From Plywood to All-Out Pizzazz

Kelvin Franks set out to build a tender for his 52-footer. He ended up with a vintage-looking gem
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Kelvin Franks says his wife pegs the effort at about $30,000 over four and a half years. He doesn’t think he spent quite that much, and he’s not sure about the amount of time, since he’d occasionally take a month off to do other projects. But he knows what he has today: a 15-foot boat he built from scratch that somebody just offered $80,000 to buy.

“I told him I just finished it—I’m not selling it,” Franks says. “But that was a good note.”

Franks, a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Duson, Louisiana, started building Drift Wood while killing time during consulting work for an oil company. He was surfing online and came across plans for the Glen-L Ski King. He thought it might—with modifications—be a good tender to his 52-foot Harbormaster, Cajun Drifter.

“It had several variations to it, which I pretty much scrapped and did it my way,” Franks says. “But I got the plans from them. I liked the looks and simplicity of it. The design was made for plywood. I did okoume plywood, but then I overlayed that with mahogany planking. I wanted something with more character.”

Drift Wood was the second boat Franks set out to build, a half century after he turned a single sheet of plywood into a “little bateau” for duck hunting in Louisiana as a teenager. By the time he started the mahogany tender, he was in his mid-60s and had gained plenty of experience with boats. He’d worked his way up from a Hobie Sunfish to a Macgregor 22 to an Irwin 40 that he says “was trashed” when he bought it. “The people who owned it had gotten a loan and just quit paying it and left the boat for two years sitting in the marina,” Franks says. “They had a huge party on it before they left it. It took me two weeks just to get it cleaned out.”

Franks and his wife lived aboard the Irwin and did DIY maintenance for years, including repainting the hull. When work took him to the West Coast, they cruised and raced along the California shoreline, down to Mexico, through the Panama Canal and eventually up to Florida and back home to Louisiana. As they got older, they tired of sails and bought the Harbormaster. They cruised it along the Texas coast and on Sabine Lake, sometimes hosting as many as 50 guests.

The tender has okoume plywood overlayed with mahogany planking

The tender has okoume plywood overlayed with mahogany planking

The Drift Wood project ended up outlasting the Harbormaster, which Franks sold about two years ago, as he was nearing age 70. He decided to keep building the tender as a hobby. “I’d work until it was beer time,” he says with a chuckle.

Both the woodworking and assembly, he says, were easy. But he got frustrated with the exterior finish. He had put three layers of epoxy atop the planking, and he wanted to protect it against ultraviolet light. “I put the varnish on it, and apparently I didn’t wait long enough for the epoxy to cure, and I made a huge mess,” Franks says. “I had to sand down the whole boat and start again. It ended up with splotches on it, and it wasn’t the finish I wanted. But then one day, I was looking at it in the sun, and I thought it really looked like an old boat. So I just tell people I did it on purpose to get that look.”

What he did on purpose was jack up the boat’s power. He bought a 1969 ski boat, took the 120-hp Mercruiser off it and scrapped the hull. “I rebuilt the engine and the outdrive and souped it up a little bit,” Franks says. “I put in a high-performance camshaft, which gave me a little bit bigger lift on the intake valves, and a little longer duration on the exhaust. It lets the engine breathe better. I added about 12 horsepower to the 120. I’ve got about 130 horsepower at the prop now. It’s kind of an old trick. People who race cars do it all the time.”

He also wanted Drift Wood to sound like a muscle car. “That Mercruiser is a four-cylinder engine—it sounds like a foreign car—but I designed an exhaust system with an expansion chamber, and put twin tailpipes coming out the back,” he says. “At 3000 rpm, it sounds like a V-8 engine. I wasn’t sure—I downloaded the program from somewhere on Google to do all the calculations, and I just thought, what do I have to lose?”

Other customizations include a beer keg and tap that he installed up front (big enough to hold about a six-pack of suds), ice buckets built into each side of the center console, and a drop-down door in the aft bench seat that has room for two wine bottles, two wineglasses on a rack and a corkscrew. “My wife loves white wine,” he says.

the wheel has an alpine shaft so it can be installed on the steering shaft at the passenger’s side steering pasenger’s side

the wheel has an alpine shaft so it can be installed on the steering shaft at the passenger’s side steering pasenger’s side

And, just for fun, he put steering shafts on both sides. The wheel has a spline shaft, “so if you’re driving across the lake and your buddy in the passenger seat would like to drive, you stop the boat and take the wheel off and put it on his side,” Franks says. “I’ll drive out of the marina, and then once we’re out in the lake, I’ll hand over the wheel.”

Drift Wood launched on July 4, 2020. With two adults in the forward bucket seats, she’ll run close to about 38 knots, he says. The boat receives a lot of attention at dock-and-dine restaurants, where admirers often ask if it’s a family heirloom. “I’ve ended up with a unique boat that has never been duplicated,” says Franks, “and probably never will be.”

This article was originally published in the July 2021 issue.

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