If ever there was a case of pulling a loose thread, the refit of this 1986, 47-foot Marine Trader certainly qualifies. I’m certain, however, that her owners would agree, the undertaking and the results, while at times tumultuous and unpredictable, have been well worth the effort. Over the course of 12 years their 1986, 47-foot Marine Trader was transformed from a generally sound, if unimaginative, cruising platform, into a personally customized, updated, luxury yacht that affords its owners, Larry Hall and Flinn Dallis all the comforts of home. It also allowed Larry to fulfill a personal dream and Flinn to complete her father’s dream.
I’m sharing this story with readers because I’ve seen others go the same route, one of steady, methodical improvement of a beloved vessel, putting more and more money into it until it has gone way beyond its resale value, in an attempt to fulfill an ineffable dream at an equally ineffable price. Flinn and Larry are on the extreme end of both scenarios and there are lessons to learn from their experience.
I know this story in all its detail because I worked closely with Larry and Flinn throughout much of their ownership of the vessel—first as the manager of the yard where they kept and maintained her, and then as their technical consultant during what can only be referred to as the metamorphosis of this soon-to-be cherished vessel. During the refit, I exchanged so many emails with Larry that I wore out the “L” key on my computer’s keyboard, literally, as every missive I sent him began by depressing that letter.
IN PURSUIT OF TWO DREAMS
After the refit was complete, and in preparation for writing this account of its progression, I asked Larry and Flinn why they took this route, why were they so intent on cruising, and why on this vessel? Although concise, the response spoke volumes, and it echoed the sentiments I’ve heard from many others like them, with similar dreams and with a passion for one special vessel.
“When I was a child I read those books and articles about exotic cruising destinations,” Larry said, “and I dreamed of making those voyages.” He still reads those stories avidly; however, he went on to say, “When the time came in our lives where Flinn and I could afford a bigger boat and had the time to cruise, our goals had changed. Now, we wanted to live aboard with all the comforts of home, see the Southeast coast of the United States and the Bahamas, and we wanted to do so aboard a vessel with a strong emphasis on comfort, safety, reliability, redundancy, and ease of maintenance, as well as one that reflected our style and taste.”
For Flinn, going cruising in a vessel whose refit she was involved in was inspired by her father, WWII veteran and captain of a sub chaser and destroyer escort. His vessel was one of the first to enter Tokyo Bay at the conclusion of the war, while on a mission to rescue POW camp survivors, the famed ace and Marine Corps aviator Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, among them.
After the war, Flinn’s dad and his buddy worked for years building a vessel they designed and planned to cruise aboard. He died, however, before it could be launched. Flinn intended to finish fulfilling his dream.
No doubt many readers can identify with inspirational cruising seeds having been planted at an early age thanks to a book or article they’ve read and those dreams shifting through the years, as well as wanting to craft their own cruising platform through a new build or major refit.
The details of keeping and refitting this vessel, as opposed to purchasing a new one, are equally as compelling. Having purchased and renovated many old homes, they are inveterate “customizers.” Larry and Flinn believed they would be more successful “building” Sun Drum into something that worked, something unique that would fill their needs and work for them, something they had been unable to find after trolling countless boat shows and brokerage docks. The “ride” would be nearly 15 years long and require equal measures of determination, fortitude, patience and funds, and as is often the case, the road to completion of this project was fraught with stumbles, missteps, and a medical setback. The plan fate had in store for them bore little resemblance to their own, yet, in the end they persevered.
ANATOMY OF REFIT
The complete story of this vessel’s transformation and the many lives that were intertwined with this process are both lengthy and complex; they would easily fill the pages of an entire book, and thus are far too voluminous for the space allotted here. However, I will share with the reader select vignettes that will offer a taste of both the undertaking and the finished product. Through this process I’ve come to know the primary actors, Larry and Flinn in particular, as well as I know my own family and I am undoubtedly richer for the experience.
When they purchased the boat from its original owner, they were both in their 50s. Flinn had just taken early retirement and they had moved from Chicago to a home on the Chesapeake Bay, with a large dock just asking for a cruising boat to take them on short cruises and cocktail sunset runs with their friends. They initially named her Blue Hour, the English translation for L’Heur Bleu, the French perfume she, her mother, and grandmother wore, that signified the cocktail hour in France. The boat was in its original condition and they had no plans to refit her.
