Rebuilding, Restoring, Adding To, or Upgrading Your "Classic"?

Here are Six Rules for Success

by Merrill Hall, JJT 26 “Lucy Ann”

There isn’t a small cruising boat designed that will meet everybody’s definition of perfection. Every boat is a compromise and, over time, just about every owner will contemplate making changes, or adding some gear, or, in the case of the older boat, rebuilding, restoring, or “up-grading”. Although boat yards specialize in this type of work, much, if not all, can be done by a knowledgeable owner with some well developed basic skills. There are, however, some “horror stories” that illustrate what can result when owners lack the knowledge and skills necessary to do the job well. Fortunately nothing is a total loss and from these stories come six basic rules that may be of some value to someone contemplating activities that will make their boat more to their liking.

  • Rule #1: Don’t do anything that limits access to mechanical, electrical, or structural parts of the boat.

    • Nothing beats a hot shower for making the cruising sailor into a human being. The heater itself isn’t the problem; it’s where you find a place to put it on a small cruiser. Altair had her heater located in a cockpit lazarette which precluded any inspection or maintenance of the fuel tank, seacocks, wheel steering mechanism, and any other gear below the cockpit sole. In order to repair two leaking seacocks and their hoses, the engine had to be removed.

    • I looked at a Pearson Triton that had been totally “teaked” on just about every square inch of interior. It looked beautiful but there was no way to inspect the chain plates, genoa track fasteners, hull to deck join, stanchion base fasteners (which were loose), or wire runs, without destroying the screwed and glued teak work.

    • The 30hp Atomic 4 in a Pearson Vanguard had finally wheezed it last and the owner opted for a new diesel. He bought a 30hp Yanmar at a boat show and had it installed. Sounds logical – 30hp replacing 30hp. Unfortunately the owner didn’t understand that the 30hp rating of the A4 was attained at around 4000 rpm and that the engine probably never put out much more that 22hp in the useable rpm range. He would have been quite happy with a slower turning 20hp diesel and would have spent far less money. The installation was so “tight” that it was impossible to service the reverse gear, or the stuffing box, or even get a hand on the cockpit drain seacocks without going headfirst down through the cockpit lazarettes.

    • Being able to easily get at things should be considered a safety issue and not a minor consideration. Sooner or later, everything will fail and your ability to make repairs (often quickly) should not be compromised.

  • Rule #2: Don’t do any structural alterations to any boat without first getting an opinion from a professional naval architect.

    • I was invited aboard a ’68 Pearson Coaster in Rhode Island several years ago where the prior owner had “opened up” the interior for a less “closed-in” appearance. The main bulkhead and forward bulkhead was cut out and a metal tube compression post added with the belief that it alone would provide the required strength. The vee berths were changed into a large angled double berth which had a hinged panel to gain access to the now non-enclosed head. The companionway bulkhead was also cut away in places to provide additional storage bins accessible from the cabin. The old ice box had been removed and the area now was occupied by an oversized nav station which required the removal of the starboard settee berth. The boat had been extensively sailed for almost ten years in this condition. Unknown to the owner, the hull was longitudinally twisting and inwardly “pumping” at the main bulkhead area. The hull exhibited swirl shaped and longitudinal crazing on the starboard side and the upper shroud chain plate and attachments showed evidence of metal fatigue. The boat was later sold as a “project boat” and the new owner was in the process of returning this classic to her original state. No naval architect in his or her right mind would have supported those “improvements”.

    • Then there was that classic Bristol 27 that the owner made more “salty” looking with the addition of a varnished bowsprit. Unfortunately (or fortunately), he forgot to add the bobstay. The boat handled poorly with a tremendous lee helm until the mast came down in a blow. It’s an ill wind that blows no one some good. Carl Alberg would have been pleased.

    Boats are complex integrated structures that depend greatly on their internal stiffening members to maintain hull shape under load. Altering these can often cause more problems than solutions. The sail plan and associated rigging is matched to the hull design. Unless the designer really blew it, any alterations should only be done as a last resort and only with professional advice.

  • Rule #3: If your boat is a classic or a “one-design”, keep it that way. The designer may have known something. Don’t diddle with success.

    • The Pearson Ensign is a classic Alberg designed racing daysailer that is rumored to be built again. I looked at one a few years ago that had been “restored”. The original teak cockpit sole had been replaced with solid fiberglass and, to make matters worse, the flotation was removed from under the cabin berths to make “handy” storage lockers. With the flotation compromised and the added weight of the fiberglass sole, the boat would not meet the “one-design” requirements resulting in a much reduced value. The owner had spent many thousands on the work (including a beautiful Awlgrip job) that will never be even partially recovered.

    • Another Pearson Ensign was customized for cruising by installing a self bailing cockpit and adding a small dog house to the cuddy cabin. The owner didn’t know that the Pearson Electra was the cabin version of the Ensign and was built with these attributes. He could have hunted for one of these. The boat was later restored to original by her new owner.

    • The Ranger 23 was the first US boat to be specifically designed to the Quarter Ton Rule. Gary Mull’s design proved to be a fast and able club racer and a good small coastal cruiser. I saw a “customized” version that had had a 16” to 18” diameter hole bored athwartships through the lead fin keel to lessen ballast for racing. This resulted in a fast but very tender boat that outsailed its PHRF rating in light air but proved to be too tender for cruising. Of course, given some time, the boat was locally re-rated so that it’s custom keel modification became only a conversation point.

