Take Two: Giving Houseboating Another Chance

August 2021 Advertise, Own

To say that Rolland Bartle loves houseboating might not do justice to the depths of it. In the late summer of 1996, he and his wife, Ruth, stood looking at their dream boat, a gleaming, 55-foot KingsCraft home cruiser moored along the Tennessee River around Decatur, Ala. For them, the boat seemed perfect—100 percent aluminum construction, excellent handling on the water, and a brand they had owned and loved before. Until they went inside, the deal seemed solid. 

“The owner was more a partying kind of guy,” Rolland recalls. “The boat was originally sold to the Tennessee Valley Authority that used it for buoy maintenance on the Tennessee River. Not sure how long he had it after that, but the mechanical issues ultimately got away from him, and I believe he was almost afraid of using it for fear of an on-water breakdown.”

That’s a pretty significant problem for anyone who loves to live on the water. Rolland thought to pass on the deal and look elsewhere, sadly leaving his and his wife’s dream boat, but the owner was adamant about making the sale. He and Rolland eventually struck up a deal: before officially purchasing the boat, Rolland would have three weeks of unrestricted access to correct as many issues as he could. If in the end he decided not to purchase it, whatever fixes would be free of charge. The owner agreed, and Rolland happily collected the keys.

“I found many mechanical issues with the boat itself, the main propulsion motors, and the genset,” says Rolland. “The shaft logs had leaked so much that the boat had about six inches of water throughout the hull. It was really in danger of sinking at that point.”

Those weren’t the only problems he found. The original power plants were in terrible disrepair, the oil not having been changed for years. The steering system had nearly locked up without lubrication, and most gauges were inoperative. The interior also needed serious work (and an updated decor). The floors and walls appeared to have some water damage as well. Three difficult weeks of fixing and tinkering eventually satisfied Rolland. The boat was deemed seaworthy, and he decided to purchase it, take it home, and make it new: a not-so-new challenge for him. And thus was christened Ruth and Rolland’s dream boat, My Weakness III.

Veteran Skipper 

That wasn’t the first time Rolland had dealt with less-than-optimal boats.

“I have boated since I was 19 years old with runabouts,” says Rolland. “My wife and I rented our first houseboat—a 34-foot StarCraft—for a brief vacation on Lake Cumberland in Southern Kentucky in 1978. We liked it so much we bought a 32-foot Gibson single engine houseboat located in Cincinnati, Ohio.”

They eventually moved from the small Gibson to a 40-foot KingsCraft in 1980, and later to a 44-foot KingsCraft. They held onto the 44-footer until early 1996 when someone unexpectedly wanted to buy it. That was for the best, perhaps, as both Rolland and Ruth had eventually wanted to buy KingsCraft’s largest boat, the 55-foot model. What Rolland found on the inside of this one, however, was enough to make anyone pause and reconsider.

On The Water

My Weakness III’s maiden voyage was an exciting time for both vessel and passenger.

“Since this was done in October,” says Rolland, “the boating season was in wind-down mode, and some marinas were even closed. That’s a main reason I needed to feel comfortable enough with the mechanical issues that I could actually make the trip without breakdowns.”

A 10-day, thousand-mile journey back up the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers is nothing to take lightly. Rolland constantly repaired electrical and fuel supply issues along the way, even purchasing eight water-separating fuel filters to prevent contamination in the fuel tanks. “Storms also played a major role,” he says, laughing, “and the boat leaked rain water through almost every window and door. In spite of all of that, we made it home to Port Aurora.”

Rolland began the remodel process immediately after arriving home. He quickly discovered there were many more problems with the craft than he first believed, but nothing would dissuade him.

Tear Down 

“We made the decision,” Rolland says, “to completely gut the boat and literally make it a new one, with the lone exception being the hull itself.”

The aluminum hull was the only piece in decent shape. In the coming months, Rolland removed all internal walls, structuring, and paneling—it had discolored and rotted—along with the flooring, eight side windows, both main drive engines, all electrical wiring and outlets, and both AC/heat reverse cycle units. Every part reeked of disrepair and lack of maintenance. With literally an empty shell, Rolland and his wife decided to draft their own floor plan.

“Gutting the interior and taking inventory of what was needed took a year,” Rolland says. “I decided on all-new mechanical systems and upgrading what needed to be.”

There was a staggering amount of work to be done, but Rolland buckled down and got to it.

The time and effort expended speak for themselves. Rolland took the rusty, rotting shell that once was and created something truly worth living on. In the living area, all-oak trim accents every wall, door frame, window and countertop. Rolland installed that himself. He also installed new carpet, new furniture, new wiring, new windows—well, new everything. Below deck got some attention as well. Two 90-gallon aluminum fuel tanks replaced the old steel ones, and another 87-gallon tank joined them. All that capacity is used for the new Mercury Horizon MPI main drive engines and Westerbeke generator. Rolland installed all that himself, too.

After a nearly six-year remodel project, My Weakness III was finally complete. 

The Unimaginable 
Tragedy struck late December 2004, only two years after completing the remodel, when a freak ice and snow storm blasted the Midwest. In a few hours, nearly 22 inches of ice and snow fell, covering everything, including the marina where Rolland had stored his boat. Ultimately, the roof of the marina collapsed, causing major damage to My Weakness III and other boats, even sinking a few. The storm caused similar damage to other marinas along rivers and lakes from Louisville, Ky., to Cincinnati, Ohio.

“Damage to My Weakness III was extensive and almost resulted in scrapping the boat,” says Rolland.

Eventually, marina owners were able to unbury Rolland’s boat. The damage was disheartening. All the upper deck railing and about half of the lower deck was destroyed, smashed by the collapsing ceiling. The bridge was dented in, the bimini top ripped off. The front deck roof overhang was bent down and split on the port side, and the aft deck hardtop was ripped off and sank. Rolland faced a bleak situation: he could scrap the boat and take the insurance check, leaving behind countless hours of loving work, or he could make repairs.

Back At It Again 

“With good cooperation and encouragement of our marina owner, I had my boat pulled and tackled the damages myself. In keeping with the original theme on the project, I wanted to improve the original engineering where it was needed to ultimately have a better boat.”

Tackle the damages he did. Another year-and-a-half of dry dock and repairs later, and My Weakness III was again ready for the water.

Some might wonder why put so much time and money into a boat. Why care so much? Why work so hard? You might tell them that it’s not just a boat; it’s my hobby, my passion, my home. Rolland might call it his weakness. The third one, to be exact. 

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