Shortly after buying Blue Hour, Flinn was asked to leave retirement and returned to her former advertising firm in Chicago. Larry continued to work from his Virginia home office as a business consultant, and for the next seven years they had a commuter-marriage. The boat would serve as their home base—a unifying point in their lives, and in their relationship, that offered them all-too-necessary time alone.
When Flinn retired for the second time, the plan, like that of so many would-be cruisers, was to divest themselves of most of their worldly material possessions; they would only keep what they could reasonably fit aboard. However, far from being a difficult or painful experience, both Larry and Flinn found this step both cathartic and liberating. In part, it was the culmination of their cruising dream, and it, along with selling their home and not buying another, represented a point of no return. Larry and I discussed this shortly after the deed was done and he said, “When we decided to live on our boat full time, we had the biggest house we’d ever owned and we’d filled it with lots and lots of stuff—stuff we had carted from home to home, state to state. It was a great opportunity for us to divest ourselves of, rather than invest in, [more] stuff. Our children will be very grateful that we did that, rather than leaving it for them to do some day. As our stuff went to family, friends, consignment shops, Goodwill and a few treasured things put in one storage shed, I felt a great weight being lifted off our shoulders.”
When the winter of 2008 rolled around they launched into the refit in earnest. However, just before doing so they opted to make sure this was the right boat. They went to more boat shows, looked at vessels in the 50- to 60-foot range, and concluded that they were on the right course—Blue Hour would be their cruising home. She offered them attributes they were unable to find elsewhere in a single package. These included four distinct deck levels, which they preferred, private spaces, and a forward, secluded “retreat.” Also, the fuel consumption of the twin Lehman 225s, at about 4.5gph at 8 knots, with the genset running, was very attractive and less than many other vessels they considered—it was a size they could handle easily by themselves.
THE FIRST STEP IS A BIG ONE
The house went up for sale in the fall of 2007 (when the global recession was in its infancy, and no one could have dreamt of its earth-shattering repercussions), on the week preceding the local Oyster Festival, and to their total surprise, sold that weekend. With that turn of events, the refit and cruising plan was accelerated to light-speed.
At this stage a variety of piecemeal projects had been completed over the preceding years of ownership by local yards, including a re-laminated bottom, new AC/DC electrical panel, installation of an inverter, redesigned and larger battery bank, and replacement of the existing 8kW genset with a 12 kW Northern Lights unit. Significantly, one of the factors that influenced the decision to keep this vessel was the replacement of all four of the rusting and leaking steel fuel tanks, which occurred in early 2007. That represented a tipping point of sorts—selling her with leaking tanks wasn’t a promising prospect and paying to replace them represented a significant commitment to simply finish the refit, or so they believed.
Few modifications had been carried out to alter the interior, however, Larry and Flinn were anxious to make good their escape, and in any event they would soon have nothing tying them to the dock in Virginia, and no place else to live other than Blue Hour. They completed the work on the way and were feeling a great sense of relief at casting off the responsibility of maintaining a large, older home and property. A change of scenery was in the offing, and thus they cast off their lines and pointed the bow south.
They came to rest in the Morehead City area of North Carolina. The scenery was to their liking, the weather was pleasant, and Larry was able to assemble an independent cadre of skilled professionals to undertake a variety of technical, electrical, carpentry, and fiberglass tasks. While they lived in a condo ashore, Larry acted as the general contractor, running his crew and supervising them on a daily basis. Both he and Flinn were settling into the refit routine, selecting equipment and finishes, options and appliances, and building their dream. This was actually fun. I visited them to inspect the work on several occasions during this first refit period and could see that they were thoroughly enjoying the vagabond lifestyle. Their vision for the boat was coming together nicely, punctuated by one of the larger modifications—enclosure and ultimately climate control of the aft sun deck, made it essentially another cabin. The bulk of the space is windowed, making it bright and an inviting place to sit and watch the world go by.
I could also see at this juncture that the project had taken on a life of its own, and that it was growing beyond what either of them had anticipated. As I had done twice before, I sat them down to discuss what projects lay ahead and the potential costs. We agreed on the next steps, ones that fit their now expanded, budget. As before, they soon exceeded this new projected budget.
