Returning an older boat to like-new condition is usually less costly than buying a new one, and it’ll make you the envy of the marina.
You know you’re getting old when things you owned as a young man are now considered “classic.” The 289 Mustang I abused back in the early ‘70s today might be—after the application of thousands of dollars and as many hours of skilled labor—the pride of someone’s classic-car collection. At any rate, I hope so: That was a great car, and deserved better treatment than I gave it, trying to drive like Steve McQueen.
Same thing with boats: Find a top-end model from decades back that’s showing the years but whose fiberglass hull is still in good shape, and you can return it to like-new condition. Or even better than new, by installing modern machinery, systems and technology. And after all the checks clear, you’ll most likely be ahead of the game financially versus buying a comparable new boat. Plus, you’ll have a one-of-a-kind vessel, not one with two or three sister ships down the dock. It’s how I plan on living when I finally hang up the computer and move on board to live out my golden years, maybe on a boat built while I was still fishtailing my Mustang around the back roads of eastern Long Island.
Restoration, of course, means different things to different people, so before embarking on this voyage let’s define our terms. While some folks consider an Awlgrip job and refinishing the brightwork “restoration,” the real deal entails more than just cosmetics. A truly restored boat has been made like-new structurally, mechanically and cosmetically. Depending on the condition of the boat to start with, some restorations are more involved than others, but the end result is the same: A boat that will provide its owners decades more enjoyment with only routine maintenance and repairs.
However, restoring a classic is a whole different experience from just trading up to a new boat. Here’s some advice from folks who’ve restored a whole lot of boats on how not to crash and burn along the way.
Love the Lines
When Derecktor Shipyards in Bridgeport, Connecticut, closed in 2011, Andrew Cooley took his 10 years of experience in shipbuilding and repair and started his own company, Cooley Marine, based in nearby Stratford. Now he employs 13 craftspeople and has a team of subcontractors he calls on when necessary. Along with recreational and commercial vessel repairs and maintenance, Cooley specializes in restoring classic boats. I spoke with him last October when his crew, some of whom came with him from Derecktor, was finishing a bilge-up restoration of a Bertram 31. They gutted the boat, leaving only the hull and deck intact, and rebuilt it using modern materials and methods. When launched, the Bertram will still have the classic profile, but will be essentially a 2021 model, rarin’ to go.
Cooley loves old Bertrams, which is the most important thing when choosing a boat to restore. “You’ve gotta love the lines of the boat,” he advised. Once you’ve decided on the type of boat, he said, you have to ask yourself, “How far am I willing to go?” If you’re going all the way, all you need is a good hull; you’ll probably replace the engines, the interior, maybe the deck, too. If you’re not willing to go all the way, then choose a boat with at least a sound hull and engines. Keep what’s good and replace the rest. And before you start, understand that “you’ve gotta love the project; you’ve gotta have that passion.”
Some people eventually discover they don’t have the passion, and that can be someone else’s gain, said Cooley. Finding a boat that someone started to restore can save a lot of work if they’ve already done the demolition; that’s what he did when he found the Bertram 31. Gutting a boat takes time, and time is money. And, Cooley added, you won’t find out everything about the boat until it’s gutted “right down to the bones. A gutted boat gives you a real quick look at its condition.” There’s nothing sexy about rebuilding stringers, he said, but if it has to be done, it’s better you know up front.
Find the Restorer First
Cooley said that in the past, most people restored boats they already owned, but today folks will buy boats specifically for restoration. In that case, he advises finding the restorer first, before buying the boat. The restorer can then help you choose the right boat, which might make the project run more smoothly. Restoring a boat is a lot different from repairing a boat, so find a professional with lots of experience completing large-scale projects, and one with whom you can establish a good working relationship. “It’s most important that everybody can stay on the same page,” said Cooley.
And for a complete restoration, you might be sharing that page for a while. Cooley said to figure on a year to complete a full restoration from a gutted hull. It can take a couple of months to get all the materials together before work even starts. Then it’s all the hands-on, custom work that takes the time. Unless, of course, there are problems, and who ever heard of a boatbuilding project without problems? “Water is a boat’s worst enemy, especially an older boat,” said Cooley. “We know we’ll find rotten core somewhere.” Assume you’ll have to go farther than you thought, he said. If you find two stringers are wet, doing a proper job demands you replace all of them, which adds time and cost. But, said Cooley, “once the boat’s closed up, you don’t want to open it again for 30 or 40 more years.”
Cooley said that while every restoration is a custom job, a complete bilge-up project provides lots of opportunity for customization, which adds to the cost and complexity. Communication helps ensure the project stays within budget. Sometimes clients want things that literally won’t fit on board, sometimes they want extreme changes that require consulting with a naval architect. But usually, it’s just a matter of installing newfangled equipment. “Some inspirations for restorations come from today’s innovations,” Cooley said. For example, many of his clients want to install Seakeepers in boats built back when gyro-stabilization was just a dream. “You can build a better old boat by taking advantage of the newest technology.”
