One man’s quest to re­store a 70-year-old fireboat.


ONEThurs­day morn­ing, Michel awoke and re­al­ized that in three days, five welders would arrive to lit­er­ally pull the roof off of his new home, and he had nowhere else to live. As he sipped his cof­fee that morn­ing amid a maze of tools and scrap metal on his new-to-him 60-foot har­bor pa­trol boat built in 1956, the aban­doned and stripped-down Coron­ado 32 across the dock sud­denly came into fo­cus. Bingo. Two hours later, Michel pulled his sec­ond di­lap­i­dated float­ing home along­side his first and grabbed the pow­er­washer.

He spent hours scrub­bing the moldy lit­tle sail­boat-in­side and out-to make it hab­it­able. The Coron­ado needed lights, so he cut them out of the big boat and in­stalled them next door. Bilge pump? Just hook it up. Fresh­wa­ter pump? Toss it over. With a functional home freshly cleaned and up­dated in a day, Michel tossed his be­long­ings from the deck of the har­bor pa­trol boat into the Coron­ado’s cock­pit and moved him­self in. When the welders showed up on Mon­day morn­ing, they found an empty power­boat ready to be gut­ted.


Eight years be­fore that fate­ful morn­ing, Michel owned a home (on land) and com­muted to work much like the rest of us. But he was ready for some­thing dif­fer­ent. He was weary of be­ing rooted to the ground.

There were two things that drew him to a life on the wa­ter. First, life is sim­pler aboard a boat. Ev­ery­thing a live­aboard con­sumes must be hauled down a dock, onto the deck, and into the boat. This lit­tle bit of ex­tra ef­fort en­cour­aged Michel to be a more con­scious con­sumer. And sec­ond, while a house is built with the in­ten­tion of buffer­ing its in­hab­i­tants from the out­side world, with in­su­lated walls and dou­ble-paned win­dows, elec­tric fire­places and air con­di­tion­ing, a boat is built to co­op­er­ate with the elements, bring­ing its in­hab­i­tants more in tune with the world around them. When the wind blows, the boat moves. When the tide is low, the ramp on the dock is steeper. When it rains, it prob­a­bly leaks in­side some­where.

And so, ready to cut ties with land, Michel de­cided to buy a live­aboard/cruiser. Be­fore this, he had never be­fore owned any­thing big­ger than a 16-foot ski boat, but Michel could sense that liv­ing aboard was the right life­style choice for him. His first live­aboard was an An­gel 60 that had burned in a fire, so he got the boat for a song. He dove head-first into a to­tal restora­tion, which ex­em­pli­fies how Michel ap­proaches chal­lenges in life. From land­lub­bing one day to liv­ing aboard the next, from no ex­pe­ri­ence with re­fits to em­bark­ing on a to­tal restora­tion—Michel’s zeal ac­cel­er­ates from zero-to-60 in no time flat.

Af­ter sev­eral years of an im­pres­sively steep learn­ing curve, the An­gel 60 restora­tion had been com­pleted, but Michel was ready for his next chal­lenge. Along the way, he de­ter­mined the An­gel didn’t quite suit his per­son­al­ity. She was a bit too “yachty” for his tastes; she re­quired too much main­te­nance and was tem­per­a­men­tal at sea. This made the boat dif­fi­cult to sin­gle-hand, nerve-wrack­ing to dock, and ex­pen­sive to keep up. Soon af­ter the re­fit was com­plete, Michel sold her and turned to his next chal­lenge.


Michel is an ad­ven­tur­ous, gen­er­ous, and fun-lov­ing soul. Among other things, he has lived in­ter­na­tion­ally, worked in cor­po­rate Amer­ica, biked across Italy, and started his own cater­ing busi­ness. He lives on an is­land and drives a well-loved Volk­swa­gen diesel hatch­back from the early 2000s. It was no sur­prise to the peo­ple who know him when Michel bought an aban­doned 1956 har­bor

pa­trol boat with the in­ten­tion of com­pletely gut­ting and restor­ing it while liv­ing on­board. If you ask him about find­ing this trea­sure, it is ap­par­ent how well matched he and that boat re­ally are. He gets a dreamy look in his eyes. “It was love at first sight,” Michel says. The lines were sleek and clas­sic; the hull stout and re­silient. He could en­vi­sion a beau­ti­ful cabin lay­out, homey and invit­ing, but with no teak or stain­less steel to main­tain. With a low pro­file and two rum­bling en­gines, it would be easy to sin­gle-hand. Best of all, the price was just right.

