Tender loving care for a fixer-upper

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An 18-year-old from Connecticut builds a mini-runabout by refitting a tender from bow to stern

When the Berger family bought a 1965 Boston Whaler Eastport a decade ago, little did they realize the unsung hero of the purchase would be a small tender thrown in with the package.

Nicholas Berger transformed his family's unused tender into a mini-runabout when he was 14 years old.

The previous owners had used the 8-foot tender to row out to the Whaler, which at the time spent summers on the hook near Westerly, R.I. The Bergers, though, trailer the 16-foot Whaler from its home in Winchester Center, in northwestern Connecticut, and have little use for a tender. That is, until one day when he was 14 the Bergers' son, Nicholas, hauled the tender out of the garage where it was kept and started on a project that would give the small boat new life.

"So we got it for free and I modified it to what it is now," says Nicholas.

"What it is now" is an outboard-powered mini-runabout, with a custom forward console, a throttle and steering system, and a homebuilt wooden bench seat with seatback - all the design and handiwork of then-14-year-old Nicholas.

"You'd think because it's a small boat it would be unstable, but it's actually quite stable," says Nicholas, now 18. "I love the little boat - it runs perfect."

The forward console comprises a cowling made of plywood with an oak block to mount the steering wheel. Nicholas borrowed the wheel from an old lawnmower and wrapped it in cotton rope. He replaced the original plank seat with a cedar bench seat with back, fitted a block-and-tackle steering system, installed an external throttle and mounted the Eastport's kicker motor - a 5-hp Johnson outboard - on the transom.

Nicholas Berger

Nicholas then rehabbed and modified an old boat trailer he pulled out of his neighbor's woods, according to Nicholas's father, Richard Berger, 47.

Origins of a naval architect

Richard Berger grew up in a boating family, but the Whaler was the first boat he'd owned since getting married and having kids.

To say Nicholas took to boating would be an understatement. The 18-year-old attends as many boat shows as he can, researches boats extensively on the Internet, and last year sailed on the wooden schooner Brilliant out of Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Conn., as part of that institution's educational programs. At a young age, he drew from such knowledge in refitting the tender - a project that actually began with Richard looking to get extra mileage out of the underused Johnson engine.

"I really wanted to get some hours on the Johnson, as it was only used as an emergency spare engine," says Richard. "I didn't know that it would turn out to be one of the best things I ever did for him."

Soon thereafter, he says, his son provided him with drawings of the proposed modifications.

"I went to the WoodenBoat rendezvous in Mystic and I saw a similar boat and noticed the steering system. And I thought, 'I can modify this and make this work on my little boat,' " says Nicholas, a senior at The Gilbert School in Winsted, Conn.

"I remember him calling me from the hardware store to ask me if it was OK to spend $35 on the pulleys and stainless-steel hardware that would make the steering system, bench and console," says Richard. "His grandfather had taken him to the store and wanted to make sure the purchase was OK with me."

The steering system works great and the 5-hp outboard easily pushes two people across the water in the small boat, Nicholas says. (It homeports in Park Pond, a small lake in Winchester Center.)

For maintenance, Nicholas says he keeps the boat clean, waxes the hull and periodically revarnishes the wood.

Needless to say, boats and boating are a passion for Nicholas.

So much so, in fact, that this fall he'll pursue a naval architecture degree at State University of New York Maritime College in New York City.

"His wealth of knowledge about every boat design astounds me," says Richard, who has attended countless boat shows with his son. "He will tell me everything I need to know about a boat before we even get near it."

Nicholas says he'd eventually like to design lobster boats.

"I think I would like to [design] smaller pleasure boats," in the 30- to 50-foot range, he says. "I'm really interested in the lobster boats. I think those are really aesthetically pleasing."

While clearly a boating wunderkind, Berger is missing one critical piece of information on the boat he so thoughtfully modified.

"I have no idea of the manufacturer - there's no markings on it," he says of the tender. "But it looks like a little Boston Whaler-type hull."

This article originally appeared in the Connecticut and New York Home Waters Section of the March 2010 issue.