LAKE OF BAYS – With the SS Bigwin’s lustre starting to slowly erode sitting dockside in Lake of Bays, rumours of its demise started surfacing once again.
NEEDS SOME WORK.
The stern of the SS Bigwin has looked better, but plans are in the works to restore the famed boat to its original lustre.
Photo by Brent Cooper
But while the sun was busy peeling varnish from the deck, the Lake of Bays Marine Museum and Navigation Society members were gathering support to establish a budget to finish its restoration and find it a winter home.
At a board meeting on July 29, a budget of $260,000 was set with funding from area cottagers and members of the Bigwin Island Golf Club.
Recognizing the SS Bigwin as the only remaining steamboat on Lake of Bays, Jeff Gabura, president of the museum, has put 14 years and more than 21,000 hours into the restoration of the vessel.
After repairing the boat and putting it back into the lake in 2010, the SS Bigwin slowly started to lose its lustre, once again, with no shelter from winter conditions. But Gabura refused to give up.
He has been working with marine engineers and builders this summer to develop a new design for the boat.
“We changed our plan a little bit,” said Gabura. “We were going to use the steam engine but we decided that it’s too difficult to get steam engineers to run the boiler, so we’re going to run an electric motor that will be powered by batteries. But it will also have a gas generator that will charge the batteries while we’re in operation.”
The extra money for a gas generator will allow the boat to offer longer cruises. Up to 16 hours versus four without it.
He anticipates the SS Bigwin will be heading out on the lake in September/October for trials, which will enable the crew to make adjustments over the winter and have the boat ready to cruise next summer. Retouching the boat’s varnish will begin in the next week or so.
“We were at a halt for the last two years, since we launched it, because we didn’t make any progress,” said Gabura. “But that’s common in a project like this though. There are hills and valleys all the time and you just have to ignore the valleys and work toward getting to the top of the hill again.”
In 2011, the museum started a fundraising initiative to raise $400,000 to finish the steam engine and boat. But the initiative fell just short of its goal.
“We wouldn’t take any of the money from people until we had the whole pledge sold out. So we had commitments for all but $50,000 or $60,000. We couldn’t get that last bid in, which meant we couldn’t get any money.”
By scaling back and switching to the electric motor and gas generator, the budget was reduced, putting the target within reach.
“It’s safe to say thousands and thousands of people follow the progress of the Bigwin steamboat and I think we’ve all been a bit disappointed over the past two years that things haven’t gone the way we wanted and it wasn’t out in the lake right away,” said Gabura. “Now it looks like that’s over, we’re making the progress to get it back on the lake and soon all those people will be able to come out and see a boat that actually works.”
People often visit Lake of Bays just to see the SS Bigwin, including those who used to work on it.
A former engineer, who now lives in the United States and worked on the boat briefly in 1961, is making a special trip north just to see it.
“It’s unbelievable how many people this boat has touched and how many people come to this region just to see that boat,” Gabura said. “I’ve been on the boat sometimes when there’s five or six people that used to work over at Bigwin Inn and they’ll all have their albums pulled out showing each other pictures – they all used to ride back and forth on the boat, some of them were cooks, maids – you just see the tears in their eyes as they’re reliving their youth on that boat.”
A winter home for the SS Bigwin has not been confirmed, but Gabura is looking at a site on Norway Point. He will need approvals from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Township of Lake of Bays to move ahead.
This past winter Gabura was charged with three different bylaw infractions for storing the boat on municipal property after being forbidden to do so.
“It’s over. Why carry grudges?” he said. “Let’s just do what’s good for the community and let bygones be bygones.”