Restoration Carolina

From junkyard to open water

Published online: Sep 13, 2010 Feature Walt Thorn
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I first saw the vessel in 2003 from an overpass as I traveled down I-526 outside Charleston, S.C. She was huge, lying among 18- to 25-foot boats in a roadside marine repair and boatyard at Johnny's Marine. At 58 feet in length with nearly a 15-foot wide beam, she took up 25 percent of the yard and stood 10 feet above anything else.

What attracted me to her were her lines-she looked like a small cruise ship that had washed up in a hurricane, dumping ground among all the other boats in various states of disrepair. She had three staterooms and three heads, an enclosed pilot house, a living room/galley with sliding glass doors (smashed) that opened onto an aluminum deck over the engine hatches. On the back deck, there was an aluminum stairway up to the top deck.

Envisioning The Future

When I climbed onto the top deck, I was sold! Although it was a wreck with rotting seats and equipment boxes, it measured 300 square feet, with the potential to add another 150 square feet if I extended the deck aft over the engine hatches below. The inside was a disaster: rotting couches, ceiling and wall panels wrecked and exposed, leaking or broken windows, pilot house wiring stripped out and tangled.

I kept watching for activity on the boat for over a year before finally venturing into the yard in mid-2004 to inquire about her status. The boat yard owner had acquired her (then as Arbitrage II) from a local shipyard as salvage. A 1988 Three Buoys Tortola Cruiser houseboat, she had been abandoned and lying on the back staging area of the yard for over seven years and was in terrible shape. It turned out that she was originally acquired from Three Buoys (a Canadian manufacturer) by a U.S. senator who lived in Litchfield Plantation near Myrtle Beach, and was commissioned in the U.S. by a foreign manufacturer under the influence of the senator. Somewhere along the way, he gave or sold it to Litchfield Plantation, who used it as an excursion boat until it fell into disrepair and went to a Charleston boatyard for salvage.

Not Going To Be Easy

After taking a closer look, I discovered rotting wood from the fiberglass deck structure oozed characteristic rust-colored discharge from virtually every seam and corner of the vessel. There were hundreds of mud dobber wasp nests throughout the vessel in every corner, inside the paneling, on the wiring harnesses, in the engine room, etc.  But her hull was welded aluminum plate and seemingly in good condition, and that alone was worth the salvage attempt. Plus the current owner at Johnny's Marine had big plans for renovation, but no money to execute those plans. I left the yard wondering what it would take to bring her to life. When I finally told my wife about the boat, she informed me that any attempt to resuscitate her could be the end my life!

It was another six months before I got up the courage to make the owner an offer he couldn't refuse. I suggested I joint venture the restoration with him in return for joint ownership. I would buy the boat and handle the cost to restore the fiberglass superstructure above the aluminum deck, and he would provide the knowledge and cost to provide what was needed to rebuild the engines, restore the systems, including plumbing, heating, electrical, hydraulics and air conditioning, and float the boat.  I held up my end of the deal and paid him $45,000 for the boat in its "as is" condition at the time. I borrowed $60,000 from my local bank (you could still get money from banks back then, even for rotting boats) and I began stripping the interior of the boat to see what I had acquired.

At the time, I had estimated it would take approximately $100,000 to bring the boat to an acceptable standard. With $45,000 invested already, and the assumption that the yard owner would hold up his part, I felt good when I got a $75,000 survey on the "as is" condition. I also got a potential $400,000 to $455,000 estimated value on a finished boat, if brought back to serviceable condition. I made my case to my wife and the bank and lived another day, barely!

What Have I Done?

For the next several months, I cut through fiberglass and wood, stripped out every wall panel and all the ceilings and pulled out wires and fixtures, all the time wondering what I had gotten myself into. But I had a vision and that vision never wavered. I brought in a 25-foot trailer to store materials and supplies, chain sawed the windows out of the sides (because we could not figure out how to remove them any other way) and literally sawed off the back end of the rear top deck that was so badly destroyed from water intrusion it couldn't be saved. Side stringers down both sides of the upper deck had to be chain sawed then pried out with crowbars to get to the damage within and to ensure all the decay was exposed. The project changed from a restoration to a rebuilding project, with virtually every inch of the boat under attack from my drilling, cutting and prying to get to a starting point for the rebuild. The good news was that there was enough good wood to provide a platform from which to work.

