Remodeling a Surf Scoter

by Eric HutchinsonSweet Pea quarter

I’d lusted after the Devlin-designed 22 foot Surf Scoter since I first saw one many years ago. It struck me as the perfect boat for the “Great Loop”… the 5,000-odd mile circuit of the Eastern US down the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Tombigbee Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico, then around Florida and north on the Intracoastal Waterway to Chesapeake Bay, up the Hudson River to the Eire Canal, and through the Great Lakes to Chicago, where you can again connect with the rivers to complete the circuit. The Surf Scoter is easily trailerable, yet looked stout enough to handle any rough waters one might meet on the mostly-protected waterways.

After a frank talk with Sam Devlin about the costs of building one myself, I decided it was out of my reach financially till he showed me a used one behind his shop that had been built some 15 years earlier by an Oregon boat builder. I’d built a number of small stitch and glue boats myself over the years, and this one clearly exceeded my own “good enough” style of slap it together “master crapsmanship”. And the price was right.

So one Spring morning in 2008 I borrowed a truck, hooked up the trailer for my new toy yacht, hauled it up to Seattle and gingerly maneuvered it into our driveway. I spent several weeks cleaning it up and removing wiring and cables for equipment no longer on the boat, epoxying some bare areas, replaced the dead batteries, topped up the hydraulic steering fluid and took her out for an initial test ride. The results were discouraging; it had a top speed of only 8 knots, though Sam told me it should go 12 with her horsepower. The autopilot didn’t work, the steering seat was incredibly uncomfortable, and the engine would only get up to 3800 RPM, though it red-lined at 6,000. The hydraulic steering was balky, it was awkward getting from the cockpit into our dinghy, and lacking a bow roller, retrieving the anchor was a real pain in the back.

After some internet research I found a properly-pitched prop for the old Honda outboard and her speed shot up to over 12 knots with two people aboard. I mocked up a bowsprit and twin swim platforms that would both carry our dinghy out of the water, and make boarding it a snap. I removed the plastic captain’s seat, and using old plywood I mocked up a starboard side console containing a steering seat with storage and icebox under. Then I took the boat down to my local Honda outboard dealer and asked him to replace the badly-corroded “$300 engine mount.”

In hindsight, I should have taken Sam’s advice and just run the engine until it died. Because when they tried to remove the engine, the mount turned out to be so badly corroded they had to cut away the hydraulic steering hoses, and announced that to repair the engine would cost nearly as much as a new one. So a week later I drove away with a new engine, new hydraulic steering installed with warranty-voiding Teflon tape, a junked auto pilot, and a badly-depleted bank account. And I realized what I should have known before… that commercial boat dealers tend to hire kids who know no more than you do, and CARE a lot less than you how your boat turns out.

The lesson was driven home when I launched and found the tachometer was reading about half its normal RPMs … the new engine required a different tach! I still cringe when I think about breaking-in my expensive new engine at double the RPM the lying tachometer was reading.

Then it was off to northern Vancouver Island for a test of all my mocked-up additions. We made great time, getting to Campbell River in a mere three days from Seattle, We fished, swam in the lakes, took in the mountains and the fiords, and ran with the Orcas in Johnstone Strait, snug in our stout little cruiser. She cut through the waves with the solid motion of a big trawler, not the tooth-jarring pounding of the average 22 footer. Everything worked great, and even with funky plywood swim platforms and an old 2×6 for a bowsprit, people complimented our boat left and right. They said she had a salty look, the kind of boat Popeye the sailor would like. So we decided to name it after Popeye’s baby, Sweet Pea. Now it was back home to build the “real” improvements that hopefully would work as well as the mock-ups, and look as good as the boat itself.

Part Two: Building the Real Thing

The boat was built so well I hesitated to start on the final renovations, because I was afraid my feeble woodworking skills wouldn’t measure up to the original workmanship. So I wasted a lot of time re-measuring, researching, and just plain stalling. When I finally got started, each job went a lot easier than I’d feared. I built the new swim platforms out of Ipe’, a South American hardwood used for decks, because I was too cheap to spring for teak. They turned out well, but are heavy as battering rams. Still, if I ever back into a slip on the Great Loop a little too fast, they should be able to hold their own against the hardest concrete dock.

