Labor Of Love

There’s something romantic about bringing an old boat back to life

February 2017 Feature Reader Submission and Photos by Captain Carl Henry


The 55-year-old River Explorer was languishing at a marina along the Upper Mississippi River and was in pretty rough shape when I first came across it in late 2010. It had been sitting up on blocks for several years. There was a foot of ice in the bilge, the ceiling was collapsing, and it had suffered from years of neglect. It was just what I was looking for.

This boat was unique and had a lot of character. I could see its potential as I stood there in the snow bank, trying to stay warm in single-digit temperatures. It was heavy and solid, built like a tank, and not of the cheap, lightweight building materials found in most modern RVs or deck boats. At 64-by-18 feet, it had ample space on four different levels, making it big enough to renovate into a liveaboard houseboat capable of traveling extended distances, and the hull appeared good. A heavy boat for its style, the draft was about 4 1/2 feet. This was a real boat—one I could invest my time and money in for the future.

Buying As Is

I contacted the owner and was provided with a hull gauging report that had recently been conducted by SkipperLiner Industries. More importantly, I hired a good marine surveyor. I visited the boat a few more times, made an offer and after a little negotiation, the boat was mine, “as is.” In the dead of winter there was no “test drive;” in fact, without power, it was impossible to determine if any machinery was even functional.

First things first. To assess the scope of what was ahead of me, I started peeling away damaged walls and paneling, and it soon became obvious that the whole boat would eventually have to be gutted. The wiring was ancient and brittle. Rainwater had been collecting for years with no system to pump it back out; electric motors, pumps, and other equipment had been underwater and were ruined. Good price or not, this was still a big risk. Even though I knew all along that it would be a challenge, I still wondered: What had I gotten myself into?

As a Mississippi River towboat captain and excursion boat pilot, I’ve worked on and aboard commercial boats for 35 years. I have a lot of experience around shipyards, dry docks, and heavy industrial work. Hard, physical work doesn’t intimidate me (in fact, it relaxes me) and I can do most of the work myself. I have the tools I need and I know how to work with steel. And like any good deckhand, I’ve done plenty of chipping, grinding, painting and caulking. I’m also a woodworker, which helps, as almost everything on a boat like this has no square corners, and there’s not much that can be picked up down at the local home improvement store and slid right into position. But, for all my experience, there’s still a lot I don’t know. So I read books, research online, or find knowledgeable people and ask a lot of questions.

Getting To Work

The scope of this project was daunting, but I knew that going in. I traced countless water leaks, tearing into walls with a vengeance aided by a sledgehammer and crowbar. But, while there were many large infrastructure projects screaming for attention, it starts and ends with the hull. One compartment at a time, I dismantled down to the bare hull, scraping up rust and sludge, and prepping, treating and painting the steel. In the process, all of the old machinery below-decks had to be removed. I’ve filled many dumpsters and made several trips to the scrap yard. Along the way, I’ve performed considerable hot-work below the waterline, including replacing sections of steel and other welding projects.

I keep the boat up on blocks on marina property during the winter, primarily for ease of maintenance projects and ongoing work, which serves the added benefit of preventing a hull breach during freeze-in due to failure of an old through-hull fitting or a bad weld.

Even with my program of ongoing inspections, replacements and repairs, the unforeseen can happen, as any boat owner knows. One spring while working underneath the boat, I discovered several thin spots in the bottom of the hull (the hard way—by my tools going right through the bottom). As I poked around a little more, my heart sank with the realization that the professional gauging report that had been provided when I first looked at the boat was inaccurate. (I thought back to “as is.”) Now I had a big decision to make, one of many crossroads I have found myself at with this project. Do I cut my losses and walk away, or find a way to move forward? I couldn’t afford to replate the entire hull. In the end, I decided to get an ultrasonic tester, re-sound the entire hull myself and make a new report. In this way, I was able to map out the trouble spots and create a plan to selectively replace only the thin areas. This was still a considerable project, and ended up costing more than I paid for the boat. I also discovered a false bottom that has left a section of the hull that I am unable to access without additional shipyard work and expense. But I had to draw a line for now. As frustrated as I was, I was also thankful, because holes in the bottom of a boat are of course best discovered when the boat is up on dry land!

