Most yacht refits start with a well-worn or slightly outdated boat and a motivated owner looking to make it like new again. This one starts with a brand-new boat, the 74‘ (22.6m) sportfisherman Afunday built by Spencer Yachts in Wanchese, North Carolina, and an experienced refit yard that bought her on spec at auction after she’d run for just 78 hours after her launching. That’s right, you’re about to read a story about refitting a brand-new Spencer sportfisherman.
First, here’s a brief account of a yacht delivery gone wrong that rocketed around the Internet in January 2016 and made boat builders and owners who read it cringe in sympathy and immediately knock wood and cross fingers in hopes that it wouldn’t happen to us. Afunday had left North Carolina December 30, en route to her new owner’s home in Trinidad. The delivery crew made some stops along the way, including one to refuel at the Puerto Del Rey Marina in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. In the predawn hours of January 14 they got under way with ambitions to reach Saint Lucia that night—a run of some 500 nautical miles. But they never got clear of Puerto Rico’s coastal waters. An error in navigation sent Afunday crashing at speed into the submerged “Roca Lavandera Del Oest” shoal south east of Fajardo, ripping multiple holes in her bottom. The boat flooded but was towed to shallow water before she could sink completely. (Photos of the scene and high-water lines in the hull indicate she was essentially awash aft and submerged to just below her sheerline forward.) The crew was rescued by local marine patrol, and a SeaTow contractor salvaged the stricken vessel, safely transferred her full load of diesel fuel, and got her back to Fajardo, where she was hauled, stabilized, and subjected to numerous investigations, surveys, and nearly a year in limbo before her fate was determined.
John Patnovic, owner of Worton Creek Marina (Chestertown, Maryland), found out in the summer of 2016 that salvage experts Cooper Capital Salvage Management were auctioning the ill-fated vessel. Patnovic’s yard manager, Patrick Callahan, recalled that they had been aware of the boat from the first news of the grounding. “We had just finished the refit of a 58‘ [17.7m] water-damaged Viking, and one of our friends sent us an e-mail the day after it happened and said, ‘Here’s your next project.’ ” It was the Spencer.
Certainly the boat interested many potential buyers, but the unknown condition of major components like the twin 2,600-hp MTU M96Ls, the generators, wiring, and Seakeeper stabilizers that had all been underwater for four days, kept them at bay. Also, to successfully repair the serious structural damage to the wood, foam, and fiberglass hull would require a skilled engineer and workforce.
Patnovic made a three-day excursion to Fajardo to assess the boat. He liked the quality of the essentially new sportfisherman and the approximately $6.5 million price she’d left Spencer Yachts for. But the damage from the grounding was extensive, including a broken keelson; a 25‘ (7.6m) hole on the port side where the boat had initially hit the rock; numerous penetrations; and smashed stringers and chine log on the starboard side where the boat had been repeatedly ground down on the rocks as she worked in the swells.
“What I look for is, if I buy it and repair it, can I sell in a worst-case scenario and get out whole?” he explained. That formula has worked well at Worton Creek since Patnovic bought the yard 20 years ago. He’s made a habit of keeping some sinking-, storm-, and fire-damaged vessels around as a buffer for his workforce. “What we try to do is to always keep one waiting, so if things get slow, we’ve got work for the guys to jump right on,” Callahan said.
It meant that along with the right price, the Spencer job, like the many smaller or less damaged boats that came before it, “couldn’t impinge on the shipyard operations,” Patnovic said. His exploratory visit to Puerto Del Rey, some consultation, and deliberation convinced him that the unfortunate boat had a future in Worton Creek’s refit program. He bought it.
In the rush of online attention and misinformation immediately following the grounding, a number of wags on fishing and powerboat forums had joked about slapping on some plywood patches, strapping on a couple of outboards, and driving the distressed boat to Florida to rebuild in their backyards. The actual solution was more complicated but only slightly more elegant.
“John went down to Puerto Rico and hired Island Marine Inc., a contractor at the Puerto Del Rey Marina. Their crew made up patches, basically putting foam—not structural foam, just Styrofoam pieces—in the big holes to make them flat. Then they put ¾“ [19mm] plywood over it with 5200 [adhesive], screwed that into the bottom, and fiberglassed over it,” Callahan said.
Of the 25 patches, only two leaked, and those were made watertight when the boat was hauled again to complete preparations for the 40-mile crossing from Puerto Rico to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. SeaTow Puerto Rico, which had salvaged the boat, towed her to St. Thomas, where she waited at the dock, leaking less than one gallon (3.8 l) per day.