I’ve seen this scenario all too frequently in my boatyard and consulting careers. It is the result of a combination of easy-to-fall-into, yet avoidable, traps. To control costs, owners refit and upgrade in small and seemingly manageable stages, however, they do so without a full assessment of their vessel and devoid of a master plan—work is carried out by different folks, none of whom fully grasp the big refit picture. In the absence of that master plan, they are unable to see that one project requires undertaking another project they had not anticipated. For example, a new electrical panel may require all new wiring to achieve its goals, and each boatyard or contractor often insists that the work performed by the owner or a previous boatyard must be replaced because it’s incorrect or doesn’t interface properly with the next set of projects. Flinn and Larry experienced all of these pitfalls and paid the price.
Had they established the master plan, given it to a reputable boatyard to do in stages or all at once, I believe the overall project cost would have been reduced by 50 percent with the ‘pain and anguish’ quotient reduced by 80 percent.
They are very open about their contribution to their escalating costs. They divided up the areas of responsibility. Larry handled technical details while Flinn handled the softer but no less important side of the project—decorating, color schemes, fabrics, etc. They agreed not to impinge on each other’s areas, and each were given a free hand to select what equipment and treatments they desired, and neither would balk at the cost of the other’s projects. Larry admitted to me later, however, that in hindsight this was a mistake from a budgetary point of view, without being able to look over each other’s shoulder it made it far too easy to grow the size and cost of a project exponentially. Both are perfectionists and with Larry’s aviator’s penchant for safety, reliability, and redundancy, the gear list grew and grew, and Flinn spared no cost on fabrics, etc. Still, the result was destined to be a Class A cruising vessel, even if the original budget was a casualty.
At roughly what would become the acknowledged halfway mark in the refit, they were thrown a significant curve ball. Flinn was diagnosed with breast cancer and they immediately moved to New York City for seven months of surgery, chemo, and radiation at Sloan Kettering. In Flinn’s own words, it was a game-changer in all ways, including their plans for the boat.
Shortly before this revelation, Blue Hour had been moved to a formal boatyard, still in North Carolina, to carry out the next phase of the refit, which involved complex electrical, refrigeration and air-conditioning projects, as well as hull and cabin paintwork. Larry chose the yard based on its low hourly rate and experience in boatbuilding.
I neither inspected nor approved this selection, and only at this stage did the yard’s limitations become evident. Readers know that I have long been an advocate of quotes, and believe boatyards must provide customers with detailed project descriptions, quotes, firm bids, or at least solid estimates for most projects, as well as regular updates and costs incurred at each stage. This yard refused to prepare estimates or a formal bid for any of the projects they were assigned, and only when pressed, would they provide status reports. Larry received nothing more than a handwritten invoice each month, with hours worked and receipts for materials. That might have been acceptable had Larry been on-site. Now, however, he was no longer the general contractor of the refit, he was the general contractor of Flinn’s care.
They were now experiencing the nightmare every vessel owner undergoing a refit dreads. Larry and I discussed stopping all work and moving to another yard, however, that meant a forfeiture of seven months of progress, and Larry was eager for the boat to be ready when Flinn was released from treatment. They opted to press on.
Flinn’s take on these events offers an insight into the changes they precipitated and the resulting shift in the project’s focus, “When we dropped everything and moved to New York we weren’t sure what the boat’s future would be. Seven months later we were back in North Carolina committed to fulfilling our dreams. Now, our professional work was on the back burner and we were looking to have adventures and live life in slow motion. We changed the boat name to Sun Drum, meaning to drum up the sun. We were seeking warmth, ease and play, and a relaxed comfortable life. We now had an even stronger emphasis on ensuring we had all the comforts of home.”
The refit was behind schedule and over budget. They lived in a motel for the next six months while supervising the last stages of the refit. The project served as therapy of sorts and its completion became a goal they both could work toward together, while Flinn continued to regain her strength. To the extent she could, she threw herself into the interior design work with gusto. “The color scheme is citrus and white,” she explained. “When it came time to decide on the hull color I was told that the dark colors increase the inside temperatures by 10 to 15 degrees, so I went for a color in a medium depth that would be unique, and complement the original teak interior.”
