Seventeen years ago Roland Robert bought a 7-year-old pocket cruiser powered by a sterndrive. It didn’t take him long to regret it.
“What a piece of junk,” says Robert, who had sought a boat that was well-equipped so he and his family could spend more time aboard on weekends. “You’d go out in a 6-inch chop and get your brains beat out. I had that boat for three months, and I was ready to sell it.”
He parted with the 25-footer in 1994. And for more than 15 years Robert, 59, who lives on the Taunton River in Berkley, Mass., was unwilling to buy another boat. “It put a bad taste in my mouth,” he says.
On a trip to Maine in January 2009, Robert got a glimpse of a restored Duffy 26. The classic lines of the New England-style lobster boat — plumb bow, sloping sheer and tall framed windshield — revived his interest in boat ownership. “[It] got me all charged up about looking for a small Down East boat,” he says.
Robert found one a few months later — a 1984 Sisu 22, designed by Royal Lowell and now built and sold as the Lowell 22 by the Lowell Brothers in Yarmouth, Maine and as the North Shore 22 by Grey Barn Boatworks in Newton, N.H. “I’ve always been fond of the Sisu, ever since I saw one for the first time 20 years ago,” Robert says.
Robert, a machinist, and his sons Jason, 37, and Derek, 34, recently completed a yearlong overhaul of the Sisu, stripping and repainting the hull, replacing the fuel tank and steering system, and designing and building — from scratch — a hardtop with front and side windshields and a starboard-side helm console. They removed the 1989 150-hp Mercury 2-stroke and repowered the Sisu with a new 115-hp Evinrude E-TEC, a direct-fuel-injected 2-stroke.
“I could never afford a new boat,” says Robert, who paid $4,500 for the Sisu, including a trailer, and put $18,000 into the restoration. “Oh my God, it was in bad shape. But it’s a Sisu and you could see that the hull was still solid. If I bought it, it would be a project anyhow, and I didn’t care if it was going to take me a year or two. I just wanted to do it as a project.”
Robert worked on the Sisu just about every weekend and weekday evening from late May 2009 until her launching on Memorial Day weekend 2010. New 22s today run between about $40,000 and $65,000 depending on the builder, power (inboard or outboard) and other options.
Sisu Boat Inc., of Portsmouth, N.H., built the Sisu 22 and 26 in the 1970s and ’80s. Sisu closed in 1988, and William Colbert at Grey Barn Boatworks has the molds for the 22-footer. Lowell Brothers bought the other molds in 2004, and the boatyard offers the semidisplacement boats as the Lowell 22 and 26.
“It’s an old design that was way ahead of its time, the 22,” says Royal Lowell’s nephew, Jamie Lowell, who co-owns Lowell Brothers with his brother Joseph. “It was one of the first small Down East outboard boats.”
With its fine entry and narrow forefoot, the 22 is known for its seakindly ride. The deep forefoot makes it a stellar wave slicer, but it also adds buoyancy, Lowell says. “When that boat’s running and you come down into a sea, you’d have to work really hard to put the bow under the water,” Lowell says. The boat tracks well thanks to its full keel, and its fairly tight bilges provide stability, Lowell notes.
Robert has taken a couple of 26-mile runs from Berkley to Newport, R.I., and the Sisu has performed well in Narragansett Bay’s choppy waters. He has logged about 60 hours on the Evinrude this season.
“Most of the time it’s a full boat,” Robert says. “Sometimes my brother is with us and my sister. My sons, my wife [Joan] all the time. She loves it. The hard work paid off.”
Robert and his sons spent hundreds of hours refitting the Sisu. The toughest part was coming up with a hardtop and windshield design, building it and finishing it off, he says.
“I knew if I did this thing, I wanted to put a hardtop on it,” he says. “I’ve always liked the Down East look with a hard-top. The boat had a bass boat windshield on it, which was all busted and cracked.”
Robert tried to find a way to work with the original windshield frame but decided to replace it, which meant he and his sons had to design its replacement. They built the structure out of Penske board — a composite core material — sandwiched in fiberglass. Their initial design included side windshield framing or mullions that were too wide, and Jason Robert thought it probably would impede visibility.
“I kept looking at the side windshields and there was this crazy blind spot,” says Jason, who was the primary helper of the two brothers. “There was too much [composite] material there and not enough glass. So I just started shaping out the fiberglass to match the shape of the window. It was trial and error. I think it came out pretty good.”
