A Practical Shortcut
by Paul Browne - Geezer Boatworks

Want to build a boat? Just have to build a boat? A bigger boat with room for the whole clan? I can sympathize. Some of us can’t help ourselves. Nevertheless, my advice is not to build a big boat, or rather my advice is don’t build all of it. There are two problems with large projects, time and cost. For example, I just read a note from a fellow who actually finished a 30 foot power cruiser. What a job he did! It’s a real beauty, quite an accomplishment. But that’s the problem; it’s quite an accomplishment. Took him 4000 hours, and $65,000. Even if you’ve got the loot…be honest now…have you got the energy? 

But there is an alternative. Why not buy the hull, and convert it into the boat you want? For the bigger project, starting with the hull already done is a much more practical proposition, especially if you’ll be working mostly alone. Here’s a photo of a boat conversion that’s been done right. This boat is berthed at a marina near Tampa. She’s a 40 footer, and the owners, who live aboard, have done a really pretty job. Look at that pretty sheer, that dark hull, and the angles on the stainless railing! Somebody’s got a good eye.

Converted Ex-Navy “Utility Boat”

Here’s my buddy Vernon’s boat. Like the boat shown above, Vernon’s boat used to be in the navy. “Utility boats” they call them. Vernon bought the hull right here in Tampa. He managed to buy it without an engine (he had one stashed away in his shed) and he’s invested roughly the same money and time in his project that I have in mine. Vernon’s boat is a 32 footer. The motor is a 130 hp diesel. She’s not ready for speed trials quite yet, but I’m taking bets she’ll do 12 knots or more. Utility boats are built tough. All the ones I’ve seen are fiberglass, and it’s thick. Vernon’s boat will be able take a pounding. Just the boat for thumping around the Gulf chasing fish. 

Vernon’s Boat - A Work in Progress

My first converted boat, the General Brock, was an ex-navy lifeboat, and he was one tough little boat. The motor was a 4-107 Perkins diesel. That’s about 40 horse, more power than usual in lifeboats. The previous owner said he saw him looking forlorn on the hard at a navy auction. He bid $300, and to his surprise he had a boat! Nobody else bid. He was a good carpenter, and he did a nice job on the cabin and decks. The General was a heck of a good sea boat, at least he was in the chop that I had him in. A half ton of lead bolted to his keel and a way to fasten down the hatches would have made him even better.

The General Brock – A Converted 24 foot Steel Lifeboat 

This picture shows my current boat, the Icebreaker Danielle, making her rather unusual exit from the yard where I did most of the carpentry and painting. We almost dropped her doing this, but we couldn’t get the Travel-Lift under the trees, so we had to use the fork-lift. I/B Danielle was originally a 28 foot fiberglass lifeboat, but now she’s a low-powered diesel cruiser. I bought the hull up in Maryland. The story goes that she was purchased as part of the equipment needed to refit a bulk carrier. On the way to the yard, the ship ran aground and was declared a total loss, so the lifeboat became surplus. 

An Unusual Exit

(Actually there’s a second rather boring version of this story, wherein the ship was sold before refit, and the new owners just made other plans. But let’s go with the first version.) Anyway, the lifeboat sat neglected on the hard for a dozen years. Then a fellow bought her to convert her. He got as far as ripping out the thwarts and installing an engine. Then he gave up and she sat for another dozen, until I bought her two years ago for $2500. The hull was light enough to pull down to Florida behind my old car. 500 hours work, 1000 hours shmoozing, and $16,000 later, and she’s about done. If I’d had the sense to keep her simple, and the patience to fuss with her engine longer, and done a lot less schmoozing and more scrounging, I could have done the job for 400 hours and maybe $8,000. Now that’s a fair number of bongo-bucks in my book, and 400 hours of prime time is long enough to make you wonder why you’re doing it after a while. But it’s not impossible to manage for a lot of folks over a two year period. 

I/B Danielle has an 18 hp diesel, and she cruises at 6.2 knots, burning 2/3 gallon of oil per hour. The Resident Love Goddess and I hope to be able to take long cruises on sheltered waters on her, cruises lasting a few months. So I made her comfortable, not sleek for sure, but practical. The saloon has a table and a futon that makes into a double berth. There’s a proper galley with a profane fridge. The head has a separate shower stall, and there’s a big hold below for storage. To get all that on a 28 foot boat, I sort of made the cabin kind of a little bit high. Well OK then…it’s really high. I’m getting a bit touchy about it. No, she’s not tippy. In fact she’s pretty steady on her feet. Two thousand pounds of steel ballast in the bilge did that trick. As for the looks, to offset the ridiculously high cabin, I tried to make her look old-fashioned. And that works pretty well, except kids call me Popeye. Keeps me from getting proud, I guess.

