The Fred Bully Project
December 6, 2019
The story of one man’s dream of turning a derelict sailboat into a mini harbor launch. By David Nathan Palmer
One day after a big storm in the fall of 2006, I came to work at the Nantucket Boat Basin and discovered the hull of a 14-foot O’Day Javelin sailboat wedged under the docks. The boat, bearing the name Red Bull, was half submerged and missing its mast and rigging. The bottom was covered in barnacles and two coats of ugly red paint, while the cockpit was green with algae. Worse, when I tried to pump out the water, I found that the hull had a 12-inch gash in the bottom. With considerable effort I managed to haul the wreck onto the marina’s work raft, where it sat for the entire winter.
The boat was a mess, to be sure, but after looking at it day after day, I came to appreciate its lines. I figured with a little elbow grease and a few bucks, it might even make a small but handsome launch.
As the weeks went by and no one turned up to claim the boat, I joked to my co-workers that I was going to paint an “F” and a “Y” on the ends of the name to disguise it. I didn’t know it, but I was already on my way toward a complicated restoration project that would take me over two years to complete.
Come spring, I started scraping the barnacles and some of the old paint off the bottom. To my relief, I found that the hull was salvageable. By now I was determined to keep the boat, so I went to the harbormaster and claimed scavenger rights. However, before I could obtain ownership of the boat, I’d have to wait until the town ran an ad in the local newspaper describing all unclaimed property that would be auctioned off, destroyed, or given away. This would give the former owner a chance to reclaim his boat.
I waited anxiously during the auction, but luckily the boat remained unclaimed. A new hull ID number was issued by the Massachusetts Environmental Police and I was able to get a title.
In early summer I moved the boat to the nearby beach, where the captain of a visiting yacht helped me repair the bottom and repaint the topsides and hull. It came out better than I imagined!
My labors eventually attracted the attention of Tim Lewis, a local boat mechanic, who offered to let me use his shop so I could work indoors. Even better, he had all the tools I needed for a professional job.
The first major problem I encountered was the Javelin’s fiberglass-encapsulated plywood transom, which was completely rotted. I dug the crumbling plywood from between the fiberglass then filled the space with expanding foam and re-glassed the whole thing.
Any true harbor launch needs a stylish swim platform, and so would mine. As supports for the platform, I cut two slots in the transom and slid L-brackets through from the inside, then I bolted them to the transom, sealing the edges with 3M 5200. I later hid the brackets and bolts with an inner transom cover made from a piece of plywood I treated with mahogany stain and coated with two-part epoxy to give it a shiny, varnished look.
The swim platform itself was made from a piece of one-inch plywood, with a piece of quarter-inch plywood glued on top. The thinner top section was routed to accept a faux-wood insert made of Flexiteek. I finished the platform by covering it with epoxy, painting it, and installing a stainless-steel rail around the edge.
At this point I installed toe rails made from quarter-round strips of reclaimed teak. I also screwed teak blocks to the existing metal chainplates on the gunwales to serve as the bases for my running lights.
For simplicity’s sake, I was going to keep the Javelin’s centerboard trunk and steel board, but a friend talked me into removing them and building a keel. Fortunately, the centerboard was only held in place with a single bolt, so it was easy to remove. After that I cut out the centerboard trunk, filled the slot with foam and glassed it over. I made a keel from a section of pressure-treated 2-by-6 lumber, which I attached to the bottom with 5200 sealant and screws. I then glassed over the keel and painted it.
Eventually the question of how to power the boat arose. I wanted a steering wheel, so my first thought was to buy a small four-stroke outboard that could be controlled via a steering arm. However, I soon discovered that there were weight and safety issues involved with adding an outboard, so I had to come up with another solution.
One day while perusing the Minn Kota website, I stumbled across an electric trolling motor that could be mounted to the underside of the hull. This would allow me to install a rudder system below the swim platform. Although a single motor would have been enough to push the Fred Bully, I figured that a pair of them would offer better handling and help when running against a stiff wind or current.
To supply power to the motors, I installed a pair of Group 31, 12-volt, deep-cycle batteries (one per motor) in the center of the boat, under the helm and passenger seats. The motors’ processors were mounted above the batteries. I also installed an onboard battery charger in front of the batteries, under the starboard seat, next to a Poly Planar amp for the stereo system. The rotary controls for the motors were installed next to the helm seat.
I later added a third deep-cycle battery to power the onboard electronics. The weight of this battery, which I installed to port, also balanced the natural starboard list that occurred when I ran the boat solo. I concealed the entire “engine room” below the seats with a custom vinyl panel that could be removed for access to the batteries and wiring.
The steering system gave me the biggest headaches. I drew up several absurd designs before settling on a Teleflex cable-controlled system. The drawback was that it forced me to route the steering cable through the top of the transom instead of under the swim platform, where it wouldn’t be seen, but I’d have to live with it.
I connected the steering cable to a tie rod, which was in turn connected to my homemade rudders. The rudders were Starboard panels reinforced with steel bars on the sides and mounted on the underside of the swim platform.
With most of the structural and propulsion work completed, I set to work building, finishing and installing the mahogany helm module. I also installed blue LED rope lighting along the edge of the gunwales, which looks really cool at night. Other finishing touches included a windshield (custom made), a horn and small plow anchor on the bow, Flexiteek decking for the cockpit sole and custom cushions for the aft bench seats. After two years I had a sweet-looking ride.
With the Fred Bully finally completed, I was eager—though somewhat apprehensive—to see how she handled. Upon splashing the boat, I discovered, much to my relief, that my propulsion and steering systems were a success! I could turn the boat in her own length by placing 1 motor in forward the other in reverse. She backed well, too. I picked up a few friends and found that even with four adults aboard, the boat handled just fine, although I needed to allow more time to stop due to the weak bite of the props in reverse.
Over the summer of 2009, I ran the Fred Bully almost daily. I especially enjoyed after-work cruises around Nantucket Harbor, where the boat drew numerous stares. I always felt proud when someone threw me a compliment, especially because I had put so much hard work into the project. I even had people follow me to my slip to find out what kind of boat she was, and one man told me he would like to be a financial backer if I ever decided to build more of these electric-powered mini launches!
Strange as it sounds, after all the hard work I put into the boat, I ended up selling her the following year, but only because I was moving to Colorado. She’s still in Nantucket, though, so if you see a handsome launch that looks suspiciously like a Javelin sailboat and has a whisper-quiet engine, you’ll know it’s the one-and-only Fred Bully!