To add to the allure, the boat came with a col­or­ful and im­pres­sive his­tory. “Har­bor Pa­trol Boat #1” was built in 1956 to fight fires in Port­land, Ore­gon. Af­ter 50 years of ac­tive duty in Port­land, she mo­tored up the Snake River to serve as a fireboat in Idaho for five years. Af­ter that, she found her way to Seat­tle only to sit, aban­doned and di­lap­i­dated, un­til Michel wan­dered by in 2016, in­stantly de­voted de­spite the thick coats of mold and rust.


He got straight to work. Much of the de­mo­li­tion he did by him­self, a gru­el­ing task that he would not wish on any­one. With­out pro­fes­sional equip­ment or knowl­edge, he cut each in­te­rior bulk­head out with an an­gle grinder, re­sult­ing in three sep­a­rate hospi­tal vis­its. The wiring was sheathed in stain­less steel, which re­quired more use of the an­gle grinder. On a break one af­ter­noon from the never end­ing back-break­ing la­bor, Michel sipped a Diet Coke and did some back-of-the-nap­kin math. He had been at it for five months. At this rate, it was go­ing to take him more years than he had to fin­ish this job alone. So he found a team of pro­fes­sional welders to com­plete the ma­jor struc­tural work.

This was no small weld­ing job. Michel ini­tially hired the welders for two months, but ended up ex­tend­ing their ser­vices for an­other three months. In this time, they tack­led such projects as low­er­ing the saloon floor, rais­ing the gal­ley ceil­ing, adding cov­ered walk­ways, cut­ting out and patch­ing all six ex­te­rior doors, and re­lo­cat­ing and ex­pand­ing ev­ery win­dow on the boat. At the end of it, the hull and pilothouse were the only un­mod­i­fied steel struc­tures on the boat.

While the welders toiled away in the cabin, a team of me­chan­ics as­saulted the en­gines. The boat was pow­ered with twin 330-horse­power two-stroke GMC 871s. When he bought the boat, Michel dreamed of re­pow­er­ing with shiny, fancy, new­fan­gled mo­tors. He wor­ried the 871s would be too loud, too thirsty for oil, and too leaky. But the me­chanic con­vinced him to at least do the main­te­nance re­quired to turn them over and test them out. When

he heard them crank over for the first time, Michel was smit­ten. And be­sides, he just couldn’t make the math work to jus­tify new mo­tors. The 871s burn 10 gal­lons per hour while shiny new ones would prob­a­bly burn about seven. At ap­prox­i­mately $100,000 for the re­place­ment job, how many hours would it take to make that in­vest­ment back? He didn’t have to run the num­bers to know it wasn’t a good in­vest­ment. (The an­swer is 8,333 hours, or 347 days of run­ning 24 hours a day.)

The gut­tural rum­ble of the 871s suited the boat. They are sim­ple and re­li­able en­gines, with­out com­plex com­puter sys­tems that could glitch. Parts are easy to find and re­pairs are straight­for­ward. While it was now clear the old GMCs got to stay, they still needed an enor­mous amount of at­ten­tion. Ini­tially, the en­gine mounts were welded di­rectly to the boat’s frame, which caused the whole boat to shake and shimmy like a ‘70s dance party. That would not do. So Michel and his team cut the en­gines from the frame, hoisted them 6 inches, built new hard mounts on top of soft ones, re­cal­i­brated the shaft an­gle, re­placed all hoses and gas­kets, bought new pro­pel­lers, in­stalled all new send­ing units, and scrubbed ev­ery cre­vice with a tooth­brush. Once back to­gether again, those 871s have rum­bled along with­out a sin­gle com­plaint.

Back up in the cabin, the welders had fi­nally packed up and gone home. If this was a house in­stead of a boat, the equiv­a­lent would be like hav­ing all the fram­ing in place, and very lit­tle else. The in­te­rior spa­ces were de­fined, but only by raw metal and an­gled iron studs with gi­ant holes for the win­dows and doors. The hard work was done, Michel thought op­ti­misti­cally. It’s time for the wood­work, which would cer­tainly be quicker and eas­ier than met­al­work.


