Skerries man, Fergal Butler is a remarkable man by any stretch of the imagination. Not only is he the full-time carer for his wife, Lynda who is an MS sufferer and his son Kyle (15), who has cerebral palsy, he has just finished renovating a 35ft cabin cruiser. His main motivation for renovating the boat, is that it can be used by the entire family for holidays on the River Shannon. Fergal, who is a handyman extraordinaire, having won the All-Ireland Arro sponsored King of DIY in a facebook competition last year, has no formal training in any of the skills required to undertake such project.
Fergals passion for restoring boats began many years ago “I started building small wooden boats that could fit into my backgarden. It helped me look after my young son, Kyle, where I could work there and pop in and out of the house as needed. The plan was to sell them on and eventually buy a cruiser and adapt it. Unfortunately one of the boats sank, but another one is on display at Wineport Lodge on Lough Ree, which is used by them for weddings and photo shoots” says Fergal. Fergal has built several vintage-style Powerboats and renovated a number of other powerboats and outboard engines, but had never tackled anything on the scale of a 35ft cruiser before.
Undeterred, multi-talented Fergal began researching what style of boat would suit his family and soon after discovered the perfectproject – A Richardson Roving Gem cruiser, which was sunk in the Jolly Mariner Marina in Athlone. He had heard about it through the Jolly Mariner Marina. The insurance of the previous owner paid to have it hauled out and then Fergal got it for next to nothing, “I just had to pay the Marina fees,” he said. Fergal set about retrieving the stricken boat, with one particular goal in mind. The boat was in horrific condition when it was lifted from its sunken berth in May 2016. He was determined to make his dream boat totally wheelchair accessible for his wife Lynda and his son, Kyle. so they can go on family holidays and weekends away together. Fergal says’ The idea has always been to buy a cruiser and have it as a family holiday because I can’t be pushing two wheelchairs around, but once we get them on board, we can travel all around Ireland. He believes that it will be the only fully wheelchair accessible cabin cruiser in the country. Fergal did most of the work on the cruiser during school hours completing all the work himself. The engine work, the carpentry, the electrical work, the plumbing, the painting, the tiling and the hull restoration. The boat is fully wheelchair accessible so that Lynda can get around in it and reach everything. He also installed a hoist to get Kyle into bed. Lynda, who also hails from Skerries, said, “I really feel excited about this venture because it’s going to give our family the freedom that we never had to go on holidays together, to be on holidays and enjoy life together.”
The hard work
Once the boat had been raised, cleaned down and completely stripped it was basically a shell. Fergal moved the boat to the Lakeside Marina where he had it lifted and began some of the work. As all the electrics were submerged for so long Fergal had to remove all the pumps, including the toilet waste pump which I’m sure you can imagine the aroma was something to behold!! He then moved the boat home to his workyard in Skerries. He began by spending days with a powerhose and a bucket and sponge taking out the oil, dirt and water out of the bilge. He removed what was left of the partition walls and all of the roof and side panels. New timbers and extra support were needed in the floors, he also cut a wider doorway into the cabin. He also had to strip down and sand the engine which had to be cleaned many times and not to mention several oil changes. The starter was full of dirt and not turning over so also had to be stripped and the fuel tank was full of gunk. He also rewired the whole boat and fitted central heating and wired it for shore power. The toilet had to be stripped out and replaced with an electric loo, the wood panelling was also rotten behind the shower so this all had to be walled and coated in laminate. Once all those dirty jobs were out of the way it was onto the fit out.
Fergal began the internal remodeling with new flooring. He then cut out the framing for the boys bunkbeds and fitted the hoist for lifting Kyle in and out of bed. Insulation was inserted before the wall panels were put back up. The original back entrance of the boat was a small narrow door with three small steps down into a doorway in a well. Fergals plan was to make the door much wider and move it in, leaving a seating area outside with a walkway onto a 4ft wide swim platform with a ramp to the dock, so that the floor was more or less level with the dock for wheelchair access. So to begin this plan, he cut out two back windows and new wooden glass doors were fitted across the back of the boat. The transom then had to be reinforced on the inside with plywood sheets and the swim platform installed, coated in fiberglass cloth and sealed. As the swim platform juts out quite far from the back of the boat to accommodate the wheelchairs, Fergal installed parking sensors so he can tell by the sound of the beeps the right distance from the dock when mooring. The hull then had to be sanded, all the handrails were removed, screw holes filled and then wooden rails were put back in their place. A new bow rail was also installed. There were lots of holes and gouges around the deck and superstructure that had to be filled with silicone and fibreglass. The whole boat was then covered in epoxy resin, primed and painted. From here Fergal was on the home stretch, he then set about inserting storage under the decks, fitting out the galley, wiring and plumbing the utilities, installing seating in the living area. The cabins were all fully fitted out with bunks and storage, and the walls were covered in wood panelling. All the cleets and eyelets were removed, polished and replaced. A new ceiling was fitted, any rough surfaces were covered in car vinyl and all the edges trimmed in wood. After all the last bitty jobs were completed, it was time to add the name and host a party for friends and family before it left Skerries and returned to The Lakeside Marina looking like a shiny new pin for its relaunch!
The hard work pays off
Now it looks like a different boat. It is unrecognizable from the wreck that was hauled out of the water. It is a gleaming white cruiser named Aquarius. From the moment you come on board the beautifully and lovingly restored cruiser, it is obvious that Fergal is a man of outstanding skills. Fergal started work on the new cruiser in May 2016 and it is hard to believe that he managed to fully restore and launch it in just 12 months. Even a heart attack which he had in February wasn’t going to set him back. Aquarius is now moored at the Lakeside Marina in Athlone. Fergal has another incentive for keeping the cruiser here, his other boat sank on Lough Ree 2 years ago and he hasn’t found it yet. “I got caught in a really bad hail storm and I’d no sight of lan, the GPS was down so I’ve no idea where on Lough Ree it is. I’ve had divers down a couple of times. We’ve found 17 boats so far. The local Athlone Sub Aqua team go out and dive for me. I have a little camera I throw over the side and I drop it down to have a look. All the boats look the same under the water. Just a big pointy shape so it’s hard to distinguish even between a 15ft boat and a 30ft boat.” After all of this hard work, Fergal, Lyn, Max and Kyle are now reaping the rewards. They now spend their weekends on the boat and have even attended some IWAI Athlone Branch CIC’s. As far as Fergal is concerned, this is only the beginning, he now plans to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labour, although the word on the river is that he is already eyeing up his next project!!! Stay tuned, this won’t be the last we hear of Fergal Butler and his projects! If you see Aquarius pass you on the river, be sure to give the Butler family a big wave as you now know how much work it took for them to be here enjoying the River Shannon.
First published in the Shannon Boat Rally Programme 2017
Written by Oona Herraghty and Fergal Butler
* Since the launch of Aquarias, we are delighted to tell you that Fergal and his family have joined us at several Athlone Branch Cruise n’ Companys during the summer, we are looking forward to seeing them again in the new season.