Matthew P. Murphy

Reff Reinhart designed and built his 17’2″ launch VIRGINIA PARK for short outings near his home in Holland, Michigan—and trailering expeditions farther afield. Here, he passes under Holland Harbor Lighthouse, which marks the entrance to Lake Macatawa from Lake Michigan.

Five years ago, Reff Reinhart needed a new boat. Specifically, he needed an open motorboat of modest power that he, his wife, and a couple of guests could sit in, facing forward while underway, for outings on Michigan’s Lake Macatawa. This new boat would not be ornate, but it would be classically beauti- ful and would combine elements of the 20 or so boats that Reinhart has owned over the years.

He discussed possible designs with his friend Mike Kiefer, proprietor of Great Lake Boatbuilding Co. in South Haven, Michigan. Kiefer, who has been in busi- ness since 1980, has built or repaired more than 300 boats and taught countless people the finer points of the craft. He’s been a mentor to many, including Reinhart. Each of the designs the two men discussed lacked some element of Reinhart’s vision—one bow profile was too raked, another hull too wide. And yet another lacked a critical detail that Reinhart couldn’t shake from his mind: a pronounced tumblehome at the stern. “Reff kept coming to me with this design, that design,” said Kiefer. “Finally, I told him to get a piece of basswood and carve a model of the boat that’s in your head.”

Reinhart, who’d grown up on the St. Joseph River on southern Lake Michigan—the “St. Joe,” to locals—has had boats since he was a kid, and he’s built eight or nine of them. His first effort, 50 or so years ago, was to fas- ten two shipping pallets together and stuff them with Styrofoam; his most ambitious was a 28′ Jay Benford– designed cruising sloop that he spent 12 years building in his home-based shop, and another 10 cruising on Lake Michigan with his family. In between these boats were some 20 others he’s owned, including a 16′ hot- molded mahogany Dunphy runabout and a 22′ power dory that he didn’t particularly like because it lacked sufficient buoyancy aft to float an engine—and its flat bottom pounded in waves. But like them or not, Rein- hart took a lesson from each of his boats, and he seems to have condensed this knowledge in Virginia Park, the elegant lapstrake launch whose shape he would carve in that half model.

Reinhart had carved models of existing boats for years, but he’d never done it as a design exercise. The time-honored technique works like this: A builder with a good eye for boat form has a vision for the shape of a boat, and instead of trying to convey this shape on paper, he carves it from a suitable piece of softwood—typically pine or basswood. The lines are then taken from this model either by directly measur- ing it or by carefully slicing it into sections and then tracing these sections on paper.

Matthew P. Murphy

Reinhart developed the shape of his new boat by carving a half model. When the shape satisfied him, he cut the model into evenly spaced sections and traced these on paper. From the resulting body plan, he developed the other views of the lines plan, and then began building.

When he finished his model, Reinhart wasn’t quite satisfied with it. It lacked something, but he couldn’t figure out just what. He told Kiefer this, and Kiefer told him to press the flat back side of the half model against a bathroom mirror, which Rienhart did. The reflec- tion completed the boat, and straddling the mirror was the sweet shape Reinhart had imagined. Construction soon commenced.

Reinhart began with a set of molds derived from the lines plan he developed from the model. After setting up the building jig and getting out a few of the boat’s pieces, he tabled the project for a year and cleared his mind by building an Atkin-designed pram. He’d set a high bar with his new design’s stern, and perhaps he was blocked by the prospect of planking those shapely hindquarters. After that year of dormancy, he hauled the boat to Kiefer’s shop, where the two men planked it over the course of 10 days. Reinhart then hauled the bare hull back to his shop and fit it out. He finished it over the next six months.

The planking is 3⁄8″ mahogany plywood fastened together in the glued-lap method—which is to say there are no rivets, but instead epoxy, joining the laps of the plywood planks. The rest of the boat’s ingredi- ents include: red oak for the transom; bookmatched Atlantic white cedar for the decks; floors and keel of “southern yellow pine”; and sassafras for the console, seats, coaming, and rails.

With the boat planked, lifted off the building jig, and turned right-side up, Reinhart bent in a bellyful of steam-bent frames of sassafras. Although they add rigidity to the hull, they generally aren’t required for glued-lap boats of this size—yet their absence certainly underscores a boat’s modernity. “We wanted it to look old-timey,” Kiefer said. “I do that [install frames] on a lot of my [glued-lap] boats—they look naked without them.”

Virginia Park’s floorboards are MDO (medium- density overlay)—a paper-faced plywood product pre- ferred by sign painters for its ability to take a nice paint finish. These floorboards are painted “Grover green”— named for a friend in Holland who custom-mixes this subtle shade for his own boat.

Matthew P. Murphy

One of Reinhart’s requirements for his new boat was a sweet, sweeping sheerline uncluttered by protrusions. He seems to have hit his mark.

In early June this year, I visited Reinhart in Holland and enjoyed several hours running around Lake Macatawa in Virginia Park. Kiefer followed along in his own boat—an 18-footer of his design that he says combines the sensibilities of a number of great design- ers, including William Hand, Pete Culler, and Charles Withholz.

