The air in O’Rourke’s Boat Repairs on Penetang Bay is thick with white dust. A grinder churns across the fly bridge, spewing showers of tiny particles in its wake. Raw fingers of fiberglass cloth protrude from the bare hull. The rear deck plates have been removed revealing decades of grime, unfinished surfaces and the skeletal stringers.
It takes vision to see the beauty beneath it all and several sets of expert hands to restore this 28-foot Bertram to its rightfully regal place on the water.
Luxurious lines was only one vital element the owner, a seasoned sailor, was seeking when he began searching for the perfect powerboat to combine comfort with character. He needed something to handle the sometimes unpredictably wicked waves of his home waters of Georgian Bay, a vessel to comfortably accommodate guests for a full-day of cruising or for the weekend and local skilled talent to bring her back from the brink.
A Canadian boat broker began sourcing North America for a suitable boat and came up with the 1983 classic cruiser, her legendary design and traditional deep V-hull translating well to Georgian Bay from her Miami roots. Two days after spotting the Bertram and following a successful survey, Darling was on a truck heading for Larry O’Rourke’s Penetanguishene shop.
O’Rourke’s three decades of experience rejuvenating boats are backed by the generations of boat builders and lighthouse keepers that run in his family tree. The sense of satisfaction from a job more than well-done keeps him coming back year after year. “When you bring people down to see their boat when it’s done, they don’t even recognize their own boat. The smile on their faces is priceless.”
O’Rourke is no stranger to Bertrams – Darling’s shopmate is a 20-foot Bertram and two more wait outside in the yard. These classic beauties are popular projects. “They’re desirable boats. They hold their value and they’re a really good Georgian Bay boat,” O’Rourke said. “To buy a comparable boat new, well, you end up with a better boat restored. There’s a certain ‘feel good’ factor too that can’t be defined by price alone. “You get the pleasure of boating on Georgian Bay in a classic boat.”
That being said, it’s important to embark on the project properly. “You don’t put a new house on an old foundation,” O’Rourke said. “We started at the basement. When we go right down to the bare hull, it’s pretty hard to find surprises later on.”
Bertrams boast a deservedly solid reputation. “The original fiberglass is hand laid and it’s good solid glass. You start with that and put a new backbone back in and it starts to look pretty. It’s a lot of fun, really, to be involved with these,” he said running a practiced eye over the work in progress.
It’s also good value. O’Rourke said, “Every boat is different but the cost is considerably less than if you purchased the same boat new. Two guys working full time on it will put in about 350 man-hours.” He cautioned that’s likely a conservative estimate so early in the process. O’Rourke ticked off numbers: $30,000 to strip, repair and rebuild; a $15,000 custom paint job. “It adds up, but to purchase that boat new would be a hundred grand easy, probably $120,000. Even with all the restoration costs it will still be way under the new price.”
While many customers prefer to wait for the end result, O’Rourke maintains an open door policy and invites owners to drop in throughout the process. “I encourage customers to come in to have a better appreciation for the money they’re spending.”
All the old hardware and rod holder holes will be blanked out and O’Rourke’s craftsmen will begin with a hull as fresh and pristine as the day it rolled out from the factory.
The work begins with an all new stringer system. “This is quality marine grade mahogany,” O’Rourke said, running his hand over the rich dark wood. The wood will be covered in fiberglass so no water will ever penetrate it. “This boat will never have to have new stringers.”
It’s a complete transformation. Original hardware will be re-chromed; others replaced with new stainless steel. “We’ll dress her up with new hardware and then custom build added features to personalize the boat.”
For this project a redesign is planned. The Bertram’s lower helm will be removed to create a storage locker with a chart table on top and additional galley room to open up the cabin. “It gives a lot more usable space down below,” O’Rourke explained. “It’s perfect as a weekender boat when foul weather keeps you below.” New appliances, sink, faucet and head will also be installed.
The original white hull will be changed to a dark blue hull with a light upper deck. Gold leaf lettering will put the finishing touch on Darling’s makeover.
Just up the road at Lee’s Marine Service Inc. another piece of the Darling project takes shape. A large cardboard box disgorges its twisted contents, a veritable dog’s breakfast of wires, suspicious sections bulging under layers of electrical tape.
Lee Bruce says much of it won’t need replacing due to the elimination of the cabin helm for a fly bridge only driver’s seat. Across the shop, neat rows of rods, pistons and valves are lined up beside the stripped down block.
The two engines are not a matched set. One is a 305, the other a 350. By the time Bruce is finished with a bigger bore cylinder block, both engines will be 350s.
The information is more fodder for a question to be carefully considered: repower versus restoration? Bruce weighs the pros and cons and said, “If it was me. I’d repower with new technology.” He said the consistent performance of fuel injection and reliability of new equipment tips the balance for him. “Old engines are carbureted. Most new ones are fuel-injected. Do they use less fuel? It’s fairly close but fuel injection runs the same each time, consistently, and it’s more user-friendly.”
Cost is another factor. “Everything is going to cost about the same as buying new. Everybody has different reasons for doing restoration.” He estimates in the end it may be slightly cheaper, by about 20 per cent. “If you go the restoring route it’s expensive as it’s labour intensive,” Bruce warns. But for many, character wins out over cost. “You have to love the boat, but you could buy a new boat with no character.
This is not for the faint of heart do-it-yourselfer. It takes an eight-hour day per engine just to remove it from the boat and totally disassemble it in the shop. Then the real work begins. With 25 years in the business, Bruce admits to being pretty fussy, but it pays off with dozens of repeat customers who bring him their pet projects. “I’ve been in business a long time and seen a lot of bad stuff. I don’t want any problems [once the boat is back on the water]. I want him to have as good as new. I’ll replace everything. Any part that moves will be checked, repaired or replaced. All clearances are checked to see if they’re within specifications. I’ll look for wear, gouges and other indicators of problems.”
For this project he plans to install new starters, alternators and water pumps instead of rebuilding with what he considers inferior parts. The list lengthens as he talks about rebuilding the transmission, resealing parts, disassembling the exhaust manifold and installing new gaskets. At this point it’s hard to estimate the true time and project cost since it depends on what Bruce finds. “If you want to be worry free you really need to do it all and do it all at once. Rebuilding in stages is just not economical. Spend a little more and do it right. Anything that is mechanical is eventually going to break. I use the best quality parts I can to assure there’s no problems.”
Bruce’s best advice is, “Find a great service provider and stick with them. Then really look at the cost. Just like a house renovation it always costs more than you expect.” Bruce’s bottom line when considering restoration is, “You really have to love the boat to do a restoration.”