published Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Smooth sailing

SEWANEE, Tenn. -- Until 10 months ago, Timothy Keith-Lucas, a psychology professor at the University of the South, knew nothing about building boats.

Now, he finds himself beneath a shed in the middle of a field on top of Monteagle Mountain pointing to the steel hull of a 40-foot boat some students are calling an "ark." He's assembling the boat by hand.

"That's the rumor," he said.

Dr. Keith-Lucas said he plans to retire in a few years with his wife, Lisa. The pair will then embark on a nautical adventure that will take them down the Tennessee River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico and waters beyond, he said.

"By then I'm going to be too old to handle a cruising sailboat," he said. "I figured diesel would be a better idea."

Manufactured diesel-engine boats high-powered enough to handle ocean waters were out of the professor's budget, so he decided to build one himself. He declined to say how much the self-assembled boat will cost.

Dr. Keith-Lucas is an avid boater who with his wife spends six weeks each summer heading the University of the South's summer ecology program on St. Catherine's Island off the coast of Georgia.

Mrs. Keith-Lucas is the daughter of John Williams, a former Panama Canal boat pilot.

"I've been through the canal with him," she said, although acknowledging she's not an expert sailer.

Before long, though, she may be navigating her way through deep water.

The boat, when completed, will be 44 feet long and displace 48,000-pounds of water with its diesel-powered engine. It will measure 18 feet from the keel to the deckhouse. The craft will sleep up to four people. Its rusty steel shell will be sanded, primed and painted dark green, then christened the "Santa Catalina," the owners said.

Dr. Keith-Lucas researched the Web for information on boat plans, then chose Bruce Roberts, a designer whose home port is in Australia.

The parts for his trawler were cut at a boatyard in Holland using a computer-controlled plasma cutter, he explained. Then late last summer, an 18-wheel truck made the trek to Sewanee carrying 22,000 pounds of steel parts packed into shipping containers.

He and his oldest son, Darwin, a power-tool designer in Franklin, Tenn., built a pole barn near the university to keep the boat secure and protected from the weather.

"I wasted a lot of time with forklifts," said Dr. Keith-Lucas. "So a friend in the auto service business gave me a good price on a crane. I think I may be the only private owner of a 10,000-pound crane."

Once those obstacles were hurdled, it was smooth sailing -- almost.

"It was pretty obvious I had to start at the bottom and work upwards," he said. "When I first started this, I didn't know how to weld, even though I started out as an engineering major in college. You'd think after two and a half years of engineering, they would have gotten around to welding.

"I've been having to do a lot of pushing, pulling and prodding," he said. "It's a slow process with a million and one problems to be dealt with, but you deal with one at a time and then go on to the next one.

After tests to check for leaks and other potential hazards, the boat should be ready for its maiden voyage in 2010, if not before. A moving company has already agreed to take the boat down the curvy Jump-Off Road to South Pittsburg and on to Nickajack Dam. The Keith-Lucases plan is to take the boat down the Tennessee River, through the Tom-Bigbee Waterway and on to the Gulf of Mexico.

The couple owns property along the Carrabelle River south of Tallahassee, Fla., where the boat will be docked. Day trips will be frequent, but longer trips across the Atlantic to visit family in England and Norway are planned.

Is Mrs. Keith-Lucas at all concerned about the boat's buoyancy?

"I saw 'The Perfect Storm,' " she said. "Didn't you?"

E-mail Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com

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