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Right down to the skin

There are literally a gazillion potential project boats scattered across the hinterlands, but finding the right one is sort of like choosing a significant other: It can be a beautiful thing or it can be fraught with peril, both emotional and financial.

Whatever boat you choose, first and foremost make sure it is structurally sound, especially if you’re doing a repower. And if there are problems, you want to have a pretty clear idea going into the new union just what fixing them will entail in terms of time, skill and money.

Click play for Charlie Koller’s advice on selecting a project boat.

Keep your emotions in check and avoid looking at things with your “eyes wide shut.” This is the time to scrutinize the boat and the work ahead with clarity and a hard grounding in reality.

Depending on the size, price and complexity of the boat, hiring a good surveyor often is a prudent investment. Swamp Yankee is a pretty simple boat, but her age (22 years old), combined with her balsa-cored hull and deck and work history, warranted some careful eyeballing.


I trotted several knowledgeable friends out to the 22-foot Sisu before getting into negotiations, including Erik Klockars, a curmudgeon of a mechanic with a sharp eye; all-around boat guy Elio Betty, who now works at BoatUS; and Frank Kehr, a knowledgeable boatman who maintains a fleet of vintage race cars.

Frank was the versatile guru behind the restoration of my 1968 Boston Whaler Nauset, another one of those seemingly simply boats, but one whose 1960s (water-absorbing) foam core, wood-cored transom and other peculiarities from building in those early days can easily deliver a few surprises if you’re not careful.

We thoroughly sounded the Sisu, tapping all of the usual trouble spots and then some for signs of water intrusion and delamination. And we poked and prodded and examined every corner and crevice we could get a light, tool or eyeball into for anything suspect or soft.


With Swamp Yankee finally in the shop, boatwright Charlie Koller stripped the boat of her decks and hardware so we could see exactly what the patient looked like without its skivvies on. The quality of the hull, decks, bulkheads and stringers was very solid, as was the overall lamination, bedding and mechanical fastening. We’ve now started the process of refurbishing, replacing and rejiggering.

A soap-stone wood stove, old zincs and epoxy warming up.

A soap-stone wood stove, old zincs and epoxy warming up.

A quick aside: My wife and I looked at a 1960s-era home not too long ago. It was a distress sale in a nice neighborhood. The house was in tough shape, but the price was low for the area and negotiable, which would give us working capital to do the rehab work needed. And there was plenty to be done, from a new furnace and oil tank to a new roof (the original one had buckled) and upgraded electrical service.

In the end, we walked away. My engineer son-in-law and his father, a quality builder who now helps insurance adjusters estimate claims, both examined the house carefully.

The conclusion: You could make her look good cosmetically, but at the end of the day you would be doing little more than putting lipstick on a pig. The house was poorly engineered from the start and the supporting structures throughout were weak. In short, she did not have good bones.

House project or boat refit, sometimes the smartest move you can make is just to walk away.

If you’ve got an example of a boat project that has gone well — or even one that did not turn out the way you hoped — please tell us about it. We can all learn.