Dimillo's Restaurant's New Hull


The owner of Portland's landmark floating restaurant called me in 1993 to ask my opinion on a proposal he was considering. The hull of the old ferryboat was getting very thin and sinking was progressing from the realm of the possible to the probable. Deterioration had progressed so far that towing it to New York or Boston was no longer feasible. In any event, the time out of service would doom the restaurant as the regulars would drift away and form new habits.

The proposal was for a fiberglass skin and was quite an improbable undertaking. I said, "Why don't you do something like this?" and the project was born.

This ferryboat was an old steam vessel with a narrow hull and decks that extended far out from the sides. My idea was to construct a new hull the size of the deck which would leave lots of space inside. Welding to the deck was not feasible since flammable Styrofoam had been laid down over the whole boat for insulation and then covered with concrete and the flooring. Building the new hull the shape of the deck would allow the welding attachment to be done at the guardrail. It would also produce a much wider and more stable hull. The fuel tanks scabbed on the outside as seen in the picture above would no longer be necessary.

My original thought was to build the new hull with ballast tanks, sink it in the harbor, tow the ferry over it, pump out the tanks, and make the attachment. It would have been a very, very, complex and interesting operation.

Bath Iron Works got wind of the project, I can't remember how, and offered the use of their drydock. This was just before the sale to General Dynamics and the business plan then was to expand into civilian project with this as a trial run.

The hull was prefabricated out of flat panels at the shop in Bath and then they were trucked to the Portland drydock and assembled into the world's largest dory. It was fascinating to watch a small group of dedicated individuals attempting to get a muscle bound military-industrial complex company to do something efficiently and cheaply. I remember some one saying, "We've got to make sure the legal department doesn't learn that we are doing this or they will want to see the contract and we won't get it done this year or next."

The steel tanks were removed from the ferry in preparation for moving after I had done some calculations on the stability which was pretty minimal. I was nervous. Some of the tanks had leaked and had to be pumped out. The inspection covers were removed and the restaurant's maintenance supervisor looked in to verify that they were dry.

When the next to the last tank was cut loose on the side where I was standing watching, the ferry began to roll slowly away from me. I watched with horror as more and more weed covered steel rose into the air and I knew I had made a mistake in the calculations and was going to watch the whole thing turn over on its side in the slip.

It stopped. Everyone breathed. When my heart stopped pounding, we went to investigate. The tank had leaked exactly up to the half way point. When the supervisor looked in, the still water acted like a mirror reflecting the top. He thought he was looking at the dry bottom and the curve of the bottom at the far end. When the tank on my side was cut loose, the ferry was suddenly relieved of 42,775 pounds of water on my side and rolled to compensate. I was later able to use this information to confirm that my stability estimates were exactly right.

The drydock was then sunk with the prefabricated hull flooding through holes in the sides. It was done at night because the dock was the largest connected electric load in Maine and it took $100,000 of off-peak electricity to pump the water in and out. The holes in the hull didn't quite keep up with the rate the dock went down so, when the edge reached the waterline, if filled like a large bowl around the whole perimeter. It was a dramatic sight in the floodlights.

The ferry was then maneuvered in by tugs and the dock was slowly pumped out. There are many feet of clearance between the old and new hulls but there was a tight fit at the ends. The dock stopped and the radio said, "You'd better have Mr. Long come down, we don't think it's going to fit." I climbed down the many steps with many people watching and took a boat ride. I told them it was going to fit and, if it didn't, it would bend something until it did. The dock was pumped fully up. The next morning, I checked again. There was an inch of clearance. Not bad accuracy in a distance of over 200 feet.

The new hull had been filled with concrete level with the bottom frames and wooden blocks set on the concrete to support the ferry hull, just as if she were being hauled in a dry dock. The next day a seemingly endless stream of cement trucks drove down the pier and the hull was pumped full of more concrete until the ferry hull was supported to a depth of about a foot. It was a bizarre scene inside as workman waded around up to their knees in wet concrete hauling the hoses and spreading it around. All together, 840 tons of concrete were installed in the new hull. With this ballast, I figured the restaurant would heel just one degree in a seventy five knot wind.

OSHA rules would not let any workers except salaried supervisors go inside the hull without setting up a quarter million dollars worth of scaffolding. In addition to figuring out how to attach the hull at the deck with out setting the foam insulation on fire, I had to figure out how to do the whole job from the outside. The connection was made, the hull painted, and then launched. She floated within one half inch of where I predicted.

The time from when the restaurant closed until it opened for Mother's Day dinner was just two weeks. Media coverage and interest kept the patronage up. It turned out that the whole job cost less than it would have if the restaurant had gone out of business and been faced with the costs of disposing of the vessel. The day after the hull was raised in the drydock, I poked a small knife through the paper thin hull at the waterline. She was within days of sinking, much worse than we suspected.

Instead of a disaster or a huge disposal bill, a father was able to pass on to his children a business with a solid foundation. I helped make it possible with some creative and aggressive thinking. I've done few things in my career that I am as proud of as this project.

Back to Other Designs Page

Back to Home Page