Sailboat to Shantyboat

A few years back, I converted a 21 foot sailboat into what I called a “Shanty Trawler”. “Shanty” because the design was simple, the materials were cheap and the construction was a little bit crude. “Trawler” because it became a motorboat with a small cabin for overnighting and a top speed of about 7 mph. It turned out to be a great little boat for trips on the Gulf IntraCoastal Waterway, as well as local rivers and bayous. To me, converting an old sailboat into what I wanted made a lot more sense than building a boat from scratch.


This spring I constructed my second Shanty Trawler. This time I began with a 22 foot sailboat, with a much larger cabin. I’m enjoying it just as much as the first one. The first boat is at my winter home near the Gulf Coast. The second one is at my summer home in Nova Scotia.

Older swing keel sailboats in the 20 to 25 foot range are no longer trendy. Most were built back in the 80’s or 90’s. Used ones are found everywhere, usually sitting on their trailer in someone’s backyard. It’s not hard to find a boat and a trailer that can be bought for as little as $1,000. So, what would you get for your $1,000? First, you would get a solid fiberglass hull and deck. Fiberglass hulls can sit for decades and still be perfectly strong and usable. And, by the way, sailboat hull designs slip quietly through the water with very little effort. A five HP motor may be all you need. The boat will be fairly stable due to the heavy (300 lb to 600 lb) swing keel. With the keel in the raised position, these boats will have a draft of 1 to 2 feet.

The boat would also come with a small cabin which usually includes molded in seats, bunks, a small table, maybe a sink, interior lights, a portapotty or marine head and molded in storage compartments. The cockpit will be self draining, which keeps rain water from collecting. You would get a trailer that might only need new wheel bearings and tires to make it road worthy. Most of these old boats would come with an outboard motor bracket, a swim ladder, life jackets, cushions, dock lines and an anchor.

So, how do you convert one of these trailerable sailboats into a Shanty Trawler? Basically, you first remove all the “sailing gear”. That will include the mast, the boom, stays, sails, the tiller and the rudder. This will lighten the boat by a few hundred pounds. Then you construct a little cabin that raises the height of the old existing cabin. This will give you standup headroom when inside and some decent windows to see out of. If you live where insects can be a problem, you can add screens to these new windows. If you wish, add a level wood deck over the top of the existing sailboat deck. This would make it easier to move around the boat and take away the “sailboat” look. The decks I’ve added did not have to be water tight. Rain simply runs down between the boards to the original sailboat deck, where it drains off into the water. That makes deck construction much simpler.


You will want to relocate the outboard motor bracket to the center of the transom, where the rudder used to be. If your sailboat did not come with a usable outboard motor, you will need to come up with one. A five HP will work fine, a ten HP would be even better. On my second boat, I’ve added a homemade cable and pulley steering system so I can steer either with the tiller on the motor or with a lever inside the cabin.


With both of my Shanty Trawlers, I’ve been able to sell some of the sailing gear I removed. That has helped offset the cost of constructing the raised cabin and deck. By the way, I’ve attempted to design my cabins to replicate boat designs from the late 1800”s or early 1900”s. I happen to like the looks of those older boats.

So, if a relatively inexpensive, easy to construct, trailerable motorboat with a small cabin appeals to you, consider converting an old sailboat. If anyone wants to talk with me about design and construction details, email me at I’d be glad to share ideas with you.


Rod Edens


Originally posted 2015-09-06 06:22:32.

A website about Shantyboats and affordable living on the water. More than 800 stories to date, and growing.