Time To Start Building

Once the core of the project was identified, we could begin rebuilding. First we needed to weather in the top deck/roof to protect what we had spent a year exposing. I wanted an enclosed area outside the main salon to extend the livable area. To do that, we needed to add aluminum superstructure to support the new 10-foot rafters. I selected four by four square aluminum tubing to support the roof addition, with two by two square aluminum tubing for the railings. Once complete, it was time to re-panel the top deck with three-quarter-inch marine grade plywood covered with two coats of Glavit, then three layers of fiberglass matting. That was followed by a layer of quarter-inch rubber flooring that would serve as the first line of defense for waterproofing. After securing the top deck, we began adding structures like railing supports, seating, storage boxes, etc., all of which had to be glassed into the deck and surrounding superstructure.

Years 2004 and 2005 were for demolition and structure; 2006 and 2007 were dedicated to fabrication. Financing was a constant issue, along with quality work on the areas where I needed special assistance. I'd find a good marine fabricator only to lose him halfway through the job they signed on to help with. This was the single largest obstacle to overcome and cost me tens of thousands of dollars in interest expense over the course of construction due to delays in the project.

Do-It-Yourself Woodwork

I wanted solid wood doors throughout the vessel, but I found that to have a custom woodshop make the eight doors required for staterooms and heads would cost over $3,000. So I went to Home Depot, purchased standard-sized solid pine doors then cut around the sides, top and bottom to make them to the size I needed. I then spent hours hand rubbing the wood, sanding and varnishing it with 10 coats of varnish to achieve the gleaming bright work finish I wanted. Once I found out that I could fabricate whatever I needed for the interior, I duplicated the effort for the matched grain cherry paneling in all staterooms and hallways; ceilings, crown moldings, interior and exterior bright work were custom fabricated as needed to save cost and create the desired effect of a highly finished motor yacht. I acquired quarter-inch marine grade teak and holly sole in four by eight plywood sheets to make the installation of all interior floors easier and more uniform, finished with four coats of semi gloss interior Bristol Finish.

Bells And Whistles

By the last quarter of 2007, the two new Volvo D3-130hp diesel engines with XDP DuoProp drives had been installed, and I took possession of a new 9KW genset. This was after purchasing a used genset off eBay at the suggestion of my lead systems guy. Unfortunately, it had been sitting for two years by the time it was installed, so it lasted about three hours before self destructing. Buying the new engines and genset were two of the best things I did because of the absolutely silent operation, supreme quality plus a warranty! You can not hear or feel the engines running topside at all during operation. All mechanical systems, including plumbing, electrical, water purification, air handling (two air conditioning systems including all ductwork had to be totally restored, plus a third new system was installed later in the captain's quarters), onboard deck crane, custom-made stainless steel furniture rack and more were complete and we were now looking at gauges, radar, sonar, GPS and everything that would run, track and monitor the vessel. I selected a Garmin 5212 system with color touch screen display, BlueChart g2 Vision card, "real picture" aerial photo reference, GPS navigation system with computer linked weather radar with 45-mile, 48-inch radar array. Installation was performed by a superior electrical components company with no real issues. During the same time, I contracted with an employee at Best Buy to install an integrated sound system including a CD player, 37-inch flat screen HDTV, separate nine-inch CD players in each stateroom, and a portable VueCube Satellite TV System. I chose to not mount the satellite TV antenna in order to keep clutter down on the radar arch and give me some flexibility as to where it would be placed on the top deck. Since it wouldn't be used all the time, it could be carried inside in bad weather or long layups. Later in the year we added external mounted bow and stern thrusters.

Splashed!

We launched in 2008. Final exterior finishes were applied in stages to ensure a risk-free application process. The entire upper deck had been sanded, filled with West Systems fillers, then hand sanded again. This process took nine applications before I was satisfied with the look of the fiberglass skin. I selected Awlgrip for the topside and rolled on two primer base coats and three top coats before I was happy with the result. I rolled on the finish to achieve a slightly spackled finish rather than a mirror finish that would be hard to manage. The Awlgrip was shiny and hard and covered up imperfections in the glass work (for which I was largely responsible for installing). For the aluminum hull, I had a professional painter spray on two primer coats and three topcoats, each sanded and sealed, then buffed to a shine so deep it seemed to be a mirror reflecting into itself.

