How one man built a 40-ton steel trawler with little more than a stout heart, two hands, a welding machine, and a Toyota forklift.
In a way, the whole thing began in Belize over a decade ago. Gil Devenport, an average Joe from Vero Beach, Florida, with none of the obvious attributes of a muscle-bound superhero (like hulking shoulders, a Herculean chest, and biceps way too colossal for your average shirt), was seated in a small maho-gany motorboat, zooming across the opalescent waters that separate the islet of Caye Caulker from San Pedro, when the following thought arose: “I should build a boat some time.”
To this day, Devenport’s not exactly sure of the thought’s origin, although he’s got a few ideas. In fact, when I recently stopped by Vero Beach Fireplace & Barbecue, a business he’s owned for years, he theorized the darn thing may have emerged from the lush, exotic tropicality of Belize itself, or maybe even the gorgeous sheen of the motorboat’s varnished planks against a backdrop of verdant palms. “Whatever it was,” he concluded, “I went to the public library almost as soon as my wife and I got back home.”
Of course, the pursuit of knowledge often broadens a guy’s perspective. And not long after Devenport had finished reading a pile of books on do-it-yourself boatbuilding and burned through several gallons of midnight oil web-surfing the same subject, he ordered a CD containing electronic drawings and patterns from Bruce Roberts Yacht Design, a firm with a catalog full of plans for various boats. Armed with the blithe certainty that sometimes characterize those folks who’ve worked with their hands for much of their lives, Devenport decided he would kit-build a 40-ton, welded-steel, two-stateroom, two-head oceangoing trawler—all by his lonesome—and then cruise her across to the Bahamas, Central and South America, and ultimately perhaps Antarctica.
But he’s no wide-eyed dreamer. He knew that actually completing a Roberts Spray 52 was going to be a complex, laborious, time-consuming endeavor involving truckloads of 5⁄16" sheet steel for hull cladding, more truck-loads of sheet steel for the latticework to support the cladding, and more truckloads of wire, hardware, piping, and wood paneling. Moreover, Devenport understood that he would have to custom-fabricate a pilothouse from aluminum to cut top-hamper weight and somehow fasten it to—but galvanically isolate it from—the steel decking beneath. Then there was the main engine, a John Deere Powertech 8.1L diesel detuned 250-bhp, plus other mechanicals, as well as galley equipment and furniture.
“But ya know, I wasn’t worried that much, to tell ya the truth,” he explained with characteristic matter-of-factness. We were both looking up at one of the most finely finished Awlgripped hulls I’ve laid eyes on, towering in the dimness of a barely big-enough steel building that stands alongside Vero Beach Fireplace & Barbecue. “See, I’m a real do-it-yourselfer.”
Do-it-yourselfer, indeed. In 2002 Devenport had had little experience with boats, boating, or boatbuilding, other than numerous fair-weather fishing trips he and his wife Jean had taken over the years to the Gulf Stream onboard their 21-footer. What he did have going for him was a previous full-time job building welded-aluminum fire-rescue trucks and the sort of wild, relentless strength that’s common in youthful soldiers but seldom found in the average 57-year-old, 185-pound middle-aged businessman.
Sun Chaser’s salty Portuguese bridge sports a sturdy grabrail and a secondary helm station to starboard, complete with joystick controls for her Side-Power hydraulic bow thruster.
After installing a collection of equipment in the barely big-enough shed, including a Hypertherm Powermax 600 plasma cutter, a Miller Spoolmatic welder, and a $500 Toyota forklift, Devenport embarked upon a regimen that would hold constant with the inevitability of demise and taxation for the next eight years. Like most single-handers, he was sometimes driven to extremes of creativity. For example, after using the plasma cutter and a bunch of computer-generated fiberboard patterns to excise long strips of hull cladding from 8' x 20' slabs of sheet steel, he would cleverly employ the Toyota, as well as a complicated arrangement of temporarily welded pad eyes, chains, and come-alongs, to suspend and each strip in precisely the right place on the hull. Then, after the upper and lower mid-points of each strip had been tacked-welded, he’d begin the arduous process of bending the rest of the strip (again using pad eyes, chains, and come-alongs) to make it conform to the curvatures specified by Roberts’ plans. Finally, he’d weld the entire strip to the interior structures and adjoining cladding, both inside and outside, while being careful not to warp or otherwise distort it. An easy task for one guy working in the evenings after dealing with his regular job all day? And with no means of simultaneously operating the forklift and precisely positioning each strip of cladding? Not unless he happens to be Superman!
“You gotta be careful, though. You can get hurt,” Devenport admitted as we toured the main deck of the nearly completed Sun Chaser in October. The admonishment prefaced several dire anecdotes, each describing the trouble a man can get into while dealing with tight tolerances and monstrous, dangling loads. The most dramatic involved a strip of cladding not totally welded in place. As Devenport pried its unsecured end away from an adjoining strip, it snapped back like a mousetrap, imprisoning his hand. “If I hadn’t had a wreckin’ bar in my other hand at the time,” he explained with a fatalistic grin, “I don’t know what woulda happened. It was eleven o’clock at night and the cavalry wasn’t comin’, if you get my drift. Anyway, I kept my fingers.”
The logic of the main-deck layout belies the risks Devenport took to create it. Sun Chaser’s aluminum wheelhouse, isolated from the undergirding steel deck via a flanging system and a double layer of Sikaflex 222 polyurethane sealant, sports a simple, commercial-style helm station fashioned of welded stainless steel. A second equally Spartan control station is outside and to starboard, just behind the bulwarks of the Portuguese bridge. Additional features up on the foredeck include a mast (unstepped at the time of my visit) nicely fashioned from a streetlight pole that had once graced the streets of Vero Beach, Florida; a hydraulically actuated drum-type anchor windlass, and a crane designed and engineered by Devenport himself, plus a big foredeck ventilation hatch with hinged, watertight storm cover through which interior components can be easily removed for replacement.
The layout below was logical as well. Galley cabinets are made of the same welded stainless steel as the helm stations and for the same practical reasons. For utility purposes, the steel decks will be carpeted, not teak-planked. Hatches are lockable from the inside to discourage pirates, and Sun Chaser’s few windows can be sealed and are of a pirate-proof one-inch thickness. The amidships machinery spaces, abaft the galley and just forward of the master stateroom, are roomy and have an austerity that put me in mind of the 100-foot utility vessels I worked on as a kid in the Gulf of Mexico. Inside, I saw little more than the single John Deere, a 12.5-kW Kubota genset, a mammoth flax-packed shaftlog that was also designed and engineered by Devenport, a residential-type water heater, and ancillary hydraulics with commercial-grade components from Marine Hydraulic Engineering of Rockland, Maine.
“Whataya think about PMY covering the launch—the whole thing, start to finish?” I asked as Devenport and I finished up a post-tour meal at a nearby Applebee’s. “It’d mean more photos and maybe doing a sea trial to get some performance data.”
Devenport sat there thinking. Removing Sun Chaser from the barely big-enough shed for her launch was going to be an edgy—if not scary and potentially disastrous—exercise, considering it would entail removing the building’s entire back wall, towing the boat down a sloping, curved path to a flatbed truck in the parking lot with a local wrecker, and using an array of big rollers under the main and bilge keels to facilitate movement, much like the Egyptians used to do when hauling stones to the pyramids. And that’s not even mentioning the niceties nobody could anticipate. “Okay, Bill,” he replied at length while mustering a valiant chuckle. “I just hope she floats!”
The unstepped mast, still wrapped in plastic lies along the port side of the foredeck next to the crane and foredeck access hatch. It was once a street-light pole in Vero Beach, Florida.
This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.