When Tom Harris bought the 1978 17’ Whaler from a Vancouver Island widower, the boat was in rough shape. Its previous owner ran a small salmon fishing guide operation out of Campbell River in northern Vancouver and had used it as his designated “workhorse.”
The fishing guide had worked the vessel hard, running it aground on the rough gravel shores of Vancouver Island, and only performed very basic upkeep and maintenance. He had also modified it, adding non-standard accessories like an extended-range aluminum gas tank with two guest chairs attached to it.
But despite its numerous divots and scars, the boat’s new owners — the Harris family—found plenty of use for the vessel.
Tony Harris, Tom’s first-born son, has many fond memories with the boat. “It is impossible to pick a single favorite memory,” he reflects. “That said, a recurring theme occurred anytime we were underway: I always felt so connected to my Dad when we were simply in the boat together. A lot of time passes where you don’t talk, but you both know you’re each in your happy place and loving everything about the experience. Those were some of the best memories I have with my Dad—on or off a boat. I am blessed to have so many.”
When Tom died suddenly in 2017, Tony Harris and his siblings inherited the worn-down boat. For 15 years, the Whaler was mainly kept in storage, only enlisted into service for tough jobs, or when an extra boat was needed for fishing expeditions or shuttling guests. But as Tony’s fifth anniversary came around, he saw a chance to reconnect with his father and give his wife, Leslie, a present she would never forget: an authentically restored 1978 Montauk.
Leslie is as much of a diehard boater as Tony. Growing up in the same seaside town, Leslie and Tony shared more than just geography; they both grew up with fathers who loved boating. As a result, they first met as kids when their families would spend time together in the summers, along with other boating families, around the Gulf Islands and Desolation Sound.
In fact, it was boating that brought them together as a couple — their first date was on the 17’ Montauk. “We spent a day in the Port Alberni canal and explored and fished and it was wonderful,” Tony recalls. “Leslie and I have lots of memories on this boat, particularly as it relates to trips over to the cabin at Mudge.”
For Tony, restoring the Whaler was not only about honoring his father, but also about commemorating his time with his wife. And the restoration was no small task. “The boat was very beat up aesthetically; it had clearly been relied on for its utility, but any sense of its original beauty was all but lost,” he says. “There were lots of dents and scratches on the back and the hull—everywhere. There were countless major repairs that were not done with any attention owed to hiding the repair. For all intents and purposes, the boat was very worn. The layman would look at it and think it’s on its last life.”
On top of needing serious repairs, he adds, “I also didn’t know that much about boat restoration, so the community was crucial.”
A vintage restoration is a big job, and Tony wanted his restoration to be as authentic as possible. Where he lacked in personal experience and technical know-how, he more than made up for with enthusiasm and a robust network of connections.
“If you have a passion about something, there are people out there who are willing to help you,” he says. “It was a combination of sourcing all the necessary parts together with people who could actually do the work. I know a guy who owns a marine business and helped me pull this together. I wanted it to be perfect and I think people like to work on something like that.”
For Tony, nothing could replace the power of collaborative effort. “Money and horsepower will only take you so far, but people are what make you successful,” he says. “Once I found a supplier for all the original hardware and confirmed with some local mechanics and shipwrights, together with the help of my friend Larry Wardill, I was off to the races.”
“When I get into a project it can consume me,” he explains, “but I must admit it was really hard to hide this one from Leslie — both practically speaking and emotionally, because I was so excited about it and also, I could really feel my Dad in me when I went through the process.”
With the boat now complete, Tony and the rest of his family get to spend time doing what they love the most: being out on the water. “My favorite thing to do on the boat is to take people out on it and see them smile and the joy experience,” he says.
“I have a great life,” he continues. “I worked hard for what I got but I am a really lucky guy. The thing I enjoy most in life is being able to share it. That’s why we work hard and take chances: to be able to share the joy and experience of what we do.”
Whether it’s a boat or an experience, sharing means everything to Tony. And he got to share one last memory with his dad when he was restoring his Whaler. “All the way along, I knew that this was something my dad and I would have enjoyed doing together, and I could feel him watching down on me,” he says. “In doing it, I was channeling my dad.”