Afunday became deck cargo from St. Thomas to Philadelphia on a Sevenstar Yacht Transport freighter, arriving January 14, during one of the coldest weeks on the Chesapeake that winter. The day before, Patnovic fired up his 90‘ (27.4m) Burger (another salvage job) and after a bit of icebreaking in Worton Creek, headed up the bay and through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to rendezvous with the crane-equipped yacht transport in Philadelphia.
“We tied up to the freighter, and they lowered it right down behind us,” Callahan said.
Towing the rudderless sportfisherman back down the river on her own bottom was a challenge as she had little directional stability and tended to range from side to side. “We were dragging lines and five-gallon [18-l] buckets, and that sort of calmed her down,” Patnovic said. They were forced to tie up in the canal for three days waiting for the ice to clear back in Worton Creek.
When the cold relented, crews hauled the sportfisherman into the construction shop at Worton Creek Marina. The 100‘ by 70‘ area with 44‘ height at the eaves (30.5m by 21.4m by 13.4m) accommodated the full flying bridge, with plenty of room to swing a crane when it came time to lift the top off the deckhouse and pull the 10,000-lb (4,536-kg) engines.
The boat was leveled and supported by keel blocks every 5‘ (1.5m) and 20 jackstands per side. Despite her damage she was still stiff and had held her shape through a year on the hard in Fajardo and shipping north. Rob Schofield, a naval architect and engineer hired to consult and document the project, noted that when he surveyed the boat, no joinery inside appeared to have moved, and doors opened and closed easily.
Next, crews removed the well-bonded patches with air chisels and other cutting and chipping tools to reveal the work to be done.
Bottom Structure Triage
“No boat is going to get a harder survey than this one when we go to sell it,” Callahan said. With that in mind, better than new became the goal for the entire project.
Patnovic: “We wanted to pretty much duplicate how Spencer had built it.” As crews pulled off the patches, he prioritized the repairs. The traumatic damage to the bottom would clearly be the hardest thing to put right. It became the top priority. They hired Schofield to conduct a thorough survey and plan the repairs.
They got in touch with the builder’s key suppliers, including those for wood, epoxy, foam core, fiberglass, and running gear. In the end they were able to use just about all the same materials and components. Epoxy was Copoxy brand from Endurance Technologies; fiberglass—double bias, biaxial, and chopped strand mat (CSM)—was from VectorPly; foam core was Divinycell; and the wood for structural stringers was clear Douglas-fir.
Their sources secure, they went back to the boat to determine quantities of the materials they would need. Measuring forward from the transom and recording at the chine or hull side, Schofield made a detailed map of the hull damage: a break in the keelson under the engineroom; the 25‘ by 4‘ (7.6m by 1.2m) scrape on the port side where the boat originally hit and decelerated; and the smaller penetrations from rocks on the starboard side when the boat pounded on the reef, splintering the laminated Douglas-fir chine and bottom stringers.
Starting to starboard, crews peeled back the damaged exterior laminates and cut out the dented or cracked foam core. Schofield said they didn’t bother with nondestructive testing to determine the extent of damaged composite, preferring instead to “keep grinding it until the damage stops.” Large areas of glass and foam were removed bridging multiple damaged areas. Some of the hull laminate inner skin remained intact, but significant areas of the bottom were removed, particularly in way of the largely empty engineroom.
“When we had the area opened, we did fiberglass repairs to the inside while the guys could stand through the bottom of the boat,” Callahan said. This took the curse off working in the relatively confined engineroom space, allowing the dirty grinding work to be done before closing it in again.
The other major structural elements to be repaired were the longitudinal stringers of roughly 6“ by 6“ (152mm by 152mm) laminated Douglas-fir. The starboard chine stringer had been punched through in multiple places, leaving it a splintered mass held in place by the laminate around it.
“It looked like a loose deck of cards,’” said shipwright Ray Circo, head of the crew rebuilding the bottom.
Changing chines and stringers
Other stringers were less severely compromised, but the staggered 16“ (406mm) overlaps of multiple layers of ¾“ (19mm) fir Schofield approved for repairs meant that replacement of a 3‘ (0.9m) damaged section required cutting steps in the stringers 8‘ (2.4m) either side of the repair. That was complicated by the original construction.
“When they built the stringers, they fiberglassed [them] into the hull,” Callahan said. “We had to remove the wood without damaging the fiberglass [inner skin], because that was all that was structurally there. We had to basically chew out the stringers, a huge bulk of material you’ve got to remove upside down with a man sitting on the floor working overhead.”