That was wish­ful think­ing, of course. The num­ber of lay­ers re­quired to get a smooth and enduring fin­ish was baf­fling. First, spray primer over the metal. Then lay down a va­por bar­rier. Then prime the va­por bar­rier. The big­gest fear in own­ing a metal boat is that it will stealth­ily cor­rode from the in­side out, of­ten due to its own con­den­sa­tion. These first three lay­ers are to keep the in­side of the boat dry. Then the wood­work­ers had to through-bolt 2x2s to the an­gle iron studs and shape ply­wood to fit smoothly over the walls and ceil­ings. It took them nine months to put the walls up. Al­ready 19 months into the restora­tion, they had just reached the equiv­a­lent step of in­stalling dry­wall.

Fi­nally, the bulk wood­work was com­plete. Michel took a deep breath. He had fin­ished the long and ar­du­ous tasks of weld­ing and wood­work­ing. Once again he was cer­tain he was past the slow­est and trick­i­est parts of the project. Then the fin­ish work started. The fin­ish work, it soon be­came ap­par­ent, was go­ing to be an even slower process than the pre­vi­ous stages of the ren­o­va­tion. The changes were minis­cule and un­end­ingly time con­sum­ing.


Ev­ery­one that has un­der­taken a ren­o­va­tion project (or any boat project, re­ally) un­der­stands that there are break­down mo­ments. Michel had his when he re­al­ized that with the rate he was work­ing, even with the help of pro­fes­sion­als, the fin­ish work was go­ing to take years, not months, to com­plete. He was burn­ing him­self out, with no view of the fin­ish line. At this point, his home had been a con­struc­tion zone for al­most two years. His bud­get was stretched, his body hurt, and his life was fraz­zled.

So he took a break. He brought the boat to a functional point, in­clud­ing hav­ing pres­sur­ized wa­ter, a work­ing toi­let, doors, light switches, and a stove, then put away the tools, cleaned up the sawdust, post­poned all work, and just lived on the boat for two years. It was a cru­cial move for his san­ity. This year, he has started to wade back in to the projects. He is slowly but surely fin­ish­ing the in­te­rior spa­ces. But he is reen­gag­ing with a level of in­sight, knowl­edge, sup­port, and le­niency he did not have two years ago. He is tack­ling the rest of the ren­o­va­tion with three hard-learned tenets in mind:

First, be nice to your­self. The angst and stress of ren­o­va­tion projects are self-in­flicted. There is no boss com­mand­ing you to fin­ish the plumb­ing by next week, check off ev­ery item on the list to­day, or do the project per­fectly on the first try. The work is a lot more fun when there is less pres­sure.

Sec­ond, triple your bud­get. The com­mon adage when tak­ing on a boat project is to dou­ble the bud­get, but in Michel’s ex­pe­ri­ence, that’s not nearly enough. The quick­est way to burn out is to be con­sid­er­ably over bud­get and con­stantly stressed about it.

And third, use your re­sources. The peo­ple around you have great ideas and know things you don’t. Some of Michel’s fa­vorite elements of the re­fit have come from the ideas gen­er­ated by oth­ers. He dis­cusses de­sign chal­lenges or tech­nol­ogy op­tions with friends and neigh­bors, ask­ing for in­put and ini­ti­at­ing dis­cus­sion. This has the added bonus of bring­ing a so­cial and com­mu­nal el­e­ment to the en­deavor.

Michel is look­ing for­ward to com­plet­ing the ren­o­va­tion of his boat, but he is not in a rush. He has set no dead­lines and al­lows him­self plenty of slack to put down the tools and head to the Cana­dian Gulf Is­lands for a week (or three). He en­joys work­ing on the de­tails, steadily trans­form­ing his live­able con­struc­tion zone into his for­ever home. De­spite the stress and strug­gle of tak­ing on a ren­o­va­tion of this scope, he loves the lines and the rum­ble of that boat as much to­day as he did the first day he laid eyes on her.


De­tails of the re­con­struc­tion show the level to which the boat was gut­ted for the re­build as well as de­tails in the la­bor-in­ten­sive fin­ish process.

Clock­wise: The orig­i­nal builder’s plaque; Ev­ery work­boat needs a utility room; Beau­ti­fully crafted stor­age draw­ers with leather strap tie- downs.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.