Wooden boats share their past and return to the sea under hands that love them James Hebert STAFF WRITER   PUBLICATION: San Diego Union-Tribune, The (CA) SECTION: LIFESTYLE

DATE: August 5, 2001 EDITION: 1,2,3 Page: E-1

Forget sailing over the bounding main. The vessel that sits outside C.F. Koehler's office window looks as if it's bound mainly for the landfill.

"You take a look at that boat out there," Koehler admits, "and you say: 'Firewood. Is there a Dumpster big enough for it?'"

But when Koehler looks at an old wooden sailing craft like this one -- a 1940s-vintage Cal 32 named Altimar -- he sees more than a junk heap. And to see what Koehler sees, you have to look beneath the boat's withered skin.

"Look at how close the grain is," Koehler says. He is outside now at his Shelter Island boatyard, scraping flecks of aged paint off the dry-docked Altimar with a pocketknife. The blade reveals lines of still-sturdy planking, stretched like corduroy along the boat's belly.

"These trees were probably saplings before the Civil War," he muses.

Koehler has seen a lot of wooden boats like this, and he has saved more than a few. They are his passion, even if sometimes they are a royal pain in the aft: A restoration can take a year or more and cost $50,000 to $80,000.

They are worth it, he says, for the same reason that the Altimar's old timbers somehow speak to him: "You have a time machine," he says, "when you have one of these boats."

Just as a time machine bridges past and present, so does Koehler's work. At the Koehler Kraft boatyard, founded by his father in the early 1950s, he uses modern methods and materials to restore vintage wooden boats to sailing shape.

"He's known as probably the best at it," says Greg Stewart, a top naval architect at San Diego-based Nelson/Marek Yacht Design. Stewart designs sleek racing sailboats, but he also owns a 70-year-old wooden yacht named Sprig, which he restored with Koehler's help.

"Some people, their hands can touch a musical instrument or their hands can touch wood in a way other people can't," says Richard S. "Rish" Pavelec, a local sailor who has championed the restoration of vintage PC (Pacific Class) racing sailboats.

"It looks different (to them). It feels different ... In my mind, what that translates to is a gift. (Koehler) is that way with boats. It's incredible what I've seen him do."

Family business

Koehler is 36, which makes him about half as old as most of the boats he restores. But if he possesses the skills of a much older salt, it's because he got a very early start.

On one wall of his crow's-nest office hangs a photo of himself, poised over an old engine block. He is about 2 years old.

"The story is they gave me a wrench and I was able to get it on a bolt," Koehler says with a smile.

Apocryphal or not, the tale gives a sense of Koehler's early life: He was all but brought up at the boatyard.

His father, Clarence Koehler Sr., founded Mercury Marine Works downtown in 1938. There, he designed and built Koehler Kraft boats such as the family cruiser seen in another photo at the office.

"There was a huge generation gap between us," says Koehler, noting that he was only 21 when his father died at age 70.

The first time the young Koehler had "a speck of whiskers" on his face, he recalls, his taciturn father asked whether he had lost his razor.

But even though dad discouraged son from pursuing boat-building as a trade, the two spent long days together at the yard -- one working, the other observing and helping out as best he could.

"I would spend hours watching him do his thing," Koehler says now.

By the seventh grade, Koehler recalls, he had his first boat -- a "cool little cabin cruiser" made up largely of junk parts from the yard.

In high school, he took wood shop for a time, but "it was stupid for me to stay after school to do a project, when I could be here making wage, helping the family business."

The on-the-job experience, Koehler says, made him "beyond a journeyman" in carpentry and mechanics by his late teens.

The knack for salvage he demonstrated with that first cabin cruiser has served Koehler well, and it goes beyond boats -- he also drives "ancient" autos such as a 1952 pickup truck.

Koehler describes his restoration work as "almost a boat-recycling thing." He doesn't try to save them all. "There are all kinds of poster-child boats (out there)," he acknowledges -- boats that are crying out for attention and adoption.

As for how to inspire people to care about these old craft the way he does, Koehler says he hasn't a clue.

"I'm not a philosopher or a marketer," he says. "I'm a simple shipwright. I'm also a pretty good sailor. I know how to prepare a boat for the environment it's going to be used in."