MATT SMITH: Creator of Woody Boater, ‘portal to the hobby’

The Hagerty Marine Hall of Fame was created in 2009 to honor the people and organizations that have made profound, positive contributions to the classic and collector boat lifestyle. The Class of 2014 includes Charles Mistele, Matt Smith and the Lyman Boat Owners Association. This is Matt’s story …

Matt Smith never dreamed that Woody Boater ( would so perfectly fill a need in the classic boating community. It was just his desperate attempt to learn more about classic boats and connect with other owners and restorers.

“The Washington, D.C., area isn’t exactly a boating community, and I felt alone and isolated without any resources,” said the 56-year-old Smith, CEO of the SmithGifford Advertising Agency in Falls Church, Va. “I went online and tried to find information, but there just wasn’t a lot out there.”

To get a conversation started – “selfishly, actually” – Smith started Woody Boater seven years ago. It was the culmination of his lifelong love for boats and his “frustrating ignorance” of how to restore them. Smith’s grandfather, Paul Smith, was a Rear Admiral in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and he taught Matt to navigate “old-school style.” Together they built a 12-foot mahogany Sunfish sailboat. But Smith admits that as an adult he “mostly played with antique cars” until about 10 years ago, when he felt the urge to buy a boat.

“I had antique cars, but I never drove them. The only free time I had was on weekends, and I spent those on the water at my ‘river’ house,” Smith said. “So one rainy day I went on eBay and discovered how many antique boats were out there, and I bought a ’49 runabout that first day. It was a nice boat, but after a year I realized it wasn’t really what I wanted, so I reached out to a few boat brokers. I remember thinking to myself, ‘These are nice, happy people. This should be fun.’”

Smith settled on a 1941 Chris-Craft Barrel Back. But when he began to restore it, online information was sparse. “I was angry at myself for not being educated in the hobby, and like most things in my life, I just dove into a restoration that ended up costing me big time. I named the boat Sylvia after my grandmother – wife of the Admiral. She died at 106 and told me to do something dumb with the money. I think she would be happy.”

Struggling and frustrated with the restoration process, Smith started Woody Boater as a cry for help. “To my shock, someone was reading,” he said, naming nearly two dozen early supporters, most notably Reg Down, who he now calls “my partner in crime.”

At first, Smith posted on the website once a week. Then Down and others volunteered to write stories, and before long, new material was published on a daily basis. Woody Boater now receives 150,000 clicks per month, has reporters from around the world, and is read in North America, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. “No rules, no passwords, no fees – just a place for people to come together,” Smith said. “Woody Boater isn’t mine. It’s a community. It’s you, it’s me, it’s everybody. It’s a portal to the hobby for the person who doesn’t know where to start.”

In addition to news and stories, Woody Boater provides links and information for suppliers, restorers, parts and service, insurance and shows. Simply put, Smith said, “Woody Boater represents the best and most ethical companies and people in the hobby of classic boating, and it’s always focused on fun and the positive aspects of the passion.”

Smith is adamant that Woody Boater “avoid the negative and the nasty” and focus on the friendly and helpful nature of classic boating. “Negativity is divisive. It doesn’t help anyone,” he said.

While Smith insists that the website belongs to the entire boating community, he has become known as the Woody Boater, which – not surprisingly – means his wife, Suzanne, is often referred to as the Woody Boatress. Modesty aside, Smith can’t deny how important Woody Boater has become, especially among restorers and those who are new to the hobby.

“I recall the moment when I knew I’d done the right thing by starting this,” Smith said. “I posted a picture of the staining I was about to do (on the ’41 Chris-Craft), and a reader, Don Ayers, emailed me that something was wrong with the wood I had already done, and he explained what I needed to do. That email saved me thousands. That’s the day I made it my mission – and Woody Boater’s – to save others and invite them into my world of ignorance.”

Read next Up next: LYMAN BOAT OWNERS ASSOCIATION: Keeping the legacy alive

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