LAKE OF BAYS – When Jeff Gabura and Calvin Johnson started the new electric engine of the SS Bigwin and took the boat for a cruise on Trading Bay, all the effort spent on restoring the vessel became more than worth it.
The SS Bigwin, seen here moored in Dorset this past summer, is undergoing work to its electric engine and interior.
/ File photo
Gabura, president of the Lake of Bays Marine Museum and Navigation Society, has spent over a decade and 21,000 hours on the SS Bigwin’s restoration. He and Johnson were testing the steamboat at different speeds in mid-November at the request of the engine’s manufacturer.
“Everything looked good, we wanted to go at least 10 miles an hour and it goes 10 miles an hour easily,” said Gabura. “Doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a 102-year-old boat that’s pretty good.”
The last time the SS Bigwin had been powered up was in 1969, said Gabura, and while there weren’t many people on the water during the test run those who were around stood on their docks and watched the historic vessel go by.
“There hasn’t been any large boats like that on the water since then,” he said. “I think there’s something nostalgic and something mesmerizing for people to see an old boat like that going back and forth.”
Getting behind the wheel was quite the experience for Gabura.
“It was unbelievable, especially for me,” he said, noting the years he’s spent on the boat. “To actually finally take it out was so rewarding, made it all worthwhile. I was quite impressed at how steady it is and how responsive, it’s a nice boat.”
Johnson has been a key part of the restoration, said Gabura, as he has a lot of technical knowledge of larger boats.
“He’s a very technical guy and very good around boats,” said Gabura. “He’s sort of been my right-hand guy advising me on the decisions we have to make about the boat. He’s been very instrumental in getting it finished.”
Over the winter months the SS Bigwin will be stored at the museum marina on dry land. Restoration work will continue on the inside of the vessel during those months, with more testing on the water in the spring.
Gabura plans to have an inaugural launch party next July on Bigwin Island while offering cruises. There won’t be a set fee to board the boat, but Gabura is hoping people will donate some funds to support the wharf. Those who have made a significant contribution to fund the SS Bigwin’s restoration will be onboard guests.
All of this progress comes after a two-year halt in the restoration of the SS Bigwin after a new action plan was set in place this past year.
Initially in 2011, Gabura and members of the museum had started a fundraising initiative to raise $400,000 to repair the vessel, but fell just short of the target. This summer the board met and approved a smaller budget of $260,000 with funding from area cottagers and members of the Bigwin Island Golf Club.
That’s when the electric motor came into play, instead of restoring the boat’s steam engine, which was proving difficult, especially with finding steam engineers to run the boiler.
With the electric engine and a gas generator the SS Bigwin will be able to cruise the water for up to 16 hours, versus four with the steam engine.
Gabura is looking forward to the inaugural launch.