Converting a Vessel


(Published in Nautical Scene 1998)

By - Nancy Terrell


I recently noticed a small ad from a recent on-line classified:

70' liveaboard recently converted trawler, spacious accommodation  & decks 3bds, 2bths, 2 diesel engines & generator......$250,000

Sounds like someone did a conversion cost fairly effectively, doesn't it? Even more so when you learn those dollars are itty-bitty Hong Kong ones!  I'll save you the math: US$ 32,000!


Start talking to sailors in the Caribbean about inexpensive options of living aboard an old converted workboat.  You will find that the general consensus of advice seems to be - don't do it - old work boats are nothing but time and trouble - fiberglass is better than wood or steel, modern yachts are superior, conversions are too much work, etc.  Why is there so much negativity on this subject?    Wondering about this reaction I began visiting harbors with liveaboards, of which many are converted workboats, and found a very different attitude.


After spending hurricane season '98 in Maine, Monty Adamson told me, "I own a steel Navy tugboat that has been converted to a great cruiser/liveaboard, so I have a fair idea of what's involved in converting a work boat to a live aboard. It is a major project that takes 7 days a week  unless you can afford to hire most of the work done, in which case you could by a Nordhaven.  It is lots of work but very rewarding. Once you make the decision to embark on such a project, you will discover that there are many newer workboats available to chose from, cutting time and cost of conversion. My advice is to shop carefully.  An old cheap boat is not necessarily the best buy."


Monty's wife Jane adds that she loves the feedback from fishermen who ask about their boat's origin the design and changes made, even offer moorings for an overnight stay. However, Jane added that some of those with shiny fancy yachts weren't too happy to be docked next door.

Converting isn't for everyone and it is not necessarily a cheap way out, but many live aboards say that it is very worthwhile. The cost is very attractive to some.  Don Winters that told me about a 75', all steel gulf shrimp boat that he found.  It was a bare boat built in 1969 with no engine, no genset, "no nothing", but lots of room. The owner was in a bind, and wanted $50,000 for it. The bank repossessed and Don purchased the vessel for $25,000. Today, after years of work and cruising, it is lovely.  Most people can afford such a project when you think of the comparable cost of buying a house.


Admittedly, living on a boat may not be suitable for everyone, nor is long distance cruising - in any vessel. Current pleasure boat designs available on the market meet the requirements of some people but most of us don't have that kind of cash. Designs like Nordhaven evoke an  image and  concept of  a workboat or fishing trawler.  But what is wrong with having the real thing instead of a glitzy fiberglass imitation affordable only by the rich?  Owning a gleaming, polished pleasure yacht boldly announces to the world "look at me - here is wealth!"  Most yachties I know wouldn't go that route even if they had the money.


Also money is not the best message to broadcast, if for no other reason than to avoid the attention of those who would rip you off in distant harbors.

However, there are other reasons for converting a workboat besides cost.  Wooden boats can be better than fiberglass in many respects.  Just ask any woody owner aficionado!  Over the years I have read numerous articles about old wooden ships, some over a hundred years old, which have been the floating home to families travelling all over the world. These boats have a unique character never attained by production built imitations.


As for costs, I wonder if the detractors are comparing apples and oranges.  Who says a conversion must be brought up to "luxury yacht" standards.   If the bridge, engine room and running gear are already functional, most of the conversion consists of adding a deckhouse over the open deck and converting the cargo hold to living accommodations.  


For the most part this is not the most expensive part of ship construction. You are enclosing volume that is occupied by furniture and people.  In a roomy cabin ordinary furniture like you have ashore may can easily be used instead of custom built stuff designed to fit into very tight spaces while still providing the functionality of the shore side equivalent.


What motivates some people to restore old boats to their former glory?  Often the project has to do with retaining a bit of history, a sample of a bygone era, a reminder of other times, etc.   Sometimes it is simply because . . . its neat!  Acquiring a boat is much like getting married - sometimes practicality and logic has nothing to do with it.  It's an emotional thing. You fall in love!  Boats are about dreams and having dreams is what motivates most of us to strive beyond merely staying alive with a roof over our heads.  To some of us living on a boat is life itself.