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Old Boat, New Motor

How to turn one man’s trash into your very own treasure at a bargain price.

By Peter R. Barthelme

My 20-foot Aquasport center console creaked and groaned on its trailer as I eased it out of its slumber in the side yard. I figured the boat had every right to be creaky, as it was popped out of its mold in 1974. Thirty-plus years is old for a boat. Yet I still stopped to admire the clean and handsome lines of the hull. Classic design, real teak trim and the hull is well nigh indestructible, give or take a scratch or three.

I felt a touch smug. Don’t laugh, it’s paid for.

We have a total investment of less than $12,000 in a 20-foot boat, motor and trailer. There’s a lesson here. $12,000! That’s johnboat and manual-start territory. I married an old hull with a new motor and the results are near-magical. Okay, I did this several years back and maybe the cost would be a bit more today, but the principle is the same.

It’s an order of magnitude less than a new rig. My son and heir purchased a brand-new 23-foot flats boat and tandem trailer with 175hp motor and paid a bit more than twice twelve grand. I see bay-fishing rigs advertised in the 30s and, at the last boat show, even the specials couldn’t come anywhere near matching my Aquasport’s price tag.

Old boat. New motor. Good deal.

If money were no object, I would leap at several of the boat rigs for sale in my area. But I paid not much more than 30 grand for the first home I purchased, so spending that much for something you hitch behind the Yukon is too much for me.

The old boat/new motor combination has much to recommend it. It utilizes the inherent engineering characteristics of both items. Unless wrecked or woefully neglected, boat hulls really don’t wear out. So an old boat, even a 30-year-old veteran like my Aquasport, is often quite sound and quite serviceable.

Naval architecture, as it applies to small pleasure craft, really hasn’t undergone any meaningful revolution recently, and the laws of physics and hydrodynamics remain unchanged. An old hull design can serve you well and perform very nearly on a par with the newest and shiniest rig built yesterday. In fact, basic hull forms on many brands (like Aquasport) are mostly unchanged. Things have been tweaked and refined perhaps, but the basic hulls are much the same.

This is not so with the engines. Today’s outboards, two stroke or four, are marvelous. They’re quiet, reliable, start quickly, don’t smoke (wish I could say the same for myself) and are strong and powerful. They have lost weight by comparison to the motors built when my Aquasport was young (wish I could say the same). Placing a new motor on the hindquarters of an old boat is a marriage made in heaven.

The economic data in my own case might be instructive.

We began searching for a boat early in our relationship, Miss Pat and I. We were newly married and each secretly grateful the other liked to fish. We found the Aquasport at a disreputable used boat lot behind a high cyclone fence strewn with large signs warning about dismemberment and guard dogs and other nasty threats.

My dear wife metaphorically hiked her skirts high, clambered over the fence and hopped from rig to rig until she got to the Aquasport. A cursory inspection and she proclaimed it ours. (There were no guard dogs thankfully.) “Destiny,” she said. We came back the next day and purchased the thing for $4,700 — cash. The proprietor discounted the rig $500 when I waved greenbacks in front of his greedy eyes.

The rig was on a rusty trailer and the lights didn’t work and the steering was disconnected on the 150 Evinrude that clung to the transom. The Evinrude ran after a fashion once we connected two batteries together to get it started, but it clanked and it screeched and I had little faith in its mechanical integrity.

So the boat was hauled to Port O’Connor and we dickered for a new motor before we ever put the thing in the water. I had done the research and determined that anything over 100 horsepower would serve our purposes, and the Port O’Connor boat store just happened to have some of last year’s Mercury Mariner motors still hanging around. We begged and pleaded and negotiated and got a 115 horsepower Mariner installed on the transom for just less than $5,000. I put it on MasterCard, economic genius that I am.

Over the time we’ve owned the rig, we’ve been rebuilding. The rusty trailer needed help. I drove to the trailer manufacturer outside of Houston and bought everything (MasterCard again, alas) for about $800: wheels, tires, fenders, axle, springs and accessories. Buying from the factory means everything fits and the axle is the right size and you get all the requisite bolts and nuts in nice little plastic ziplock bags. Highly recommended.

The windshield on the center console had to be replaced, and I paid a guy to re-do the wiring under said console since owner modifications over the years had resulted in a giant panda’s nest of odd wiring down there, some wires joined with square knots. We added fuse blocks and proper-sized wiring, and now everything works.

The teak trim around the console and the teak inserts in the gunwales responded splendidly to a Wal-Mart teak redo kit and quite a bit of elbow grease. It may horrify the purists, but I began this process by hauling the rig to a carwash and directing the full blast of the hose at the teak. This removed a large percentage of the black spots and stain and got us down to bare wood. Sandpaper, teak bleach and lots of teak oil finished up the job nicely.

We added a VHF (properly wired thanks to my technician friend), a good compass mounted well away from any metal, and a depth finder, and the kids gave us a GPS, which I am going to learn how to use one of these days. (My navigation is of the point-and-run school. I have hit all of the existing shell reefs in San Antonio Bay so often we are old friends.) New upholstery. A fitting here, and some replacement bolts there.

Even with strict cost accounting and adding any accessories I have forgotten, we would be hard-pressed to bring our total expenditure much over $12,000. For a 20-foot, center console boat, a completely rebuilt galvanized trailer, all necessary gear and a new engine with factory warranty. (Hours of personal labor involved are into the hundreds and accounted for as Good Will. Interest on my MasterCard balance is not included — some things I don’t want to know.)

Not a bad deal. For a rig that handles the rough summer chop on my large saltwater bay with aplomb, which carries four or six anglers with no problem, which can be beached and relaunched easily, which is tough and stable and tops out at a bit more than 30 mph — quite fast enough on water, thank you.

I understand my boat has neither the glamour nor the refinements of the current crop of bay-fishing rigs, over which I drool periodically. But it is paid for, and it has given us hours upon hours of enjoyment on the bay. There’s a certain satisfaction in ripping out over a calm bay in the early morning, the wake rolling behind and the engine sounding smooth and fishy adventures ahead and knowing you did it at a price you could actually afford.

A couple of things to watch out for, should you think about trying the same gig. Old fiberglass hulls are well-nigh indestructible, it’s true. However, their Achilles’ heel is plywood. Manufacturers built transoms to take the strains imposed by large outboard motors. To achieve the necessary strength and rigidity in the past, they often built transoms with plywood sandwiched between layers of glass. The resulting sandwich is strong and rigid, until water gets into the transom and reaches the plywood. Most often, this happens when a careless owner drills some holes in the transom to install a speedometer pilot tube or a transducer for a depth finder and does not seal them off carefully. Water, plus plywood, plus time, equals rot. And the resulting rotted transom will twist and crack under the weight and torque of a big outboard.

So check transoms carefully. Thump and bump. If you find weakness, you might want to forget that rig, because replacing a transom is a multithousand-dollar deal if you can find a fiberglass shop to do it for you. Check plywood decks for the same reason. Fiberglass itself is virtually indestructible, and surface fatigue cracks are an honorable badge of service.

Otherwise, go to it. In with the old. Out with the new! (Except for the engine.)

Oh. There was one more necessary modification. The Aquasport had a horrible ornate scripty boat name on both sides. Putrid green typeface. Ugly. “Just take a minute and some 600 grit sandpaper and I’ll have that cleaned off,” I told Miss Pat, Patricia, Patty, my fence-climbing spouse. She looked at me and slowly shook her head. “Destiny,” she said.

The boat’s name happened to be Patty Gale II, and it remains to this day.

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