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When we first purchased Libertijn, we planned a limited renovation consisting of upgrading the aft cabin and improving the galley a bit.  Four years later we managed to strip half of the interior back to bare steel, replace all of the plumbing, all of the electrics, install central heating and air conditioning, replace the glass in all the windows, replace the diesel tanks, replace the floors, and move the walls we didn’t replace.  The work took place in a variety of locations and used plenty of different vendors.  If we had known up front just how much work we would do, we could have either stripped the entire boat from the beginning or purchased a boat directly out of trade and had it converted in a Dutch yard.  Of course, if we had realised how much time, effort and money it would cost, we never would have started, but that, I’m afraid, is just the way that boats are.


Libertijn was lying in the middle of the river Dart when we first set eyes on her in May 1999.  This is a fabulous location, accessible only by water taxi or dinghy and set alongside the picturesque town of Dartmouth.  It would have been the perfect location to keep her if it wasn’t for the four-hour commute to London.  Our first renovations took place in Dartmouth, preparing her for the coastal journey to the Thames.  The owner had not been using her, and the neglect was showing a bit.  We had the worst of the peeling varnish sorted out, the steering cables replaced, LPG gas detectors fitted, new glass windows (tinted and hardened) fitted throughout, and storm shutters made to cover the windows during the sea passage.  The work didn’t take long, and the prices were reasonable compared to those we would see on the Thames.  We could only visit at weekends, so we hired Nick Henderson of Dart Yacht Management who did a good job organising the works.  By September 1999 everything was ready, and we sailed out of the River Dart at midnight to catch the tide.



Libertijn had sea toilets (meaning they discharge directly overboard), which are illegal in the non-tidal Thames.  The first order of business was to fit a soil tank.  We went directly into dry dock so that Balliol Fowden could take a closer look at the hull and help us design an appropriate toilet system.  Luckily the hull was in pretty good shape, so we put off any major plating work.  We wanted to fit as large a soil tank as possible so that we could maximise the time between pump-outs.  Libertijn’s ballast consisted of pea gravel forward of the engine room and concrete blocks supplemented with an odd array of old radiators, bits of metal, and anything else that some previous owner could lay his hands on.  Balliol calculated that if we removed all of the pea gravel, concrete blocks and general rubbish from under the galley floor, we could get a 4000 litre soil tank fitted.  We could make up for the missing mass by making the soil tank 8mm thick and lining the crawl space with 200 iron rivets at 60 Kg apiece.  And that’s what we did.


For the toilet technology enthusiasts out there (and believe me, most boat owners are toilet technology enthusiasts), we decided to use compressed air toilets, supplied by Lee Sanitation.  These toilets use compressed air to blow the effluent from a chamber below the toilet to the soil tank, which in our case is a good 10 metres away.  The toilets use very little water, are quiet, and have yet to require dismantling to remove a blockage.  This is in stark contrast to my experience with toilets on our other boat, Lady Bea, who is on her third toilet system.  The first two were the hand pump sort and developed leaks at the seals (very unpleasant), and the current one is a vacuum toilet that has the advantage of not leaking but is easily blocked by anything other than light weight toilet paper (I am treated to a late night unblocking session at least once a year).  The compressed air toilets do require an air compressor, and we fitted a large compressor in the engine room that I use for air-powered tools and a very loud air horn.


The work was finished in time for Christmas, which was crucial as we had family visiting for an English Christmas and New Year’s Eve on the Thames.  Just before the family arrived, we fitted a large hot water cylinder with an immersion heater to ensure we would have enough hot water for our guests to shower.  On the first night of their stay, the pipe leading out of the hot water tank split and sprayed hot water and steam all over the inside of the utility closet where the tank was mounted, scaring the wits out of our guests in the next room.  I shut the water off, and fortunately the plumber, Peter, was able to drop by the next morning and replace the pipe.  All was well for Christmas Day and the Millennium celebrations.



For the first nine months of 2000 we lived aboard without making any substantial changes.  The idea was to spend enough time with the existing configuration to make informed decisions as to what the priorities for change really were.  The galley was annoying to cook in owing to its low countertops, ancient decrepit cooker, and slightly low ceiling with protruding light fixtures that I would batter with my forehead with on a regular basis.  We were sleeping on the floor of the aft cabin atop an uncomfortable futon that was jammed into what was meant to be the original living room.  When you opened the door to the aft cabin you would literally fall into bed, as there was no room to walk around the futon.  The area that was meant to be the sleeping quarters had been stripped to bare metal to repair leaking portholes, and now served as a rather cold and damp walk-in closet where we kept our work suits.  The morning routine consisted of bathing in a plastic hipbath, rushing into the freezing closet to grab a suit, then donning the suit whilst standing atop the futon.  Things needed to change.

