-Craft Commander 47, the original factory interior featured lots of Arborite and plastic instead of wood, a 1960s color scheme of course, and some decorating choices that we would laugh at today.
But once on board, the design and layout of this boat really stops you dead in your tracks. There’s generous standing headroom everywhere, numerous separate living areas, and an aft master stateroom with en suite head that exceeds anything I can think of on a new boat under 56 or 58 feet. Where did they find all this room?!!
The 1969 Chris-Craft Commander 47 is a simply outstanding boat and one that’s well worth saving. And, that is really where the story starts.
Out of the blue, my phone rang and it was a Canadian Yachting reader who called to say that he had restored an old Chris-Craft and his friends thought Canadian Yachting should write an article about it.
We are always interested in knowing what our readers are doing, but taking the time to travel to see an older boat can be difficult to schedule. It’s harder still to say when the editorial plan will have an opening where we could publish this kind of a story, assuming the boat was really a suitable subject in the first place. On the phone though, this was obviously a knowledgeable owner and when he said it was a 1969 Chris-Craft Commander 47 I knew he had a special boat. The best part was that the boat and owner were not too far away and I was able to schedule a visit last fall.
I was not prepared for what I found. What makes this boat absolutely stunning is the solid cherry wood interior.
I guess I was expecting something between a restored boat and one that was “fixed-up”. Brenda and Wendell Wilkinson patiently explained that fixing things is not what they do.
The Wilkinson history is that Brenda and Wendell have always been what they called “tinkerers”, working on projects like restoring antique cars including the 1967 Mustang they still own.
Wendell used to work for the former clothing company, Dylex in the Tip Top Tailors building on Lakeshore Boulevard in Toronto and on his lunch, he would go for a walk along the lakeshore where he saw people going by in their boats. The idea of owning a boat became more and more appealing and eventually, Wendell talked his wife Brenda into trying it out.
First, they bought a 1982 Sea Ray Sundancer.
The Sea Ray provided a lot of pleasure and their interest in boating grew. Then one day, Wendell saw a 36 foot Trojan advertised in the Buy & Sell for sale by the bank. It was in Lefroy on Lake Simcoe. They jumped on the opportunity to buy it even though they still had their Sea Ray.
They reupholstered the Trojan and removed the flying bridge that had been added by the previous owners, getting a handsome new canvas top made for the boat.
They always sailed out of Ontario Place but they lived in Whitby. One day one of their friends who was visiting Whitby asked to see their boat, when he did he insisted on buying it on the spot. Wendell said the boat wasn’t for sale and the friend said everything is for sale at a price. The price was right and Wendell told us that ended their boating for the next four years!
At that same time, they heard about the Chris-Craft which was on land in Whitby not far from where they lived.
The previous owner had stored it for a number of years due to failing health. They got his name and called him for four consecutive years trying to persuade him to sell it. Finally, he reluctantly agreed to part with his ‘pride and joy’ and the Wilkinsons got their treasure.
Now the real story starts! The next step was a decade of hard work!
Wendell stopped me there - it was fun he said. The love of labour is a lot of what they enjoyed best.
And, they don’t fix up old stuff. The point is that they really like redesigning and remodeling things. So, today, their 1969 Chris-Craft Commander 47 looks original but it is really custom from stem to stern.
Back in 1969, Chris-Craft simply didn’t know when to stop layering in fiberglass and this hull is extremely thick; Wendell says it’s bullet-proof!
So are the original Detroit Diesel Allison 8V53 engines. These are naturally aspirated 2-stroke V8s that were originally developed for military use in Sherman tanks. After probably 20 years without use, these fresh-water engines are still ready to run.
Chrome was re-done, stainless rails modernized and replaced, the gel coat carefully sanded and refinished with DuPont Imron paint and almost every other part was refurbished or skillfully modified.
They created a new lower bridge enclosure, making it out of aluminum. When it was complete, it snapped down right over the original rails. The Wilkinsons then glassed it in and made curved side windows that were molded over what’s called “wiggle” board. These complicated curved pieces were made in Toronto and the end result is an air conditioned, enclosed lower bridge with an ultra-leather setee all the way across the 15 foot beam!
They chose to do diamond tufted back rests to visually take the boat back to its proper era. It looks stock but no other 1969 Chris-Craft Commander 47 had this treatment.
The main event is the full cherrywood interior. Stretched out over all those years, the Wilkinsons kept ordering more and more cherry to the point where the lumber yard started calling Wendell, Mr. Cherry! He doesn’t want to think about what it cost but even top boats today, use mainly veneered panels. This boat has a solid cherrywood interior with furniture qualty construction, stem to stern.
As long as they were using materials like the cherry, Wendell though they might as well go with burled maple table tops, berber carpets, solid surface galley counters and gold-plated fixtures in the heads!
Stretched out over a decade of both labour and love, it must have all seemed reasonable. Brenda and Wendell’s two sons, daughter-in-law and now two grandchildren, Sasha and Connor, have all had a hand in the project.
It’s really complete now and the boat is where they love to entertain. After all the money spent on the other parts, Wendell laughed the hardest when he admitted that the sound system was probably the most expensive part of the boat! A total of two 4-channel power amps, two sub-woofers and speakers everywhere bring their favourite music to life on board this 1969 Chris-Craft Commander 47 - their labour of love.
It’s an inspiration.
Photo 1 - Brenda and Wendell Wilkinson stand proudly on the side deck of their magnificent 1969 Chris-Craft 47 Commander.
Photo 2 - This is scanned image from the original Chris-Craft brochures. Electronic versions of these and thousands of other boat models are available through www.OldBoatBrochures.com
Photo 3 - The Wilkinsons refurbished but did not alter the excellent original helm. All instruments gleam!
Photo 4 - Ignore the reflection of the photographer in the mirror! The totally redone aft master stateroom includes two double berths, a big dresser, loads of storage space, flatscreen television and far more.
Photo 5 - Corian countertop, built-in microwave, flat top cooking surface with clear glass backsplash – no 1969 Chris-Craft ever looked like this!
Photo 6 - This is the view of the flying bridge helm under the new canvas Bimini top.
Photo 7 - Brenda and Wendell Wilkinson don't fix up old stuff; they are 'tinkerers'.
Photo 8 - Here the Wilkinsons are standing beside their fully restored and greatly improved 1969 Chris-Craft.