A Madcap Boat Scavenging Journey

Kai and I took a mad motorcycle trip up the Sacramento Delta to check out a couple of “pontoon boats” that we hoped might make a good foundation for our shantyboat.  They turned out to not only not be pontoon boats, but much longer than we were told.  And, uh, they were pretty much sinking as well.

The first was a fiberglass houseboat around 35 feet or so, much too large, and much too… not what we’re looking for whatsoever.  The best thing that could be said for it was that at least it was floating, though it had lots of water sloshing around in its hull.  It was probably a 70s era houseboat, fiberglass hull, fiberglass cabin, ugly aluminum windows, rotting deck, and rusty inboard engine.  They offered to give that one to me free.  Uh.. thanks?

The second boat, and the reason we went up there, was an alleged pontoon boat that we were told could easily be shortened.  I had an image of a rough but serviceable houseboat/party barge floating on round pontoons.  I couldn’t see exactly how the hull was configured, but it looked like it was a steel hull with twin-Vs that couldn’t have offered much displacement.  Some of the bulkheads below the waterline had been filled inexpertly with foam. The boat sat inches off the water and listed to the port side.  It was also filled with a lot of rusty water.

We guessed at the cross-sectional area of these “pontoons” was something like 249 sq in (compared to a round pontoon of the same width at 452 sq in).  We take the cross-sectional area of the “pontoon” times the length to get the displacement at 60.5 cu ft.  Times the weight of water to get the buoyancy at 3776 lb – plus you’d have to subtract the weight of that enormously heavy steel hull.  For comparison, a similarly sized round pontoon would provide 6855 lb of flotation.  No wonder the boat was barely out of the water.

The one thing it had going for it is that it had a trailer. Still, though, I think we’ll take a pass on these.  Chicken John, a friend who is no stranger to building with scavenged boats, says these sad houseboats are as common as dirt.  Or as he put it, “You can get that kind of stuff forever for free. Finding clean pontoons, steel or fiberglass is rare for free. They are worth $1,000 each. Steel is better, I say. Aluminum is swank, but there is always the possibility of theft, and they sell for like $2,000 a pop.”

The guy who showed us around was a grizzled old fella who lived in a floating house in the marina and was heavily up-selling these boats.  “You can easily cut this down, make it the size you want, and wham!  There you go.”  And “Just needs a little TLC and you got a beautiful boat.”  He set my teeth on edge with a few borderline racist comments. He tossed his filtered cigarette butt into the water.  Maybe I’m stupidly naive, but wouldn’t you hesitate to use the water in which you lived as an ashtray?

However, the trip was not wasted as I learned to ask better questions when I’m on the phone with potential boat sellers.  “When you say pontoon, what do you mean?”  And “By 20 foot, do you mean actually 35 foot?”  Things like that.

Kai and I enjoyed the trip.  We loved the idyllic little towns along the delta, such as Walnut Grove and Islandton, where people were ridiculously friendly and helpful and seemingly lonely.  We had beers at Giusti’s Place and then sat out on the deck watching the fishermen and the migrating ducks.

In the meantime, if we can’t find a pontoon boat base, we’ll look into building our own hull using the fiberglass over plywood method.  Are we ready to tackle the craziness of being DIY boat builders?  I mean building everything above the deck just felt like being a carpenter, which I’m comfortable with.  But building a boat?  Like, a real boat hull?  That part that floats in the water?  That feels crazy.

We took a very brief tour of a foreclosed boatyard.  Apparently, according to two different lonely men, the previous owner Bee owed lots of back rent and lost the boatyard.  Lots of tantalizing loot in the yard that wants to be turned into our shantyboat.

As we talked to the “caretaker” (read: a guy who lives in his RV in the yard), his tiny tiny guard dog Jezebel was vigorously attempting to eat my pants cuff and my boot.  He asked the usual questions, You from around here?  Where you from?  What you want a pontoon boat for? As we rode the motorcycle around the yard, we were in constant danger of either having our ankles chewed off or flattening poor ferocious Jezebel. Kai lifted her feet up on the hard bags out of range, and only risked dying of laughter, while my feet were thoroughly hazarded by Jezebel.

After listening to this lonely man for a while, we were taking our leave of Jezebel and the caretaker when he yelled.  “Hey, stop!  I got one more question.”  I slowed the bike so Jezebel could attempt to noisily eat my boots again.  “You’re from Santa Cruz, right?” he said, “Is it pretty much the same, or has it gotten worse?”  I pondered the many possible meanings and responses to that for a moment.

“Pretty much the same,” I said.  “It’s pretty much the same.”

Originally posted 2016-01-31 10:18:40.

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Wes Modes' irrepressible sense of adventure has lead him to decades of train hopping and DIY rafting on a half dozen major American rivers. In various lives, he is a sculptor, writer, performer, adventurer, comic artist, and most recently a shanty boat maker. The chronicles of his ongoing personal journey to build a shanty boat can be found at littleshantyboat.blogspot.com