Turning Back Time

Jackie Henderson to the rescue

August 2010 Feature Tom Miller

Traveling west of Somerset, Ky., on Highway 80 and soon after passing over Lake Cumberland you will find what appears to be a houseboat graveyard. Old rust-stained and algae-laden steel hulls are resting on wood supports in nice neat rows. They sadly look as if they long for the good old days, when they cruised majestically down the winding coves of Lake Cumberland and Laurel Lake. Those memories are now as faded as the Kodak photographs tucked in drawers and photo albums from years gone by.

But just when lake life appears over for these old hulls, a man named Jackie Henderson arrives on the scene and turns back the clock for these lifeless boats. First he carefully backs down the ramp to the water's edge in his truck and 40-foot trailer. He then locates his next project, fires up the engine and maneuvers the decrepit houseboat onto the trailer. If the engine no longer runs, he is assisted by marina personnel, who maneuver the houseboat onto the trailer with a work boat. Once the boat is secure for transport, he takes it back to his shop in Nancy, Ky., and off loads it onto the wood supports, where it patiently waits its turn.

Jackie first sandblasts the hull, removing algae, paint and rust. From this point he can inspect the integrity of the hull and determine if it will need any new steel, or welding of the damaged joints. In Jackie's 52 years he has attained lots of houseboat experience. This allows him to quickly determine if the houseboat is nothing more than scrap metal, or has a future as a vacation vessel again.

Jackie joined the U.S. Air Force in 1975, after graduating from the former Nancy High School. He spent a majority of his six years in the Air Force overseas in Iran, Afghanistan and England as a maintenance crew chief on fighter planes, such as the
F-111. He later returned to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where he was crew chief on the EC-135. He said, "When you fly that many missions, you are bound to experience a few mishaps."

Fortunately all of his were minor, as he once found himself in a muddy field after landing on ice and skidding off the runway. Another scare was when he was forced to hand-crank down the landing gear, when he learned they had no hydraulic pressure. Courtesy of the Air Force, he studied college courses in aviation, science, math and physics, which would serve him well in restoring houseboats.

After he was discharged from the Air Force Jackie said, "I never want to shave or shine shoes ever again," and he still has the beard to prove it. Next he served with the Kentucky Air National Guard on weekends. On weekdays he worked for Keller Trucking in Science Hill, Ky., where he honed his truck driving skills. He was hired by Tony Karambellas in the spring of 1981, and began working at Lees Ford Marina.

"Tony was always good to me and I worked for him for the next seven years," says Jackie.

Tony also owned Cumberland Boat Works, which built the "Cumberland Custom" houseboat. In the summer, Jackie shared time working at the dock and doing maintenance on rental houseboats. Then in the winter, he worked at the Cumberland Boat Works factory building houseboats. With a daughter and two sons at home, he began doing more and more maintenance on the side, just to make ends meet.

In 1989 Jackie decided to leave Lees Ford Marina, and go into business for himself. He had already earned a good reputation in the houseboat industry, and his business quickly took off. He became the "go-to-guy" around Lake Cumberland when a steel hull houseboat needed attention. He began moving houseboats from lake to lake, usually remaining within a 400-mile radius. He also refurbished steel hulls and repaired roof gel coat, as well as some interior remodeling.

"If the maintenance is kept up on a steel hull houseboat, it will last forever," Jackie says while pointing to some rusty holes beneath the waterline of one houseboat hull. "Houseboats always rust from the inside out, so it's important to keep the hull dry inside."  

When sandblasting the rust from a houseboat, Jackie typically uses up to 18 bags of coal slag sand for a 14- by 50-foot hull. He is then ready to inspect the hull and determine if it needs new steel, or is ready to paint.

Jackie explained how a steel patch should go directly over the damaged areas, extending several inches above the waterline. He recommends new "coal tar" hull paint every five to seven years and is currently charging $4 per square foot.

The roof gel coat should be replaced every three to four years. Jackie explains that modern houseboats have thicker fiberglass, therefore they do not need to be done as often. Jackie does not believe in gluing carpet to a houseboat roof, or ever using a pressure washer on it. He said he has never removed carpet from a houseboat roof that he didn't find many cracks in the gel coat from the heat and moisture. The pressure washer removes thin layers of gel coat and may shorten the lifespan.

Three years ago, Jackie purchased nine acres on west Highway 80, once home to a log cabin builder, and moved his shop closer to the lake. When an emergency strikes at local marinas, sometimes in the middle of the night, Jackie is usually one of the first people called to lend a hand. As a result, sunken houseboats and burned out hulls are among some of the hunks of metal that line Jackie's boatyard. Sometimes they have salvage value, and other times all he can do is remove the windows and motor and haul the rest to the dump.

When Jackie is not restoring houseboats, he is moving houseboats from lake to lake. Jackie's truck is licensed to haul 80,000 pounds. The typical older steel hull weighs in the 20,000-pound range, while a modern 16- by 74-foot aluminum hull with much more equipment can weigh up to 75,000 pounds. Jackie tries to keep all his paper work legal, but occasionally his best efforts can still cause delays. Once he was detained for a day, because he was caught 15 feet off course, as he ventured into the other lane in order to make a turn. Another time he was held up for two days in northern Kentucky because his truck was only licensed for 50,000 pounds at the time and his load was over that limit. That resulted in his increasing his license weight to 80,000 pounds at a cost of $1,500 per year. Unscheduled delays, high insurance and fuel costs all contribute to the price he must charge to make a profit. Jackie's most harrowing delivery happened on Highway 129 out of Tennessee heading into North Carolina, as he traveled along the road affectionately known as "The Tail of the Dragon." There are 318 curves in an 11 mile stretch of highway. It is an area famous for motorcyclists and he was well documented with photographs hauling an aluminum hull houseboat along this curvy route. At times he was well off the side of the road and far into the ditch, as he tried to squeeze past guard rails. Larry Cook, a long time Lees Ford dock worker and now retired, sometimes accompanies Jackie as an escort. "As Jackie passed over the bridge with such a tight squeeze, if a hand was laid on either side of the houseboat, it would not have passed through," remembers Larry. "Not many drivers could have done that, but that's just how good a driver he is."

Jackie says matter-of-factly, "If they didn't think it could be done, they wouldn't have given me a permit."

 Jackie has the talent, skills and hard work ethic to make a successful living in the "houseboat capital of the world" and thanks to a vanishing breed of men like him,  classic steel hull houseboats from the 60's, 70's and early 80's are avoiding scrap yards and finding their way back to the water. This insures there will be affordable opportunities for families to discover the joys of lake life onboard a houseboat, long into this millennium.

For information on Henderson Boat Repair & Boat Hauling call 606-636-6849 or 606-305-5443.

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