published Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Sewanee professor builds boat atop Monteagle Mountain

A crew with J. Daniel Marine negotiates a steep, twisting U.S. Highway 41 on Monday as they move a boat from Sewanee, Tenn., atop Monteagle Mountain to the Hales Bar Marina. The boat was built by Sewanee professor Tim Keith-Lucas over the course of the last 11 years, and he plans to sail down the Tennessee River with his wife to their retirement in Florida.
A crew with J. Daniel Marine negotiates a steep, twisting U.S. Highway 41 on Monday as they move a boat from Sewanee, Tenn., atop Monteagle Mountain to the Hales Bar Marina. The boat was built by Sewanee professor Tim Keith-Lucas over the course of the last 11 years, and he plans to sail down the Tennessee River with his wife to their retirement in Florida.
Photo by John Rawlston.
  • photo
    Tim Keith-Lucas, a retired psychology professor from Sewanee: The University of the South, built a 44-foot trawler made of steel.
    Photo by Perla Trevizo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ABOUT THE BOAT

The name, Santa Catalina de Guale, is taken from a mission established on St. Catherines Island off the Georgia coast in the early 1590s.

It is 44 feet long, 15 feet wide and weighs about 23 tons.

The bridge can hold a kayak.

The bridge will have a boom for loading and unloading groceries and bicycles.

The kitchen has a deep sink and wine storage.

The wheelhouse includes two-thirds of an old desk to be used as a navigation table.

It has three air conditioners and a generator and can make its own fresh water.

It has two bathrooms and showers.

The dining table turns into a queen-size bed.

ABOUT KEITH-LUCAS

Moved to Sewanee in 1973 to work as a psychology professor at Sewanee: The University of the South.

Founded the Island Ecology Program on St. Catherines Island, Ga., and has directed it for 25 years.

Has been a deputy with the Franklin County Sheriff's Department, a volunteer firefighter, an organizer of student emergency medical technicians and a private pilot.

Designed several buildings, including a dining hall, the top of a laboratory building at Sewanee and his home.

SEWANEE, Tenn. -- Tim Keith-Lucas is the type of person who always has a Plan B.

He's the type of person whose plan for a black-tie dinner for 600 includes a blueprint of where every table is going to be on the floor and a number system for guests.

So when he came up with the idea of building his own boat, not many people were surprised.

"I laughed," said his wife, Lisa Keith-Lucas. "When he sets out to do something, he does it."

What surprised some, including Tim, was the amount of time it took to build the Santa Catalina de Gaule, a 44-foot trawler made of steel with a 1,100-pound engine. The boat's nickname is the Ark.

Tim, a retired psychology professor from Sewanee: The University of the South, spent the last 12 years -- almost half of his 30 years of marriage to Lisa -- and about $130,000 on the boat that finally made it down Monteagle Mountain to the Hales Bar Marina on Nickajack Lake on Monday. The 35-mile trip from Sewanee took less than seven hours on an 18-wheeler.

The boat, painted white with a dark red stripe on the top and a black stripe on the bottom, has all the amenities one can find in a home -- a dining table, two bathrooms with showers, a washer and a dryer, bookshelves, wine storage, a queen-size bed and a little deck.

At the same time, it looks homemade.

The wheelhouse includes two-thirds of his old laboratory desk from Sewanee that now will serve as a navigation table. The gray seats are from an old car. An upside-down blue cooler covers the antennas for the Global Positioning System. A lot of the parts came from junkyards.

"It's not polished," said Lisa. "There are gaps where things don't fit. It's not beautiful, but it's OK, it's ours."

Tim started to look for a boat about 13 years ago. Both he and his wife grew up around the water before landing in Tennessee in the 1970s. But he couldn't find any boats he could afford and that he considered seaworthy.

"They were very good for having parties and going up and down the river, but not good to withstand sea conditions," he said.

So he decided to build his own.

He had a 40-foot boat design blown up to 44 feet, the minimum length he considered safe, and had the steel cut with laser technology in the Netherlands. Twelve years ago in August, he was delivered 250 pieces of flat steel almost a quarter-of-an-inch thick. Some of the heaviest pieces weighed 800 pounds.

"It's been a slow, very difficult process," said the thin-framed man while staring at the spot where his boat sat carefully leveled on top of Monteagle for more than a decade.

"Every piece was flat but had to end up as a curve," he said, using his hands to explain the shape of the boat.

He completed the steel portions of the construction in six or seven years, using all of his free time when not teaching psychology, directing the Island Ecology Program on St. Catherines Island, Ga., or volunteering as a firefighter.

He studied mechanical engineering a couple of years before switching to psychology and learned the rest during the boat-building process. He learned how to weld, how to put together an engine room and how to redesign marine toilets so they could withstand water pressure.

He made a lot of mistakes, he said, "but there's always people who know and you go ask."

Tim is fantastically skilled, said Gerald Smith, his friend and colleague of close to 40 years.

"When Tim comes up with a solution, it's probably the best you are going to get," he said.

He has small cuts on his hands and fingers and a scar on his head from where he removed the ladder from the boat without realizing he had left the sea clamps on the top. He had to drive himself to the hospital applying pressure on his head with his hand. Now he's learned to wear a helmet when working on the boat.

There were times the Santa Catalina de Gaule -- or "she," when he talks about the boat -- totally scared him, he said.

"It was a huge job, and I hadn't done it before," he said.

He said he wouldn't have started the project if he had known how long it was going to take, but Smith said that's not his nature.

"He will not stop. There's nothing that will defeat him," he said.

And Lisa was there to support him, along with helping with painting and cleaning of the vessel.

"I think that was my most important job," she said. "Supporting him when he hit a wall, and there were lots and lots of walls."

Even at the end of the long journey, both Tim and Lisa acknowledge the boat never will be finished.

"It will always be a work in progress," she said. "He will be tinkering with it as long as we own it, because if he didn't have that he would build something else."

The couple will be completely free at the end of this summer when they hope to navigate the boat down to Florida. After that?

"I don't know," said Tim. "We don't really have an agenda. It's retirement."

Contact staff writer Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6578. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Perla_Trevizo.

about Perla Trevizo...

Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...

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