Barge project nears completion, draws attention in Ketchikan basin

The former cannery barge turned houseboat by a local boat renovator is seen on June 15 moored at Thomas Basin in Ketchikan. A cool mini-houseboat that's attracting attention is the handiwork of Ketchikan boat renovator Robert Hubbard, who salvaged the barge hull from a local beach and transformed it into a fully functioning live-aboard — in part by using a variety of salvage materials.

KETCHIKAN — A cool mini-houseboat that’s attracting attention at Thomas Basin is the handiwork of Ketchikan boat renovator Robert Hubbard, who salvaged the barge hull from a local beach and transformed it into a fully functioning live-aboard — in part by using a variety of salvage materials.


“It turned out pretty good,” Hubbard said inside the surprisingly spacious interior of the as-yet unnamed craft.

It is surprisingly spacious, because the fiberglass, double-hulled, former cannery “gut barge” measures just 30 feet by 11.5 feet and has a draft of about 10 inches. Adding in the salvaged swim step and a 9.9-horsepower outboard motor extends the overall length to about 33 feet.

Despite the limited exterior dimensions, the barge’s interior features a separate cabin berth and restroom in addition to a galley and salon area.

The overall package is fun, innovative, and basically done without plans on paper.

“There was not a plan at all,” Hubbard said. “This is just what it came together in my head.”

That’s a tribute to Hubbard’s long experience in renovating neglected boats.

By his count, Hubbard has had 15 larger boats and an unknown number of skiffs over time. Most of them he obtained from people whose dreams of frequent boating hadn’t come true for whatever reasons.

“They’ll buy it with a dream, and they’ll go sailing one time and park it and that’s the end of it,” Hubbard said, noting that most of the boats have needed substantial mechanical repairs by the time he buys them.

“I’m big on working on engines,” he said. “Maybe the engine seized up, or something broke on it. ... The last one, it needed new fuel tanks. It’s always something like that, so I get a good deal on them, fix them up and sell them.”

It usually takes about a year to complete one of his boat projects, and he typically lives aboard the boat he’s working on.

“If you live on it, the more likely you’re going to fix it up a lot faster to make it more comfortable to live on,” Hubbard said. “You’re there all the time.”

He salvaged the barge.

It once had worked as a gut barge hauling halibut for a Craig-area cannery, according to Hubbard. At some point it arrived on the shoreline of a Pennock Island cove where it spent many years before winding up on Gravina Island.

Hubbard said he looked at the barge on the beach for about two months before deciding to salvage it.

It was in bad shape, with a gaping hole in the stern and a couple more holes along the side. It was stout, though, “built like a tank,” and full of foam for buoyancy.

“It still floated just fine,” Hubbard said.

He towed it to Whiskey Cove on Pennock Island, and went through the process to obtain legal title. He then began the renovation.

It took two months to strip out every piece of rotted wood. He also did a lot of the fiberglass repair at Whiskey Cove, before last fall’s storms prompted Hubbard to bring the barge to Thomas Basin to continue the work.

He would incorporate a number of salvaged items and various odds and ends as work progressed.

The swim step was salvaged from an abandoned boat, and all the major hardware is from other boats as well, according to Hubbard.

He used the cabinet doors, table, seat cushions and a propane refrigerator from a surplus camper. There’s also a Dickinson propane stove usually found in sailboats.

The barge’s wood framing is from Madison Lumber, while Alaska Forest Products supplied the cedar that’s installed in the ceiling and as wainscotting.

Hubbard, who also does land-based construction and welding, installed the electrical and plumbing for the barge’s house, which is roofed with fiberglass over plywood. The house is insulated with 3-inch, closed-cell foam.

“It holds the heat something fierce,” he said.

The vertical surfaces of the house are decorated with beveled cedar siding.

Changes were made as the project continued.

One issue was how to make the barge float level.

Its bow is cut at an angle, which provides less buoyancy than the squared-off stern.

“All of the barges that have a bow cut like that float bow-down,” he said.

To counter that, Hubbard removed some of the foam in the stern and filled the space with 1,000 pounds of poured concrete.

“It only brought it up (about) one-half inch,” Hubbard said.

Adding a tank with 200 gallons of fresh water for ballast helped level the barge out, he said.

“Since they’re so flat on the bottom, it takes a lot of weight to push that down,” Hubbard said.

The project took about a year to get to its current, not-quite-finished stage. He already has swapped out the propane refrigerator for an electric one, and is planning to take the barge back over to Pennock Island to haul it out for more painting and ceiling work.

“It probably never will be done,” Hubbard said.

For now, though, it’s easily visible from Stedman Street, and is attracting a lot of attention.

“People come down here constantly,” said Hubbard. “It’s amazing. A lot of people come by asking for plans.”

Hubbard clearly enjoys the process of renovating a vessel, however difficult the actual work might be.

He said he’d like to build a vessel similar to the barge sometime.

“There’s a lot of things I’d do different, if I build another one,” he said, noting changes such as a rounded ceiling for the interior.

“The outside is a little cambered, but it would be nice to have the inside be a little cambered too,” he said. “That would look cool.”


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