The right boat among right boats

We recently said that utility-style boats are typically strong choices for those who are going to own and enjoy a single collector boat. This time around, we’re recommending what we think is the ideal utility for most people.

The more open floorplan allows greater degrees of mobility, usability, and just plain fun! If you agree, and have set your sights on a utility-style boat, then the next logical question is whether there’s a “universal” utility boat that works best for most. While selecting a boat is a very personal pursuit, we suggest the ideal utility-style boat for most is the 22’ Chris-Craft Sportsman built from 1946-1954.

Fortunately for collectors, it’s also the Chris-Craft model with the highest production numbers: 2082 were built over its nine-year production span. There are also several interesting variants. The earliest boats featured white painted topsides. Mahogany supplies were scarce immediately after the war, so production began using cedar for the topsides, and since cedar doesn’t exhibit the same beauty when stained and varnished as does mahogany, the sides were painted instead. These boats usually feature fir ceilings and dashboards, either natural or stained a golden yellow. Some of the early bright-finished mahogany boats also have these ceilings, so production changed gradually as mahogany availability increased.

There were a number of engine options, including Chrysler 6-cylinder engines immediately post-war, and several Chris-Craft engine options, including both “K” and “M” blocks, up to the 158 hp “MBL” version. There isn’t a huge difference in acceleration or top speed, but the larger the engine, the more easily it will get up on plane when carrying a group.

Most all were upholstered in blue “Tolex” material, for which there is a very close modern vinyl equivalent. Probably the most useful option available was the “third seat” which mounts immediately ahead of the engine box, and provides additional seating for two or three people. This optional seat provides for a much better conversational experience, as you’re not shouting all the way to the aft seat if you’re “cocktail cruising” with another couple.

What makes the 22’ Sportsman (or U-22, as it’s known to us boat geeks) the ideal boat for most? Size-wise, it’s the “Goldilocks” boat, not too big and not too little. Not too large to trailer or scare a pilot, yet big enough to perform well in most weather and wave conditions experienced while inland lake boating or accommodate a group of eight friends.

From a styling standpoint, it’s not flashy. It does strike a chord, however, as it fits the mold of what a wood boat should look like. Lots of people still remember the U-22 “Thayer IV” from the movie “On Golden Pond”, which may still affect perception.

When looking for one, we recommend a late production version, with the largest original engine you can find, and the optional “third seat.” Sportsmans equipped with these options provide the most varnished mahogany, the most seating, and the greatest performance. As to condition, seek the best boat you can find, one that’s had all the right restoration work completed (and documented). We’ll talk more about this later!

Editor’s note: The author, David Bortner, is “captain” at Freedom Boat Service.