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The right way to approach a boat project

One of the best ways to really get to know a boat is to take it apart and put it back together — piece by piece by piece, upgrading, replacing, reconfiguring and modifying as you go. That, in a nutshell, is a boat project.

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Most of us have been tempted to tackle a project at one time or another, and many of us have gone the distance, from the skeptical looks on the faces of friends and loved ones at the outset to that wonderful feeling of satisfaction when she’s finally splashed. Some have made the trip several times.
Will Keene falls into the latter camp. He’s been involved in five refits since he first took apart (and upgraded) the family powerboat when he was in his early 20s. A lifelong sailor and angler, Keene is in the midst of a 4-year refit of a Grand Banks 42 that is proceeding at a nice, livable pace.
“How many more refits do I have in me?” asks Keene, who is 58 and the president of Edson International of New Bedford, Mass., which manufactures a broad range of sailboat and powerboat equipment, including the company’s noted steering systems. “I’d be surprised if I did another. This Grand Banks is a superb vessel.” He pauses for a moment before continuing. “But,” he notes, “there’s always another boat.”
Yes, Keene is a boat nut. He’s always looking. Aren’t we all?
An inveterate roll-up-your-sleeves kind of guy, Keene has lectured several times on the dos and don’ts of rehabbing older boats. He recently shared some of that advice with me. A good place to start is making sure you pick the right boat to put your time, money and sweat equity into. On this point, Keene’s advice is short and simple: Buy a name brand or a classic, and make sure the boat fits your budget. And, he says, go into a project with an exit strategy, which just might keep you from investing in a white elephant.
“If you buy a classic, keep it up,” he says. “Keep it simple. Keep it clean. Keep it well-maintained. That’s a great way to go because you’ll be able to get your money out of it.” And before you pull the trigger, of course, make sure the boat has a good, thorough prepurchase survey or inspection.
Whatever you do, Keene adds, don’t make drastic changes to a venerable brand — turning a centerboarder, for instance, into a keelboat. Creative Sawzalling will kill interest and resale.
And as much as you might love the look and romance of a well-maintained wooden boat, Keene suggests you walk away from that siren’s call — quickly. “No matter what you do to a wooden boat, it’s still a wooden boat,” he says. “Your exit strategy will be flawed from the start.”
Be appropriately wary of feature-rich project boats, especially those that have had a number of hands tinker with them. “If you can find a boat that hasn’t been screwed with since it’s been built, that’s a big advantage,” Keene says. Remember, a boat loaded down with a ton of poorly installed equipment is going be more work than one that is Spartan. “There is a point where less is more.”
Be judicious, but buy quality — upgrade original parts and equipment with better-quality replacements. Same goes for your electronics. You won’t be sorry. And bring plenty of patience, energy and stick-to-itiveness to the project. “Sweat equity,” Keene says, “is a wonderful thing.”
Get it right the first time remains good advice. “There’s nothing more demoralizing than having to go back and redo something you’ve already done because you skimped or got it wrong or you rushed,” says Keene, the voice of experience. Take your time.
And pay close attention to those things you can’t afford to have fail. “Seacocks, through-hulls, shaft logs,” the veteran recites. “They can make the difference between a boat and a submerged hazard.” And a good steering system is not far behind on his list of priorities.
Lastly, Keene says we all need to remember why we work so hard at these projects — remember the payoff. “My key is to get the boat in the water every year and start to use it,” he says.
It doesn’t have to be perfect to be a lot of fun.

“Round-bottomed and broad-beamed, Bessie was a matronly ketch which had shopped the Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea for years, as salty, wooden and tarry-sided as we could wish — and maybejust a little more tarry than was altogether necessary.”
— Charles Landery

This article originally appeared in the July 2001 issue.