Boat Builder Blues – Part 1

An inescapable part of life is that sometimes things don’t happen as planned.  Using knowledge and experience, one may plan for the future, but sooner or later unexpected twists will thwart those plans.  Such was the case that began in early August 1995, when I signed the contract with a small Alaskan boat-building company.

Thomas (not his real name) got his start building aluminum boats with Grayling Marine, a longtime Anchorage boat builder, but had been on his own for a couple of years. I saw his boats on the Sound and liked their clean, functional lines. I visited the Anchorage boat show that spring, and I was glad to see that Thomas was there with one of his boats. I talked to him about my dream of upgrading to a bigger boat from the four-passenger Lavro Sea Dory I was using. When I mentioned that the boat needed to be beachable and wheelchair-accessible, his eyes lit up with interest. The clincher for me that Thomas was to build Sound Eco Adventures’ (business name) new boat was that its cost would be quite a bit less than the figure Grayling Marine had quoted me.

At first, Thomas was likeable and easy to work with. He was enthusiastic about building Southcentral Alaska’s first beachable and wheelchair-accessible charter boat. In exchange for a lower cost, Thomas let me help with the boat’s outfitting by doing some of the easier tasks like gluing on the cabin insulation.

Construction started September 2, 1995, the day after Labor Day weekend, but then Thomas disappeared on a three-week hunting trip, something he had not told me about. He had not promised a delivery date for the boat, but this sudden lack of communication turned out to be a harbinger of problems that followed.

Construction was finally completed later in October. During an afternoon test run at a local lake on October 24 with Thomas and his assistant present, we discovered that they had mounted the twin outboard controls backwards. That meant that the throttle stop that normally limited speed in reverse now prevented enough forward throttle for the boat to plane on top of the water. Thomas was already committed for the next day, so he arranged with Dewey’s Yamaha in Anchorage to correct the problem. I was finally able to launch the boat on October 26 in Whittier. I took it on a short shakedown run outside the Harbor, and everything seemed ok.

The first charter trip aboard the new boat happened just two days later, transporting a friend and his hunting buddies to the Green Island Forest Service cabin, 60 miles out from Whittier in the southern Sound. On that very first run, we discovered a big problem with the cabin. During the boat’s construction, Thomas had mysteriously left gaps between the forward and aft cabin bulkheads (its front and rear “walls”) and the boat’s hull. The bulkheads did not extend all the way laterally to the boat’s sides (its hull), leaving what were essentially eight-inch holes in the bulkheads that were hidden from view under the gunwales. There was no way to damp off the resulting flow of air through the cabin. As we also soon discovered, rain and spray collected on the undersides of the gunwales, where it ran inside the cabin and dripped onto the cabin deck.

Once the boat’s first full season got underway the following spring, more problems reared their frustrating heads. It was soon obvious that Thomas had mounted the twin outboards too low, creating drag that created a strange spray pattern and increased fuel consumption. Then there was the minor problem of the side cabin windows leaking when it rained, which in Whittier was often. The biggest problem was the wrong-sized propellers that Thomas had installed on the outboards. As I learned later, the props were “overpitched” by two sizes, not allowing the OB’s to run fast enough – similar to “lugging” a stick-shift car by not down-shifting to a lower gear.

After hearing prop experts say things like, “Finding the right-sized prop for a boat is more art than science,” I started experimenting with different-sized props. After many phone calls, Thomas finally came to Whittier late that summer to see the problems for himself. He agreed that he had installed the engines too low, but I’d have to bring the boat to his shop for him to rebuild the outboard support frame and close off the air leaks in the cabin. I was glad when the boat was finally back in Whittier with the problems solved.

Things started out fine the next summer. The cabin was draft-free and the outboards now rode in the water where they were supposed to be. But by midsummer, a new problem surfaced — metallic rattles coming from beneath the cabin deck. Uh, ohhh! That could mean only one thing — that a weld had broken loose somewhere under the deck. Repeated messages left on Thomas’ answering machine seeking his advice got no response.

As that scenario dragged into early September, I knew I had to force the issue. The rattles didn’t seem to be any worse, but with the fall deer hunter transport season fast approaching, I didn’t want my hunter clients to wonder about the boat’s soundness. I left a message on Thomas’ answering machine informing him that I would be bringing the boat to his shop the next morning, and that I expected him to not delay honoring his lifetime hull warranty by fixing whatever was causing the rattles once-and-for-all.

My office manager son Larry and I were waiting with the boat at Thomas’s shop when he arrived that morning. To my relief, he and his assistant were cordial and agreed to address the rattle problem right away. When I picked up the repaired boat a few days later, Thomas said that when they opened the cabin deck, they discovered that three of the welds in his unorthodox framing design had broken loose. They had re-welded the breaks and beefed them up with reinforcing pieces, and also welded reinforcements into the adjacent framework.

To my great relief, the third year with the new boat, 1998, was finally trouble-free. That scenario lasted just that year, however. Midsummer 1999, new rattles were evident, and now also a strange thumping noise was coming from beneath the stern deck in choppy water. Coincidentally, a friendly charter competitor, Captain Mike Bender of Lazy Otter Charters, also had Thomas build him a new boat a year after mine. Their boat too had developed rattles, and even cracks in the boat’s hull.

Fortuitously, Captain Mike had a friend, Yale Metzger, who had just finished law school and was eager to get to work. The last part of this story will tell about more broken welds, and now cracks in the boat’s hull that developed and worsened. With Atty. Yale Metzger’s help, Lazy Otter Charters and Sound Eco Adventures teamed up to force Thomas to finally honor his “lifetime” hull warranty for both boats. That resulted in bringing yet another well-respected Anchorage boat builder into the fray – Dave Kindred of Heavy Weather Boats. I hired Heavy Weather outright to re-frame my boat (which Thomas’ partly reimbursed, eventually), and Thomas re-framed Lazy Otter’s boat under Dave Kindred’s direct supervision.

For the rest of this story, stay tuned for Part 2.

4 thoughts on “Boat Builder Blues – Part 1

  1. billsherwonit

    Hey Gerry, what a fiasco that working relationship turned out to be! You’re lucky the series of problems didn’t lead to a disaster. I assume–and hope–things went more smoothly after this was resolved. Thanks for sharing your saga.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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