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Replace, Refurbish, Or Retire?

With boating involvement stretching back to the early 1950s, I've reached a point when I often ponder how much longer I'll be able to enjoy this wonderful activity. At an age where purchasing green bananas represents a long-term plan, I also wonder how much more of our resources should be put into a boat. As a part-time professional skipper and trainer, I know lots of other boaters around my age of 69 who wonder the same thing.

I also recognize the reality that every boat is a compromise. Trade-offs between speed and economy; between hull design, interior space and a "good ride" in heavy seas; and between creature comforts and available capital always are being made by anyone selecting or keeping a boat.

That's the background for a series of decisions my wife, Judy, and I have made (some involuntarily) over the past few years as we've considered how much to spend on our 1981 43-foot Tollycraft tri-cabin cruiser, Skylark II. These boats, built by the now defunct but highly regarded Kelso, Washington, builder, were designed by Ed Monk Jr. They were Tolly's answer to the late '70s energy crunch and to competition, particularly from Grand Banks and the long list of Taiwan-built boats being produced in that decade.


Tolly's 43 design was characterized by conservative, traditional styling similar to the GB 42 but with direct access to the flybridge on stairs from the saloon to the sundeck. Remarkable fuel economy was coupled with a cruising-speed range that began at about 8 knots and extended up to about 16 knots with two standard Caterpillar 3208 naturally aspirated 210hp diesel engines.

Most cruised at about 10 knots at 1700 rpm using a scant 5.2 gallons an hour (total fuel consumption) but could easily run at 13.5 knots with a fuel consumption jump to about 17 gph at 2400 rpm. The resulting efficiency trade-off at higher speeds was acceptable to owners because they usually ran at lower speeds but wanted the capability to go faster.

That performance profile, the result of a hull configuration that was more displacement than "semi," was an important factor in the purchase of our vessel, which is hull No. 7. About 50 were built in the 1980/1985 model years, with about a dozen fitted with twin 454 gas engines and two with single diesels. A few got turbocharged 3208s (275 or 300hp) giving a top speed of 19 or 20 knots, and a few late boats had 8.2-liter Detroit Diesels.

We bought Skylark II in fall 1989 for about $177,000, a relatively low price for the Pacific Northwest at the time and one that reflected its fairly neglected condition. Though she was sound, machinery spaces were dirty and electronics were old; a lot had changed between 1980 and 1989. Some basic design flaws (such as a genset location in the lazarette that precluded proper service except by folks with the stature of a 5-year-old, resulting in a filthy, oil-soggy bilge) had driven the price down. The seller, a speculator who had brought the boat to the Northwest from the East Coast, was glad to be rid of it.

For the next eight months, I worked virtually full time: replacing the old, noisy Onan two-banger generator with a new three-cylinder Onan in a sound shield in the engine room, moving the house battery bank to the lazarette and increasing it from two 8-Ds to three, building some new teak cabinetry and a settee, and replacing a lot of minor items with newer, mostly better products. By the spring of 1990, we had a pretty nice boat.


What we did during the following 13 years is what this article is about: We were either totally wasteful and extravagant or sensible investors in our main recreational asset-you decide.

Through 1996, we performed some upgrades, but nothing truly major. We averaged about $7,500 annually in improvements or refurbishing during the period, highlighted by increased water tankage from 140 to 235 gallons, and a long list of electrical system and electronics additions and improvements, mostly owner-installed. Of course, $7,500 a year for six years still is $45,000... on an older boat.

In January 1997, we hauled the boat to a shed and spent about $35,000 more, barrier-coating the bottom; redoing the old "fake teak gelcoat" Tolly side decks with molded nonskid decks; replacing plywood/fiberglass sliding doors with aluminum ones; replacing the "Erector-set" rails with larger, welded rails; and redoing the interior, including replacing all oil finish with satin, semi-gloss and gloss varnish. That last was a task lovingly done by Judy.

A new headliner, Ultrasuede upholstery and a carpet went in and the aft, trapezoidal double berth was enlarged to a queen. Professionals were used for the fiberglass and stainless work, the headliner and some of the woodworking, but we did most of the improvements. We were up to $80,000 for major improvements, "real money" in anyone's estimation.

It was easy for us (mostly me) to rationalize the expenditures: We were getting enormous pleasure out of the boat, making two 10-week cruises up the Inside Passage to Alaska from our Bellingham, Washington, home port, and annually always taking at least several weekends, usually weeks, to Canada's Gulf Islands, Desolation Sound and the waters of our own Puget Sound region-and that's not counting day trips.

Although owning a larger boat (especially one with a pilothouse) would have been fun, to find a boat in equal shape would certainly have cost us $200,000 or more, in addition to the existing boat.

We didn't want to have so much retirement capital tied up, so we were comfortable with our status.

Part of our investment comfort between 1992 and 2000 resulted from putting the boat in several bareboat charter fleets. In spite of the limited high season in the Northwest, from June to September, through 2000 we netted (after paying the charter company) about $20,000 to $25,000 annual cash flow from this enterprise. As a result, the boat was covering its costs, including moorage, insurance, routine maintenance and improvements; we had only our capital tied up. We felt pretty good about our investment in what now had become quite a nice boat.