I fashioned the bowsprit from Philippine Red Mahogany. It looks pretty good, and seems stout enough to punch a hole through even a vessel claiming passing rights based on the “Rule of Gross Tonnage.” I also installed the single-hander’s savior … an electric windlass with its switch next to the wheel, which allows me to set and retrieve my Maxwell Supreme with pinpoint accuracy amongst the hordes of boats anchored off Key West or the Miami Yacht Club.

We installed a new opening bronze hatch into the anchor well for more light and ventilation, and after a lot of agonizing, decided to re-paint the hull from its original matt black to a glossy grey. We liked the black, but I’d read Sam Devlin’s boat-building book detailing all the maintenance problems a dark-colored hull causes. Plus we knew from bitter experience that the inside of the dark hull was hot to the touch by 7 AM on a sunny summer morning. The grey looks nearly as good, and it is certainly keeps the boat far cooler in sunny weather. And since Great Loopers generally follow the sun, heading north as the Spring approaches and returning South in the Fall, she should be seeing a lot of sun.

Speaking of sun, we decided we needed a removable canvas cockpit cover to ward off those cancer-causing rays, as well as deflect the Seattle rain. I researched getting a framework built from aluminum, but it looked like even the cheapest would be north of a thousand bucks. Again, my stinginess won out, and I installed steam-bent ash supports, while my Sweetie sewed up a Sunbrella canvas cover. It’s worked out great — for trailering we just roll it up and toss it inside the cabin. When cruising, the roll of carbon-fiber reinforced fir battens and Sunbrella ties on the roof, and it takes but a minute to roll it out and cinch it tight over the framework. The whole thing is very stable, has little windage, and never flaps, even when running fast into a strong wind. The cover makes cockpit lounging in our folding deck chairs mighty nice, regardless of the weather. As a side benefit the hefty wood framework serves as a great handhold while boarding the boat and going forward on the side decks. It’s also a clothes line and sun-shower support while cruising. And the whole shebang cost less than a hundred bucks and a few hours work …. well, maybe a lot of hours of work.

Building our steering seat/storage/icebox counter was even more work. I wanted the seat to slide out athwartships while under way to give more shoulder clearance. Eventually I came up with a rail system that slides smoothly, locks in place, and gives a badly-needed additional half-foot of elbow room. I steam-bent a removable back rest that works pretty well, but I’d still like to come up with a better place to store it while at anchor. Overall the counter provides a lot of needed chart and tool storage, as well as a place for our well-insulated ice-box. A frozen gallon jug of water or a bag of ice will keep our beer and perishables cold for up to 4 days in the summer, and of course the bilge provides tons of additional cool storage, at least in the Northwest.

Another problem was that the original 6-gallon water tank was way too small for any serious cruising. Because of structural considerations, I had to build a bigger one in-place in the bilge, which was a bit like building a boat in a bottle. Still, it more than doubled our water capacity, and should allow us to go for up to a week between stops. Adding a deck fill made getting water a far easier job, and one that could now be done single-handed, if necessary.

The new LED lighting has brightened up the cabin areas and cut battery usage quite a bit. I’ve also found an LED anchor light which should be a major power saver.

After installing a new depth-sounder, a new radio and antenna, and hooking up the GPS to the radar, I find myself just about ready to start the Great Loop cruise. All I have to do now is rewire the trailer lights, load up about a hundred pounds of charts, and find enough money in the bank account to pay for 800 gallons of gas!

I’m facing one final dilemma. I’d love to brighten up the dark front cabin by painting the overhead a nice reflective white, as most of Sam’s boats are finished. But I’d have to cover up a whole lot of the beautiful dark veneer, and it seems a real shame.

Thanks! — Eric