While the plan was now to change more about Sun Drum than remained original, Flinn wisely remained conscious about the importance of retaining certain elements: “I wanted to hold on to a few of the original details as a nod to the tradition of the boat. We re-veneered the main walls with teak, paying careful attention to match the grain. After that, all the decisions were about creating the comforts of home, a deep cushy sofa, a big screen TV with satellite system, surround sound, and great speakers all over.” Because the galley is the focal point of so many vessels, extra thought was placed on its design. It was converted from “down” to “up,” which had the added benefit of creating an engineering and battery compartment in its former location. There is an abundance of refrigeration space, a separate icemaker, and a wine cooler. Plus, every space, including the flybridge, is air-conditioned.
Flinn goes on to describe more of the changes, saying, “We have a big, deep sink in the galley with multiple levels of water purification. The window treatments are Hunter Douglas silhouette shades, just like home. We turned the third stateroom into a multi-functional room. It has a sink for me; it’s my vanity area, my art studio, the office and the laundry room. It was a fun design puzzle to find a way to put so much function in a room that is 7 feet by 7 feet with a curved exterior wall.”
Essentially, every space in the accommodation areas has been rebuilt or refinished. All of the windows and hatches are new; the bronze opening ports were removed, cleaned and re-bedded; all appliances have been replaced, and a separate washer and dryer have been installed in the studio cabin. Lighting has also been replaced and is primarily LED with a handful of halogens. Interior cabin spaces are carpeted while the enclosed aft deck, newly extended swim platform, and flybridge utilize synthetic teak. Every cabin has its own dedicated audio system and the master stateroom has its own TV. A large lift-mounted flat-screen TV, with full audio system, is also installed in the main saloon.
Master and guest heads are fully tiled with glass shower doors, mirrored overheads, and Avonite countertops. The master head also includes a walk-in shower/tub.
SYSTEMS, SYSTEMS, AND MORE SYSTEMS
One of the mantras I’ve espoused to readers, clients, and the marine industry alike involves the importance of proper design and installation where complex systems are concerned. There’s a notion that I’ve encountered in the industry on many occasions that proffers the value of simplicity, stating that without it, you cannot have reliability. I reject such notions. Simplicity often equates to roughing it and many boat owners, including Larry and Flinn, don’t want to rough it—they want to cruise comfortably, with amenities they are afforded in their homes and automobiles. In my opinion, complex systems can be made reliable, provided they are well thought out, carefully selected, and properly installed—Sun Drum is the living embodiment of such a philosophy.
Because of Larry’s background as an experienced, instrument-rated pilot, we worked diligently at creating systems that were as reliable as possible, with redundancy where practical (systems design and selection is where the bulk of my “L” key wear occurred). Toward that end, while conventional jacketed cable engine controls were converted to electronic, a manual backup system was also installed. Communication gear operates from either the house batteries or from its own dedicated battery located under the flybridge helm station; an iPad runs a navigation app as a backup to the Furuno plotters; an emergency tiller provides steering should a hydraulic failure occur; any of the four fuel tanks can be isolated in the event of contamination or a leak; a set of tandem Racor fuel filters supplies each main engine; a primary polishing system is installed with dedicated large diameter plumbing along with a smaller supplemental in-line “micro-polishing” system; and dual refrigerators are capable of operating from either AC or DC power.
Although I oversaw every aspect of the systems upgrades, Larry specifically placed all decisions regarding the design of the electrical systems in my hands; resulting in a complete refit and/or replacement of virtually every component. A 50-amp, 240-volt shorepower cable, served by an electric cord reel system, supplies primary shorepower, which can be optionally supplemented with a second 50-amp cord, across which loads can be distributed. Shorepower is routed through twin Charles IsoBoost transformers for galvanic isolation as well as power conditioning. Shorepower is protected from faults by an ELCI circuit breaker. The battery bank is made up of a series of Odyssey, AGMs, 600Ah for the house bank with separate start batteries for the engines and generator. They are charged either from the 4,000-watt inverter/charger, from shorepower or the generator, or via twin 100-amp, synchronized high output, externally regulated alternators.
Shore and DC power instrumentation is copious. Gauges for AC and DC voltage and amperage, along with a Mareton DC and amp hour meter allow the crew to monitor any facet of the electrical system’s condition.
