The Boatel Story

Restoring a 47-foot classic

Published in the April 2011 Issue Published online: Apr 05, 2011 Ask The Expert Reader submission by Steve Helfer
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The idea to buy and restore a houseboat was an idea my wife Judy and I had for many years. In the fall of 2009 we started looking for a 36-foot to 40-foot houseboat. "No bigger," we said. The only thing we needed was a solid start as stringer; rot repair would be too much to handle. Our day trip to Minnesota to look at nine boats did not find one that both the transom and stringers were not rotted and needing major work.


A month later we decided to look at boats in the $30K or less range as the under $20K just did not fit the project. Back to the Internet starting with eBay I searched the "House Boat" listings and found a 1974 Boatel 47-foot Islander listed. I quickly recognize this boat as I knew the owner back in 2003. It was a beautiful boat and it was the houseboat that started us thinking we wanted one in the future.


The size was an issue as this is 25 percent bigger than our plan, but such a beautiful boat, it never hurts to look so I called Spring Brook Marina in Illinois as they now owned the boat. Inspection proved that the boat needs major work. 100 percent of the windows leaked and all the paneling was ruined. One engine and transmission was out. All the wood needed refinishing. The price was right: listed on eBay at $10K this comes to 40 cents per pound and we could not think of anything else that cheap. We sealed the deal and rented a slip for the 2010 season at Starved Rock Marina in Illinois.

Now the work started. We stayed till dark on the day we bought it measuring and making lists of a thousand things to do.

Sunday morning off to Home Depot to buy the Ryobi cordless tools as the power is far from the boat. Then Menards for supplies and about $1,000 is spent.

Week one: remove all windows and reseal them, While Judy cleans the window lip I cut the new paneling and fit it. The windows are reinstalled, but the paneling is not, as the weather is too cold for the adhesive. The pieces are stored in the living room.

Back room during Kitchen before The head was a manual pump style which used river water in the bowl that could not stay. Off to eBay to collect the parts for a Vacuflush system. The cabinet and floor were removed and the wall required total replacement. The teak cleaned up and was refinished, the cabinets got new hardware and cleats for handles. The cabinet top got 20 coats of varnish with sanding every three coats. New sink and faucet, all trim and walls redone, new lights and a room was complete!

Spring Brook Marina rebuilt the transmission and put the engine/transmission back in and tested the system in mid-December as the winter was working for us as the day time temperature was in the 40's. They re-winterized and place the boat next to a power pole to allow us to plug it in when we worked.

Front steps before Front steps after The stained glass windows and frames were removed and brought home for repair. The plastic sheet was old and too thin as 1/4-inch of sealer was used to make them fit. Adding 3/8-inch Lexan fixed this and refinishing the wood sealed that nicely. All we needed was weather in the 60's-just not going to happen in January. Next we removed the rear door and took that home. The basement is getting very full as much of the boat has come home one piece at a time.

We removed the old name and tried to buff the transom. That failed quickly as we buffed through before we removed the shadow of the old name. We removed the swim platform and worked to get the transom ready for paint, we replaced all the fittings and added Samson posts for that big boat look and to aide docking the boat. During this process we discovered the one Gimbal ring was cracked and we were back to eBay. The part was found and the other engine pulled for install. Since we did not have the equipment to do this Spring Brook did the work.

Finally it was March and the weather started to allow assembly. The living room was completed quickly. The kitchen was the next day as Judy had refinished all the doors and drawers. She painted the one wall and the cabinet frames.

Back room before Back room after The transom was painted over two weekends with two coats of Bright side and the name was applied on the third weekend along with the swim platform. It was put back on and the rear door was remounted. We named the boat Thirsty Turtle since the speed will be at eight miles per hour at maybe one mile per gallon if we are lucky.

New canvas was ordered from Cantu in town-a full enclosure for the upper helm. All the refinished wood and carpet was installed on the upper helm and Cantu went to work as we launched the boat.

The sea trial was an all-day process as one oil cooler leaked and needed to be repaired and the port motor would not start unless we jumped it. New batteries did not fix this problem but the correct wiring and new starting leads did. We added fuel and started out quickly. The port motor would run hot and the starboard would stall at idle speed. During the next two weeks Spring brook would track this problem down and correct the issues. We continue to work on the boat, fixing all the odds and ends: lights, horn, plumbing, and custom light panel with color changing lights under the rear arch.

Helm after Sea trial number two, port motor will not start, just a loose connection. We went out and all worked well. Kevin was very helpful teaching us how to dock the boat as our last boat was a 34-foot sport fisher quick to respond to any change at the helm. At 30,000 pounds nothing happens quickly. The boat stays moving forward after both props are in reverse and it does not turn well, Kevin explains that we need to point and shoot with this boat and that process works best. He lets me dock several times and I think we can do it.

The trip to our home port, canvas half finished and the look of rain in the air, we start out early. Call the lock to time our arrival with the cycle to avoid a wait. We pull up to the lock and stop on the wall-looks like we know what we are doing. Down we go to the Starved Rock pool. The weather quickly changes and Judy closes the canvas and the rain starts. The radio alert says to take shelter as 70-80 mile per hour winds are coming. I am more comfortable running from the upper helm so we stay up top and think about docking at a marina to wait it out, but it hits hard before we are there so we drive though the storm. The cross winds make staying on course a challenge. The weather clears and the wind dies down as we get to Starved Rock Marina and we drive into the slip without incident.

Living room after We ordered new rear windows from Motion Glass to replace the small octagon windows. This turned out to be the biggest part of the project. These new windows arrived in late July, allowing us to finish the back room before the end of August. Cutting and finishing the walls turned out to be a big project, but the results are excellent. We built a new countertop for the desk and then trimmed it in teak. We removed the upper bunk bed to make room for the windows and open the room up.

There are still more details to do, but are we ever done working on our boats?

Happily we sit at anchor enjoying the days we have left in 2010 before the winter hits. The 2011 year is sure to be more relaxing on our one-of-a-kind Boatel Islander 47 with arches.

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