She starred in the Stelco strike — where’s the Whisper now?
There’s no prettier — and pricier — piece of Hamilton history than the 88-year-old wooden boat called the Whisper.
A decade ago, she was worth $500,000. Who can say what she’d fetch today?
This is the sleek and muscular, 32-foot Honduras-mahogany craft that starred in the storied Strike of ’46 at Stelco. The union bought the boat to patrol Hamilton Harbour, to try to stop replacement workers and supplies from coming in the back door. Some days, it got nasty out there.
Sixteen years ago I wrote about the boat, even went for a ride. The man at the wheel was Dunc Hawkins, a retired IBM executive who grew up in Hamilton, who wore the heat suit and guzzled lemonade and salt tablets in the Stelco mill in the summers of the early ’60s.
Decades later, he discovered the Whisper in a state of decay in Michigan and spent “serious six figures” to bring the boat back to life. Master Gravenhurst boat restorer Gary Clark did the work.
Just weeks after he got her in the water, Hawkins took me for that ride. He loved that boat and its Hamilton history.
There’s one lovely theory that the first man to own the Whisper when it came off the line at the Ditchburn factory in Gravenhurst was Hamilton mobster Rocco Perri. No proof of that. But Gunner Joe Begley, North End bootlegger, had her for awhile. So did Paul Judson Myler, Hamilton-based president of Westinghouse Canada.
Hawkins told me in 2001 that he’d love to see the Whisper make a return visit to Hamilton. Sadly, that never happened.
Since then, Stelco died. But now it’s freshly reborn. Let’s talk to Hawkins again.
He confesses he sold the Whisper 10 years ago. There are still several craft in his boathouse, “but you can’t keep them all. I’m not a wealthy man … and the Whisper is a very, very valuable boat.”
He is satisfied that it’s now “in the hands of a true steward of antique wooden boats.”
That would be Roger Oatley, of personal injury law firm Oatley Vigmond in Barrie. He keeps the boat on his island in Lake Joseph.
As I’ve been wandering cottage country this summer anyway; maybe I should check in on the man who watches over the Whisper today.
Oatley obliges. We rendezvous at a wharf on the lake, then journey to the island he purchased about eight years ago.
We’re at his boathouse. No Whisper in sight. We climb into a golf cart for a trip through the woods to the other side of Oatley’s island.
He retired last year on his 70th birthday. He has some Hamilton ties. His father worked for Hanson Transport in the east end. In summers, young Oatley would do department store deliveries: furniture, fridges, stoves.
And he remembers his first major accident. He never took the Skyway, to save on tolls charged then. Down below, on the Beach Strip, he had a first-rate rear-ender.
He survived the day. Eventually, he got into law school. Then, Oatley says, “I worked like a maniac all my life.”
We have arrived at boathouse No. 2. The Whisper lives here, chrome and long deck gleaming.
Oatley does not ride her hard. A slow cruise is best.
“I get a feeling of calm,” he says. “There’s an almost romantic power to it … It fits the landscape and the lake.”
The Whisper takes a short overland journey each fall and spring, to and from indoor storage in Muskoka. Would Oatley ever consider a small detour, letting the Whisper visit Hamilton Harbour one more time?
Not likely. He gets anxious enough every time the boat’s on a trailer.
“And a back road is one thing,” he says. “The 400 is another.”
But sometime next summer, he says, look for the boat at the free Muskoka Lakes Association’s biannual Antique Boat Show in Port Carling.
Admire the Whisper’s classic lines. She’s a lady with a past and looks that last.
Retired lawyer Roger Oatley is the latest to watch over the Whisper. He keeps her in one of the boathouses on his island on Lake Joseph.
One legend had it that the Whisper was first owned by mobster Rocco Perri. There’s no proof of that, but we know for sure it belonged to the Stelco strikers in 1946.
The Whisper made an appearance at the Antique Boat Show in Port Carling three years ago. It will be there again next summer.