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Refit of a lifetime

South Carolina boater upgrades his 34-year-old Mako center console at his own pace

Refitting an older boat need not be an overwhelming and time-consuming project. Keeping that Boston Whaler, Wellcraft or SeaCraft in the family can be done in several projects over a boat's lifetime.

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That's what John Abess has done with his 21-foot Mako center console, Alter Ego, which he bought new in 1977 with a 175-hp Evinrude 2-stroke.

Since 1990, he has totally renovated, slightly modified and twice repowered her. "She looks spectacular," says Abess, a psychiatrist and business consultant from Charleston, S.C. "People can't seem to stop themselves from providing compliments on her."

With her name on the hull sides in bright yellow and matching striped upholstery, Alter Ego certainly will never blend in with other center consoles. The boat’s first major refit was done in early 2009, and G-Crafts Marine in Awendaw, S.C., 15 miles north of Charleston, carried out most of the work. Bobby Gehlken ( has owned the business since 1989, and he specializes in Mako, Boston Whaler, SeaCraft and Bertram restorations, among others.

"John's boat seemed solid," Gehlken says. "The deck was good. The boat was solid. Makos of that era were built with a good amount of glass. We were a little concerned about the transom, but overall the boat was sound."

Before applying Awlgrip, Gehlken repaired spider cracks and gouges in the hull. He also painted the engine, replaced the rubrail and deck hardware, and refinished all of the teak - the anchor pulpit, anchor locker door, gunwale rod compartment trim, stern storage compartment doors, and the trim around the access cutout in the console. No structural work was done and the boat was launched in the spring of 2009. That first refit cost about $20,000, Abess says.

"I was enjoying watching John as our boat was fixed up," says Ann Abess, his wife of 44 years. "He was really excited throughout the whole process. Repairing it was a lot cheaper than buying new. We had a lot of history with the boat, and it was the perfect size and still is."

The Abesses are a boating family. John Abess, who grew up in upstate New York, as a youth played around in a 16-foot hydroplane with a 75-hp Mercury. As an adult, he has owned three sailboats: a Sunfish, a Lightning and a Hobie 18. Before the Mako 21, the family owned a Mako 17. "Ann's father had a Morgan 26 and a custom-built sailboat that we often sailed," Abess says. "However, there was another fun family boat. It was a homemade skiff with a 25-hp outboard. We kept her at our country house on Wadmalaw Sound and used her to explore the creeks and marshes and do some shrimping. We called her the Marsh Patrol."

Repowering Alter Ego
The Abesses enjoyed Alter Ego for only a few months after the relaunch. John, Ann and one of their two sons, John T. Abess, 41, who lives in Charleston, were heading back to port when the boat came down hard on a wave and the 1990 200-hp Mercury Black Max 2-stroke stalled. Abess was unable to start the engine and he later discovered severe corrosion around the lower motor mount and swivel bracket areas. “We had to be towed in,” Abess says. “I thought, This really is an indication that we have to splurge and repower.”
That decision also gave Abess a chance to address something that had bothered him since he bought the Mako — its low, cut-out transom. “Sure, it’s easier to pull in a fish, but if you lose power and the boat is oriented the wrong way, you could take a lot of water over the transom,” he says. “It was just an uncomfortable feeling knowing that.”
A full-height transom would provide more cockpit real estate, but the higher transom meant that the boat would need an outboard bracket. Abess turned to Armstrong Nautical Products ( in Stuart, Fla. He wanted to play it safe and be sure that buoyancy was maintained despite the weight of the engine moving farther aft. He went with a bracket designed for twin engines even though he was hanging one.
This project would involve structural and fiberglass work, and Abess again tapped Gehlken, who ripped out the old transom and built a new one. Armstrong required that the transom be at least 2-1/2 inches thick to hold the bracket and outboard. (A conventional transom is about 1-1/2 to 2 inches thick.) The original transom’s wood core was wet, so Abess and Gehlken went with a rot-free plywood core from Greenwood Products. The transom through-hulls and live well through-hull were replaced, along with the bilge hoses and deck access plates.
Gehlken cut the aft ends of the stringers from the transom forward about 30 inches. He replaced these sections with higher and beefier stringers. He also cut out and replaced the aft portion of the cockpit sole, eliminating the splash well, and he redesigned and rebuilt the storage lockers in the port and starboard cockpit corners. “The boat basically received a new stern,” Gehlken says.
Abess and Gehlken also decided it would be a good time to replace the boat’s 86-gallon aluminum fuel tank, which was mounted under the console. It turned out to be a good move; Gehlken found a few pinholes in it. The foam encasing the tank was holding water against it and preventing ventilation, Gehlken says. Knowing that, he “spot-foamed” certain areas and made sure water could drain off the top of the tank. “The big factor is drainage. If salt water sits there, it just eats away at the aluminum,” says Gehlken, who also epoxy-coated the tank to ward off corrosion.
Abess was a hands-on customer, Gehlken says. “He took lots of pictures and documented the whole project,” he says. “We let him tell us what he wanted and we built it. He wanted it like he wanted it and we worked with him.”
Abess did consider a new boat, but he was unimpressed with the ride quality of those he tested, saying one of them “really pounded.”
“These newer boats are really being built for economy,” he says. “I can afford a little more gas. I really wanted the safety and the softer ride that comes with a heavier boat and a deep-vee.”
Abess remembers when that Mako deep-vee was put to the test while returning to port in a violent hailstorm. “We were taking waves over the bow, and it was hailing and beating down rain and there was hardly any visibility,” he says. “My strategy was to keep the bow into the waves. I didn’t even care if I made headway. I just wanted to keep control of the boat, and then the storm passed.” Alter Ego had passed its toughest test.

