Steele’n TIME
Restoration of Fire-Damaged Beneteau Oceanis 390 in
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario

By David Steele

During my time on the Internet I was able to track down the original owner of the boat through the boat title records in Ohio. I discovered that a person in North Carolina originally owned the boat before it was brought to Ohio. Amazingly I was able to track down the original owner’s address and telephone number in a matter of minutes. I eventually spoke with the original owner to gain additional info on the boats history. I was able to gain valuable information regarding the condition of the motor and amount of use the boat had seen in the past. He explained that the boat had only been used for about 3 years before being struck by lightning at his dock in 1999 and that this was the cause of the fire, not vandalism as the seller had told me. This lack of use explained why the hull was in such good condition but also gave me particular concern because now I was also looking at possibly replacing many if not all of the electrical components and wiring, something that could and would add considerable time and cost.

Getting ready to restore the boat

We had made arrangements to have the boat delivered to a nearby marina located about 2 miles from our home called Gitchee Gummee Marina in Havilland Bay. When the boat finally arrived in mid August the first order of business was to enclose it with some sort of temporary structure to prevent any further water damage, this would also serve as indoor storage because in Canada it seems like winter can start anytime after Labour Day. An old steel greenhouse frame was used to cover the entire vessel from bow to stern. This was then covered by an 60 x 40 tarp. The inside of the structure was illuminated with construction lights powered by a generator while we were working.

Old cockpit

After enclosing the boat from the weather we had more time to survey the damage and remove parts that were too badly damaged to be repaired, which turned out to be most of them. A “To Do” list was prepared that would include items that had to be repaired or replaced in order to restore the boat to minimum operating condition, a second “Wish List” was prepared to which would be the items we would like to have on the boat in order to make it more comfortable cruising on when complete, these were also the items that could be easily deleted if costs began to become prohibitive. After reviewing the lists we estimated an amount of time that it would take to complete each one, this was probably our first mistake as we learned later that everything on a boat takes twice as long to repair and costs twice as much. Perhaps we were forgetting something but when we added the numbers up it looked like it was possible to have the boat easily completed in about 8 months working part time at it. Could this be possible?? Shouldn’t be a problem, I built my house in 9 months. Once again an adrenaline rush over took me and I started telling some friends that I might have this boat in the water by next spring. This might have been my second mistake because I think they all realized how much work was involved and knew they would have to help in order to make this new deadline. Discussing this new time frame with the wife was another story. I thought this was supposed to be a five year project? Why do we need to get it completed so fast? When will you find the time? And how do you plan on paying for it? These were a few of the questions she asked, some of the others cannot be printed! With surprisingly little convincing she agreed that we would put most things on hold and try to complete the boat for next spring, I was starting to see that she was just as excited about this as I was.

We only had about 2 months to complete the work required to seal the boat from the elements and do any work that was temperature sensitive as winter was quickly approaching. During this period my daily routine was to generally come home from my regular job and start another 8 hour shift inside some cramped area within the boat, weekends would involve many 16 hour days. Loretta and the kids would bring supper over to me and would usually try and clean some additional areas of the boat as the smoke had penetrated every nook and cranny, it was their way of saying I miss you! Over time the boat even started to feel like home, it is truly amazing that when you are immersed in a project like this that you become totally enveloped by it, you actually become addicted to it; truly eat, sleep and breathing it. We are not sure if this was good, bad, or normal.

New cockpit

During this time we were able to basically remove the complete interior of the boat and reinstalled only the pieces that were not damaged, millwork that was to be repaired or replaced was taken to my heated garage where I have a fairly decent array of woodworking tools. Keel bolts were replaced, headliners changed, deck and interior fiberglass refinished, hatches resealed, etc, etc... Measurements were also taken of any required sailing or mechanical/electrical part that would be needed by the spring. An electrician friend of mine also spent six days with me “ringing” every wire on the boat to confirm that they were OK after the lightning strike. Interestingly enough we actually found the circuit that caused the fire. We also determined that we needed a complete new main electrical panel as well as a voltage regulator and an alternator.

Work at the boat pretty much stopped by mid November due to the cold. Heaters placed inside the boat could not adequately bring the boat up to a comfortable temperature not to mention it was very difficult to work in winter clothing and gloves. Everything at the boat would now have to wait until April but there was still plenty to do in my work shop at home.

During the winter I continued my “the second shift” basically dividing the time between working in the garage and surfing the internet. Parts required to be tracked down and ordered were items like special order ash plywood to match the existing interior, electrical panel, winches, traveller, pedestal, quadrant, engine parts, lighting and even door handles. These were the items from the “To Do” list but the items from the “Wish List” were also just as numerous. When the decision was made to speed up the restoration we also made the decision to do it the way we would like the first time with all the bells and whistles. We decided to install top of the line marine electronics which included a Raymarine C120 chart plotter, radar, sonar, wind, speed, depth gauges and autopilot. In addition for comfort we also planned on installing a new VHF radio, DVD/MP3 player as well as three 15" LCD TVs with surround sound (one in each cabin and main salon). In order to power all this electrical equipment we would also purchase two 150 watt 24 volt solar panels capable of providing up to a combined 26 amps of power with a special Blue Sky controller. All this would be mounted on a new stainless steel radar arch complete with davits to carry the zodiac nice and high. Purchasing all this equipment in time meant spending as much time on the computer as working in the shop. I am not sure how long it would have taken to do this type of research ten years ago without the internet, even with a low speed dial up connection the task was made much simpler. Using the internet also makes the world a much smaller place as we were easily in touch with experts and companies all over the world such as France, Italy, England and of course the USA.

