Here's a story with a happy ending for an older boat and her owners. It's also about a boating entrepreneur who found a market niche that fits him perfectly.
For more than 40 years, Tollycraft Marine built boats in Kelso, Washington, a small community better known for forest products than fiberglass pleasure craft. About 6,500 craft, from a fleet of 16-foot runabouts to luxurious 65-footers that still command a price of $1 million or more on the used-boat market, rolled from the plant built by Robert Merland Tollefson.
Of that huge fleet, an estimated 3,500 qualified as cruising boats, those good for long weekends or months exploring coastal waterways and secluded harbors.
Tollefson was the man behind the Tolly—and that name was fondly attached to the man as well as the boat. He was a Kelso mill owner who built boats for his own use and who switched to boatbuilding when his lumber business burned in 1957. He chose quality designers—first Ed Monk, an icon in the Northwest, and then his son, Ed, Jr., who is best known as the principal designer for Ocean Alexander.
Tollefson sold the company in 1987 and retired to Port Ludlow, a resort community on Puget Sound. The buyers took the company into bankruptcy and stopped building boats in 1997.
The Tollys were strongly built, but with time the stress of age and use is beginning to show. Colors are fading, interior finishes are out of date, engines and running gear have logged thousands of hours and it's difficult to find space for modern marine navigation equipment.
While some may consider aging a negative, others see opportunity.
One with vision is Jeff Harman, president of OceanAire Yachts, in Bellingham, Washington. He acquired molds for three Tolly models, the 36, 42, and 52. He has built a couple of new boats, but the emphasis of his waterfront business is custom work to make existing Tollys look and work like new. Over nine years of operation, he has extended hulls, built custom hard tops for flybridge models and cockpits, updated interiors, and repowered gas-powered boats with new diesel engines.
About a year ago, Harman invited me to Bellingham to chronicle the process of stretching a 34 sport sedan to 36 feet, installing new diesel engines, replacing the electrical system, and making major changes to interior furnishings. On that first visit the old MerCruiser gas engines still were in place, but the lower helm had been removed and work had begun on rewiring the boat and remodeling the master stateroom.
I went back about 10 months later— (this is a slow process) —and found the boat within a few weeks of sea trials. The new refrigerator had been removed because it had failed and the upholsterers had not delivered cushions for the saloon settee and some finishing work was still ahead in the two staterooms. A few engine room circuits were in the process of completion.
But she was beginning to look new again.
Interior wood trim had been refinished and glowed under fresh varnish. Looking up, I could see new vinyl overhead liner and an array of LED lights. A contemporary entertainment center dominates the space once occupied by the lower helm.
With the lower helm removed all boat operations move to the bridge. An electronics package was installed, along with a pair of helm seats. A small electric heater was replaced by ducting and outlets carrying hot air from a Hurricane furnace. A canvas and vinyl enclosure will keep the crew dry. (The Hurricane also heats domestic water, preheats the engines, and warms the rest of the boat.)
Ron Fortier is the owner of the boat, named Double Play, and he agrees that the project grew beyond his original plans. A resident of Shelter Bay, a waterfront community across the Swinomish Channel from the small town of LaConner, Washington, Fortier and his wife bought the 1990 Tolly sedan in 2001.
Their first boat was a 1980 Bayliner. When they decided to find another boat, they acted wisely. “We leased boats to get a feel for what we wanted,” Fortier explained. “We shopped quite a bit and when we saw the Tolly we fell in love with it. It is ideal for two people and occasional visitors.”
After years of use, they saw a need to make improvements to the Tolly.
Before choosing that route, however, they looked for another boat, but couldn't find anything that pleased them. “No new boat came close,” he said. “We decided this was our boat and we decided to make it the way we wanted.”
There was only one way to achieve that goal: “Basically, we gutted the boat and started over,” Fortier said.
At the top of the work list was replacement of the engines. The 454cid gasoline engines would drive the boat to a top speed of 30 knots, but the owners cruised at 15 to 18, burning a gallon of fuel every half mile.
