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The bonds we have with our boats

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Ted Sullivan
August 16, 2008
— Every boat should have a story.

Whether it’s a rusty canoe, a high-throttle speedboat or a historic yacht, southern Wisconsin residents love their watercraft and the memories they create.


An old saying is that the best days to own a boat are the day you buy it and the day you sell it, but for some Geneva Lake boaters, that cliché just isn’t true.


Two local men have enjoyed countless underwater adventures in their submarine.


Another man takes his family out on a handcrafted boat made by his grandfather.


And yet another spent 16 years building a re-creation of a unique 1890s steam yacht like the one he rode as a child in the 1940s.


Here are their stories.


Treasure hunting

Cully Pillman and Walter J. Goes treasure hunt at the bottom of Geneva Lake in their submarine, but they keep their adventures to themselves.


“We don’t tell anybody what we find,” Pillman said. “We just go back and look at it.”


Pillman, 51, Lake Geneva, and Goes, 59, Lake Geneva, bought a two-person submarine in 2001. They launch it at the Lake Geneva Yacht Club.


The submarine, which can sink 135 feet below the surface, is named N.V.S.?. The battery-powered watercraft is about 5 feet tall and 8 feet long, large enough for the two of them.


Several years ago, Pillman heard about a Russian submarine selling on eBay.


Intrigued, he combed the auction Web site to buy a submarine of his own.


He convinced his buddy, Walter J. Goes, to buy the submarine with him, and they sat down at the computer together.


“We hit the button and boom: sold,” Pillman said.


The submarine was used to help film the 1990 Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin film “The Hunt for Red October,” he said.


It was owned by a Florida man, but the submarine was being held in a Canadian port, Goes said.


And getting the submarine into the United States proved to be difficult, he said.


The two hired an importer to bring it into the country, but he couldn’t get it done, Goes said. It was too much red tape to bring a privately owned submarine into the United States.


“I said, ‘Why don’t I take it across?’” Goes said.


So he crossed the border from Buffalo, N.Y., to Canada and hitched the submarine onto a vehicle. After the border patrol agent asked a few questions, Goes drove the submarine into the United States.


Later, the men received an official letter from the federal government, accusing them of smuggling a submarine into the country.


“It was the coolest, scariest-looking letter you’ve ever seen in your life,” Pillman said.


They had an attorney clear up the mess in a couple phone calls, Goes said.


The submarine is believed to be the only one registered in Wisconsin for personal use, Pillman said, and the men have been going on underwater adventures since bringing it home.


“It’s fun,” Goes said. “It’s something different.”


The two have seen several wrecked boats, antique fishing lures and an umbrella below the surface.


They said it’s dark down there, but the submarine has lights. And the water can be clear.


“The bottom of the lake is really clean,” Pillman said. “You think there would be beer cans and all kinds of stuff, but there’s not.”


A family tradition

Randy Kenyon’s boat has an appropriate name: heirloom.


Kenyon’s grandfather, Bruce Heebink, a mechanical engineer, handcrafted the 15-foot boat in his basement in 1961. He made the four-person boat with fir and plywood.


His grandfather had a pulley system in his one-car garage to lift the boat into the air for winter storage while leaving space below to park a car.


“It was always a treat when he’d take it down and he’d bring it out on the lake,” Kenyon said. “It was pretty special.”


While growing up in Middleton, Kenyon, 44, enjoyed several boat trips with his grandfather on Lake Mendota. He skied behind the boat as a child.


When he got older, the boat with a maximum speed of 25 mph became more difficult to ski behind. It just didn’t have enough power to tug adults.


“When we used to ski behind it in high school, we had to use jumping skis,” he said. “Whoever was in the boat had to lean over the windshield.”


When Kenyon graduated from high school, his grandfather gave him the boat.


“I never really thought I’d get it,” he said. “It has more of a meaning now that I’m older.”


Kenyon began remodeling the boat after receiving it. He put in new seats, applied fresh painted and installed carpeting.


His grandfather was proud of his work.


“He’d just sit there and pat it and smile,” Kenyon said.


Inside the boat’s rear compartment, his grandpa marked in pencil the number of times he had filled the gas tank each year. Kenyon continues that tradition.


The Harvard, Ill., resident and his family use the boat several times a year on Geneva Lake and on family vacations. He plans on giving the boat to his 5-year-old son, Reid.


Although the boat needs a tune-up every year, his grandpa would be proud he’s still gliding it across the water.


“He’d be happy,” Kenyon said.


Preserving antique boats

Ever since Larry Larkin was a child, he’s had a fascination with steam yachts unique to Geneva Lake.


“I think when I was 5 or 6 years old I had my first ride on one of these boats,” the 70-year-old Linn Township resident said.


The feeling of being on that boat stuck with him.


“I was fascinated by it,” he said.


Larkin now is the owner of two such boats, a re-creation of the 1890s steam yacht he spent 16 years building and an original he is restoring.


His re-creation, the Sea Lark, was launched in 2006. It’s an 81-foot yacht that carries 50 people.


“It’s a people boat,” Larkin said. “You need people to make it come alive.”


Steam yachts are unique to Geneva Lake, Larkin said, and were popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s.


The boats were used for transporting wealthy Chicago residents from the railroads to their lakefront homes, Larkin said. They also were used for transportation to town for groceries or golf outings.


The boats no longer were needed after the automobile was invented, he said, and the last steam yacht was built in 1913.


Four original steam yachts still exist on Geneva Lake, including the Normandie, which Larkin bought years ago.


“And that sort of began my intimate association with these types of boats,” Larkin said.


The Sea Lark has an after deck with six seats and a raised after deck with cushions and pillows. It’s a small area where people can eat dinner or be entertained while on a cruise, Larkin said.


The cabin’s interior has a washroom, kitchen and bar. It can be used for entertaining, dinner or shelter from wind or rain.


The forward deck has seating for a dozen people.


“Although it’s modern, it still shows what boats are like from that era,” Larkin said.


He keeps the boat at a pier at his lakefront home. He and his family members drive it regularly on evening cruises.


His goal is to preserve the culture of antique boats unique to Geneva Lake for future generations.


“I’ve had a fascination with these boats since I was a kid,” Larkin said.



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