West System epoxy protects powerboat at bottom of lake for eight years

Fergal Butler is a man with a plan. After giving up work — as a daffodil picker — he needed a hobby which he could manage in his back garden while also caring full time for his family. He wanted to build a motor cruiser with room for two wheelchairs to accommodate his wife (with MS) and his son (who has cerebral palsy).

In order to afford the cruiser, Butler planned to take a long-term approach. He decided to learn how to build boats (from YouTube) and then make and sell a couple of them over a few years to put some capital into the cruiser pot.

But little did he predict that his plan would veer off onto a very different course indeed, although it started out well.

In 2013, he completed a project which he named Old’s Cool. A 1954-style cracker box powerboat, which he describes as being encapsulated with West System epoxy, Butler set about enjoying the joy it offered on Lough Ree, Ireland.

“I loved the shape of it, and the sound of its V8 engine,” he says. Powered by a 350hp, V8 inboard petrol engine, the vessel was capable of speeds in excess of 80mph and has been described as looking like it came straight out of a James Bond film.

He planned to keep it a year or so prior to selling and then get on building the larger motor cruiser.

But, on 1 June 2015, while coming home from a boat festival (Lanesborough to Athlone), Butler ran into trouble. He found himself motoring straight into the storm with a wall of hail stones “bouncing off my eyes.”

He says he was pounded by three big waves — the lake can get very rough – and then he hit something under the water. His boat went down, him with it. The kill cord pulled him under with the boat, but luckily he managed to get untangled, and his friend – who was accompanying him home in another boat — pulled him to safety.

“We were doing 10 knots just to keep the bow up above the waves but I came down off one hard and nosed dived into another, swamping the boat and killing the engine. With no forward motion, I then got turned sideways and hit by two more waves that filled the boat, and down she went all within 30 seconds.

I didn’t even have time to make an SOS call but luckily the other boat that was with me saw what happened and came back to pull me out of the water.

“I didn’t have a clue where my boat had sunk,” he says. His phone and GPS were gone and in the storm he couldn’t get a fix on where he was. But he knew that he wanted to come back and find it, after all, Old’s Cool had been on the market for €15,000. The engine and other hardware alone were worth around €9,000.

In order to find it, Butler needed a new plan. So instead of a new build, he undertook a restoration on a speed boat to raise funds and put all of the money from that job into the cruiser fund. After finding a suitable pre-loved Richardson Roving Gem, he spent a year doing it up (and had a heart attack during that time), ready for his wife, son and him to begin searching for Old’s Cool.

That search took place every weekend. Every holiday. For eight years.

Butler invested in sonar equipment to aid the search and a small camera he lowered over the side. He says it’s very murky water, and the boat would be hard to see unless you were on top of it – and the water is 150 feet deep at some points. He devised a system. If he found a wreck – and it hit 16 feet in length – he’d ask his friends at Athlone sub-aqua club to have a look. And each time they did, it wasn’t his boat.

“Years ago people towed old boats out in the lake and dumped them,” Butler explains of the 50-some wrecks he discovered. “There’s even a couple of hire cruisers and a speed boat in there.”

At the end of January 2023, he went out onto the lake to empty his bilge water, and ping, there it was, Old’s Cool, in a mere thirty feet of water.

“I must have driven past it 1,000 times and not seen it,” he says.

Amazed that he had found his boat, he was even more amazed at its condition.

“I was expecting it to be in bits,” he says. “But it wasn’t.” Yes, it had its fair share of marine life attached, but when the dive club raised it, the structure was intact and its glory was easily recognisable, a factor Butler puts down to the epoxy.

“I’d encapsulated every bit of timber inside and out with West System 105 Resin and 207 special hardener,” he says. It’s certainly a testament to his build and West System that the materials all held together for their eight-year dunking.

“I’ve used West System epoxy on all my projects. When I put so much time and effort into building boats, I want to make sure the protection is tried and tested,” says Butler. He learnt to use epoxy by watching YouTube videos and following other boat builders. And now sharing his experiences on the same channel.

The powerboat restoration will take until the end of the year, Butler estimates. He says it’s dependent on the weather, but “this is Ireland, and a dry day is never a sure thing.”

The engine’s already rebuilt. “It was a lot of work,” he says, “but it’s running.”

He’s taken all the fibreglass off, back to bare wood. “At the moment, it’s drying too fast, so I’m wetting it to keep it from cracking,” he says. He’s hoping it won’t change shape too much with the changing temperature. His plan is to re-fibreglass the bottom and sides and then put four coats of West System epoxy on top before finishing with varnish.

When he’s finished this second iteration of Old’s Cool, Butler says he’ll hold onto her for the moment. “If I get a chance, I will bring her around to wooden boat festivals and meet-ups around Ireland. I also promised to give the guys in the Athlone sub-aqua club a spin in her when she is done.”

Main image and divers courtesy of Athlone sub-aqua club.

Earlier this year, West System announced it had reformulated its 207 Coating Hardener. In addition to offering high strength and moisture resistance properties, West System says the new 207 Special Clear Hardener offers an exceptionally clear finish.  

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