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Fleet of glass-bottom boats being restored

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Glass-bottom boats parked at the docks July 14 at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. Some of the boats have already been restored, while a few others remain in their original state.
Photo by Lara Dietrich

The Spring Lake glass-bottom boat tours offer visitors the opportunity to explore the depths of the water’s diverse ecosystem. The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment is in the process of restoring five glass-bottom boats in its historic fleet.

In 1946, Paul Rogers pioneered the first tour of Spring Lake in a homemade glass-bottom rowboat. Generations later, the glass-bottom boat tours have become a regional attraction, educating locals and tourists about endangered species and the springs which create the headwaters of the San Marcos River.

Sam Massey, assistant manager for the glass-bottom boats, said the boats are one of the original concepts developed back when Aquarena Springs was a theme park.

“There are still locals who remember Aquarena Springs as the theme park,” Massey said. “The glass-bottom boats are the element that remained through all the changes. They are a piece of history that is most sustainable, and I think there are a lot of people in the area that would hate to see them go completely.”

There are five boats in the current fleet, each built as early as the ‘40s and ‘50s. Only two have been restored so far—boats 1953 and 1945. 1945, the oldest of the fleet, was the most recent boat to undergo restoration. It returned to Spring Lake June 29, after almost a year of repairs.

Aaron Wallendorf, Spring Lake manager, said once all boats have been restored, annual maintenance cost is expected to drop.

“Roughly 80 percent of the yearly glass-bottom boat maintenance and restoration cost is related to the wooden framed hulls,” Wallendorf stated in a press release. “The new fiberglass composite hulls will increase the life of the boats and once all five boat hulls have been rebuilt, decrease annual boat maintenance and restoration costs.”

The Meadows Center is redesigning and replacing the wooden-framed hulls with fiberglass. This will make the boats more durable and much lighter than before, said Bill Gagan, owner of Cougar Marine USA, who builds the fiberglass hulls.

“[The restored boats] might weigh 2,000 pounds, the old ones weighed about 8,000,” Gagan said. “Evidently, everybody loves them. Matter of fact, I heard after the first one got up there that the captains only wanted to drive the new one.”

Each individual boat is estimated to cost an upwards of $40,000 for full restoration. However, the redesign will allow the boats to last much longer and it is expected to offset the yearly maintenance cost. Ticket sales, donations and grants are used to fund the restoration project.

According to Massey, the next boat to be considered for restoration is 1963. The Meadows Center target date for complete restoration is 2019.

 

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