The solution was developed on the shop floor: an upside-down drill press allowed a technician to carefully remove the bulk of the wood to a desired depth with a butterfly bit chucked in the drill. Cleaning up the final faying surfaces for the stepped laps joining the original to the new laminated section of stringer was done by hand, but most of the awkward overhead handwork was eliminated.
Also complicating bottom repairs, especially on the starboard chine replacement, was the absence of original lines drawings. “What helped me on this was a lot of the wooden boat repairs that I had done,” Circo said. “A lot of this was missing, and I didn’t have any offsets to go by. So you’ve got to do it by eye and take whatever points you have.”
While the whole chine was gone and the keel broken between the engines, the engine stringers were still in place. To accurately define the chine shape, the crew built a jig attached to the engine stringers. They were able to pick the points off the undamaged port chine as a mirror image of what they needed to build to starboard and then laminate the new chine stringer on that jig. They followed a similar process in replacing the stringers in way of the big scrape on the port side.
The next step was replacing broad sections of the hull’s foam-core laminate skin. Schofield specified materials and procedures for repairs of the full laminate thickness, laminates where the inner skin remained intact, and simpler external skin patches.
The replacement laminate schedule was symmetrical. Inner and outer skins started with a surface layer of 1.5-oz/sq-ft (450 gr/m²) E-glass CSM, followed by a layer of double bias (±45) VectorPly E-BXM 1708, a layer of biaxial (0/90) VectorPly E-LTM 3610, followed by an inner layer of 1.5-oz E-glass CSM next to the core. In the hull bottom the foam between those skins was 2“ (51mm) H100 Divinycell, and in the topsides, 1¼“ (31.8mm) of the same foam.
In making repairs, Schofield specified that all damaged foam be removed cleanly with a router and chisel. The inner skin surface (where intact) was to be lightly sanded and cleaned for secondary bonding. Then a 6″-wide bevel was to be ground in the outer skin surrounding the router-cut edges. Next, technicians were to cut repair pieces to fit in the routed area of missing foam with a 1⁄6“ (1.6mm) gap around the edges. The repair foam was then glued in place with thickened epoxy putty, completely filling the gap around it and on the face bonding to the inner skin, where it was still intact. Once that cured, the patches were sanded flush with the surrounding original core material.
Next, to laminate the external skin in place, Schofield specified that the first CSM ply cover the entire patch plus the 6“ feathered edge of the original laminate. Biaxial E-LTM 3610 was cut to overlap by 4“ (102mm), followed by the double-bias E-BXM 1708 with 2″ overlap, and finally the outer layer of CSM at 6″ overlap. Sounds simple until you realize that most of it would have to be done overhead.
Vacuum Bagging Bonanza
That’s when Circo and his colleague Phil Perry suggested calling in repair specialist Reid Fleming of Fleming Marine Composites (Riviera Beach, Florida), who they had seen present a composites repair seminar at the International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference (IBEX) in 2017. In spring 2018, Fleming visited the project and planned an intensive week of vacuum-bagging the outer laminates on most of the repaired areas. Worton Creek’s crew had prepped the foam core repairs, and Schofield had approved the use of an alternative resin formulation and hardener based on the need to have the wet laminates hang on the core overhead as vacuum bags were fixed and vacuum pulled to hold it all in place while the resin cured.
Patnovic said the final repairs were conducted with Copoxy’s #2110A and #2110TA thickened epoxy resin, mixed with hardeners #9227B and #9260B depending on the gel time required.
Callahan said they set up long cutting and wet-out tables in the shop and staged the vacuum bag material and adhesive beforehand. On the day Fleming returned, “it was an all-hands effort,” Patnovic said. With eight Worton Creek crew working with Fleming and one of his technicians, they wet out the four layers of laminate at a time and wrapped them on a rigid tube, carried them to the hull, and unrolled them in place over the foam core before fitting peel ply and the vacuum bag and pulling vacuum while the stack cured. Completing three sections per day, Patnovic said they laminated about 80% of the bottom repairs in the week Fleming was there. A few smaller patches had to wait until blocking and jackstands were moved and the keel repair completed.
In areas where the full hull thickness had been missing and only a 3“ shoulder of inner skin was intact for bonding the repair core, the step following the outer laminate repair was to hand-lay the inner skin laminates. They were executed with the same overlaps as the outer skin but were not vacuum-bagged.
Because the resin system requires four hours of exposure to 180°F (82°C) to achieve full mechanical properties, the repair crew post-cured all patched areas using heating blankets and insulation.