In October we put Libertijn into dry dock for the second time with the primary aim of repainting the exterior and replacing damaged portholes.  During our nine months of living with the status quo we had decided that nothing in the galley was worth saving.  The aft cabin was unworkable in its current configuration and would need to be opened up.  This was not the sort of work you could do while living aboard, so we decided to tackle the stripping and rebuilding of the galley and aft cabin while the exterior paint was underway in dry dock.  The initial estimate was two months of dry dock for the paintwork and a total of nine months to complete the interior renovations.  Dry dock lasted four months, at the end of which the portholes and exterior paint had been renewed and the saloon, galley and aft cabin had been stripped to bare metal.  The interior renovation lasted four years.

For the first three months of the renovation we moved aboard our 30’ wooden cruiser, Lady Bea.  Winters in England are cold.  Lady Bea has no heating.  The Thames flooded badly that year, and the brilliant marina manager forgot to close the lock gate in time, which meant it would be left open all winter.  Since the marina had been designed with the assumption that the lock gate would maintain a consistent water level, all the pontoons were fixed and were soon underwater.  Getting on and off Lady Bea started out as dangerous and quickly became impossible.  A neighbouring boat was sunk at Christmas when the marina staff neglected to check the lines during an unusually high tide.  We got fed up and left Lady Bea, moving in with a friend in Maidenhead.



The galley before: antique pine nightmare

Finding a kitchen designer to remodel the galley turned out to be far more difficult than we had imagined.  When we approached boat builders, they would lean towards the typical caravan style galley that seems to be the norm on most boats, even on the million pound cruisers proudly displayed at the London Boat Show.  Traditional home kitchen designers rely on using standard cabinets that would never fit in this wonky ex-cargo hold.  I had heard about as much sucking of teeth as I could stand and was wondering if we would have to move out of England to find someone competent when we happened on Johnny Grey.  He came to the boat and listened to what we wanted: to convert the existing antique pine caravan kitchen into a very modern, semi industrial eating, dining and living space that would be visually stunning and a joy to cook in.  Johnny was the first person to understand what we were trying to do, and was not put off by the myriad of design challenges that the awkward space would present.  Johnny’s first design proposal was visually stunning but not practical if more than one person were to be cooking at a time.  Since both Emma and I are keen cooks, this would never do.  His second design hit the mark – striking, comfortable to cook in, and subsequently proven in its ability to accommodate multiple cooks when six student chefs from Tante Marie Cordon Bleu School of Cookery (including Emma) whipped up an incredible dinner party.

The galley during restoration: walls, floor, ceiling, polystyrene insulation, plumbing, and wiring removed; new spray foam insulation, walls, lowered floor, raised ceiling, plumbing and wiring in place (but nothing else).

Even with the assistance of a top designer at our disposal, there was still a long list of boat-specific issues to overcome.  In order to comply with the Environment Agency’s ill-conceived Boat Safety Scheme, the hob would need a flame failure device that would shut off the gas to any burner whose flame went out.  Commercial hobs reignite the gas instead, so after a long search we sourced our hob from Germany, where Viking commercial hobs are retrofitted to meet German gas rules that happen to be similar to those of the Boat Safety Scheme.  A commercial grade extractor was required, but these tend to be very noisy and rely on long chimney runs, which we could not accommodate without creating an air draft problem.  A bespoke design was required.  When the undercounter refrigerators from Sub-Zero arrived, it was immediately apparent that they were a cheap brand that had been relabelled by Sub-Zero, were not of an appropriate quality (especially given their high price), and could not be built in as advertised.  More galling, the UK distributor refused to take them back, even though they were still in their original packaging.  We replaced them with better, less expensive models by Miele (from a different distributor).  Every detail was scrutinised, and Claire, Johnny’s designer dedicated to this project, remade countless drawings.  The design process alone took months.

Even with all the hours spent on the design phase, fitting the custom-made furniture proved to be a difficult and lengthy project.  Walls on the boat just do not intersect at right angles, nothing is level, nothing is straight, and we were trying to cram the absolute maximum amount of stuff into the limited, wonky space.  Johnny told us that once the design and fabrication work was completed, fitting was a relatively quick and painless process – after all, everything has been custom designed and should just slot into place.  In our case the fitting took the better part of a year, and was not helped along by all of the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC work that was taking place simultaneously.  The end result is nothing short of amazing, but during some of the darker days of the remodel we wondered why we had been so daft.