Then came June 2000.

Judy and I contribute day trips or overnights on the boat to local charities. On one of these I was enjoying a great cruise with guests on the flybridge when my stalwart mate, who is not a panicky person, rushed up the companionway from her dinner preparation chores and said, "Come below and listen to the engines, NOW!"

I did, and, hearing an incredible hammering on the starboard side, I shut that engine down immediately. After finishing our cruising commitment with one engine, we soon learned from our mechanics that a valve spring had broken. The engine had "gobbled" the valve, which had punched a hole in the piston, badly scoring a cylinder beyond resurfacing. Ouch!

During the next week, with pressure of a charter commitment in August (which we wanted to satisfy to help pay for all this), we explored alternatives. We decided to replace the older 3208s with new John Deere 6.8-liter, six-cylinder 6068TFM diesels (which, incidentally, have replaceable-liner cylinders). While the old engines were out we scrubbed the engine room, cleaned up a lot of plumbing and wiring, and white-gelcoated everything we could reach for considerable improvement over the old peeling gray paint on raw fiberglass mat.

Our new engines are much quieter, thanks, in part, to Aqua-lift mufflers that we had to install to get the exhausts high enough for safety. (Technical editor's note: This additional height is required by the enginemanufacturer to prevent water backflooding into the engine's exhaust. This requisite "drop" is often overlookedin both new and repower installations, but violating this installation rule invites severe engine damage, if not disaster.) The new engines also have a foot more clearance between them (6 inches more on the outside of each) and weigh about 900 pounds less. Our speed has increased more than half a knot at low revolutions per minute and more than a knot at wide-open throttle with the same props, shafts and transmission ratios. Fuel consumption is down about 10 percent. The bill was about $58,000, including a lot of associated cleanup and new gauges, although we quickly sold the old 5,500- hour engines (one for parts) for $5,000.

The meter now showed $166,000, including minor improvements.


Skylark II was gorgeous again. After the last charters in 2000, one of which resulted in some minor running-gear damage, we decided we were old enough and relaxed enough to take the boat out of charter. She was old, at least as far as customers who had not seen her were concerned, and bareboat charter revenues had been dropping. We wanted to cruise any time we felt like it, which we could do because my only continued commercial activities on the boat are occasional training sessions I conduct (I had a USCG master's license).

But then we had a number of reminders that Skylark II was, indeed, more displacement than "semi," as we said above. Maybe it was the coincidence of weather-there was one time in 2001 when, although we weren't in danger of sinking, we sure as heck had a rotten ride in high winds. Or maybe it's just because we're not quite as stalwart as we used to be, and the hull's propensity to roll in quartering or beam seas was just plain tiring and uncomfortable.

Of course, we could stay in port and wait for improvement on threatening days, but giving the vagaries of forecasts, our tidal waters and our commitments, this wasn't always possible. And so we began the evaluation process again.


Should we keep the boat if we sometimes were uncomfortable on it and cruising wasn't always fun? Should we get a more stable boat, probably larger? Should we quit owning a boat? (After all, I could charter anything I wanted anywhere, given my experience and record). Or should we see if we could make Skylark II more stable?

I was surprised that it was Judy who wanted to keep Skylark II and keep boating. She kept me from making the "sell" decision that, in part, I thought would please her. (It's possible she was influenced because owning a boat keeps me out of her way a considerable amount of time each year as I clean and maintain the vessel.) Our desire to conserve our capital (have you noticed the stock markets lately?) deleted the "bigger boat" idea. It's easier to put some money into a boat every year than to put that accumulated amount into a boat all at once.


So we began looking into active-fin stabilizers. Putting stabilizers into an existing boat requires some real thought. There has to be room for the fin actuators in the right place in the outboard bilges between the waterline and the keel, they require hydraulic pressure from a pump, they have other space-grabbing components such as tanks and valve manifolds, and they are costly.

After having numerous discussions with stabilizer owners, visiting manufacturer websites, then talking with yards that had installation experience, we decided to install them. We believe they will extend and enhance our cruising pleasure for at least five years and that the increased satisfaction was worth the expense, even though we probably would be able to recoup, at most, half of our investment when selling the boat later.

Perhaps the most decisive comments came from two boating wives on boats with stabilizer systems: "They've made cruising a pleasure again. We'd never be without them," they agreed.

After visiting yards and studying literature, we chose Wesmar stabilizers and Seaview North Boatyard in Bellingham for the installation. The yard is one of a three-division company based in Seattle, which also includes Seaview East and Seaview West, and Wesmar trained its workers at company seminars, a fact we really liked. It should be noted that, at least from our view, selection of vendors should not be made until you've obtained several references and believable quotes because this installation requires substantial care in hull modifications and first-class fiberglass and wood-shaping work.

