DIY motor yacht restoration: 1980s Birchwood gets a new lease of life

Norwegian couple Geir and Rita Westrum couldn’t resist an ageing British built Birchwood TS44 – even if it did need a lot of work doing to it

I have always had a passion for boating. I grew up in the northwest of Norway where I had one uncle who was a keen angler and another who owned a pleasure craft.

I think I must have picked up the boating bug from both of them. I loved boats so much that during my teens I got a summer job working at a boat yard helping to build small GRP craft and now every time I smell resin it brings back memories of my time there!

As is so often the case I had to put aside my passion for boats while I built a career, but when I met my wife, Rita, I discovered that she also shared many of my boating dreams. A year after we met, we bought our first motor boat.

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After two years of hard graft the Westrum’s British built Birchwood TS 44 is now perfect for cruising around the Norwegian couple’s home waters

It was a modest 24ft displacement cruiser built by the Norwegian manufacturer Nidelv in 1973 and we had to completely redo the interior and electrics. Looking back, I’ve no idea how we managed to live on board such a tiny boat especially when the children came along, but we loved it and regularly went cruising on it for weeks at a time.

Our second Boat was a Scand 29 Baltic. This was also a bit of a project. Compared to the Nidelv it was huge, and had many more creature comforts such as hot water and heating. However, we wanted to extend the season and our four children were starting to grow up, so in 2017 we began to look for a newer boat with a fully enclosed deck saloon cruiser.

We were originally looking at boats between 30-35ft, especially models produced by the Norwegian manufacturer Saga, and we were determined not to buy another restoration project.

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Whilst we were busy researching possible craft my wife happened to mention that a colleague of hers owned a considerably larger boat that they did not have time to use or maintain properly.

At first I wasn’t interested – it sounded too expensive and I didn’t want to spend all my time on another refit, but somehow the idea of owning it refused to go away…

British affair

After a while I asked my wife if she could get some pictures and information about the boat. It turned out to be a 1986 Birchwood TS44 from the once-renowned British yard. There seemed to be very little information online about this model, presumably because, as I also discovered, the Birchwood yard had suffered a fire that destroyed most of its archives.

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Geir sets to work cleaning his newly acquired Birchwood TS44 in full wet weather gear

However, we could see that the boat had a deck layout that we liked. I got in touch with one of the few other Norwegian owners of a TS44 who said he was very satisfied with the craft. He reckoned the space on board was similar to other much larger vessels, such as the Princess 55.

It sounded promising, so a few days later I contacted Rita’s colleague and had a long chat about the TS44 he was selling. It had twin 375hp Caterpillar 3208 engines, one of which probably had a blown cylinder head gasket, since there was steady drop in coolant levels at high RPM.

Other than this, the boat was ok, but he had only really been using it as a floating home during the summer season rather than cruising it anywhere. We also touched on the subject of money and his proposed asking price was so attractive that I couldn’t ignore it. We decided to take a closer look and scheduled a visit a few weeks later.

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The teak decks came up remarkably well with teak treatment and elbow grease

In the meantime I did a lot of research on the engines (boatdiesel.com was particularly helpful) and found that Caterpillars are usually very reliable engines. One of the few well-known weaknesses was that the head gaskets on early models were prone to leaking after 2-3,000 hours. Caterpillar later replaced the head gaskets and bolts to solve this problem.

When we first saw the boat it felt huge! The saloon and cabins were particularly impressive and the interior woodwork and furniture in good shape. The exterior GRP work was in need of a cut and polish, and the teak in the cockpit, sidedecks and flybridge was worn and discoloured, but we saw a lot of potential in her and the price was too good to refuse.

We decided to go for it. We put our Scand 29 on the market and within hours of placing the advert it was sold.

Work begins

As soon as we had signed the papers and transferred the money, we started work on our new Birchwood. First, we did a thorough cleanse both inside and out.

We ripped out the faded blue carpets and replaced them with laminated wood planking designed for use in outdoor restaurants, taking the opportunity to install underfloor heating while we were at it. It’s a decision we’ve never regretted!

While that was going on, I started to cut and polish all the gelcoat above the waterline. It was a huge job, but the boat instantly looked several years younger. I also cleaned, brightened and oiled all the teak decks – another labour of love.

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The original bathing platform was too small to be of much use

Then I did a basic service on the engines, changing the oil and all the filters for oil, fuel and air. At the same time my wife replaced all the bedding and upholstery from the original 1980s pink and blue prints to modern grey textiles.

We now felt that she was ready to cruise back to our home marina. I was a bit nervous about this trip because of the head gasket leak and the fact that I wasn’t used to handling a craft of this size.

