When Rob Judge bought the bare hull of a former Coast Guard boat, little did he know how much time and effort it would take to restore it, but the end result more than lives up to its name
You learn how to drive a boat before you can ride a bike when growing up on Lake Erie. I started driving boats with my father at six years old and now I am in my fourth decade of boating. It’s a big part of my existence.
I live in a lakeside house with my boat on a lift directly under my sitting room. With immediate access to over 9,000 square miles of Lake Erie, boating is a way of life here.
When I was 15 years old, I raised enough money cutting grass and gardening in my evenings and weekends to buy my first boat. It was a 1954 wooden Niles Craft 16, powered by a 12hp Johnson outboard.
It took me most of the summer to rebuild it. I upgraded it from tiller steering to cable steering, replaced the transom and rebuilt the seating. This started my obsession with modifying boats, a passion that I still have.
Fast forward ten years and a degree from Akron university in construction engineering provided me with the resources to start racing jetskis on the amateur circuit.
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In 2003, I won the world championship title in the novice 1200cc superstock class. This turned my attention towards high performance boats. In 2004 I purchased my first go-fast boat – a Baja 25 powered by a 502 big block Mercury MAG pushing out 415hp. The boat could top 70mph. I was hooked. The visceral nature of the whole experience with its straight-through exhausts and edgy handling was utterly intoxicating.
A couple of years later I upgraded to a 30-foot Baja with twin 496 HO motors that could reach the high 70s even in choppier waters. On Lake Erie, which is known for its challenging short chop and rapidly changing conditions, the rough weather handling of a boat considerably enhances its usability.
Fast forward another six years to 2010 and I moved up to the big league with a Cigarette Top Gun 38 GT running twin Mercury Racing 525s. The side-by-side configuration provides easy handling around the dock compared to staggered engine boats and the twin-stepped hull is a proven thoroughbred.
It will run at 85mph, 74 knots in old money, which is exceptional for a boat with a relatively modest 1,050hp. With twin 700hp motors, it will do over 100mph!
So far, I haven’t felt the desire to change the Cigarette for anything else. The only limitation is the short summer boating season from June to the end of September, at which point the weather gets too cold and unpredictable for a high performance open boat. I needed to find something more robust with an enclosed wheelhouse that I could use all year round.
It took me five years of research to find the right solution: a 25ft Safe Boat Defender. It’s intended for use as a Coast Guard boat or military platform for patrol and search and rescue purposes.
In early 2022 I was offered the opportunity to buy a secondhand one, sight unseen for $50,000. The hull came with a trailer, and had been stripped of its engines, electronics, and ancillaries. The only history I was given said that it had been a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat, known as an RBS (Response Boat Small) and was based in Miami FL.
It was originally powered by a pair of Honda 225hp outboards. Safe Boat advised that in this form it was a 50mph boat. Needless to say, this was the solution I had been looking for. A $5,000 delivery cost was the only extra at this point.
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My family business is building municipal snow plough trucks and when business went quiet in the aftermath of Covid, I had the space and technicians to get this project done.
In March 2022, the hull arrived at my facility. My initial reaction was one of sheer panic – with only the wiring loom left in the boat and a Swiss cheese of holes around the helm, where the navigation and communications equipment had once been.
The huge deck-mounting plate designed to support a 50-calibre machine gun was still present on the bow, a hangover from its military spec build. The boat had no seats, no helm, no controls and even arrived with its armoured door locks missing.
However, even through the salt rash, I could see that I had bought a tank. The immensely solid hull and superstructure was a good starting point. Given that the base price for a new build from Safe Marine is over $400,000, I could definitely end up with the boat I wanted at a significant saving.
My first step was to establish a brief and a build schedule to recommission the boat. I decided to fit it with a pair of Mercury Racing 300R outboards. The latest generation of V8 Verados offer an astonishing power-to-weight ratio and an almost flat torque curve across the rev range.
The only difference with the Racing variants is that they have a higher rev limit and more top end than the standard Verado 300s.
Coming in at nearly 36kg lighter than the boat’s former 225hp V6 Hondas and with significantly more power and torque, they should deliver significant performance gains.
Although the boat was originally rated for a maximum of 500hp, this was more to do with weight loading rather than horsepower. A hull designed to operate in conditions that would destroy most leisure boats needs to be able to drop off a 20-foot wave without the transom getting ripped off.
