The Comet

In the heyday of Tahoe's aft-cabin sedans (roughly the 1920s and early 30s), style was becoming a primary consideration, whether one was meeting the Steamer, attending a houseparty or tea, exploring the vast and delightful lakeshore or following the shimmering path of the summer moon.

At least four West Shore estates kept such sedans during the 1920s and beyond, By virtue of her longevity, the best known of these is COMET, a 36 foot embodiment of marine elegance which is still in use today.

Intended to duplicate, in marine terms, the function of a family towncar, COMET fit the bill nicely, being larged enough, seaworthy enough and swift enough to transport passengers safely and in style.

COMET was born in 1922 in the San Pedro, California boatyard of Fellows & Stewart. Sidney Ehrman, a prominent San Francisco attorney, had comissioned her construction. Ehrman's father-in-law, Isaias W. Hellman, had purchased and developed a large tract of land on Sugar Pine Point, south of McKinney's, around the turn of the century.

From her very debut on the Lake, the Ehrmans' fair marine beauty created a sensation. Her fine, sweeping lines and stylish appointments conferred on her a dignity which was hardly despoiled by her ability to get up and go. For her day, COMET was a veritable speed merchant, her Hall-Scott LM-6 power plant pushing her along at an impressive 30 mph - progress which a boatload of passengers did little to retard. Double-planked and riveted, her hull was engineered to withstand the abuse which such speed might incur, and 70 years later, her soundness attests to the excellence of her original construction.

Two water-tight collision bulkheads incorporated into her sleek and stylish hull made her virtually unsinkable, and if any doubted the sufficiency of that precaution, she carried additional insurance atop her cabin in the form of a life-ring large enough for several castaways.

By the end of the Second World War, the changing face of Tahoe's marine activity (including the discontinuance of Steamer operation, the cessation of mail delivery by boat and improved highways) had redirected the Ehrman family's boating emphasis to smaller personal runabouts (CHEROKEE, JACQUELINE, and later CHEROKEE II, the first two of these mentioned in prewar wood). COMET was consequently relegated to the boathouse, a status she continued to maintain through the conclusion of the Ehrman's ownership of Pine Lodge.

In the spring of 1965, the Ehrmans completed negotiations for the sale of their Tahoe property to the State of California. With a disregard for history which now seems ludicrous, the family withheld furnishings and contents from the transaction, retaining Butterfield & Butterfield to auction all unattached appurtenances.

Forming a situationally-inspired partnership, Gordon Hooper and Jordan Carlton bid on the contents of the two boathouses, virtually sight-unseen. Among items included in their high bid of $3,000 were CHEROKEE II (a 1950s era Chris-Craft ), a beautifully made mahogany rowing boat, an Old Towne canoe and 370 bottles of George LaTour signature Cabernet Savignon. But the real prize sought by the partners was COMET, the grandest of Tahoe’s vintage marine sedans and, in spite of her lack of recent care, well worth the price agreed upon for the entire boathouse contents.

Hooper's inquiries led to the discovery that the boat had not been operated in twenty years, a fact which was quickly verified by a survey of her tinder-dry hull and seized engine. But several weeks of maintaining a constant water level in her bilge soaked up her hull well enough to attempt to float her. The mechanical ministrations were just as tedious: by feeding oil to her unresponsive cylinders via the sparkplug holes, Hooper was eventually able to manually unseize the long-neglected Hall-Scott powerplant, and soon she was ready for her return to the Lake. May 4, 1966 was the eagerly-anticipated occasion of her relaunching, and the beginning of a new life for the long-lost object of local admiration.

Hooper and Carlton continued as co-owners for one season of use, after which Carlton bought out Hooper's interest, continuing to make frequent use of the boat whenever occasion permitted.

Dick Clarke recalls racing against Carlton in CHEROKEE, another Hall-Scott powered hull previously owned by the Ehrmans. The victor was to receive a case of Grand Marnier with the labels burned off (the spoils of a fire sale). COMET proved a formidable opponent, but though CHEROKEE won by a nose, Clarke was never able to collect on the bet.

On November 21, 1972, not many years after Carlton had acquired sole ownership of COMET, local residents were horrified to learn of his disappearance in Baja, Mexico, under unexplained circumstances. Cruising the inland coast in unfavorable weather, the boat in which the Carltons and another couple were traveling apparently exploded and burned. Though none of the bodies were ever recovered, it was the conclusion of U.S. Coast Guard authorities, following a lengthy search, that all persons aboard had been killed.

COMET, then at Sierra Boat Company, was purchased by Owen Owens and a serious restoration undertaken on her hull, previously the subject of four decades of only "bandaid" type maintenance work. Dick Clarke relates an interesting discovery made during the restoration concerning alterations of COMET's as-delivered configuration.

The boat had originally been constructed with her steering station inside the cabin, but it was undoubtedly not long before, the Ehrmans made arrangements to have an open driver's cockpit cut in the boat's long forward deck, just ahead of the engine hatches,effectively removing the driver from their midst. Vestigial holes for steering column and stick, cut in the inclined flooring underlayment at the forward end of the cabin, bear mute testimony to the modification, made so long ago that none can recall the boat's as-delivered appearance.

As for that, Clarke believes Fellows & Stewart may have built COMET from plans drawn by John Hacker, as he declares the boat is a "dead ringer" for a Hacker design still in existence.

Owen Owens died in 1979, leaving COMET among his legacy of historic boats. Though several of the boats in his collection were sold, the Owens family are still the proud owners of COMET, showing her off each summer to an admiring crowd at the Tahoe Yacht Club Concours d'Elegance.

Photos and text by Carol Van Etten

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