Wood Is Everywhere
Folks want their restored boats to have the latest tech, but what makes dock walkers stop and stare is gleaming teak and mahogany expertly joined and finished with varnish for a shine that looks a foot deep. Brightwork is what shows, but classic fiberglass boats often have structural wood, too—lumber-cored stringers and frames, plywood bulkheads, maybe plywood decks sheathed in fiberglass. (Some low-volume, semi-custom shops still build decks that way.) When restoring an older boat, both structural and decorative wood must be brought up to snuff. This kind of work takes skill, and when Cooley needs Hinckley-quality woodwork he often calls on Andrew Robb of North Country Boatworks in Milford, Connecticut, just across the Housatonic River from Cooley’s shop. When I spoke with Robb, he was building new floors for a Cape Dory 28, a typical repair job for an older boat.
Robb is a lifelong boat guy, from growing up with vintage mahogany runabouts on Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, to serving time as mate aboard vessels cruising the East Coast and Caribbean. He founded North Country Boatworks 10 years ago, after completing a two-year course in boatbuilding and restoration at the International Yacht Restoration School of Technology and Trades in Newport, Rhode Island. Along with three other IYRS graduate shipwrights, he specializes in restoring classic yachts, especially classic wooden yachts and sleek mahogany runabouts. But Robb applies his craftsmanship to all kinds of boats.
Robb said that when planning a restoration, the first thing he does is determine how the client wants the finished boat to look—does he want the older, patina look, or the Hinckley shiny-and-new look? Then Robb looks at how much wood can be saved. “Someone with a trained eye can look through the gloss and see what’s underneath,” he said. “Sometimes the original fastenings were low-grade metal and the wood shows black through the varnish.” He determines how the wood is bedded to the deck, what finish is on it and how it was applied. He checks how much wood is left on teak decks and swim platforms; 20 years of scrubbing will remove a lot of teak. Finally, he spends time with his clients explaining how things were done in the past and why, and how they should be done during the restoration. “There are plenty of wrong ways to do things, but only a couple of ways to do things right,” said Robb.
When restoring any boat, even a classic runabout, “we push for using modern technologies and materials where it doesn’t show,” said Robb, “as long as it presents as original. It will last much longer.” Robb often replaces the double-planked bottoms of runabouts with a “5200 bottom”—that’s a layer of 3M 5200 marine adhesive/sealant between the layers of wood. Traditionally, builders used canvas, bedding compound or even a thick coat of lacquer. The 5200 bottom is stronger, tougher and will last longer, but looks just like a traditional bottom. (Robb sometimes uses WEST epoxy resin instead of 5200, as do many modern wooden-boat builders, like Vicem for example.)
Although Robb is definitely a wood guy, sometimes the best thing is to take the wood out, he said. Some older boats were built with fiberglass over pressure-treated lumber, but resin won’t stick to it, so the glass delaminates, water gets in and ultimately rots the wood. Plywood was frequently not edge-sealed, so water gets into that, too. “There’s lots of value in pulling out wood and replacing it with composite—Coosa panels or something similar,” said Robb. Replacing worn-out teak decks with a synthetic covering makes a long-lasting, maintenance-free deck. Robb uses Permateek PVC decking that’s assembled ashore—the “planks” are thermally welded together into large panels—and laid down with adhesive. He’ll be decking the cockpit and cabin sole of Andrew Cooley’s Bertram 31 with Permateek.
Restoring a boat is not for the faint of heart, or the faint of wallet—it takes time, skill and money. So, choose your boat wisely—one that, in Cooley’s words, makes you feel the passion—and you’ll have a real beauty when you’re finished, one that’ll make you the envy of the other folks in the marina. And, as noted earlier, unless you go crazy with customizing, you’ll probably save money over buying a new boat, too. What’s not to like?
How Much Can You Save?Ask the Anchorage
It’s difficult to estimate how much money you’ll save by restoring an older boat versus buying a comparable new one. Boats have changed a great deal over the past 40 or 50 years, so in most cases it’s comparing striped bass to albacore. But not always. The Anchorage, Inc. in Warren, Rhode Island, has been building the Dyer 29 since 1956, and they’ll build you one today. Based on the New England lobster boat, the Dyer is 29 feet LOA, with a 9-foot, 6-inch beam and draws 2.5 feet. Power is a single engine driving a straight shaft with a keel-and-grounding-shoe arrangement that protects the prop and rudder. Most 29s carry between 200 and 300 horsepower, gas or diesel and cruise around 18 knots. You can have your Dyer outfitted with a hardtop (the original design; it would be my choice), an open soft top—both have a usable cabin—or as a Northeast bass boat, with a low-headroom cuddy.
All Dyer 29s were built on solid fiberglass hulls, although the earliest boats had wooden decks. But by the late 1950s, the trunk cabin and decks were molded fiberglass, too, according to Tad Jones, The Anchorage president. Their solid-glass hulls and classic design make them prime candidates for restoration, and The Anchorage will do the job for you. Jones said they’ve restored 12 to 15 Dyer 29s; when I spoke with him last October, there was a 20-year-old boat in the shop. “Some of the guys doing the restoration have been here for 35 or 40 years,” said Jones. “They were here when this particular boat was built.”
Jones said that restoring an older Dyer 29 saves 40 to 50 percent versus the cost of buying a new boat, depending on whether the engine is replaced or not. “It’s identical to what we build now,” he said. The only downside, he added, is that most insurance companies won’t accept that the older, restored boats are worth as much as they actually are, so you might have to shop around to get full coverage.