We Can Do This.I Think

Taking on the Black Swan renovation project

Published online: Mar 23, 2011 Feature Joyce Crowe
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How did an art restorationist and a saltwater sailor happen to buy a dilapidated 25-year-old houseboat and spend many months, lots of money, and untold blood, sweat and tears to restore it? It all started back in 2006 on a cold winter day in North Georgia after the Thanksgiving holiday. My fiancé Bob and I went for a drive up to Lake Lanier from our home in Athens, Ga. We were indulging in Bob's all-time favorite hobby-looking at boats. In fact at that time, Bob was landlocked in Athens and boat-less, having just sold his 30-foot seagoing Bayliner to a crazy Swede who bought it sight unseen and had it shipped off to Sweden from Florida.

So we found ourselves strolling along the docks at Lake Lanier, admiring the many beautiful boats, particularly the sleek luxurious houseboats, many of which were for sale. We were both intrigued with the idea of keeping a houseboat on one of the mountain lakes in western North Carolina, but the cost of buying and fitting out such a boat seemed prohibitive, particularly since we knew we planned to buy another saltwater boat to replace the Bayliner. But how about a modest-sized older boat that we could rehab ourselves and keep on a mountain lake?


Search Is Over

As any boat-lover knows, if you go looking at enough boats you will find the very one you are looking for, so on a later trip to Lake Norman in North Carolina, sure enough, there it was! A vintage 40-foot, 1984 Holiday Mansion that is no longer being built. It looked quite presentable from the outside and seemed to offer everything necessary to provide us with a floating mountain cabin for long spring, summer and fall weekends. It definitely needed some work, but nothing we felt we couldn't handle with a little help from the pros.


I thought it was adorable, a tiny little home away from home, but it had everything we needed. It had a good-sized lounge aft with two reclining chairs and space for a small folding dining table for two, a pilot house with a fold-out futon for guests, a galley which needed much work but had potential, a cabin below with a double bed and cot, and-miraculously-two heads, one with a bathtub and shower. I was in love! Bob was somewhat less enthusiastic, but the price was right, and of course neither of us anticipated how much work lay ahead of us.


Decision Time

Being an experienced saltwater sailor, Bob insisted on a "Marine Survey," and the result was a thick 30-page detailed description of just what bad shape the little boat was in, top to bottom.

My heart sank! It looked as if it would cost us as much to fix it as to buy it, to say nothing of the backbreaking work we were taking on. Meanwhile we had located Bear Creek Marina on Lake James in North Carolina, a beautiful mountain lake 30 miles east of Asheville. Perfect. It was only three hours from our home in Athens, just right for those weekend getaways we had dreamed about. So after many hours of discussing the pros and cons, we decided to take on the Black Swan renovation project, hoping to have our boat shipshape and ready to launch by spring. We named her Black Swan in honor of the rare black swans known to have nested in the North Carolina mountain lakes in past years.


Boat Yard Beauty

Our first step was to have the boat moved from Lake Norman to a boat repair yard near Charlotte for the big jobs requiring professional help. The exterior topside had some serious problems, including moisture penetration, de-bonding of fiberglass core materials, impact fractures, worn gelcoat patches and oxidation. The swim platform was rotten and the air conditioner, located inconveniently in the middle of the top deck, was beyond repair.


We reviewed the marine surveyor's dismal report with the ship repair guys and decided to go forward with the structural repairs. The yard was to replace the transom completely. They would repair the damage to the gelcoat and the impact fractures to the deck. They would also replace the rub rail and paint the boat from the main deck to the bottom. In addition, we had them replace the small damaged swim platform with a custom four-foot aluminum platform and swim ladder.


The situation with the engines was even more challenging. The boat had its original twin Penta 145A, four-cylinder gas freshwater cooled engines, which we seriously considered replacing with reliable safe diesel engines, but this was not practical due to the scarcity of diesel fuel on the North Carolina mountain lakes. We finally decided to have them overhauled as we hoped for the best. The generator did not work and was not worth repairing, so we replaced it with a 7.3 k.w. Kohler gas generator. We replaced the malfunctioning battery charger with a 15-amp three-battery bank charger, connected with a new group of 12-volt deep-cycle marine batteries.