The completed galley – photo courtesy of Alastair Miller



The saloon and galley are part of one large contiguous space, with the saloon being slightly sunken.  Prior to the remodel, a heavy pine balustrade separated the two spaces, and the stairs leading from the galley up to the top deck were likewise heavy and partly enclosed.  We wanted to open the space by replacing the balustrade and stairs with something visually light and modern.  After a few false starts, we found a young artist specialising in modern designs in steel (recommended by Johnny Grey, of course).  Simon Sharp came to the boat and discussed our ideas.  He came back one week later with several design ideas, one of which was perfect.  One month later Simon returned with the finished product – a sleek, modern steel balustrade and staircase made from undulating steel rods reminiscent of waves on the sea.  It is absolutely perfect for the space.

The difficult part of the saloon design was housing a state-of-the-art audio/video system that was invisible when not in use.  This sounds easy until you realise that my audio requirement included three kilowatts of studio-quality sound and my video requirement a ten-foot projection screen with film-quality images.  The sort of kit that can produce this level of sound and video is anything but invisible.  The saloon would literally be designed around the audio/video installation.  I give great credit to my partner Emma for granting me this indulgence and putting up with months of visiting retail stereo stores and equipment manufacturers while I studied every option in exhausting detail.

My audio goal was to put together a system that could reproduce music as close a “live performance” as possible.  After a long and enjoyable search, I selected Acoustic Transducer Company (ATC www.atc.gb.net).  ATC do a good portion of their business with professional studio installations, so performing an acoustic survey of the space and designing the speaker cabinets and amplifier enclosures specifically to suit our requirements did not present any problems for them.  Finding room for all the speakers and amplifiers took some creative thinking and resulted in more than a kilometre of cabling to tie everything together.  The installation is nearly invisible, which is remarkable given the size of the speakers.  The audio quality is amazing, and on more than one occasion the 1000-watt subwoofer under the galley floor has made movie-watching guests jump right out of their skins.

My video goal was to reproduce the cinematic realism of projected film, especially as we like to watch classic black-and-white movies.  The only systems that can provide this on a big screen are CRT projectors – LCD and DLP projectors are not in the same class, and plasma screens do not get big enough.  Our solution was to install a 10-foot Stewart projection screen on the forward wall of the saloon that rises up into a hidden compartment in the ceiling when not in use.  The projector is a Barco Cine7 fitted on a lifting mechanism inside a coffee table, also invisible when not in use.  The skylight was fitted with a remotely operated custom blackout screen by OceanAir.  All windows and portholes have curtains line with blackout material.  The finished product provides a better movie experience than any theatre I have been to anywhere in England, and is only rivalled by the spectacular premier theatres in Los Angeles.



When we first purchased Libertijn, we noticed that a few of the portholes in the aft cabin were cracked, and that water had been having its way with some of the surrounding timber lining in the aft wall.  Water was also enjoying a tour of the cabinetry in the centre compartment, having waltzed in from below the sliding windows.  These windows have outer steel shutters that run in rather primitive steel channels, and the trapped water in the channels had nurtured a lovely rust garden.  Although the aft cabin retained some original features that were worth keeping, there were many dubious additions in evidence.  Our solution was to gut and completely rebuild the aft cabin; reusing old timber where possible and maintaining a 1920’s feel reminiscent of luxury railway cars.

Aft cabin before renovations – looking forward.  Note the pine bookcase in what was probably a fireplace enclosure.

Since the aft cabin sits over the engine room, and since the engine room contains noisy appliances such as the engine, generator, boiler, and air compressor, we took this opportunity to install extensive soundproofing in the floor.  Composite acoustic rubber matting was laid on the steel floor of the aft cabin, and a heavy timber floor was installed on top (isolated from the steel structure of the ship).  New steel replaced rusted areas, new portholes were installed throughout, and a good layer of spray foam insulation was added.  The new timber wardrobes were designed to conceal central heating and air conditioning, keeping the modern additions invisible.  Walls were finished with oak panels in teak surrounds, and the entire aft cabin was French polished at one time (including custom teak speakers by ATC).

The marble bathtub and sink turned out to be more difficult than anticipated.  We were fortunate in that a good friend from our wooden boat club was a retired director at Pisani, and was able to help us find the perfect stone for the aft cabin.  Since the only path into the aft cabin was quite restricted in size, the tub would have to be built in situ.  The plan was to build a very solid timber structure, and then lay marble slabs into the structure to create a large bath.  The contractor responsible did a lousy job of creating a solid structure, and the bath leaked.  This caused a falling out with the contractor, who refused to stand by his work, and we then employed the services of boat builder Terry Dann to rebuild the structure a second time.  Of course, this meant new marble from the same block, which we only just had enough of.  Luckily, the second attempt has proved very successful.