That winter we did not receive as much snow as usual, this was a blessing, coupled with unusually warm weather at the end of March enabled work to begin back on the boat by April 1st which gave me about 7 weeks to have the boat ready for launch in mid May. Once again the “second shift” began.

Installation of the completed new and refinished millwork began first, at the same time new wires and cables for the new electronics were also installed as it is much easier when everything is removed, heaven forbid I ever have to re feed anything! In addition to the existing wiring we eventually installed approx 1500 feet of additional new wiring to service all of these new components. Final touch ups of the interior were completed and when the weather became warm enough the entire interior received 3 more coats of spar varnish everything once again looked like new with a mirror finish when completed. All final electrical connections were also completed at the new panel as the new electronics were being installed and commissioning of them began.

New companionway

Now it was onto the motor which hadn’t been run since the fire in 1999. After a few feeble attempts to test and start the Volvo Diesel, one which resulted in a snapped off starter gear which in turn fell down into the motor behind the flywheel. We then had to remove the transmission, bell housing and flywheel in order to retrieve all the bits and pieces of the gear. Now I know why they say never hook up a garden hose to your fresh water intake! The motor had flooded with water causing a hydraulic lock in the cylinders, when we turned the motor over the cylinders were full of water and something had to give, thankfully it was just the starter as it could have been much worse. You would think that after doing all this work on the boat that I should have realized my limitations long before now and called a mechanic in the first place. I was beginning to wonder if I had left the motor too long and that this hunk of steel could be my downfall. What if I ruined the engine? I would never be able to buy one and install it before the proposed launch or even afford it. I was finally starting to get discouraged, I told my wife that if the motor was finished so was I for this year. Was I starting to fall into the same trap as the previous owner and ready to give up so easily? I contacted a friend of mine who knew a very good diesel mechanic although he had never worked on a boat before he was up for the challenge. The mechanic was out the next day and after spending about 15 hrs on the metal beast it came to life and began to roar! This time the intake water was being sucked out of a bucket! He reported that I had caused no damage with the water but said that I should be glad that the motor locked up as apparently the turbocharger was seized and if it had started would have caused major damage to the motor. With this news I was back on schedule for mid May launch.

With only the radar arch and solar panels left to install I would even have time to paint the bottom of the boat prior to launch. Its weird but this may be the only time in my life that I actually looked forward to painting the bottom of a boat but based on what I had completed in the last 6 months it seemed rather minuscule.

The boat was officially completed three days before the scheduled launch date of May 19, 2006 which was almost a year to the day from the first time I had laid eyes on her on EBay. On launch day I had several friends, family and fellow sailors attend to watch this major milestone and join in on the celebration, I also think that some of them were there just to see if it would float. Well it did float and it even looked better in the water, that day the boat was also christened with its new name “Steele’n TIME”, partially based on our last name and what had to be done in order to accomplish this project so fast. Once rigged we spent the next few weeks conducting shake down cruises around the bay in order to get all the gremlins worked out. Once fully operational, confidence in the boat grew quickly and we eventually sailed over 1200 miles that first summer. The following summer of 2007 we would go onto sailing over 2200 miles on the boat, our motto has become “let’s steal some time”.

Looking back in retrospect I do not know if I would attempt a project of this size again, quite frankly I am not sure if I would have the energy or sanity to do it all over again the way I did; patience or lack of it is truly a virtue. Perhaps if I would have kept with the original time frame of five years for completion the boat may have never been completed as I am sure it would have become more of a burden on the rest of my life and I would have more than likely given up on it. In addition to the energy required if it were not for a supportive family and particularly my wife Loretta assisting whenever she could it would not have been possible in the first place. She also really enjoys sailing the Great Lakes and truly shares the dream of sailing away someday. When we look back at photos of the condition of the boat when we first purchased it we often think that we must have been crazy or blind. We have never added up all the costs, this alone would probably be another good reason never to attempt again. We have also never added up all of our man hours working on the boat however I do know that there were so many that I did wear out a gas powered generator while working on the boat so there must be more than a few. On the positive side I know my boat inside and out which is a definite requirement for any Captain. I have also become much more knowledgeable with regards to boat repair and all systems on a boat; it seems that I have become somewhat of a local expert, kind of a Nigel Calder of the North (with the exception of diesel engine repair). Even though my project is now complete my work seems to never stop because recently two friends of mine have bought boats that would classify as fixer uppers. Although they are not even close to the extremely poor condition that mine started out in they will still require a fair amount of work to complete, and I have a lot of favours to repay.

Sailing the restored Beneteau Oceanis 390

Ask me if I would do it again? “Maybe?? Given the chance, but I don’t have to because I already have the boat of my dreams, it’s a Beneteau called Steele’n TIME”.

This is the conclusion to the article from the April 2008 issue.

Dave Steele has been avidly sailing the Great Lakes for over twenty years, logging over 18,000 miles in his travels. From their home located at Harmony Beach, Ontario, Dave along with
his wife Margaret (a.k.a. Loretta) and their two daughters Morgan and Mikayla spend as much time as they can exploring the remote northern shore
of Lake Superior and Lake Huron’s North channel.