Abess and sons John (seated) and Alexander on Lake George, N.Y, in 1988.

Returning to Evinrude
When Abess bought the Mako in 1977, it was powered by a 175-hp Evinrude 2-stroke. “I had all sorts of problems with my first Evinrude,” he says. “When I replaced it in 1990 with the Mercury, I said I would never own another Evinrude.”
Never say never. He chose a 250-hp Evinrude E-TEC, a direct-fuel-injected 2-stroke for Alter Ego’s third engine. He says the outboard has a lot going for it: lighter weight than a 4-stroke (530 pounds, compared to 562 pounds for a Yamaha F250), low maintenance, low emissions and good fuel economy. At a cruise speed of 33 mph, the E-TEC burns 11 gallons an hour, which is around 3 mpg. Throttle back to 29 mph, and the boat gets 3.6 mpg.
Abess used to do a lot of fishing with his sons when they were children, but now he primarily uses the boat for harbor cruises. With the throttle set at 1,000 rpm or so, the engine burns 0.8 gph, for 8.75 mpg. Maximum speed hovers around the 50-mph mark. The engine needs no maintenance until it has logged 300 hours.
Like all new outboards, the Evinrude can be outfitted with digital throttles and controls, which Abess had not experienced before he owned the E-TEC. “You don’t have to worry about the throttle slipping back,” he says. “You can adjust the rpm in 25 to 50 increments at a time. It gives me a wonderful sense of control and confidence. I really like it.”
The outboard and controls were installed by Cape Romain Marine & Pawley’s Island Marine (, just south of Myrtle Beach, S.C. Alter Ego also received new hydraulic steering and electronics.
The second refit cost about $25,000, but it was money well spent, considering that Alter Ego will remain in the family for another two dozen or so years, the couple says. Ann remembers lazy rides on the Intracoastal Waterway and exploring waters such as the Wando River. “We would drop the hook and just swim and use the boat as a floating dock and picnic on the boat,” she says. “But, of course, there were other times when we went ashore to camp overnight, picnic and fish on the ocean side of the sea islands. The boys thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Abess remembers the ACE Basin, a protected habitat at the confluence of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers. “You can look to the horizon in all directions and see nothing but marsh, creeks, islands with palmetto trees and oak trees with Spanish moss hanging from the limbs,” John Abess says. “What fun it has been to have the same boat we enjoyed when our children were young and as a family. Now Alter Ego remains in service, prettier than ever and very up to date.”
It may be up to date, but the boat will remain incomplete until a T-top or Bimini is installed, Ann says. “We’ve had Biminis in the past,” she says. “That was just not in John’s plans for this project, but I have made it very clear to him — I need the sun protection. You’ll get me out in the middle of the day if you’ve got some shade for me.”
Time to call Bobby Gehlken again.

Alter Ego, shown during a camping trip in South Carolina in 1988.
Alter Ego today

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.