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Tiara refit: a project on deadline

Henry Chudzinski turned an older boat into something to be proud of … within three months

Henry Chudzinski turned an older boat into something to be proud of … within three months

For many years my wife, Debbie, and I talked about buying a boat, something in the 20- to 24-foot range. We would use it primarily for day cruising, coastal fishing and water sports. We live in Washington Township, N.J., and are within an hour’s drive of the southern Jersey shore, where we intended to dock the boat for quick access.

After many false starts we became serious shoppers in the winter of 2002. We attended the Atlantic City (N.J.) Boat Show, and Debbie immediately began looking at shiny new boats. Comparing price and value I concluded it would be better to purchase a high-quality older boat, then refit and repower.

I have better-than-average mechanical skills and I wasn’t intimidated by any of the tasks necessary to turn an older boat into something we could be proud of. I had spent the summers of my teenage years working at a marina, gleaning practical skills.

While Debbie continued to eye the new boats, I pored over hundreds of classified advertisements and contacted brokers all over New Jersey. On a cold day in February I found the perfect candidate for our project boat: a 1981 20-foot Tiara Pursuit.

The Tiara hadn’t been used in more than 2 years. It looked tired and dirty, with a 1980s-vintage 200-hp Johnson outboard. Overall, the boat was structurally sound but in sore need of an upgrade and facelift. The owner was anxious to sell and accepted an offer of $3,000. I was committed to repowering, so I traded the old outboard for a decent trailer with a local marine mechanic.

I will never forget the look on my wife’s face when I brought the boat home. On that day I had to promise to have everything complete in two to three months and the boat out of our driveway. I had no doubt she would hold me to the deadline. She was supportive, however, if not overly enthusiastic.

Two piles

I contacted Tiara and was pleasantly surprised by the company’s willingness to assist and their interest in my boat. I couldn’t have expected more if I had purchased a new Tiara. The builder was helpful in locating replacement parts as well as the original gelcoat color. Tiara even sent me a copy of the original sales brochure.

Tiara has a long-standing reputation for building quality boats, and it backs that up with fine customer service. On our boat, the quality showed. After 21 years she was in great shape structurally, and the hinges and deck cleats all were intact, showing no signs of stress.

To start the project I removed everything that was removable and created two piles, one trash and one reusable parts. I immediately determined that all electrical components had to be discarded. The navigation lights, fuse panel, switches, and bilge pumps were in working order, but I decided that these items were integral to stress-free operation and should all be replaced.

I discarded the torn and moldy helm seats. The cushions for the cuddy cabin, however, were salvageable but would need to be re-covered. The deck hardware was in good condition and could be reused with some polishing and a few through-bolts replaced. I removed the port and starboard consoles under the gunnels at the helm. They were made of marine-grade plywood with some sort of veneer and couldn’t be saved. However, the pieces could be used as a template to construct new ones. With everything removed, I developed a punch list that seemed to grow every day.

The teak trim was severely weathered, and several original teak hatches were missing, including the hatch for the in-sole live well, and the port and starboard battery compartment hatches. I considered replacing the teak with a newer polymer product, but I wanted to keep the original look. I purchased teak planking and, with some assistance from a co-worker, duplicated the in-sole hatch. I would be using the live well for storage, and the teak would work well. I also made new battery compartment hatches out of the teak.

The small console locker, or “glove box,” presented a challenge. I located a replacement door, though not one that fit exactly. The closest I could find was 1 inch short all around. I used teak to surround the circumference of the new door, which closed the gap, and then mounted the assembly in the original location. After cleaning all of the teak trim, I coated all the salvaged pieces and new hatches with four coats of Sikkens Cetol and three coats of high-gloss Cetol.

Next came the port and starboard consoles. Using the original pieces as templates, I was able to construct new ones using mahogany. After cutting and fitting they were coated with 12 coats of varnish. As the days went by, I was ever mindful of my promise to my wife and the deadline we set. I had a clear vision of what my Tiara would look like when finished. Debbie, on the other hand, questioned if it would float or ever be finished.

Soup to nuts

With the help of a friend, Mark Neisser, who restores antique cars, we tackled the rewiring. We installed new navigation lights, a new switch panel and the fuse block. I added a flush-mounted Icom VHF radio, AM/FM CD player, two new bilge pumps, and deck lights in the port and starboard aft gunnels. In anticipation of the new outboard, I also installed a Navman fuel management system, which allows me to accurately track fuel usage and, more important, establish optimum operating rpm under various conditions. The unit provides digital readouts of fuel flow in gallons per hour, fuel used on individual trips, total fuel used since last fill-up, fuel remaining in the tank, and a low-fuel alarm that can be set at different intervals.

The fabric on the cuddy cabin cushions was original, and we decided to recover them with vinyl, rather than fabric. Vinyl would be easier to maintain and would hold up better when wet. I found a local auto and boat upholstery shop that re-covered the cushions in off-white. The headliner was in good condition, but it was coming loose in several places. I was able to refasten it using 3M marine spray adhesive.

While working on all of these projects, I was also busy with the oxidized gelcoat. For this task, I enlisted the help of my son Brandon and daughter Courtney, who luckily were home from college for the summer. We started by repairing the years of nicks and scratches, none of which were deep enough to require filling. Tiara customer service provided the original gelcoat color and code, and directed me to Mini-Craft ( in Wildwood, Fla., which mixed the color to original specifications.