Matthew P. Murphy

Virginia Park’s signature tumblehome stern is evident in this view. Her layout is meant for simple handling, and for comfortable day-tripping for four adults. A number of species of wood—including Atlantic white cedar, sassafras, and oak—went into the boat.

Macatawa is a boater’s paradise. One mile wide and six miles long, it forms a beautifully protected bay that feeds, through a narrow cut, into vast Lake Michigan. It’s fringed by tidy homes and parks, and leavened with just a hint of industry by a coal-fired power plant and metal recycling facility on the eastern skyline, and a Heinz pickle plant that’s nearby.

We launched the boats at a municipal facility near the pickle plant, and were quickly underway, cruising west for Lake Michigan. After we settled in, Reinhart shared some of his aspirations for, and observations of, the boat. “Becky and I spent years in our 6-knot boat,” he said, referring to time spent with his wife cruising in their Benford sloop. While recalling those cruising years fondly, he asked rhetorically, “How far could we go? Now we can put the boat on a trailer and say, ‘Let’s go here! Let’s go there!’”

Reinhart was worried about the boat’s stability as Virginia Park neared completion, but Kiefer assured him that, despite the proportionally narrow beam, the boat’s length would lend it stability. And it does. Driven by a 15-hp motor, she tops out at 16 knots with two people aboard, and sips fuel.

At one point during our outing, I heard Reinhart refer to a set of trim tabs that were being shipped to him. I’d noticed that Virginia Park seemed to run a bit bow-up at higher speeds, and I asked him about this. He attributes it to the transom angle. Virginia Park has plenty of bearing aft to support her motor, and she doesn’t squat the way Reinhart’s old power dory did. In fact, Reinhart points out that the new boat’s waterline is widest at the transom. It’s also flat, creating an ample planing surface. The issue has to do with the trim angle of the motor, which is restricted by the shallow rake of the transom. While trim tabs will correct the running angle in this first boat, his next design, says Reinhart, will have more rake to the transom.

But high speed is not this boat’s mission. At 7–8 knots, it’s quiet and relaxed, and even with the gentle thrum of the four-stroke outboard one can still hear the chortle of water playing off the laps. It’s as if a sailor’s priorities were tended to in a powerboat. In fact, Reinhart, in describing the design, noted its resemblance to a Lake Michigan icon: the Mackinaw boat. He reck- ons the plumb stem and fine entry were inspired by these graceful working sailboats. Indeed, sailing provided a baseline goal for the design of Virginia Park. “We wanted her to double our sailing speed,” Reinhart said. “We were aiming for 14 knots.”

Virginia Park, named for a Holland, Michigan, neighborhood with a deep boatbuilding tradition, is narrow for her length. While she may have some Macki- naw boat DNA, her proportions were inspired by a design featured in Thomas Firth Jones’s New Plywood Boats (Sheridan House, 2001). This book includes an entire chapter on long, narrow powerboats, and in it Jones wrote that “The long narrow powerboat is a roman- tic relic from the days when engines were too heavy to lift boats out of the water…. A long narrow boat that’s in the water has a softer ride than a fat one that’s planing because the waves aren’t banging on the bottom. It also consumes a quarter of the fuel of a planing hull at the same speed.”

Yes, in addition to their good looks and easy rides, long, narrow hulls are more efficient than proportionally wider ones. Jones, who died in 2006, presented in his book the case of PUXE—a 22-footer of his design that he’d built using an experimental technique whose net result was a replacement boat 13 or so years later. “Why I didn’t work in a hardwood chine log and fasten the topsides and bottom to it I…don’t remember, but the cedar-to-cedar join in this crucial spot eventually cost us the boat.”

The new PUXE was also an experiment in construction, with a fiberglass foam-cored bottom and lapstrake cedar topsides. It was given radi-used topsides “serving no purpose but looks,” and there was a pronounced tumblehome at the stern. The inspiration for Virginia Park is evident.

When Jones built his PUXEs, glued lapstrake plywood had not yet been refined to the point it is today. Reinhart has taken the PUXE concept, shrunk it a bit, and interpreted it in a beautifully lined-off hull built by means of a thoroughly proven technique. It’s simply laid out, steers easily, and tracks well. I was impressed while bringing it into the dock at the end of the day when, in a modest crosswind, the bow did not blow off; rather, the boat sat dead still, awaiting my command.

Matthew P. Murphy

Thanks to her flat sections aft Virginia Park planes easily with her 15-hp outboard. She’s also enjoyable at a modest cruising clip, when conversation is easy and guests relaxed.

Matthew P. Murphy


Maneuvering was easy and precise. With her shallow, flat stern, she showed no tendency to root when we surfed Kiefer’s wake, and she made easy work of these waves when headed into them. As we hauled the boat, I complimented Reinhart on a job well done, and pointed out some of my observations. He put it best in his reply: “It’s the supreme comfort cruiser,” he said with a smile.

Matthew P. Murphy

Virginia Park’s lightweight plywood construction allows her to be easily loaded onto a trailer. With Reinhart’s custom tie-down spreader bar securing the boat is a snap. The operation takes about ten minutes.

This article was originally published in WoodenBoat No. 234, September/October 2013.