How many times have we been on the water, seen a lovely old-timer pass and commented with great appreciation, grateful
that there are still people who restore and maintain classic
beauties? Vagabond is one of those boats. David Gillespie is
one of those folks. Their story begins in 1910, lingers in a shed
in New York in the 1950s and now continues quietly cruising
on the Saint John’s River south of Jacksonville, Florida.
Vagabond is now powered by a hybrid-electric propulsion
Commissioned and built in 1910, Vagabond came out of
the water for restoration in 1954. It was to be a father-and-sons project. They got as far as disassembling the woodwork,
leaving the boat ready for the replacement of structural
members. After that, the boat sat in a shed in Ithaca, New
York, until the family decided to sell it in 2001. David Gillespie
heard about the boat, became intrigued with what turned out
to be a giant jigsaw puzzle, and bought it.
Most of the pieces were there—good wood, bad wood, fittings
and even the iron fuel and water tanks mounted over a head in
the bow. What needed repair or replacement was readily evident,
and the hull was in deceptively good shape. Gillespie knew what
he was getting into. He has restored boats and houses, and is
currently working on wooden-body Rolls Royces.
The family restoration crew had built a custom cradle
for the hull on a trailer and stored it in a protected shed.
Somewhere along the line, someone decided that the boat
needed more ballast and perhaps stiffening. So a 30-foot
railroad rail was bolted to the keel. The rail, custom cradle
and apparent careful handling of the hull meant that the
deteriorated delicate hull had not distorted. It was ready for
restoration, round two.
Gillespie, who has since retired as deputy state historic
preservation officer for New York, moved the boat to his
backyard, fetched three truck loads of loose pieces, built a
cover for it and went to work. The hull and appointments
restoration was, as expected, slow but pretty much
straightforward. No unpleasant surprises. From 2002 to 2007,
with on-and-off-again effort, Gillespie worked his way through
identifying pieces and doing significant hull replacement
work. All the ribs were there, but most of the forward ones
had decayed and were useful
only as templates.
The hull required some
replacement planking. All the
mahogany needed attention,
and this is when we mere
mortals marvel at the dedication
and patience of a restorer.
Gillespie’s past experience now
served him well, as he was able
to search through the inventory
of two specialty lumberyards
in New York for just the white
oak and mahogany he needed. One-hundred-year-old, tight-grained mahogany can’t be matched, but carefully done
matched staining works wonders. The finished interior bears
witness to his care.
This five-year period gave Gillespie ample time to
contemplate and research perhaps his biggest challenge—how
to power the boat. The original layout had the motor exposed
and totally unprotected in the middle of the galley. There
really is no other place for a large motor and, even with that,
Gillespie knew there would be weight-distribution issues.
An old photograph shows the boat bow up, stern down—off
its lines. The restoration kit did come with its last engine, a
1923 gas-fueled Lathrop. Research told Gillespie its weight,
horsepower and prop rpm parameters.
The first possibility was a six-cylinder in-line Ford truck
motor. Gillespie was familiar with the block and was willing
to consider gas propulsion, but Ford no longer produces such
an engine. Modern diesel engines were out of the equation,
as they are wider than the deck opening. Electric motors
became a possibility. Mystic Seaport has an electric motor
launch, which sparked an interest in Gillespie, so he read
books and went looking. Several possibilities came onto his
radar screen, but none seemed to offer an identifiable package
of known power and components.
Solutions seemed to appear, but questions were not
getting resolved. Just what was the power output? What
about the motor controller? One company that had a
possible solution—underwater electric motor pods—went out
of business long before Vagabond was ready. There was always
Elco, a long-time presence in the marine electric world, but
they didn’t have a motor in the size range necessary. Back to
woodworking and thinking about what might be.
In 2007 the Gillespies moved to Florida with Vagabond
in tow and set up another residential boatyard. Most of the
hull work was done. The interior work accelerated. Finally
Gillespie faced the last major non-propulsion question: What
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