Having discussed the matter with a friend, the owner of local performance RIB builder Airship, he agreed these would be the ideal engines and saw no issue with the extra 150hp. Airship was also happy to supply and rig the motors.
My first and most expensive commitment, totalling $95,000 was agreed. The price included rigging, steering, DTS controls and a SeaTalk NMEA 2000 network.
Installing the new 16in Garmin 8616 MFD and VesselView system would take another month. The only other considerations for electronics were a DSC VHF, again from Garmin, and a night-vision camera.
Next on the list were colour-changing LEDs for the wheelhouse, a massive JL Audio sound system with Fusion head unit, underwater lighting at the stern and high powered LED floodlights front and back mounted on the roof, LED navigation lights and a set of four extremely loud truck-sourced air horns.
To ensure I could still take it out in almost any weather, I sourced some electric air-ride seats used in high-end trucks. Even at trade costs, these accounted for over $6,000 but their ability to absorb impacts in rough water as well as the support they give when cornering at speed means they are worth every penny.
My only concession to luxury was applying some marine-grade carpet to the walls of the wheelhouse and a designer Isotta steering wheel.
Over the next 11 months and 3,000 man hours, we re-sanded the entire structure using 80-grit sandpaper, replaced the foam tubes, painted them grey and brought the entire structure back to the standard of a new boat. Some specialist items such as three new armoured locks came in at a hefty $1,000 each. Incredibly, even after 12 years of hard service, the boat was as solid and sound as the day it left the factory.
A diesel heater with ducting to the windshields to act as a demister and vents to the helm and saloon was installed and SeaDek flooring applied to the saloon and aft cockpit.
Finally, the brand new shiny red and black Mercury V8s arrived. Running a pair of lab prepared 4-bladed 21-degree Mercury Racing props, they looked the business. I did consider using 5-bladed cleaver propellers but the extra top speed they give would have significantly compromised the acceleration, and that decision has definitely paid off in practice.
A month later the boat was rigged and, almost a year to the day from its arrival, it was time to relaunch it with her new name of Safe Judgment – a play on my other boat’s name, Bad Judgment. Sliding it off its refurbished trailer was one of the most exciting moments of my boating career. I had no idea how it would drive, perform or manoeuvre.
Powering the engines up, I was immediately surprised by its agile low-speed handling. It turns on a dime, making berthing an absolute doddle, even with its lofty superstructure adding to the windage.
As the engines were brand new (Mercury Racing engines require a 20-hour running-in process) full-speed runs would have to wait. Failing to adhere to this would be recorded by the VesselView system and invalidate the warranty, so the first few rides had to be slightly restrained.
Despite not being able to use full revs, I was shocked at how brutal the boat’s acceleration was. It is simply ferocious and unlike anything else I have experienced in a high-performance boat.
The cornering is also staggering, and it will easily handle full-lock turns at over 40 knots without a hint of slip. The handling overall is flawless – aggressively sharp and responsive, yet with levels of grip that defy belief.
With this much fun to be had, it didn’t take long to complete the running-in and once the first service was complete, I was able to fully access the boat’s performance.
Safe Judgment tops out at just over 61mph (53 knots), which for a boat that looks and is built like a tank is seriously impressive. The bigger picture is how easily it runs at 40 knots through a 5ft chop while out-accelerating almost every other craft from zero to 50 knots.
It also has a profound effect on other boaters, who immediately assume it’s a Coast Guard or law enforcement vessel. Its rugged looks get more attention and positive comments than anything I have ever owned, even my custom built Cigarette.
After nearly six months of use, I am delighted with my new boat. It is totally unique and has exceeded every expectation I had for it. It’s a serious performance machine and capable of far more than anything I would ever choose to do with it.
It is not pretty, nor suited to the type of boating most people enjoy and at a total cost of around $210,000 excluding my and my team’s labour, it’s not exactly cheap either. But I couldn’t be happier with it. Other than a couple of months a year when Lake Erie literally freezes over, I now have year-round boating.
Would I go through the process again? Probably not, mainly due to the man hours spent on the whole project, as if I had included the going rate for those, the cost would have been similar to a brand new Safe Boat 25.
But I am pleased I took on the challenge and the quality and dynamics of the finished boat showcases my team’s skill and dedication.