We took things very slowly for most of the trip and didn’t see any signs of trouble with the engine but the transition from a 30-footer with single engine and bow thruster to a 46ft vessel with two engines and no bow thruster proved to be a steep learning curve – I won’t mention how many attempts I needed to get her into our berth.

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Geir installs the new swim platform

All I will say is that a bow thruster was now top of my wish list! (Ironically, having now mastered the art of manoeuvring with two engines, I rarely miss it.)

Next on our list was replacing the holding tank; the original was made of stainless steel but the hose connectors were badly corroded. We decided to replace it with a plastic tank along with new hoses from the toilets to the tank.

While the tank was out I also cleaned and painted bilges before installing the new one. It was a dirty job but the end result was much easier on the eyes and nose!

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The stainless steel holding tank was also replaced with a plastic one

Bathing platform

The original bathing platform was too small to be useful and had some damage to the starboard corner where the aft anchor was attached. Instead of repairing it, we decided to replace it with something bigger.

After a bit of thought, we chose to build it out of divinycell, fibreglass and polyester. Two plates of 30mm thick divinycell H60 formed the basis of the new platform.

I bonded these together using the old platform as a template to get the right fit against the stern of the boat, then moulded the final shape once the weather warmed up in spring. I placed a rubbing strake around the edge of it and covered the surface with EVA teak foam.

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Geir used the old platform as a template for making sure the new one would fit the transom

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Rita paints the new extended platform moulding

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The final part of the process was making a new box step to replace the old transom ladder

Since we’d only extended the platform by 35 cm, we felt the original mount brackets would still be up to the job and so far it seems to be holding up well and we are very pleased with the result!

New bathrooms

As with much of the interior, the bathrooms were firmly stuck in the 1980s in shades of pink that must have been at the cutting edge of interior design in 1986, but not so much today!

I wasn’t that keen on doing this project as the condition of the bathrooms was actually very good without a single scratch on any of the fittings or gelcoat. However, I finally succumbed to Rita’s wishes this spring, taking out all the fittings, tearing off the imitation leather deckhead lining and removing the window frames.

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After ripping out the old pink basin, loo and countertop, work starts on fitting these stylish new units

Then we sanded down and cleaned the surfaces before painting on a coat of epoxy primer followed by two coats of polyurethane off-white gloss. New dark grey linings for the ceilings and window frames gave a much more modern look while new countertops, basins and mixer taps completed the job. Having now done the work I am grateful for Rita’s powers of persuasion!

Engine rebuild

After a while the levels from the starboard expansion tank began to get worse and although we could run on the port engine while letting the starboard one cool down and re-filling it with water, I knew I needed to sort out the head gasket the following winter.

In November I started to disassemble the starboard engine. A lot of heavy parts like the aftercooler and exhaust manifold had to come off before the head was ready to be removed. Once I’d got the head off I took it to a colleague of mine who had the proper instruments to check that the surface of the head was inside Caterpillar’s own parameters.

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It took a lot of effort to remove the starboard engine’s head and get to the suspected faulty gasket

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Measuring the surface of the head to ensure it is still within Caterpillar’s recommended tolerances

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Geir had all the ancillaries cleaned and resprayed prior to reassembly

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Geir took the opportunity to clean the bilges and repaint all the pipework and ancillaries before fitting the new head gasket and bolts, and putting everything back together again

Fortunately, it was well within tolerance. I couldn’t see any breakage in the head gasket, but as I’d learnt on the boatdiesel.com forum it could be leaking without any visible split. Whilst I had the engine out I took the opportunity to clean the bilges and repaint all the pipework and ancillaries before fitting the new head gasket and bolts, and putting everything back together again.

In February, I fired her up again and having now completed a leak-free summer season I am confident the repair has been successful. It’s fair to say that two thirds of the time spent on this project has been reading manuals, using forums and figuring out how to do this and that, so that if I do have to the same job on port engine, it will take a fraction of the time.

Conclusions

We have now completed most of the planned projects on the boat and have a vessel we are extremely proud of. Rita would still like to replace all the remaining mustard-coloured lining in the saloon and cabins with something more contemporary but this is another huge job and for the moment I am still protesting.

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We spent the summer cruising down the west coast of Sweden and over to Denmark, enjoying the fruits of our labour and the extra space our new boat brings us.

We have spent quite a lot of money on materials but by doing almost all the work ourselves we have managed to keep the total cost down. I dread to think how many hours we’ve put into her, but Charisma is our hobby and passion and doing these projects is integral to the enjoyment we get from her.

We think we have added more value to her than we have spent but we’ll never know for sure until we sell her and we have no intention of doing that any time soon!

First published in the November 2019 edition of Motor Boat & Yachting.

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