When searching for his first boat, this Pennsylvania gearhead went for the least obvious choice — to the delight of his boating neighbors.
When Jeff Lipnichan eases his vessel into the crowded anchorage, all eyes are on him. Aboard neighboring boats, faces reveal a sense of bewilderment before giving way to smiles and cheers. His first boat is an unusual choice, to say the least — a 1945 all-original DUKW military "duck boat" with a mounted dummy 50-caliber machine gun.
"I grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania, where there's little water," he says. "During college we drove to a small lake for a few weekends to try our hand at skiing."
Other than that, he graduated, built a career as an electrical engineer, married, and had children. While he and his wife never owned a boat, they both aspired to owning a waterfront home.
"We waited until we were in our 50s to get a lake house and a boat. I never had a boat before, but now had to figure out what to buy. I looked at the classics like wooden boats and fiberglass MasterCraft and Glastron speed boats," he says. "Being a car guy, I decided to choose an original DUKW."
In their inaugural summer last year, the family logged about 50 hours on the 270 cubic inch, 6-cylinder GMC truck motor. Lipnichan, 56, does all the repairs himself. He also joined BoatUS, with a towing membership in case they run into trouble with their 75-year-old vessel/vehicle.
The DUKW is 31 feet and weighs 7 tons. He bought it for $90,000 from a military collector who fully restored it after he bought it from a local fire department that had it for 40 years. He had to register it first as a vehicle, then as a vessel.
When he drives it out of his garage and down the nearby launch ramp and splashes in Lake Wallenpaupack, just east of Scranton, it's time to have fun. "Most boats approach us, slow down, realize what it is, and circle back to wave and take pictures," he says. "We don't tie up with others at [the local hot spot] Party Island because the steel DUKW may have a appetite for fiberglass." Instead, they drive up the beach and park on the island.
Besides its top-end speed of 6.5 mph, Lipnichan describes the handling with a sense of humor. "I would say it handles as good as turning a barge with a popsicle stick as the rudder."
Unlike modern luxury vehicle-vessel hybrids, the military-grade tires do not retract (thus the 44-inch draft), and a 25-inch prop is permanently mounted astern. He's fitted it with some boat gear, including a 12-foot bimini top, GPS, and sonar unit, "to make sure I don't run aground on too many rocks. I put the sensor down close to the front axle tube." He has a 10-ton-rated winch at the bow in case he gets into trouble. He bought some carpet runners to cover the wood floorboards and a pair of pontoon seats for the back.
"It's a very good lake cruiser that my wife, Karen, is comfortable piloting." The rugged beast was designed to carry soldiers, so it's rated to carry 5,000 pounds, not that we'd recommend testing that. A steel surf plate folds up from the front grill and pushes all surf off to the side.
Just like traditional boats, maintenance on his unusual vessel is a bear. "Water in the axles is the biggest constant maintenance. All six axles need to regularly have the bearings pulled, evaluated, and replaced if necessary," he says. "The tires must weigh 200 pounds each when you pull them."
One of the best tools he bought for his DUKW is a DeWalt battery-powered vacuum, which holds about 2 gallons of water. "Each time before I put her away, I crawl through the whole hull to vacuum up any water to keep rust at bay," he says.
Still, Lipnichan is philosophical about his water life. "When the maintenance becomes too much, we'll pass it along to someone else," he says. "And since we're used to only 6 mph on the water, anything will be a performance increase. A performance tri-toon pontoon boat will be our future when we slow down a little."