The Icebreaker Danielle

I suppose a fellow could start with practically any sort of hull, although I do suggest it be fiberglass. It’s just all round easier to modify, easier to keep. You can add mahogany rails and carvings if you’re a wooden boat kind of guy. And you’ll likely make the cabin out of wood anyway. Maybe you can find a boat that’s suffered fire damage to her superstructure, or one that actually made it under that swing bridge, when the train was crossing the river. Kerrunch, ka-chunk, ka-chunk...All of which reminds me of my drinking uncle, Shipmates. Old fast-driving, quick-diving Jean-Claude. He had a real talent for making convertibles out of sedans. Unfortunately he did it by broadsiding tractor-trailers…But getting back on track here, the key points are that the hull should be inexpensive, and it should be applicable to the kind of boat you want to build. Three types of boats with suitable hulls that I know are available on a regular basis, at least here in the USA, are lifeboats, ex-navy utility boats, and ex-navy motor whaleboats. All three are commonly fiberglass. And they are open boats, so there is less to gut out before you start building. 

Lifeboats are usually 24 to 30 feet, but I have seen a used 44 footer for sale. What a yacht that one would have made! A lifeboat hull is made to take a whole bunch of scared passengers. Capacity is the name of the game, not speed, although I heard once that every motor lifeboat has to be able to make 6 knots under her own power, so you’ll get that speed anyway. Most motor lifeboats are happy with 10 to 20 horsepower. They’re usually apple-cheeked, strong-sheered, and pointy both ends. Just the hull for a salty gaff-rigged double-ender, if you can get a keel under her. Or maybe a leeboard cat ketch, or a slow power cruiser like mine. 

Lifeboats are unusual in that they aren’t made to spend their lives in the water. They only have to live on deck. So some of them are lightly built, or they’ll have quirky details that need correcting for continual service afloat. Maybe the rudder is so ugly it keeps you awake at night, or the bottom could use a couple more ribs. Not to worry, they’re usually easy to beef up on the inside with wood and epoxy/glass cloth, and epoxy coatings can seal most any hull very well indeed. For example, the General Brock was galvanized steel. The hull was plenty strong, but believe it or not the seams in the hull were lapped and riveted. I guess that’s all right for a boat that swings under a ship’s davits, but immersed in salt water all the time, it just has to rust. A couple coats of coal tar epoxy and a mechanical shaft seal solved that problem in a hurry. Mechanical shaft seals are the best thing to happen to small inboard boats since the CQR anchor.

Oooo! Just Can’t Abide that Ugly Rudder!

Ex navy utility boats have a round bottom with a long run. I suppose that’s a semi-planing hull, but the ones I’ve seen look like they wouldn’t make a lot of fuss at displacement speeds. So they would be a better choice for a larger or faster power cruiser, or maybe a “trawler” type pleasure boat. They have the most wonderful rubrails, solid rubber about 4 inches thick. If there’s anything on a boat that will make you happy around marinas and docks it’s a 4 inch thick solid black rubber rubrail. You’ll find ex-navy utility boats from 32 foot on up to 50 foot, and there are lots of them for sale at very good prices, say $5000 up to $20,000 for a really big one. 

Ex-navy whaleboats, like this one, have the same super rubrails, same sailors I guess. They’re built to be the ultimate open boats for rough water. Their cockpits are self-bailing, and their hulls are narrow. They all seem to be around 26 foot. They all seem to look the same too. Their engines tend to be somewhat larger, about 70 hp with a man-sized prop. A whaleboat is kind of narrow for a pleasure cruiser. To me, they’re all begging to be turned into lunch bucket tugs. You can get one in pretty good shape for maybe $6500. Deck over the cockpit, and cut in some hatches for stowage. Build a pilothouse on top of the deck, good and high for visibility. Give the engine a going over, bung a bit of ballast below and Bob’s your uncle. Then you need a low house barge, with a gangplank and a motorsooter. Flower pots, flagstaffs and wooden barrels, and room to keep the Missus and her hobbies in style. Take up whittlin’, fishin’ and storytellin’, and you can spend years tootling up and down canals and rivers and along the coast.

You can find your hull in “Boats and Harbors” or on the net at www.boattraderonline.com   Search under the keyword “lifeboat” or “ex-navy” or “utility boat”. I bought my two lifeboats that way.

“There’s one! Under that tree. And it looks like they’ve given up on her.”

So that’s my case, Shipmates. It’s sacrilege I know, but maybe you shouldn’t build the hull, especially if you’ve got a bigger project in mind. You can save a noble old boat from the scrap heap and scratch that boat building itch at the same time. You’ll get as much or more boat for the buck. You’ll be done sooner.

“It’s a drake-tailed steam launch in disguise. 
Try a hundred bucks on them. Naw…better make it fifty.”