Systems were checked, engines were started, fuel was installed, and we thought we were ready to go by April 2008. We hoisted the seven-foot custom grill topside with the 800-foot onboard crane and took down the radar arch in preparation for the big move. Teak furniture was unboxed and placed in the powder coated, custom stainless steel rack.  Then we found the holes! While inspecting a thru hull fitting under the boat late one evening, I noticed light coming from inside the vessel and it wasn't from the thru hull fitting!  Not a good sign at all in a boat! It appeared that corrosion had eaten a small hole through the hull underneath the water tank in the middle of the vessel. If there was one, there could be more, so the search was on. We jacked up the water tank and every other tank in the vessel, scraped off the undercoating, light tested the entire bilge and poked at every indention inside the bilge. We found three more holes and five more erosion points during the extensive testing. To fix the problem areas, we welded aluminum plates over the affected areas outside the hull and filled in the indentions inside the bilge with corrosion-resistant materials, followed by three coats of corrosion-resistant paint throughout the areas affected. No other problems were found, so we set a launch date in May.

Trailering Woes

The vessel had been moved twice since I discovered it in the boat yard down the street from my office. It had resided in my motor pool parking lot for almost a year after the boat yard closed, and the City of North Charleston made us move it again, which coincided with a move anyway, to our new location across the street. Getting it into the lot proved a lot easier than getting it back out. The eight-axle custom trailer we used to move it twice was now in disrepair with several broken axles and numerous inoperative wheels and tires. It had to be renovated before we could use it so that process delayed our trip to the river for two weeks. Once fixed, a tractor trailer was brought in to move the vessel the three miles to the launch site off Bridge View Road on the Ashley River.

We obtained permits, arranged for chase and lead vehicles and had lookouts on top of the boat to watch for and move wires, electrical lines and tree limbs. On the trip to the river, we had to stop three times to repair broken wheels and blown tires, but we made the trip in less than one hour! Launching was simple, and we stopped traffic all along the way both on the water and on Interstate 526 for the two exits to the launch site.

Since launching in May 2008, we have had only minor adjustments in running systems, air conditioning and electronics. Given the length of time in restoration, the vessel is both new and settled. Our first two-night shakedown cruise was a wonderful experience after the first night. There were 10 onboard and I spent the entire first night on top deck watching the anchor line and got no sleep whatsoever! The second night was less stressful once I found out that anchors usually do their job, and if not, the worst that could happen would be that we would blow out to sea and never be found.

Mission Complete

The usefulness of the design is proving to be exactly on target for what I envisioned. I wanted a large vessel with clean lines, simple systems; a boat that was easy to use and super elegant, but also kid-friendly. With three grandchildren, being easy to clean up was an essential characteristic. Running down the Ashley River to Charleston Harbor with my captain son at the helm, I went below to check out the feel of the moving vessel from inside. I'll never forget the feeling of accomplishment as I stood in the main salon looking out the back, with the ocean breeze flowing through the ship from the bow doors out the sliding doors to the back deck, and the light reflecting off the wake as we cut through the water at an astonishing 10 knots. Seriously, speed was not a consideration in this project because at 50,000 pounds she wasn't going to break any speed records. What I do have is a diesel-sipping marvel at less than six gallons per hour total fuel consumption even with the generator running 24/7. It only takes us an hour to get down the Ashley River to Charleston Harbor and another two hours to Dewees Island, our now favorite (and so far only) gunk hole. The total two-night, three-day adventure cost a whopping $108 in fuel. I spent more than that for pizza! With three jet skis in tow and whatever else we need, Seas the Day is an excellent mother ship for the Low Country and turns heads and stops mariners in their wake wherever she sails. 

My next goal is to get Seas the Day to a large lake in South Carolina, Florida or Georgia where I feel her real destiny could be realized. She is an exceptional river boat in the meantime, with a 2.5-foot draft and deep vee hull design that cuts through even the roughest harbor seas and Intercoastal traffic wakes, which makes for a very smooth and quiet ride.

 

If you are interested in this vessel and would like to see an online photo album, contact Walt Thorn at wtaprolink@aol.com.

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