Our Turn

On our budget we could not replace walls, floor coverings, or tackle large expensive renovation jobs, so we concentrated on what we could do ourselves. Bob is a good handyman and could do some carpentry, small electrical and plumbing jobs, and we did a lot of scrubbing, painting and polishing. Still, some replacements were necessary. The air conditioning unit was not only beyond repair, but was located directly in the middle of our very spacious top deck where we planned to have a table and chairs for topside dining.  We decided to replace the old A/C with a new combination A/C-Heater unit, which we moved forward to make room for our deck furniture. Of course this required major surgery-cutting a new hole in the deck and patching and painting the deck and the ceiling below.


Most of the forward console equipment either did not work or was missing. A fishfinder had been installed in the boatyard to replace the depth gauge and Bob put in a marine radio, which we later found was rarely used on inland North Carolina lakes. We added an AM/FM radio with CD player and installed an exterior antenna as well. The console was faced with ugly deteriorating tiles, and we tackled the big job of stripping them off, sanding and painting the front surface. 


We did most of the interior work ourselves. The lighting made no sense at all-the boat had only DC lights throughout, and a few 115 A/C outlets. We decided to convert everything to A/C, using an inverter when away from shore power-avoiding the nuisance of a noisy generator. We installed a Xantrex Pro 1000 inverter, which enabled us to have uninterrupted A/C power with a three-way switch for a smooth transition from shore power to inverter A/C. Bob then undertook the task of mounting new light fixtures throughout the boat, replacing the old rusty D/C lights.


An Eye Sore

My heart sank when we surveyed our galley. The entire kitchen area was a disaster with its scarred counter, battered and leaking sink and single burner hotplate, plus there was no refrigerator or microwave. Bob installed new cabinets, a Formica counter, a stainless steel sink and faucets, and a dandy little Swedish cook top stove which, together with the addition of a microwave and a gas marine grill on the deck, provided all the cooking ability we needed.  We felt that we needed a fairly good-size refrigerator with a freezer compartment to keep a ready supply of food on the boat for our arrival and to store supplies for preparing meals while onshore or cruising. We searched the Internet and found an Italian eight-cubic-foot refrigerator with a good freezer unit, which we could miraculously fit into a modified cabinet space. Everything in a small houseboat is about space! We decided to buy an A/C refrigerator because of disappointing experiences with AC/DC models like Norcold.


The bathrooms were functional, so we were able to just replace the two toilets with new manual Jabscos, which work fine. We added new faucets, mirrors and towel racks as well. In the cabin below, the previous owners had fitted the bed platform with an enormous box spring and mattress, which we replaced with a five-inch comfortable foam mattress, allowing more headroom and making the cabin appear larger.


Final Touches

With new paint and repairs from the boatyard, our little boat was looking rather jaunty, and we trimmed it out with matching blue canvas skirting on the deck rails and a blue bimini topside. Bob said the old fenders were a disgrace, so we scrubbed them to a gleaming white and fitted them out with new lines. Now we have what Bob says in the Navy is called "a taut ship!"

The one persistent problem that "dogged" us throughout our long project was getting our dog onboard the boat! Frodo is a long-haired Dachshund who weighs nearly 40 pounds and lifting him on and off the boat threatened to send poor Bob to the chiropractor. To make matters worse, Frodo had developed a paralyzing fear of the water, due to a nearly tragic fall overboard. Because of his near-death experience, whenever we approached the boat he flattened himself on the dock, making lifting him almost impossible! Ever ingenious, Bob constructed a lightweight plywood gangplank which we could attach to the boat rails, and finally with much coaxing, treats and a lesson from a visiting dog, Frodo finally overcame his fear and learned to use it.


Of course the Black Swan is a work in progress. There is still much we would like to do, but we have managed to make our little boat quite comfortable and livable, and much more attractive than it had been. We have spent many long weekends on the boat and invited guests to accompany us on our cruises to explore the coves and waterways of this beautiful mountain lake. We have packed a picnic lunch and launched our canoe, paddling for miles to watch the many waterbirds nesting along the shore. We have dined topside with magnificent views of the ridges and peaks surrounding Grandfather Mountain, and enjoyed our evening glass of wine while watching splendid sunsets over the lake. As the captain said himself on our last voyage,

"It doesn't get much better than this."


So-to all the shipmates who share our journey on beautiful waters, near and far-here's wishing you fair weather cruising and a snug boat in harbor!

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