When two Seattle contractors, Shawn Buffer and Jacob Tew, were hired to reframe a wall on a houseboat docked on Bainbridge Island they didn’t expect to still be working on it three years later.
But the project grew. Since that first time they took the job, Buffer and Tew have stayed with the Bella Barca, a 51-foot wooden house barge built in the mid 1970s, throughout its total renovation.
“We just kept working on it and working on it,” Buffer said. “It was in pretty bad shape when we got it in Bainbridge.”
Three years and several bosses later, a rotation of crew members coming in and out of the project.
The Bella Barca is sitting prettily at the Boat Haven marina, nearly finished with her renovations.
Throughout the project, the boat’s owner, Patrice Doerr, has given the crew artistic liberty to give their all to the beauty of the boat.
“This houseboat is a dream come true, from the imaginings of my early childhood,” she stated in a press release. “I am so grateful for all of the crew, especially Shawn Buffer and Jacob Tew, who have been there from the very beginning.”
Though she survived what project manager Sebastian Eggert of Rain Shadow Woodworks, described as a “financial hurricane” of project costs over the years, Doerr was supportive of the hard work it took to complete the project.
“It was probably a vast fortune,” Eggert said. “But because it was a local project, that money goes back into the marine trades industry and local businesses here in Port Townsend.”
With a few weeks left until the project is complete - the crew is working on installing the deck and adding finishing touches - there is still time to walk by and observe the process in the Boat Haven marina before the barge moves to its home slip on Bainbridge Island.
Teaming up with Eggert, Buffer and Tew replanked 80 percent of the hull, 30 percent of the framework inside the hull, and installed all-new marine electrical and plumbing systems. The boat has new windows, siding, roofing, doors, walls and ceiling surfaces, light fixtures, a wood burning stove, a roof-top deck and a full-size bathroom.
Everything is a custom piece, Buffer said, mostly because the shape of the barge is so unusual and ever-changing.
The western red cedar siding creates a beautiful contrast against the blue water in the marina, and is just one example of the workmanship that went into the renovation. But getting things to fit, and getting the barge to float after being out of the water for so long, wasn’t as seamless as the herringbone siding pattern.
“There’s no plans or blueprints you can look at,” Buffer said, explaining that there are many bows and dips in the old barge, so many of the new additions had to be custom-fit. “You just have to look at it, fit it, and make it work. Nothing’s ever really square.”
It was sometimes a puzzle, he said. When he or another crew member would get stuck on one section, unsure what to do next, they’d move on to something else and wait for inspiration to take hold.
“If you take the time to let an idea cook, you’re not ignoring it, you’re processing it,” he said. “Then sometimes you’ll wake up in the middle of the night, suddenly knowing what to do.”
While Buffer and Tew have stayed with the project the longest, they were helped immensely halfway through by the addition of Eggert and his crew to manage the renovations.
Eggert specializes in historic preservation, but his true talent lies in his tenacity.
“There are three years of stories that could be told about this job,” he said.
Included in these stories are a list of tragedies: visits to the ER, eye doctors washing out toxic chemicals, maybe one or two instances of law breaking.
A side list of “wins” is also being compiled: In the process of the renovation, Buffer and Yew moved from Seattle to Port Townsend for good, drawn by the local marine trades culture. Babies were born during the project, and another crewmember, Taylor Austin, won a pretty amazing bet.
But throughout the many twists and turns, Eggert kept the crew on track and managed to get some of Port Townsend’s best and brightest marine trade workers helping out with the barge’s marine systems overhaul.
“My one greatest advantage was that I had friends who had been in the marine trades all their lives, so I just went to them and said, ‘Who is the best person for marine electrical?’” Eggert said. “The project seems a real testament to the marine trades in town.”
Not only did Port Townsend’s marine trades experts help the crew with the renovation, but they also provided support.
“There’s a culture around here, where people would just come by to see how we were doing,” said Taylor Austin, who works with Eggert at Rain Shadow Woodworks.
“We also couldn’t have done this without Jennifer at the Marina Cafe. She fueled us.”