Not A Light One

The process of launching or removing this boat from the water is a sight to behold. Documented at 64 gross tons, it’s hard to overstate its weight. Everything is heavy gauge and heavy-duty. Boats aren’t built like this any longer. Originally launched using two construction cranes in tandem, the job is now performed by my marina’s 65-ton Marine TraveLift, the only one located between Dubuque, Iowa, and Red Wing, Minn., and it strains under the task. When my boat is underway on the river, it cuts through the deepest wakes offered up from passing cruisers with barely a movement or concern.

Turning The Corner

Five years into this project, I’m still tracking down water leaks, but I have them reduced to a few trickles and a tube of caulk here and there. And like a magician who pulls seemingly endless scarves from his sleeve, I continue to pull out old wiring, trying to determine where it goes and what it’s for. Although most of the interior spaces are still in a state of deconstruction, I’ve got a lot of big, major projects out of the way and am beginning to turn the corner into rebuilding. It’s slow going, but the hull is rejuvenated and sound, almost like a new boat (and in some ways better), and everything else can follow from there. The entire exterior of the boat has now been refurbished. Needed railings have been welded on the front deck, and the upper deck/roof area and upper helm station have been totally remodeled, including new aluminum hatch covers. The boat has been completely repainted and looks as good as new. And although I haven’t got too far from home yet, the vintage John Deere diesel engines are running, and await a thorough inspection and possible overhaul before I attempt any epic journeys. With care and attention, this boat can easily last another 60 years.

Throughout the renovation work, I’ve tried to keep a “clean” area where I can relax and enjoy the boat with friends and family during the summer season. We’ve spent a lot of time relaxing there, enjoying friends, drinks and conversation, food off the grill, and ballgames on TV. We’ve enjoyed going for cruises and nosing into a sandbar, swimming, taking the PWC out for a spin, and warming up to a campfire on the beach. Even just sitting in the marina, the perfect end to the day is often a beautiful sunset.

The Future

More is planned, of course. Previous owners John Deere Company and Winona State University focused on accommodating large groups of people on day trips, and the interior floor plan reflects this. I will be completely redesigning and rebuilding the interior into a liveaboard houseboat, one that is equally at home in the marina or on a sandbar, but equipped for extended trips, too.

People sometimes ask why someone who works on the river full-time would want to spend so much of his free time working on an old boat. Mainly, the process itself gives me a lot of satisfaction. There’s something romantic about bringing an old boat back to life. Older boats have a personality and character that new boats don’t have. Plus, I enjoy being on the water, and I especially like the river culture. The river is a refuge from modern life, and everything seems to slow down a little. Sometimes it seems like going back in time, to a different place. This boat will take me to those places.

Don’t Try This At Home?

Having said that, a project like this isn’t for everyone—most people wouldn’t want to undertake something like this. It would be cheaper and easier to build a new boat from scratch. It’s a huge commitment for a workforce of one person (me) and has required significant investments of time, effort and money. But to me this boat has value beyond those investments—it’s a labor of love.

The boat carried the name River Explorer when I bought it. I contemplated re-naming it, but my son suggested keeping it, and it was a good idea. I like to think it describes both the boat and myself. The River Explorer is moored at North Bay Marina on French Island in La Crosse, Wis. I’d like to extend a welcome to anyone interested in visiting my old boat, and I’ll gladly give a tour of my progress. But I figure this is a 10-year project—not including coffee breaks—so keep in mind I may have to put you to work.

About The Author

A native of Wisconsin, Carl Henry is currently Captain of Southern Towing Company’s m/v Scott Stegbauer, and is Coast Guard licensed as a First Class Pilot/Unlimited tonnage upon the Lower Mississippi River, as well as Master of Towing Vessels and Master/1600 tons upon the Great Lakes & Inland Rivers. Carl has worked on the river for 35 years.

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