Since the hull was 21 years old and the gelcoat had aged, I needed to lighten the new gelcoat so it matched the rest of the boat. The process became time-consuming and at times frustrating. I realized that it was important to keep track of coloring agent and amounts. Through trial and error I was able to develop a near-perfect match. I would use 2 ounces of gelcoat without hardener and experiment with the various colors, dabbing a spot on the hull. When the color was close, I added the appropriate amount of hardener and dabbed a spot on.

Once I attained the desired color, I touched up all of the imperfections, then wet-sanded each area until smooth. We then wet-sanded the entire topsides, starting with 600 grit and finishing with 2000 grit. After days of sanding, we applied a marine polish and finished it off with several coats of Collinite marine wax.

The rub rail was intact and in very good condition, needing only a new rope insert. The bottom was in good condition with no blistering and required only a pressure wash and some light sanding.

With the windshield removed from the boat I tackled the oxidation on its aluminum framing. Several metal cleaners and polishes I tried proved fruitless, and I finally resorted to wet-sanding with 2000 grit. I then completed the windshield restoration with the Woody Wax Restoration Kit ( The end result was an acceptable shine.

The original cabin door, made of thick Lexan, was intact but badly discolored. I tried polishing but to no avail. After sanding out the surface scratches, I applied two coats of primer, then picked a spray-paint color close to the interior gelcoat and applied five coats.

The Tiara is an open boat, and we knew we would need a Bimini top for shade on the sunny days ahead on the water. There are many aftermarket manufacturers that make adjustable

Biminis for this size boat. Searching the Internet, we found American Marine Upholstery ( in Bradenton, Fla., which makes custom Bimini tops that are easily installed with a few brackets.

Fuel tank and engine

Keeping my deadline in mind, I had two final issues: the fuel tank and repowering. Tiara made fuel tank access a breeze, locating the tank under a removable fiberglass hatch. The aluminum tank was original and in very sound condition. The fuel lines, on the other hand, weren’t usable. I replaced all the lines and hardware, including the vent. I decided that the existing tank was sufficient and could easily be replaced in the future.

As the project progressed, I researched outboard options, keeping in mind

reliability, price, economy, parts, service availability, and dealers close to our intended home port. I compared traditional 2-stroke carbureted outboards with 2-stroke fuel-injected engines and 4-strokes. I reviewed boater forums on the Web, as well as inquiring with outboard mechanics and reading comparison reports.

After reviewing all of the material, I decided on a 2003 Mercury saltwater carbureted 2-stroke. While the fuel-injected and 4-stroke engines offered better fuel economy, the carbureted 2-stroke was about $2,000 less. I estimated that we would run the outboard 75 hours a year, and the payback on the higher price could take four to five years.

While Debbie became more enthused as our Tiara took shape, I did hear a sigh of relief when I finally removed it from our driveway. And yes, I met her deadline. It was now September and we would have to wait until the spring of 2003 to launch our Tiara.

Naming our boat developed a life of its own, with everyone in our family having an opinion. We finally decided on “Sticky” for sentimental reasons. This was my Uncle Steve’s nickname, given to him by co-workers at the New York Shipyard in Camden, N.J., because of his slender build. My uncle worked there for 41 years and performed inspections on many war ships, including the USS Kitty Hawk. I attended her christening May 21, 1960, and have two commemorative medallions. I have fond memories of my uncle explaining how these massive ships were built.

In April 2003, with the new Mercury installed, we launched Sticky. Debbie’s skepticism soon turned into excitement, and she started looking for any opportunity to go boating. Now she enthusiastically talks about the Tiara we refurbished. We dock our boat on the Egg Harbor River in Egg Harbor, which allows us to use the boat for tubing with our kids and gives us access to Great Egg Harbor Bay and Great Egg Inlet for fishing. And it’s only 40 minutes from our house, a convenient drive on a summer evening for a leisurely sunset cruise or dockside dining in Somers Point and Ocean City.

Weather permitting, we use Sticky three to four times a week. Our mixed-breed dog, Maxwell, has even joined us on several occasions and has his own PFD. We have also discovered a location at the south end of Ocean City at Corsons Inlet to beach the boat and relax for a while.

Sticky performs to my expectations, and at a cruising rpm of 4,200 she does 28 mph (measured by GPS) and burns an economical 7.6 gallons per hour with a full tank of fuel and two adults on board.

During winter layup after the first season, I decided to replace the 21-year-old 58-gallon fuel tank. I had a local marine fabricator make a new aluminum tank of the same size. Replacement was very easy with the removable fuel hatch — no cutting or fiberglass work necessary.

Excluding the initial $3,000 investment in the boat, the refit totaled around $13,800, and that’s everything from the new outboard and fuel tank to battery cables and miscellaneous hardware.

After three seasons with Sticky, we have logged more than 160 trouble-free hours and look for every opportunity to be on the water. To sum up the experience of refitting an older boat: Vision and patience are important ingredients. The enjoyment our family has received the past three summers are well worth the nights and weekends spent working on our project boat.

Henry Chudzinski, 50, provides business development and management consulting services to professional engineering firms. The Tiara marks his return to boating after a long hiatus.