We had detailed technical discussions with Wesmar, because our boat fell into an overlapping area in specs for the size needed. The potential effectiveness of stabilizers is a function of the size of the two fins and the boat's weight and speed. Obviously, the faster the boat, the more force a given fin can exert. But the larger the fin, the larger the hydraulic system needed to drive it. Wesmar's calculations indicated that for full effectiveness we'd either need the next size up in fin size-a considerable increase in cost-or we'd need to be cruising at 10 knots. We opted to install the smaller fins, saving money, and, if necessary, sacrificing some fuel efficiency and range.

To keep costs down, part of our understanding with Seaview was that I would do as much work as possible with the boat's existing systems. I spent about 15 hours temporarily removing the Vacu-Flush head pumps, holding tank and sewage treatment system that were to port in the engine room. I also disconnected the genset, removed its sound shield and freed it from its mounts on the starboard side to get access to the planned hull-fin locations. That task was simplified by the fact that over the years I had installed all of this gear. This preparation gave the Seaview staff mostly unfettered access to the hull sides after they slid the generator out of the way. As soon as the boat was hauled they went right to work getting the new stuff in.

There is one area where I always have cut corners, I now realize, and that is in protecting the boat during work. I was reminded of this when one of the yard's men spent the better part of a day taping thin plastic sheeting wherever necessary to keep fiberglass dust from intruding where it shouldn't be.

As soon as that was done, a representative from Wesmar and the yard's personnel carefully marked spots where the new actuators would be installed inside the hull. Those areas then were prepared to receive heavy, carefully shaped, laminated mahogany blocks to reinforce the hull so it could handle the fins' high-torque forces. The blocks were glassed onto the hull and the outboard engine stringers adjoining the area, supplementing the already thick, solid glass Tolly structure.

The reinforced areas inside the hull were gelcoated. Workers painted everything white to make it a pristine area and barrier-coated the fins to protect them under the bottom paint they would receive. The fins and actuators were installed before the hydraulic lines were run and connected.

One reason we selected the Wesmar system was the remarkable electronic gyro that controls the fins when the stabilizer is engaged. This compact box, about 3 inches by 4 inches by 1 inch, provides all the sensing the system needs to keep the vessel smooth. With the main control box located in the electronics panel over the helm, it was an easy matter to connect to the gyro mounted in the flybridge console, where there also is a system remote control. The farther the gyro is from the boat's center of buoyancy (down in the engine room), the more roll it can detect. Sensitivity then is limited by the system's controls.

Fortunately, it uses only modest DC power, about 8 amps, so a dedicated breaker is all that is required. Most energy for operation is from the hydraulic pump, which can use as much as 5hp from our port main engine in heavy seas.

The dramatic improvement evident in the first sea trial was confirmed during the next 100 hours or so of roll-free cruising. Wesmar's concerns about fin size seemed to have erred on the conservative side, for we find the fins effective through the whole range from 8 knots up.

Up to this point, the installation and sea trials had gone by the book. But getting a completely satisfactory hydraulic pump drive system off the engine was another matter. On the John Deere 6068TFM engines, the only gear-driven accessory drive is used by the seawater pump. At first we arranged installation of the standard Wesmarprovided Vickers V-10 hydraulic pump on the front of the engine, driven directly off the main crankshaft pulley using a standard flexible coupling. But we were unable to get the pump mounted rigidly enough on the front of the engine to avoid excessive flex in the flexible coupling. It showed signs of slow disintegration, as rubber dust appeared beneath it. The only option seemed to be a John Deere drive accessory far larger than needed that also was quite expensive.

Kevin Pfluger, a hydraulic specialist with Bellingham's Redden Marine Supply Inc., came to our rescue. After an extraordinary amount of research communicating with manufacturers nationwide (most of whom said, "There is no such thing"), he found a through-shaft hydraulic pump that would fit the same SAE"A" mounting on the engine as the standard water pump.

He had a small spacer machined to allow the water pump to be mounted on the back of the new hydraulic unit. The result is a gear-driven pump that runs without a problem and a water pump that still is the John Deere standard. In fact, the installation is as though designed for the engine. Details such as dipstick access are unimpeded.

For Judy and me, installation of this accessory has given us the opportunity to look forward to many more trips through our great cruising area without concern about comfort or the fatigue that goes with a rolling boat in heavy weather. By eliminating the "last big compromise" our boat imposed, stabilizers have assured us of a return in our boating investment in the form of pleasure.

The work cost about $25,000, including sales tax. Our running expenditure total for major improvements in 14 years was $204,000, or about $11,000 a year. (At the January 2003 Seattle Boat Show, a number of vendors advertised Wesmar stabilizer installations for as little as $20,000 plus tax, although clearly these must have been straightforward installations. Using larger fins would have increased the cost by some $3,000 to $5,000.)

It's an investment that has paid off in satisfaction and extension of our cruising years.

Would we start over with a boat the same way and do as much to improve it again? I'm not sure.

Certainly not, if I were to do it now. I don't have the stamina, nor, for that matter, the life expectancy. But, if I were 54-or younger-again? Probably I would, as long as I was starting with a sound, well-proven vessel, as we were lucky enough to have done.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2004 © Dominion Enterprises (888.487.2953)