Making Better Memories

June 2020 Own Steve Janes Web Exclusive

When Jeff Hensley was 10 years old, his father would take him out on Lake Cumberland on a Gibson 50 houseboat where he developed a strong passion for boating … and knew that some day he would want to pass those memories on to his posterity.

After years of hard work, Hensley has been able to build a successful car dealership and reach a level of financial security that allows him to pursue his youthful dream of spending time with his family on the water where he still has fond childhood memories.

“We bought our first houseboat in 2009 and the race was on from there,” Hensley explained. Hensley lives in Middletown, Ohio, which is just under four hours down Interstate 75 to the Jamestown Marina on Lake Cumberland where he keeps his boat on the front row of the marina. But during the boating season Hensley takes it out to different areas of the lake to tie up and enjoy the water. He also has a toy slip next to his houseboat where he can keep a recreational boat.

Hensley recently finished a year-long restoration project on a 2006 Horizon houseboat named Sales Relief. The boat is 20-feet-by-100-feet and was originally built for the owner of Horizon and called the Utopia. Then immediately he took on the task of some major renovations to custom-build the perfect boat.

“I decided to redo this boat because it was built for the owner, Ray Chesney, of Horizon houseboats and has a very unique layout. “The size was a perfect size in my mind,” Hensley said. “I love the hydraulic rear deck, and the all-aluminum party top … it’s huge,” he said.

However, there were several things lacking in design that Hensley had on the top of the list to remodel. “The boat did not have smooth yacht style ceiling,” he explained. “It had the regular aluminum soffit.” So first order of business was to change it to smooth fiberglass yacht ceiling on both decks.

And if you’re going to make changes with the ceilings, you may as well change out the floor. “Randall Meece, owner of TNT Carpet in Russell County, KT, did all the tile work inside the boat,” Hensley said. “He was one of the local contractors I used on all my houseboat remodels.”

Making Changes

Renovating a boat can be a challenging task, especially a boat of this size. But Hensley has always been up for a challenge.

“This is the third one I have done,” he said. “I loved the layout and size of this boat. Horizon has always been a very sturdy built boat but they were never the same dazzle on the inside and outside as other builders. I wanted to finish this boat with the top-end finished like my previous Sharpe Houseboat.” 

The first boat Hensley renovated was a 16-by75-foot Funtime. “We redid it … but not to the extent of the Horizon,” he said. “I then purchased a 18-by-92-foot Sharpe and redid it as well … again not to the extent of my current boat.”

As each boat got bigger in size, the extent of the renovations tended to expand. So the Horizon soon became a major undertaking.

“When I start the renovation of a boat, I focus on the latest upgrades to make the boats as high quality and latest trends out,” Hensley explained. “I truly focus on making sure the boat shows like a new one—replacing all Aluminum exterior trims, all LED lights (getting rid of all the rope lights, etc.). We upgrade all the electronics to high end stereo systems and high-end home audio.”

Hensley also installs the smooth yacht style ceilings. “On the inside I focus on high-end finishes like granite countertops high-end furniture and fixtures, and changing out all lighting to LED. I also focus on the usability of the boat meaning systems. I like to go out for several days at a time, so I make sure the boat has watermakers, large fresh water reserves and large fuel capacity so I can stay out for longer periods of time.”

As for the mechanics of the houseboat, Hensley ensures everything is working exactly as it should. “I also go through the generator and both drive engines to make sure they are all ready to go when needed.”

Another feature that attracted him to the 2006 Horizon houseboat was the side walkway.

“I always loved the side walkway for how big the salon is,” he explained. “This boat is massive in the salon and we love the layout. I’ve never seen another houseboat with this layout.”

The Horizon was also loaded with about every option you could want on a houseboat, including a dumb waiter, twin bars, a massive full-aluminum structure party top, and so much more. The rear deck has a full hydraulic lift for up to a 20-foot boat.

Focusing on Details

Although it may not be a new boat, almost everything on the boat is closely scrutinized and replaced if it doesn’t fit into the overall scheme of showing new.

“I replaced every piece of trim on the boat, inside and out,” Hensley explained. “I wanted to make it new. On the Horizon houseboat, the cost wasn't a factor at first. But as we went along the budget was blown three times over because of how much we ended up replacing.”

Although Hensley doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty with a project, some of the tasks were fairly intensive and required a little more expertise.

 “I was able to do a lot of the small stuff myself, but I was lucky enough to meet up with a few ex-houseboat manufacturing employees that were willing to work for me during the off season from fall through the winter months,” he said. “They did all the heavy lifting.”

Two came with years of experience working for Sunstar Houseboats. Another had worked for Sumerset until the company closed down.

“They did all the major work with me. They worked through the fall and winter, Monday-Friday for several months,” he said. “I am a car dealer in Middletown and have a small aircraft, so I was able to fly down for a day or so and help with the renovation. I also use Tommy Antle, a sub-contractor who does all the aluminum work like rails and arches, etc. Rozella Roberts did all the interior soft goods—she worked for all the major houseboat manufacturers for many years as well.”

This has proved to be an effective team for Hensley. “I have used the same group for every boat I have done,” he said. “They are like my family. This group absolutely offered many suggestions since they all combined have so many years of houseboat building and remodeling experience. I could not have done this without their help.”

Memories In The Making

And with each renovation, memories of the efforts involved by this group of renovators keep coming back.

“I cannot look at any part of these houseboats I have done and not see a part of each one of them on these houseboats,” he explained. “I was very fortunate to find such great craftsmen to work with me. It would have cost me thousands of dollars more to pull the boat and do these renovations at one of the few manufacturers left offering services. I was able to source many parts from Sunstar Houseboats and Trifecta as well as the new Star Renovations. My wife, Tasha, plays a big role in the selection of colors, fabrics etc. But my family leaves the major renovations to me.”

He also prefers to contract with local businesses to install the floors and granite throughout the boat. “I keep all the major parts appliances, soft goods, etc., local as well,” he said.

Although for someone who was financially in a position to just sit back and enjoy the water, Hensley said he gets a lot of enjoyment through rebuilding these boats and making them better than new. 

“For me, the renovation is my escape,” he explained. “I truly enjoy taking a houseboat and making it like a new boat. Many people do upgrades … but not to the extent I do. I can’t stress enough of how much we actually replaced on this boat. The boat just turned out awesome.”

Future Projects

Although Hensley’s always looking for his next big adventure, he may take a little time to sit back and enjoy Sales Relief for a little while longer.

“I have been looking at my next project … but to be honest, this boat took way more than any other I have done. I think I want to enjoy it for a few more years before I start another one,” he said. “I am not in a big hurry to start all over. I love this boat more and more the more time I spend in it. It’s more comfortable to me than any I have owned in the past.”

Hensley said his family is also very content in keeping this houseboat for a while.

“My wife liked this renovation the best because the worst part was done in the off season when we do not use the boat as much,” he said. “My wife likes that I do upgrades but also likes when I finally get to a point where no work is being done and we can have nice family time. We spend about every weekend together at the lake.

Hensley also pointed out the benefit houseboating has been to his 16-year-old daughter, Kyndall. “Kyndall has been raised on the lake and has made so many good friends from all over,” he said. “Both me and my wife have made some of the best friends we have because of house boating.”

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