An equipment space was created forward of the lower helm on the starboard side, it houses shorepower circuit breakers, shorepower cord reel system, the inverter, an isolation transformer, and a 700 GPD watermaker. The aforementioned battery locker, located under the galley on the portside houses all batteries, disconnect switches, and various primary DC circuit breakers and fuses, as well as a second isolation transformer. This space is also protected by a fixed fire-extinguishing system.
With a mere 1300 hours on them, the Lehman 225hp, turbocharged engines have long lives ahead of them. That, however, hasn’t stopped Larry from taking good care of them. A transmission failure occurred shortly after Larry and Flinn acquired Blue Hour. Not wanting to take any chances, Larry replaced it and the other one as well. Turbo chargers, injectors, heat exchangers, and after coolers have been cleaned and serviced regularly, and Larry uses Wheelhouse Technologies’ vessel maintenance program to ensure engines and other gear are serviced in accordance with manufacturers’ guidelines. The engine room is also protected by an integrated, fixed fire-extinguishing system. During the refit, much of the gear was removed from the engine room in order to rearrange it and take maximum advantage of the available space. At that time, white-faced acoustic insulation was installed on vertical and overhead surfaces along with copious LED lighting.
When the fuel tanks were replaced, and the installation’s shortcomings corrected (the steel tanks rusted primarily because they were incorrectly installed), provisions were made in the new tanks’ design to incorporate a high-volume polishing system. During the North Carolina segment of the refit, that system was installed—a 150gph AlgaeX model FPS SX—and it resides under the companionway stairs that lead from the saloon to the forward cabins.
New deck gear includes an Ideal windlass and all-chain rode, a hydraulic crane, a 12-foot inflatable tender with 30hp outboard, which resides on the swim platform. The flybridge is fully enclosed with clear, removable panels, and it sports a superb, ultra-comfortable helm chair.
Sanitation and potable water systems and plumbing were replaced in their entirety. Absolute reliability, ease of use, and home-like function were prerequisites. The head system is made by Tecma, and both heads utilize a Raritan Electro Scan black water processing system which are, in Larry’s words, “great and probably our most critical ‘comfort’ item.” The potable water system utilizes the proprietary polyethylene SeaTech plumbing system along with a Headhunter 120-volt pressure pump.
As mentioned previously, Flinn chose the color scheme for the hull and cabin. It’s a head turner to be sure, whenever I carried out dockside inspections, after she was painted, folks would stop and ask, “Is this a new boat?” The colors simply work very well.
It’s likely that the reader will be asking him or herself at this point, ‘how much did it cost?’ In short, for a variety of reasons, including the multi-phase refit plan, the ‘spare no expense’ approach with systems and comfort, a few missteps with boatyards and contractors, and the logistical and distraction challenges imparted by Flinn’s illness all took their toll. The bill was significantly more than Larry or Flinn ever could have anticipated and the notion that it would be “fun,” like restoring an old home fell by the wayside.
As they made the final decisions that took the boat over the top in the ‘all the comforts of home’ department, Larry admits he stopped monitoring the budget at around $800,000. “By then there was no turning back, and to ensure there were no regrets later, we were no longer placing a price on fulfilling the dream. That price will, however, be paid when we sell her.” The upshot is they have a superb cruising vessel, one that suits their needs perfectly, and one they have enjoyed immensely as they’ve cruised the East Coast for the past three years.
What does the future hold? It’s likely that by the time you read this, Sun Drum will be up for sale. [Editor’s note: Sun Drum is expected to appear at Trawler Fest Ft. Lauderdale Jan. 29–Feb. 2, 2013.] When I asked Larry why they would sell Sun Drum, he said, “It’s pretty simple. I had my first boat when I was 14 and have had a boat all my life since then. I’ll probably never be without a boat. I’ve achieved this goal of owning a cruising boat, one that I helped refit and rebuild, and then living aboard and cruising. Now, it’s time for a smaller boat, day cruising and chartering in interesting locations.”
The plan all along—one of the few that didn’t change through this saga—was to cruise for three or four years and then do something else. For now, they’re watching sunsets on the boat and enjoying the completion of a dream. Sun Drum was built to live aboard, cruise, and be enjoyed every day. They both know it’s about time to turn the boat over to others who are ready to fulfill their boating dreams with all the comforts of home.