Labor of Love
Who needs a boatyard when you have a Sawzall and an iron will?
The 30-foot Carver Santego was for sale and up on the hard. From a distance she looked gray and tan instead of her original white with navy and black trim with baby blue accents. Both her canvas and upholstery were rotten, and there was moss growing an inch thick in the windows. Most remarkable, one of her gasoline engines had been replaced with a non-marinized automotive one. Obviously, this was not a boat for everyone.
But Dave and Darleen Balza had found their dream boat, and in August 2002, they bought what would become Journeyman Two. Although at this point most boat owners would have called in the professionals to do a major renovation, the Balzas are professionals—just not in the marine industry.
This was not this couple’s first foray into either construction or boating, but it was the first time they’d combined the two. Dave worked as a steamfitter for 30 years, and Darleen was a millwright. Both were journeymen, traveling and working on various industrial projects in Northeastern Wisconsin. Though they had the construction background and tools at their fingertips, they didn’t walk into this project as skilled boatbuilders, mechanics, electricians, or upholsterers. “There’s plenty of stuff we didn’t know how to do,” Dave says. “We just fix it after looking at it for a couple of seasons.”
They had been married for a year and were looking to upgrade from their 27-foot Carver to something with more space for them and their three children—and something with air conditioning. But what exactly moved them to purchase this particular 30-foot Carver, they can’t explain.
“We saw in this boat a project we could grow to love and make ours, something that would grow with our marriage,” Darleen explains.
As a general rule on this boat, Dave manages the mechnical renovations and the electronics; Darleen does all the cosmetic work like the upholstery and joinery. “Sometimes I get jealous that her repairs are visible!” Dave laughs.
That first winter, the Balzas began the repairs. Dave removed both engines, and a friend who owned a boat engine shop repaired them with higher-performance components that increased their output from 260 to 350 hp. “Kate and Ashley are now a matched set of beautiful girls,” Darleen says. “The engines have girl’s names because we think they need them. We believe boats should be loved to work well.”
But, as the song goes, love don’t always come easy. After Dave finished work on the engines, he started on the electronics. Darleen went to work sewing the saloon’s drapes and upholstery and contracted someone to reupholster the flying-bridge seats. Darleen started working with the interior fabrics because they involved regular fabric that required only a standard sewing machine. She used the original seating upholstery as patterns and admits she had to rip out the seams five times before she was satisfied with the final product. But when they hadn’t received their new outdoor seat covers for the flying-bridge seats by the Fourth of July, Darleen took matters into her own hands.
“[I figured] if one person did it, I can do it too,” she nonchalantly says of the projects on their boat. “You just have to start, and you just have to keep trying.”
It took her only a week of vacation before she had a final product she deemed acceptable. Over the ensuing years, she has reupholstered both the flying-bridge and interior seating.
“Each time, my skills get better and I learn something new,” she says about the marine projects.
Overall, the couple’s projects have ranged from the technical—Dave installed flow meters on the engines to monitor fuel consumption—to the superficial but enjoyable—Darleen built a lighted two-drawer liquor cabinet that holds 24 glasses and 16 bottles. (Dave explains the boat can host 20, seat six for dinner, but only sleep two.) Over the last eight years, the couple’s work has included the following (take a deep breath here): moving the flying-bridge ladder from the port to starboard then reworking the previous flying-bridge layout of two bucket seats and a bench into an L-shape lounge (with a seat back inclined at a comfortable 7-degree angle); installation of new heating and air conditioning units; completely rebuilding the instrument panel to hold a completely new set of electronics; replacement of most of the canvas (sewn by Darleen); a new stainless steel hardtop (built by Dave) to hold more new electronics; updating the genset exhaust system so that with a flick of a switch, exhaust vents can change from port to starboard or vice versa. Darleen also added drawers that stretch the length of the V-berth.
Explaining why the Balzas took on so many of these projects, Dave says simply, “It’s not that we needed to; it’s that we could.”
Though they do most of the projects and repairs over the winter in their storage barn, the Balzas have surprised friends while docked in a marina. They always have a number of tools with them onboard, including an electric drill, Sawzall, grinder, full set of mechanical tools, soldering iron, voltmeter, sewing machine, and even at times, a tungsten inert gas (TIG) welder.
The TIG welder was put to use one summer day when they were docked at an island and Dave decided he wanted to install a pair of davits. He connected the TIG to Journeyman Two’s genset, climbed into her tender Apprentice, and proceeded to fabricate them on the spot, making sure they matched the contours of the Carver’s hull. They recently redesigned the davits to make it possible for them to climb back into the boat while the tender was hoisted onto the swim platform.
One of the biggest projects the Balzas have undertaken was adding a walkthrough from the flying bridge to the bow. Carver introduced this feature in 1989, and the couple decided it would be a practical addition. They first crafted a cardboard template to get the shape of the opening just right—then they broke out the Sawzall. They report that people tell them the final product looks factory-installed.
Dave offers a logical explanation for their constant renovations: “People buy a new boat and still want to change things. On an old boat there’s not nearly the stress of taking a Sawzall to it.”
With all the extensive modifications, this couple seems to have all the time in the world. But in reality, Dave has been retired only three years and Darleen still teaches classes to journeymen and apprentices part time. Darleen laughs and says that they’re like a lot of retired people because “we don’t know when we had time to work!”
Future plans include insulating the flying bridge to make it habitable year-round (no small feat in the Upper Midwest). Also on the couple’s project list is adding LED lights to the railings and repairing one of the inboards that broke this summer. Though the Balzas had the engines rebuilt by a professional before, they’ve now decided to spend this winter learning how to do the job themselves. They plan to repair one and also build a spare.
“Every year we want to add a ‘wow factor’,” Darleen says. “If Dave’s ever done, we’ll need a new boat.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.