Rollin’ The Dice

Turning an old rental boat into family memories

Published in the November 2019 Issue November 2019 Feature

Few things can match the serenity that comes with gently bobbing up and down on a high desert lake while enjoying a beautiful sunset at the conclusion of a warm summer day. For Dennis Robinson, this is what life should be—making memories with family while experiencing the splendor of nature. And that’s exactly why spending seven years and putting in about 4,000 hours of hard work to renovate a 1980 Kayot houseboat was worth the effort.  

Any time you tackle a major renovation project, it’s a roll of the dice. But for Robinson, rolling the dice has been one of his family’s enjoyable pastimes for years, just as spending time at Lake Powell in southern Utah has been. His family has spent a lot of summer days camping, fishing and playing games on the lake.

Yahtzee is one of the games they commonly played. So when he decided to take on a major renovation project on an old out-of-commission rental houseboat, the name Yachtzee seemed appropriate.

Houseboat Rental #12          

“I’ve been boating for over 40 years,” said Robinson, “and annual boat camping trips to Lake Powell have become more difficult with age, so the desire for some degree of comfort and protection from the elements has begun to take precedence.”

Robinson wanted an easier way to transport his camping gear and establish campsites along the shores of Lake Powell. That’s when he got the idea of using a houseboat as his base camp which led him to his first restoration project.

He decided to purchase an old rental houseboat that started out on the waters of Lake Mead near Las Vegas, Nev. For years this boat was known as Houseboat Rental #12 and was owned by Seven Crowns Resort. Eventually they retired it from the fleet and sold it to someone in Idaho who moved it to Wilson Lake Reservoir just north of Hazelton. It ended up rusting away on a trailer near the lake.

The years of neglect weren’t kind to Rental #12, and much work was required to recondition it. But the price was right and Robinson was up for the challenge. He wanted to restore a boat with a limited budget, and he wanted a boat with a maximum girth of 12 feet because that was the maximum trailerable width allowed on the highways without an escort.

“I really didn’t have a budget or timeframe,” he said. “Money was spent as it could be spared; time was limited early on (while I was still employed) but progress accelerated upon my retirement.” Robinson had worked 34 years in the Yellow Pages business before retiring in 2013.

The time frame spanned seven years from purchase to launch and the total cost was somewhere between $35,000 and $40,000. But once the project was complete, the time and expenses were soon forgotten.

Renovation Timeline

The timeline before the Yachtzee was renovated and recommissioned spans 29 years. Robinson first encountered the boat via Craigslist. “I don’t know much about the history,” he admitted. “It’s safe to assume it was a Seven Crowns Resort rental boat back in the 80’s.”

Robinson said the most previous owner said he bought it from a private party who slipped it at Lake Mead. From the condition, it was obvious this boat had been a “dock queen,” which basically meant it served as a floating hotel for weekenders. As such, there was a lot of deferred maintenance, broken plumbing, electrical issues, a non-working outboard, and other issues.

The previous owner hauled Rental #12 from Lake Mead to his own property near Wilson Lake, Idaho, with the intention of restoring it. “After several seasons sitting through Idaho winters, the mounting financial cost of restoration had gradually outweighed any potential for profit,” explained Robinson. “So in June 2009, I purchased Rental #12 for $5,000 (minus the trailer). My intention was to borrow the trailer, tow it back to Parker, Ariz., using my 32-foot gas-powered motor home and the seller would come to Parker later to retrieve his trailer.”

Road Block   

However, Robinson admitted this plan was doomed to failure.

The boat on the trailer weighed over 20,000 pounds which was way over the maximum towing limit of Robinson’s motor home. “After about 50 miles the transmission started boiling over blowing smoke down the road,” explained Robinson. “Fortunately we ended up at an RV park south of Twin Falls, Idaho, and the kind owner agreed to store the boat in the back of his property for $50 per month.” 

Once his RV cooled down, Robinson was able to return to Parker without the boat. Then, after a few phone calls, Robinson located a boat transporter out of Las Vegas. “For another $4,500, the houseboat was trucked to Arizona,” he said. “So in the end, it cost almost as much as the purchase price just to move it.”