    • Also of note is the Pearson 30 with the double berth added under the cockpit sole (just like the new boats) necessitating the removal of the inboard engine. No problem here. The new 25hp outboard hanging off the stern does it all in the name of lugg-jury.

    Customizing, rebuilding, or upgrading (whatever you want to call it) of any “classic” should be done carefully and discreetly in order to maintain the boat’s appearance, character, and sailing performance. You may regret anything done that detracts from the original.

  • Rule 4: Don’t scrimp on materials.

    • I’ve seen lifeline stanchions, pulpits, and stern rails made from galvanized pipe and mast spreaders made from steel electrical conduit.

    • I inspected a boat whose owner had installed brass domestic water valves instead of bronze seacocks to save money. All showed serious corrosion and required replacement before the boat could be insured.

    • Using indoor-outdoor carpeting glued to deck non-skid areas has appeared several times and, when wet, assures a quick passage overboard. Remember that that sticky backed plastic teak always looks like sticky backed plastic teak (say that a few times quickly). There’s no substitute for the real thing.

    Marine grade materials are relatively expensive. Good stuff, manufactured for a low volume and somewhat seasonal market, naturally costs more, but the advantages of not scrimping will be apparent for many years to come. Good stuff lasts.

  • Rule #5: Become familiar with the ABYC & NFPA safety codes.

    These are “safety standards for the design, construction, equipage, maintenance, and repair of small craft” and cover everything from proper wiring, to stove installations, to the placement of fire extinguishers, the securing of battery boxes, etc.

    • Many boat fires are electrical in origin. I’ve seen household circuit breaker boxes and solid copper wiring used on many boats with 110 duplex receptacles used for both 110 volt shore power and 12 volt battery power. Lamp cord is good for household lamps but not for boat wiring anywhere. Your batteries can supply hundreds of amps that present a clear fire safety hazard unless properly wired using the correct materials.

    • A Bristol 30 had a totally new interior. The owner was a master woodworker and had done a beautiful job using mixed hardwoods. I was most impressed with his custom insetting of his Coleman gasoline camp stove. It was beautifully done with cutting board cover and a special compartment to hold a supply of fuel. Unfortunately, he was unaware that, although beautifully done, his installation was not only illegal, but inherently dangerous.

    • The lure of that hot shower has prompted too many people to install those propane “instant” water heaters. Regardless of whether vented or not, they have resulted in several deaths and are not approved for marine use by NFPA, ABYC, or by anyone with half a brain.

    Boats built just a few years ago do not meet all the current applicable standards, and the older “classics” don’t even come close. Making your boat comply with the new codes is a personal safety issue that costs little and saves much.

  • Rule #6: Get the knowledge and skills before you need them.

    • Research the vessel. What was its original purpose, strengths, and weaknesses? Why is it considered a “Classic”? What improvements have others made? What problems did they encounter? What did they choose not to do?

    • Learn the things that you’ll just have to “accept”. That old full keel classic will not keep up with today’s racing machines – don’t expect it to. No, you can’t add a water mattress to the vee berth without affecting sailing performance. Forget about the stove with the oven on your 23 footer and ditto for the chandelier.

    • Learn about fiberglass (FRP) construction and repair. There’s more to it than buying those cans of goop with the little measuring pumps and a few yards of cloth. There are many techniques and materials for a myriad of situations that have to be handled properly. There are at least three types of resins that you may encounter and all are not perfectly compatible with each other. There are many books that you’ll have to read and understand before you tackle the job. The touchy visible stuff may take an artist’s eye and skill, but making a strong structural repair is well within the talents of most people.

    • Learn and practice good workmanship from mechanics to woodworking to painting and varnishing. If you’re not good at something, find somebody who is and give them the job. My wife does all the painting and varnishing on our boat. I’m not even allowed to look at a brush. I do, at times, sneak a peek. I looked at a Pearson 35 that had been converted from a settee berth layout to a dinette layout. It was pretty well done mechanically but exhibited very poor cosmetic workmanship throughout. In short, it was a mess that detracted from an otherwise elegant old classic.

    Knowledge is the primary key to success in all endeavors. If you can’t develop the skills needed, the knowledge by itself will keep you “in touch” with the boat while someone else’s skills are used. This will allow you to better evaluate what is being done, certain problem areas, real costs, and the quality of workmanship. That’s got to be worth something.

    There are many more rules that can be added to this rather light overview but these are to me the most prominent because they result from my own experience. You may also have already developed some of your own. I didn’t mention the small things like adding wheel steering to a Paceship 23, or the previous owner of my Islander Bahama 24 adding 500 lbs of internal lead ballast because it “keeled over” too much. I sold the stuff , made a few bucks, and the boat sailed quite well and didn’t seem to keel over too much at all.

    It should also be understood that there are many boats where the rules don’t apply at all. These were junk when they were new and unfortunately haven’t improved with age. It would be foolish to invest your time and money into something that was never any good in the first place. There’s more to a classic boat than just her age.

    So, off you go to do what you’ve decided will make your boat closer to your ideal. I wish you well and assure you that you are not alone.