Fortier says that just replacing still-strong gas engines with new diesels is not cost effective, but that it made sense as part of a package of improvements. The only other option would have been to have OceanAire build a new Tolly, “and I couldn't do that.”
Fortier and Harman expect the Cummins QSD 4.2 engines will provide the same performance while burning significantly less fuel. The addition of 2 feet to the hull also will make the boat a little more efficient. “If I get 2 miles per gallon, I'll be happy,” Fortier said.
With the engines out, Harman and his two staff technicians ripped out the wiring and started over. A new AC panel was installed in the saloon in the area vacated when the helm station was removed. The boat does not have a traditional panel of 12VDC breakers. Instead, as part of the new electrical system, Harman installed a fuse panel in the engine room. If a circuit malfunctions, the fuse pops and a red light indicates the troubled circuit.
Also adjoining the old helm area is the control panel for an electric fuel management system designed and built by Harman. A simple switch in the saloon allows the skipper to activate solenoid valves on a manifold in the engine room that allow fuel to be drawn from one or both fuel tanks. Overflow devices on the tanks prevent spills when transferring fuel.
Fortier said the original wiring was particularly bad. Other owners had added circuits, but the work was not well done. He said Harman found one circuit that had three fuses. A wiring enclosure on the back of the flybridge “was a rat's nest waiting for something to happen.”
The new electrical system includes a fresh 5-1/2kW Onan generator. The boat originally had a small hatch opening to a large lazarette; Harman enlarged it enough to allow moving the generator into the lazarette.
A Xantrex PathMaker system automatically combines the batteries for simultaneous charging and then isolates them for discharge. The house battery system includes six golf-cart batteries. A 2,000-watt ProSine inverter supplies AC power.
Battery disconnect switches are in the engine room. PassageMaker Magazine believes they should be outside machinery spaces so they can be reached quickly and safely in the event of an electrical fire.
The original Tolly carried 180 gallons of gasoline in two tanks. The “new” boat has a pair of 150-gallon aluminum tanks. To meet air demands of the Cummins engines, Harman increased ventilation to the engine room.
Engine exhaust outlets were moved to the side of the boat and larger mufflers installed. New shafts, rudders, and propellers were part of the improvement package, too.
The list goes on and on . . . new fixtures and fittings in the head, contemporary fabrics and colors in the master stateroom, and a redo of the small guest stateroom.
Now, what did all this cost?
Spending wasn't finished on my second visit; there still was work to be done. But Fortier and Harman agreed the cost will be close to $250,000. Before work began, the Tolly had a market value of about $110,000.
The Fortiers looked at new, larger, and more costly cruisers before calling Harman, whom they met at a Tolly rendezvous. Nothing worked for them as well as the Tolly. That makes the refit a good deal for them.
Harman once was a boater. He sold a 28 Fiberform when he started OceanAire “from scratch.” He had been a general contractor who liked design and electrical work. His firm has “done” nine Tolly refits, built a 36, and stretched a 48 to 52 feet.
His staff is small and he is a hands-on owner. He's thoughtful and cautious and has no debt. That makes him successful.
There's another small Tolly on the floor of his shop, part way through a refit. It is a 26 (the most popular Tolly built, with more than 900 launched) that's been stretched to 29. When it's finished, it will be Harman's personal boat.
Also stored in the OceanAire shop is the completed hull and deckhouse of a 52. Harman has an interesting dream—he wants to finish it as an all-electric boat. Research convinces him that batteries and electric motors are available to drive the boat at speeds in the teens, as would a pair of diesel engines.
A charged battery bank would power the boat at cruise speed for about four hours—, which is how many boaters cruise now—and then a small generator would be used to recharge batteries and to power house systems while the boat is at anchor. This will be a challenge far greater than refurbishing an older Tolly.
If the dream comes to life it also may be another market niche for Harman and reason for several more visits to OceanAire.