She starred in the Stelco strike — where’s the Whis­per now?

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - PAUL WIL­SON Paul Wil­son’s col­umn ap­pears Tues­days in the GO sec­tion. PaulWil­son.Hamil­ton@gmail.com Twit­ter: @PaulWil­sonInHam

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.

PAUL WIL­SON, SPE­CIAL TO THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

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.

LO­CAL HIS­TORY & AR­CHIVES, HAMIL­TON PUB­LIC LI­BRARY

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.

COUR­TESY OF ROB PIERCY

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