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THURSDAY, MAY 10, 2007
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REAL PEOPLE
Ronnie Thomas
rthomas@decaturdaily.com

Houston Lovelace drives his 1957 Chris-Craft boat, while Al Jones points out something on the shore (above). The boat gently slides back into its slip at Riverwalk Marina in Decatur. Lovelace is the current owner of the boat. Jones was a previous owner.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Houston Lovelace drives his 1957 Chris-Craft boat, while Al Jones points out something on the shore (above). The boat gently slides back into its slip at Riverwalk Marina in Decatur. Lovelace is the current owner of the boat. Jones was a previous owner.

Not slipping away
Restored 50-year-old boat
has a family-like history

Houston Lovelace reached for the keys on either side of the helm and turned on the ignitions of dual engines.

Puffs of white smoke spurted from the exhausts and floated lazily above coffee-colored water.

Idling, the Hercules flattop 6-cylinder engines loped liked a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Then Lovelace, with former owner Al Jones at his side, slipped the restored 50-year-old "Slip Away" from Riverwalk Marina into the Tennessee River and pushed the throttle forward.

"Listen now," Lovelace said of the engines, the type that once powered forklift trucks. "Purring like a kitten and smooth as a sewing machine."

The 6-ton mahogany wood boat, a 1957 Chris-Craft Continental Convertible Cruiser, having been through a series of owners and name changes, has a family-like history.

But only Jones, 81, and Lovelace, who in about two weeks will likely celebrate his 46th birthday aboard Slip Away, have taken it through restorations. Both live in Decatur.

Once during the process, Jones, who took over the boat during the mid-1970s after the previous owner, his brother, John Henry "Sonny" Jones, died, thought he had lost it.

At the time, the vessel, which Al Jones dubbed "I Ain't Bad" after a Bear Bryant quote, rested inside one of the marina's original metal boathouses while a crew removed the water-cooled generator for repairs. Jones said a pipe coming up from the bottom of the boat brought water to the generator.

"We left a flexible pipe standing next to where the generator was, the outlet end only six inches or so from the water line," Jones said. "There were seven or eight people in the crew, and the additional weight forced the boat lower in the water. The pipe began to siphon water into the bilge. Unknown to me, the boat was gradually sinking. After everyone left, the pipe continued siphoning."

As Jones went to close the boathouse door, he noticed the danger line on the boat was closer to the water but didn't think anything about it.

"The next day, walking down the gang plank to the boat house, I smelled gasoline fumes. When I opened the door, everything but the bow of the boat was underwater," he said. "Ashley Holland came to my rescue. He put balloons underneath the boat, pumped them up, and raised it."

Although the work has been hard, Lovelace's three-year restoration project has gone more smoothly. And taking a lesson from Jones and realizing the boat had only one bilge pump, he added two more, one up front with the original pump and another at the back.

His investment, including the purchase of the boat, is about $35,000. Lovelace, who bought it in May 2002 from Darrin Jones, did a lot of sanding, revarnishing and replacing boards. He also got help from his wife, Diane, and her carpenter brother, Lamont Hardy of Somerville.

Everything on the boat, built in Algonac, Mich., is mahogany, Lovelace said, including the pilot wheel.

"Basically, we stripped it all the way down to bare wood, including removing white vinyl that Al had put down to make it look like a white teak floor. Mahogany is such a pretty wood, like a piece of furniture," he said. "We put on 12 coats of varnish."

He'd pay college students to work during the summers. He said one of the students who invested a lot of time, Robert Norman of Decatur, just graduated at Auburn.

"When I got the boat, one engine wasn't working, and I had it totally rebuilt at a cost of $5,000," Lovelace said. "I could have bought one for $3,500, but I wanted to stay with the original Hercules. The problem was it took more than a year because it was hard to find parts."

During the times he dry-docked the 35-foot-long boat for work on the bottom and sides, Extreme Marine used their trailers to pull it from the water and return it at a cost of $5 per foot. Lovelace says any expense to upgrade the boat is worth it.

Amanda Littrell understands the attachment. Her father, Avery Littrell Jr., bought the boat from Al Jones during the summer of 1983.

"It was a lot of fun," she said. "We'd usually take it no farther than the Interstate 65 bridge. The longest trip was to Guntersville because that was the closest place to have a boat painted."

Amanda's father died in 1987, and the family sold the boat to Darrin Jones in 1995.

"I just like the look of the 1950s models. It's a classic," said Lovelace, who grew up in Brewton. "My dad owned a smaller Chris-Craft that he kept in Destin, Fla., about 60 miles away. Also, my godfather owned a boat in Destin that he named the Slip Away. I named my boat after his.

"We'd always say, 'Let's slip away to Destin and go fishing.' "

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Ronnie Thomas Ronnie Thomas
DAILY Staff Writer

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