Bringing a boat on the brink back to life

The David B., 65-foot motorboat built in 1929, was painstakingly restored and is now a charter boat. Photos courtesy of Christine and Jeffrey Smith

In 1998, Christine and Jeffrey Smith bought a 1929 old wooden powerboat with a dream of restoring her and starting a charter company.

The Bellingham couple paid $15,000 for the rundown, rotting David B and figured they could get the ship back up and running in a couple of years.

It took eight.

By the time the 65-foot ship finally sailed on its maiden charter in 2006, the couple had put in thousands of hours of work, maxed out their credit cards, enlisted the help of friends and gone through inheritance money and contributions from family members.

Christine Smith's new book tells the story of she and her husband's eight-year project to rebuild an old wooden boat.

Their odyssey is vividly detailed in Christine’s self-published new book “More Faster Backwards: Rebuilding David B,” released in December. The couple will be giving a slideshow and talk about the rebuild at the Squalicum Yacht Club in Bellingham from 7 to 9 p.m. next Wednesday, Jan. 11.

Moving back and forth through time, “More Faster Backwards” chronicles the long years spent restoring David B and the ship’s journey to Alaska to pick up passengers for its maiden voyage as a charter vessel.

Smith recounts the endless nights and weekends spent working on the boat, the couple’s ongoing money worries and the pressure to finish the restoration so the boat could start making money to pay off their debts.

They came close to abandoning the project in 2004, after the Port of Bellingham began requiring all boats moored in its facilities to have insurance. They had David B hauled out to determine whether they should continue trying to save the ship or have her demolished.

Initially, the boatyard owner refused to haul out the boat after seeing the condition it was in, and relented only when the couple agreed to keep it there no more than three months.

They eventually finished the restoration, which included replacing all of the ship’s decks and beams, building a new trunk cabin and replacing or rebuilding all systems except the engine. The interior was completely revamped with new cabins able to accommodate up to six guests.

The dining table on the David B

As much a love letter to their boat, the book is a tale of fortitude and faith, a testament to the ability to realize a dream through resourcefulness and sheer will. It’s a triumph of escape from the ordinary, of thinking beyond the cubicle.

But there was nothing easy about what Christine and Jeffrey Smith did. They risked everything they had for a goal that offered absolutely no promise of a pay-off.

‘An awesome idea’

Over coffee in Seattle recently, Christine and Jeffrey talked about how they came to buy David B and launch their Bellingham-based company, Northwest Navigation.

Jeffrey started working on boats in 1990 and was a captain on several schooners. Christine had no boating experience but dreamed of running a bed and breakfast in the San Juan Islands.

She told Jeffrey about that dream the night they met in 1996. Well, he asked, does your B&B have to have a foundation? How about a floating B&B?

“I thought it was an awesome idea,” recalled Christine, 42.

Before long, Christine was fantasizing about orcas swimming around the boat as she cooked gourmet meals for guests. The couple initially tried to raise money to build a schooner, but the plans fell apart after the stock market downturn of 2002. Instead, they looked for a boat to restore.

The David B underway

A friend put them in touch with the owner of David B, which was anchored off Lopez Island. The first time Christine saw the boat, she thought there must have been a miscommunication — surely they would not be buying that rotten old hulk.

But the price was right, and the David B’s antique engine was also a selling point. A three-cylinder made by Washington Ironworks in Seattle, it is one of only a handful that remain installed in boats, according to Jeffrey.

Initially, the restoration project went like gangbusters. The couple took the ferry each weekend to Lopez Island, worked on the boat and camped out in their pickup truck. But after moving the boat to Bellingham, the momentum slowed for a few years as the couple got sidetracked with the responsibilities of daily life.

They bought a house, got married, changed jobs. Christine started a gardening business. The David B languished.

“It was really hard,” said Jeffrey, 43. “When it was going great, near the end, it was awesome. It was so exciting. So much was happening. But there were three years in the middle when there was not much happening.

Christine and Jeffrey Smith

“We’d go check on the boat and it was in worse shape. We’d go down there and see it and say, ‘Oh my god, what have we gotten ourselves into?’”

There was always a potential out, someone introduced to them by a friend as Danny the Boat Sinker. For a small fee, much less than it would cost to properly get rid of a wooden boat, Danny the Boat Sinker could make a boat simply disappear. He was, in essence, a marine hit man.

“But then at some point, we were like, ‘No, we’ll never let Danny take our boat,’” Christine said.

They persevered and in June of 2006, the David B left Bellingham bound for Juneau, Alaska, on its first charter cruise. Since then, the couple estimates they’ve invested about $450,000 in the boat and done about 70 charters in the San Juan Islands and Alaska.

Their cruising season typically runs from May to mid-October, and in the off-season they do carpentry and gardening work to pay the bills. It’s not an easy way to make a living, particularly the last few years, as the recession has taken a bite out of tourism. Still, they say it’s worth it.

They like meeting their passengers and showing them one of the world’s most spectacular cruising grounds. They like the variety of the job, from navigating to meal-planning, and how each day is different.

With the economy still so uncertain, Christine said, “We’re always asking ourselves, is this something we want to keep doing? And we always keep coming back to yes, this is something that’s worth it, because it’s fun.”

And there’s a particular satisfaction that comes from having restored the boat themselves, Jeffrey said.

“It’s really fun when people come up and say, ‘This is an amazing boat.’ To say that we did it ourselves is really nice.”

“More Faster Backwards: Rebuilding David B” is available in paperback and e-reader formats. It is sold at Village Books, Pacific Marine Exchange and Vis Seafood in Bellingham, and through Amazon and Smashwords.

4 Responses to Bringing a boat on the brink back to life

  1. carol woody January 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    I loved the article. I had the best mother’s day weekend on the David B.

  2. Karie Hamborg January 5, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    This Old Tugboat Facebook

    I hope we can have coffee together some time.

    My parents live in Fair Haven. We are moored at “Ballard Oil”.

    Congratulations on your survival skills. You could write a book on how to survive anything 🙂

    we are coasting as we gear up for another big project. Few post on our facebook page ” This Okd Tugboat Red Cloud”. We underestimated the steps to pouring a concrete floor and are
    looking forward to it’s completion in the next two weeks. Awe won’t it be great to have company.

  3. Zach Wellington Simonson-Bond January 5, 2012 at 10:27 am #

    I LOVE the David B! I remember the first time I experienced her. I was aboard Adventuress in the San Juan Islands and I heard her coming before I saw her. That three-cylinder engine is hard to mistake, a wonderful sound. I looked around and there she was put-putting behind us. We’ve crossed paths many times and it’s always a pleasure.

    I’m glad to finally learn of its history, and I’ll definitely be getting the book!

    Thank you Christine and Jeffrey for restoring David B.

    Zach

    • Deborah Bach January 5, 2012 at 6:47 pm #

      Zach, I bet you’d enjoy the book. It’s a really fun read.

      And if you go to their website, you can hear a recording of the engine starting up. 🙂

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