Muskoka in Ontario is famous for its classic wooden motorboats, which have graced the local waterways since the early 20th century. We visit the area in a Mazda CX-3 to meet a family-run business that restores and builds these beautiful craft, and get a flavour of what 415 hp feels like on the water…
Words by Gavin Conway, Photography by Sian Richards
Owner and builder Peter Breen tugs the long, gleaming, chromed gear lever of his 28-foot “gentleman’s racer” as it glides out of its slip on the Severn River in Muskoka. The massive 8.0-litre V8 engine cranks slowly and then explodes formidably into life, playing its thunderous rumble off the wooden walls of the boathouse.
Overhead, grey clouds threaten rain, but Peter isn’t bothered. He’s smiling, enjoying the knowledge that I really don’t know what’s about to hit me, all screaming 415 hp of it. Indeed, I do not. As Peter opens the throttle, the V8’s exhaust note begins to harden from a baritone rumble into a ferocious yowl as the revs rise.
This boat might look exactly like the 1920s design it is based on, but it is capable of 96 km/h, which is damned fast for any boat of any era. Not only that, it handles brilliantly, carving unbelievably tight turns as it flies effortlessly across the water. And Peter has named it Cash Injection, for reasons that will soon become obvious.
Peter is one of a band of wooden boat restorers and builders who operate in the Muskoka region; the boats they restore and build are known worldwide as “Muskoka boats.” The most famous, and collectible, are speedboats from the 1920s and 30s, built with absolutely uncompromising quality, using the finest mahogany.
Peter Breen’s boats follow that tradition. It’s impossible to overstate the quality and craftsmanship that go into a Breen re-creation. I’ve never witnessed such a perfect marriage of beauty and brawn. To call a Breen boat a replica is unfair, because the boat is built with exactly the same traditional crafts used to build the originals.
All of the hardware, cleats, deck lights and chrome instrument panels are cast using 1920s hardware. The results are stunning—even an informed observer wouldn’t guess that Peter’s boat isn’t from the era. Cheap, Peter is not. He says his average restoration will run between $400,000 and $500,000. As for a boat built from scratch, “a lot” would be a safe bet.
“We do boats the same way they were done in the 20s with real planks, real dimensioned wood, almost always with white oak frames,” explains Peter. “We do everything traditionally, the same way they did in the old days, including steam bending of the frames, which is more of a skill and harder to do than the more common laminating.”
But there’s a thoroughly modern twist here. Peter makes boats of unsurpassed grace and style, but he builds for clients who want the excitement of high performance. “The Margaret Shirley, for instance, has a handmade 575 hp-Ilmor [race prepared] engine in it, one of the hottest gas engines you can buy. It’ll push that boat into the 110 km/h range.”
“The SS Bigwin carried guests such as Clark Gable, Louis Armstrong, Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo and loads of other household names out to Bigwin Inn on the Island”
So how did the Muskoka region become so well known for its gorgeous powerboats? Well, around the turn of last century the boats became a way for the very rich, many of whom had palatial cottages around Muskoka, to show off their wealth and status. Additionally, having few roads meant that if you wanted your speed thrills, a gentleman’s racer was the best fix.
Muskoka is also a stunning part of Canada. Its breathtaking natural setting invites exploration, and the craggy rock of the Canadian Shield gives the place a moving, rugged beauty. One of the best roads takes you on a loop around Lake of Bays, going through charming villages filled with characterful red-brick homes, family-run stores, restaurants and marinas. They are places that feel of another era.
In our travels, we stumble across another famous Muskoka boat: the SS Bigwin. The 109-year-old boat has been exquisitely restored. Originally privately owned, the Bigwin ended up being sold in 1925 when it started service as a ferry to Bigwin Island, the largest and at one time one of the most glamorous islands in North America.
“It really was a spectacular place back in the day,” says SS Bigwin’s captain, Shawn Ruhl. “The Bigwin carried guests such as Clark Gable, Louis Armstrong, Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo and loads of other household names out to Bigwin Inn on the Island.” And the SS Bigwin has another uniquely modern twist, explains Captain Ruhl: “It is the first fully electric passenger-carrying boat in Canada.”
2019 MAZDA CX-3
The Mazda we chose for our Muskoka adventure was a CX-3. With a decent 148 hp on tap, courtesy of its 2.0-litre four-cylinder gasoline engine, we were able to combine spirited performance with decent fuel consumption—we recorded over 7.0 l/100km on open road runs. Even better, on the twisting roads of Muskoka, the CX-3 has sharp, precise steering and fine handling balance—in short, this crossover is fun to drive. That’s largely due to Skyactiv-Vehicle Dynamics, a suite of technology that makes the CX-3 a smoother, more comfortable drive. Our CX-3 also came with the reassurance of all-wheel drive for the region’s inevitable rough dirt roads.