Building the hardtop and windshields was easy compared to sanding and fairing them. “It was a ton of hours,” says Robert, who worked on the Sisu every day after he got home from his day job at 4:15 p.m. “My wife would have the ladder setup and the sander ready. But 90 percent of the hardtop was sanded by hand. It was just time-consuming as hell. If I had it to do it over again, I would have made the top simpler.”
Despite the hours, he did not get discouraged, even after he mixed the epoxy incorrectly and had to strip it off and start over. “When I would come home to work on this thing, it was like therapy,” says Robert, whose other projects include building a chopper-style motorcycle with Jason. “Every little thing that I fixed was satisfying because I could see the progress being made and things were coming out very good.”
The underside of the hardtop was built with fore-and-aft wiring chases. Robert cut PVC piping in half lengthwise and glassed it inside the hardtop. He also rabbeted out channels in the windshield frames for placement of the tempered glass. (He had a glass shop cut the shapes and install the windshields.)The Penske board is lighter than wood but not as stiff, so Robert built two mahogany support posts and positioned them under the aft corners of the hardtop. He also installed a mahogany bow pulpit and companionway door frame, encapsulating the wood in MAS epoxy and finishing it with polyurethane.
His skills as a machinist also were put to use. Roland fabricated all of the hardware, including the cleats, a handsome Sampson post, and the helm and companion pedestal seats and the two-person transom seat.
Despite its age, the Sisu’s hull was in pretty good shape, Robert says. Sisu built the 22 with a fiberglass bottom and used balsa wood as a coring material for the sides and decks, Lowell says. Robert found some wet core on the starboard gunwale cap. He removed the rotted wood and replaced the 12-by-6-inch area with solid glass.
The previous owner told him that the transom had been rebuilt, which was confirmed when he and his sons raised the transom from 18 to 25 inches — again using Penske board and fiberglass. “I drilled here and there to begin adding to the transom, and it looked solid and dry and tight,” Robert says.
Replacing the fuel tank on an older boat can be a nightmare. Many aluminum tanks were encapsulated in foam to hold them in place, and the foam makes it difficult to remove the tank. Foam also captures moisture and leads to corrosion. The Sisu’s 40-gallon tank — on centerline and forward in the cockpit — was corroded, but there was no foam around it. And sections of the boat’s screwed-down deck can be removed for complete access to the bilge.
“The fuel tank [replacement] was actually pretty easy,” Jason Robert says. “We ended up using a plastic tank, and we made up this nice stainless-steel cradle that it sits in. It’s through-bolted to the stringers, and it sits on rubber, so there’s no chafing. And it’s held down with stainless-steel straps.”
The men also built platforms in the bilge for the 2-stroke’s oil tank and two batteries. They installed a hydraulic steering system, and Robert designed and built a starboard-side helm console that tilts aft on hinges to provide access to the wiring.
Before painting, the men had to fill dozens of holes in the deck. “I think the [previous owner] used a machine gun to put things in,” Jason Robert says. “There were screw holes all over the place.”
Jason has a friend who owns an auto body shop in nearby East Providence, R.I., where they primed and sprayed the boat with Alexseal paint products. The hull is white with a green boot stripe and black bottom paint. They coated the decks with an off-white non-skid, also from Alexseal.
Robert says he found a 115-hp E-TEC for $9,900 installed. The engine has mechanical controls and analog gauges. The helm gauges lack a fuel-burn display, but he figures he gets about 5 nautical miles to the gallon at about 20 knots. The E-TEC pushes the Sisu’s semidisplacement hull to a top speed of about 28 knots, and she cruises from 13 to 20 knots.
“It’s more than enough power,” he says. “What’s great about the boat is the attitude stays the same no matter what speed you go. I never get a big bow rise, so if it gets rough you just pull back and slow down and punch through the waves. That’s the part of the boat I like the best. There’s no struggling to get on plane because it really doesn’t get on plane.”
The Roberts removed all of the electronics, which included an Apelco radar, a Si-Tex depth sounder and a VHF radio the “size of a VCR player,” Robert says. He has outfitted the boat with a Garmin 541s GPS/sounder, a Standard Horizon Eclipse VHF and a Ritchie compass.
The Roberts also rebuilt the trailer, swapping out the old rollers for bunks. “The bearings were good,” Robert says. “We got new tires and springs and installed all LED lights.”
The only part of the boat that has remained unchanged is the cabin. “It’s in really good shape, so I haven’t touched it,” he says.
Robert has received numerous compliments on his Sisu. “Many people think it’s a new boat,” he says. “That’s very satisfying because, let’s face it, I’m not a professional here. We just did the best we could.”
Chris Landry is a staff writer for Soundings Magazine. This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.