The final step in the composite patches, inside and out, was to sand the repaired area, fair it with Alexseal fairing compounds, and paint it with epoxy prime coats. The color of the topsides, Callahan said, will be up to the buyer of the restored sportfisherman. The inside repairs were faired and painted white to match the original high-standard finish.
Mechanical and Systems
“Anything that went underwater was replaced,” Callahan said. “New engines, generators, Seakeepers, watermakers, chilled-water A/C, all new pumps, everything electrical, all new electric panels.”
The twin 16-cyl 2,600-hp MTU M96Ls had been pickled as soon as the boat was brought to the marina at Fajardo, but Patnovic wanted nothing to do with them. If it was to sell as a like-new boat, the engines and all the onboard systems had to be just that, he reasoned. Removing the engines and generators as soon as the boat got to Worton Creek also helped accommodate structural repairs in a way that would have been difficult with those components in place.
Fortunately, before they set about removing the engines, Callahan learned that “when the boat was being built, the engines were delayed, and they’d put the deck on before the engines. So the boat had a huge hatch in the saloon floor already.” Usually there’s only a hatch big enough to bring a block up, which would mean breaking down the big diesels in the engineroom. “We could take the hard top off and cut the flybridge, take the hatch out, and then lift the engines through the roof,” he said. They also took out the old Caterpillar generators and the twin #9 Seakeeper gyrostabilizers buried deep in the accommodation space forward of the engineroom. That required removing some Tricel honeycomb–cored interior bulkheads, which showed no sign of water intrusion. The stabilizers were replaced with identical new ones, but the original generators were replaced with Cummins Onan units.
The main engines, the same model MTUs with the same model transmissions, had a collective price tag of around $1.3 million according to Patnovic, who has kept close watch on project expenses. They went in the way the old ones were removed, and were installed with the help of engine expert Jeff Hathaway of Hathaway Marine (Wanchese, North Carolina) after all the structural repairs were complete, the engineroom refinished, and the wiring, right down to grounding straps, replaced.
None of that came easy. “We didn’t have wiring diagrams, so we had to do it the old-fashioned way,” Callahan said. “Before we took anything apart, we took pictures of everything.” They photographed again when the engines were out. “That way we could see where the wires ran…we could trace back as much as possible.” This was vital as they assembled near-exact copies to replace the panels and wires that had been underwater, and connected them to almost exact copies of all components that were replaced.
The high-speed grounding had destroyed the running gear. The propellers were shredded on the rocks; the rudders pulled out of the lazarette, making holes in the bottom; the custom bronze struts were bent and twisted; and the 3½“ stainless steel shafts were bent and held out of alignment by the struts.
“When we cut the shafts it sounded like a shotgun, and they sprung apart by about 2½“ they had so much pressure on them,” Callahan said.
Replacement struts came from Southeastern Foundries (Greensboro, North Carolina) and new shafts from Western Branch Metals (Suffolk, Virginia) through Miller’s Island Propeller (Baltimore). Somewhat miraculously, no tanks had ruptured, so they were tested and returned to service. The same was true for much of the plumbing, Callahan said.
Interior finish of the original boat was simple teak-grained Wilsonart laminate cabinetry and vinyl-covered plywood padded interior panels. In the resurrected version, the former is being repaired with new doors and drawers built in Worton Creek’s carpentry shop, and the latter will have the foam padding replaced before being covered in new vinyl and reinstalled. Panels that got wet will be entirely replaced. In the compartments under bunks and in lockers, the carpet lining was removed and replaced with like material. All galley appliances and components were replaced, and in January 2019 the only major components left to install were the refrigeration units, countertops, and engine exhausts.
Since taking on the ambitious Spencer project, Patnovic has become even more keen on what he calls the “distressed boats” market. When we spoke in January he had hired five new workers at the yard, primarily to work on salvaged boats. He noted that the market had shifted in his favor following the 2008 recession. Prior to that, potential owners were bidding too high on damaged boats for it to be worth his time. “Now prices are in a range where we can make a profit,” he said. Alongside the Spencer, he had a hurricane-scarred Berger 83, a fire-damaged Princess 72, and a Regal 42 that had been aground. “Most are totaled because you can’t put them in a shipyard at $90 an hour,” he said. Yet they’re too big for the skilled backyard repairer to afford on spec. That’s when they fit into his formula as an adjunct to his full-service boatyard and marina with a depth of skilled boatbuilders in-house, and the financial capacity to back the risk of refitting them without owners.
A spring launching will see the powerful sportfisherman written off in 2016 back in the water as a like-new Spencer, and the market will reveal whether Patnovic’s bet on this particular boat was the right one.