Regardless, he pressed forward, pushing through a few periods where he wondered if he’d just throw in the towel. But looking back, after making family memories and enjoying the excitement of exploring Lake Powell, Robinson realizes the return of his investment is priceless.

The Work Begins

From 2009 to 2013 the renovation process was limited to weekends since Robinson still had a full-time job.

“The first step was the roof,” he explained. “Large sections of rotted wood needed to be cut out and replaced. Then an entirely new additional layer of plywood had to be laid down over the tar-based residential roofing material that had been improperly installed by a previous owner. A final coating with a two-part non-skid epoxy completed the roof.”

Next the plumbing—since old copper lines were so full of holes from frozen water expansion, Robinson abandoned the plumbing system and replaced it with PEX-style hot/cold water lines. He also installed a new 6-gallon LPG RV water heater.

Then there was the electrical. Both the 110-volt and 12-volt electrical systems were repaired or replaced as needed, with a new 12-volt converter installed. For the decking, he removed all exterior deck plywood and replaced it with new plywood, painted underside and top-coated with two-part non-skid epoxy.

Robinson removed the old non-working Koehler generator and replaced it with a newer-style lightweight portable Yamaha 2800-watt inverter generator, mounted to the back rail. Then he altered and restored the aft deck boxes. He also modified the aft railing to add two fabricated aft-facing steel gates for rear boarding.  

The Work Continues

“The next major work started in 2013 when a sandblaster was hired to remove years of various paint layers from the super structure,” explained Robinson. The blasting revealed significant holes on the bottom which made him realize that the boat would need a complete bow-to-stern re-skin with new steel—a very expensive proposition.

He purchased eight 4-by-10-foot sheets of 12-gauge galvanized steel and created a plywood template of the hull by tracing the profile of the aft end of a pontoon. Using the template, he bent the metal on a huge computer-driven brake to create steel “skins” that conformed almost exactly to the existing hull shape.

By the end of 2014, hulls were welded, sealed with coal tar epoxy and tested airtight. Later in 2015, Robinson located a lightly used 2015 Mercury 115hp four-stroke motor with 25 hours. As the boat began reaching seaworthy condition, they hurriedly completed the interior.

“Bunk beds and a full bed were built from scratch,” said Robinson. “A complete dinette (convertible to a double bed) was installed in the dining area and we installed an almost new Dometic RV fridge.”

Finally, paint, trim, lighting, etc., along with a few shortcuts on cosmetics, and the project was pretty much done.

On The Water

The preliminary testing on the water revealed that the throttle cable was installed backward (Forward=Reverse, Backward=Forward). That problem was easily solved and the bigger question of seaworthiness was answered—it floated with no leaks.

“The boat is very stable in rough conditions due to the weight and pontoon design,” said Robinson. “The 115 hp motor pushes it along at about 7 to 8 miles per hour. I’m not setting any speed records, but hey, we’re busy playing Yahtzee so who cares, right?”

In May 2016, with oversize permit in hand, the boat was hooked up to Robinson’s 2006 RAM 3500 diesel pickup and towed up I-40 through Flagstaff and then north to Lake Powell on the Utah border. The 380-mile trip started at sunrise and ended in the late afternoon.  

“We’ve put over 250 hours on it in three seasons,” shared Robinson, “and the memories have been nothing short of priceless.”

Worth Every Minute

Yachtzee stays on the trailer next to the Robinson home when it’s not on the water. When using the boat on Lake Powell, the Robinson family spends their time playing games, barbequing, fishing and relaxing. It’s a lifestyle Robinson hopes to maintain forever. “Anytime we are on the boat it’s a memory, it’s simply that special at Lake Powell,” he said. “The scenery makes the journey as much fun as the destination.”

Whether he’s with family, friends or even his two cats, Robinson said all the effort he put into restoring Yachtzee has been worth it.

Now he looks forward to watching the sunrise and sunset out on Lake Powell. “The beauty and serenity is something you can’t understand until you’ve experienced it personally.” And with that, Dennis Robinson can sit back and enjoy the subtle bobbing of the boat as he relaxes. That’s one roll of the dice that has made him a winner.

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