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Joltin’ Joe project more than just a boat restoration

MARTINEZ, Calif. – A once-in-a-lifetime project years in the making is now complete and helping to keep memories of Martinez’s favorite native son, Joe DiMaggio, alive and well.

A 22 foot Chris Craft pleasure boat called the “Joltin’ Joe,” was gifted to the New York Yankees baseball great during a ceremony at Yankee Stadium on “Joe DiMaggio Day,” Oct. 1, 1949.

The craft, berthed at the Martinez Marina just a few short blocks from DiMaggio’s birthplace and the setting of DiMaggio and film star Marilyn Monroe’s wedding reception, was used by the newlyweds in 1954 to cruise around the bay.

The fully restored Joltin’ Joe, a Chris Craft pleasure boat given to the Martinez-born Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio, on Oct. 1, 1949, during “Joe DiMaggio Day” at Yankee Stadium. (COURTESY / On File)
The fully restored Joltin’ Joe, a Chris Craft pleasure boat given to the Martinez-born Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio, on Oct. 1, 1949, during “Joe DiMaggio Day” at Yankee Stadium. (COURTESY / On File)

It was later loaned to numerous relatives of DiMaggio as a fishing boat, but when its last caretaker, Mike DiMaggio, passed away in 1991, the boat floated unused at the marina until marina managers discovered the well-worn vessel still belonged to famed Joltin’ Joe himself.

The managers asked DiMaggio if he would consider donating the boat to the city, and in a surprise visit to Martinez, the Yankee Clipper signed over the title.

After attempts at restoration were made, the boat sat for many years on display at the marina, and the elements took their toll.

That is, till Yankee fan, fisherman and City Public Works Director Dave Scola stowed the boat away in a City warehouse near the marina, waiting for offers of restoration to come.

None did, however, till a 2008 newspaper article about the Joltin’ Joe sparked the interest of Greg Reuter and the Sons of Italy of America, Diablo Valley Lodge 2167. They proposed to the City of Martinez the boat be fully restored.

Local Sons of Italy members John Wendt, Ray Raineri and Chuck Massetti met with City staff and committed to fundraising the estimated $50,000 it would take to restore the Chris Craft to its original condition. Then Martinez Carpenters Union 152 offered to contribute free labor to support the effort. Scola followed suit and located a restoration expert to supervise the work, and on March 24, 2010, the restoration began.

Wendt said the carpenters, Sons of Italy and restoration expert Don Curtis would meet every Saturday, eat at the Copper Skillet on Ferry Street, then head down to the warehouse to work on the boat. Over the past six years, Wendt said they’ve missed only six or seven Saturdays, with Curtis and the carpenters working some days till 2 or 3 p.m.

“It’s really unheard of, carpenters re-building a boat,” Wendt said, “but Don (Curtis) sat everybody down and step by step, showed us how to do it.”

Wendt said the group, comprised over the years of Curtis, carpenters Rick Aldridge, Bill Heinrichson, Terryl Lee, Ernest McCary, Rich Ortiz, Greg Powell, Danny Russell and Clem Smaker, along with Sons of Italy Chuck Massetti, Ray Raineri, Troy Wriston and himself, slowly took the Joltin’ Joe apart piece by dilapidated piece, carefully labeling each one for reconstruction and reassembly.

“Curtis is a true artist,” Wendt said. “Just watching the way he sands, the way he uses a drill … . He’d take a hunk of wood and hand carve it into this beautifully shaped piece. It was just really something to watch him work on that boat, and instruct all the guys on what to do.”

Almost five and a half years and $75,000 later, just mere days before the group planned to show their restoration work at the South Tahoe Wooden Boat Classic on July 24, the work was completed. Joe DiMaggio’s Joltin’ Joe now looks just as it did when Joe and Marilyn took their post-wedding cruise from the Martinez Marina.

Wendt and others involved in the restoration traveled to Tahoe Keys Marina for the ‘50s and Fins show, following the Joltin’ Joe as it was towed behind a City truck.

Wendt said that when the boat was launched at Tahoe, they had trouble starting the engine.

“It’d never been started before!” he said, “but eventually, we got it running and took it over for judging.”

The boat took second place in its class and won in the Most Improved division. But beyond that, Wendt said, the boat means so much more than shows and prizes.

“I was out there talking to people interested in what we’d done and interested in the history of the boat, and it almost makes you tear up,” Wendt said.

The fellows plan to show the boat Aug. 7-8 at the 2015 Lake Tahoe Concours d‘Elegance Wooden Boat Show, but after that, the future of the craft is unknown.

“We hope the City will display it at the old Train Depot on Ferry Street,” Wendt said, but plans for the depot have yet to be decided. “Talk of the Historical Society going in there and having a little shop or tourist-type place with a museum is a possibility, but we just don’t know yet.”

Either way, Wendt said the experience was rewarding.

“I get teary-eyed just thinking about it,” he said. “It really was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of something like this.”

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