How many times have we been on the water, seen a lovely old-timer pass and commented with great appreciation, grateful that there are still people who restore and maintain classic beauties? Vagabond is one of those boats. David Gillespie is one of those folks. Their story begins in 1910, lingers in a shed in New York in the 1950s and now continues quietly cruising on the Saint John’s River south of Jacksonville, Florida.
Vagabond is now powered by a hybrid-electric propulsion system.
Commissioned and built in 1910, Vagabond came out of the water for restoration in 1954. It was to be a father-and-sons project. They got as far as disassembling the woodwork, leaving the boat ready for the replacement of structural members. After that, the boat sat in a shed in Ithaca, New York, until the family decided to sell it in 2001. David Gillespie heard about the boat, became intrigued with what turned out to be a giant jigsaw puzzle, and bought it.
Most of the pieces were there—good wood, bad wood, fittings and even the iron fuel and water tanks mounted over a head in the bow. What needed repair or replacement was readily evident, and the hull was in deceptively good shape. Gillespie knew what he was getting into. He has restored boats and houses, and is currently working on wooden-body Rolls Royces.
The family restoration crew had built a custom cradle for the hull on a trailer and stored it in a protected shed. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that the boat needed more ballast and perhaps stiffening. So a 30-foot railroad rail was bolted to the keel. The rail, custom cradle and apparent careful handling of the hull meant that the deteriorated delicate hull had not distorted. It was ready for restoration, round two.
Gillespie, who has since retired as deputy state historic preservation officer for New York, moved the boat to his backyard, fetched three truck loads of loose pieces, built a cover for it and went to work. The hull and appointments restoration was, as expected, slow but pretty much straightforward. No unpleasant surprises. From 2002 to 2007, with on-and-off-again effort, Gillespie worked his way through identifying pieces and doing significant hull replacement work. All the ribs were there, but most of the forward ones had decayed and were useful only as templates.
The hull required some replacement planking. All the mahogany needed attention, and this is when we mere mortals marvel at the dedication and patience of a restorer. Gillespie’s past experience now served him well, as he was able to search through the inventory of two specialty lumberyards in New York for just the white oak and mahogany he needed. One-hundred-year-old, tight-grained mahogany can’t be matched, but carefully done matched staining works wonders. The finished interior bears witness to his care.
This five-year period gave Gillespie ample time to contemplate and research perhaps his biggest challenge—how to power the boat. The original layout had the motor exposed and totally unprotected in the middle of the galley. There really is no other place for a large motor and, even with that, Gillespie knew there would be weight-distribution issues. An old photograph shows the boat bow up, stern down—off its lines. The restoration kit did come with its last engine, a 1923 gas-fueled Lathrop. Research told Gillespie its weight, horsepower and prop rpm parameters.
The first possibility was a six-cylinder in-line Ford truck motor. Gillespie was familiar with the block and was willing to consider gas propulsion, but Ford no longer produces such an engine. Modern diesel engines were out of the equation, as they are wider than the deck opening. Electric motors became a possibility. Mystic Seaport has an electric motor launch, which sparked an interest in Gillespie, so he read books and went looking. Several possibilities came onto his radar screen, but none seemed to offer an identifiable package of known power and components.
Solutions seemed to appear, but questions were not getting resolved. Just what was the power output? What about the motor controller? One company that had a possible solution-—underwater electric motor pods—went out of business long before Vagabond was ready. There was always Elco, a long-time presence in the marine electric world, but they didn’t have a motor in the size range necessary. Back to woodworking and thinking about what might be.
In 2007 the Gillespies moved to Florida with Vagabond in tow and set up another residential boatyard. Most of the hull work was done. The interior work accelerated. Finally Gillespie faced the last major non-propulsion question: What to do about finishing the hull?
Previous experience in Florida waters told Gillespie that worms would be a major issue. In addition, years of storage had taken at least one toll on the boat’s wood—Gillespie could not get the keel to close up to the boat. An uncomfortably large gap remained. Jacking the keel to push it into place did not work, and he could not count on swelling to accomplish much of anything. So he exorcised his restoration purist guilt and called Mystic to consult with their restoration staff. The answer: We live in a practical world. You want to use the boat. Anything you do can be undone. Go ahead, glass it. And so he did.
Vagabond was almost ready for the water except for a new power plant. On the surface, the issue seemed simple. But then, very little with boats is simple, and even less is easy. Vagabond weighs approximately 1,600lb and it had been powered with a 40hp engine weighing 1,200lb while turning the prop at 600 rpm for cruising speed. When Gillespie revisited the electric motor world, he found that conflicting information (think sales claims) persisted.
Elco continued to be a possibility, but Gillespie needed engineering assistance. So he turned to Jon Hall of Huckins Yacht, who had worked with the Gillespies previously. They went over the requirements and possibilities, and Hall went to work.
Elco soon emerged as the preferred choice. Their engineers assisted in determining the proper motor, the battery bank and its charging requirements. This one-sentence description overly simplifies and masks the effort involved. Technical considerations meant Elco was involved with working out the charger specifications and working with the vendor. The final result is an Elco motor rated as being equivalent to 45–85hp diesel, a battery bank of AGM batteries totaling 2,996Ah and a Kohler 8.5kW genset. This package weighs just about the same as the Lathrop engine.
However, weight distribution could be an issue. The genset would go in the gallery engine area; batteries and motor, farther aft. So Huckins put Vagabond in the water with movable test weights (and beefy yard workers to shift them). They found that the motor and batteries could go under the cockpit/pilot house deck. Three hundred pounds of lead in the bow brought the boat to original trim lines. Back to work for Huckins with a substantial installation job.
The hybrid-electric-powered Vagabond was launched in May of 2013. And what did David Gillespie get for his efforts? A guest is struck by details; the details that were the standards of a previous generation of builders and owners: rich, dark mahogany, brass fittings and controls. Modern fixtures and equipment blend in inconspicuously or contribute to Vagabond’s new ambiance. Gillespie has kept the original brass throttle and gear shift. It is a handsome companion to the brass wheel, and the two visually set the stage for small electronic displays, a Garmin plotter and Elco’s control display.
That engine display and plotter will show a passenger that Vagabond will run a bit over 4 knots at 600 rpm while drawing 21 amps. Boost the rpm to 1600 to get the boat into the 7-knot range. While this motor package will push Vagabond up to hull speed, it does protest above 1600 rpm. Dial back the rpm, and a day cruise of five to six hours without supplemental generator charge is routine.
Of course, if the generator is run, the cruising time is more than one would ever want—as would be the noise. This boat runs totally silently. Gillespie ran the motor up to cruising output while the boat was tied up under a covered shed. I did not know the motor was running until he told me. That’s a lifestyle easy to get used to.
Ultimately, we should evaluate boats in light of their intended purpose. David Gillespie wanted a boat project. No doubt he got that. Along the way, Ruth and David moved to the St John’s River south of Jacksonville—a river well suited for elegant, quiet, day cruising. Now they have a boat well suited for their new home.
Job well done.