Building the Sandi Lee
John Gregg
Watsonville, Ca.- Just when you think that the world is about to spin off its axis, well, you happen to meet a couple like Lee and Sandi Freeman of Deltona, Florida. 

 At times, world events seem to want to swallow us up, and after September 11th, everything seems a little less certain than it once was. However, if you spend any time with this pair, suddenly life becomes a little more reassuring.

Lee is a senior engineer who helps to develop software for a large communications firm and his lovely wife, Sandi, is a retired director of a convention service company. Together, and I mean together, they are building a boat. Not just any boat, but a pontoon houseboat that is 48 feet long and 14 feet wide. 

So we are talking about a serious project here, an endeavor that began on June 4th 1999 and continues to keep humming along.

  The sound of hammers fill the air while laughter flows with ease. It's true; occasionally someone gets glue stuck in their hair, but progress and funny stories are all part of the adventure. 

Lee is the first to point out that Sandi was not only instrumental in the conception of the project, but she has worked side by side with him since day one. They have spent a number of evenings after working on the Sandi Lee, picnicking on the shores of the Intercoastal Waterway, enjoying each other's company, and dreaming about the day they put their boat in the water. 

Their children are grown and married, yet they do lend a hand when visiting their folks. Family members have been instrumental, but by and large this has been mostly a two-person project. 

JG: What's your background as far as boating is concerned? Are you a former Navy man, or lifelong sailor? 

LF: I was in the Navy during Viet Nam. I served aboard the Destroyer USS Eaton. Since I was seasick most of the time, I never thought that my interest of boating would carry on like it has. Sandi and I both love the ocean and nautical things. In our younger days, we both owned smaller boats. In the early 1990's the boat building bug bit and the result was a 20 ft. houseboat that we named the Fair Havens. The construction of this first boat gave us a lot of experience in building the Sandi Lee. 

JG: Actually building a 48-foot boat seems like an overwhelming task to most of us. How did you decide on a pontoon boat? What type of plans did you work with for the design? 

LF: Our thoughts were that living on a boat would be something we both would enjoy, so we looked around for a new houseboat. We were totally overwhelmed by the price of a boat that was the size we needed to live on. So we decided, "Money we don't have, but we do have a lot of sweat!" It was at that time we decided to build from scratch our own boat. Since the first boat was built from plans supplied by Glen-L Marine Design and we liked them, we started looking at their boat plans. They sold a 40 ft. pontoon boat plan that we used to build the hull. Of course we added 8 ft. to the length and 2 ft. to the width to accommodate the cabin Sandi had in mind. Shortly after starting the hull we saw a picture of a riverboat in a magazine and we decided instead of a plain houseboat we would build a riverboat. So we used Glen-L plans for the hull, and the cabin was designed by us. 

JG: You started making the first pieces of the Sandi Lee in June 1999, what did you start cutting first? 

LF: We cut the stem, which is the curved part of the bow. We remember that day well. It was June 4th and that was the anniversary of the day Sandi and I first met. 

JG: I take it that you started by making the pontoon building form, how did that go? 

LF: Actually, we tried to cut out and store as many pieces of the hull and cabin that we could in the garage. Because of the Florida sun and rain we built all the major components before building the form. We chuckle sometimes and tell people that we are building a 50 ft. houseboat in our garage. Well sort of.

JG: How was it building and fitting the pontoon bulkheads? 

LF: Except for being repetitious, building the bulkheads was very easy. As a matter of fact we built a form to build the bulkheads on. 

JG: Did the transom come next? 

LF: Yes, the transom was constructed after all the bulkheads were assembled. 

JG: How did it go with the jig for the intermediate frame and the bulkheads?

LF: The jig allowed us to quickly assemble the frames and insure each one was the same. 

JG: I am assuming this project quickly outgrew your garage. How did it work building your own dry dock? 

LF: The funny thing about the dry dock was that we built it in an area where we didn't want to park our previous RV. We didn't want to kill the grass! It doesn't make sense, because as you can see the grass is dead now. The important thing about the dry dock was insuring it was level. We also built a sturdy frame, so that when the boat is lifted on to the truck for transport, the dry dock would be lifted too as support. We plan to just cut the legs off and put the whole thing in the transport truck. 

JG: How difficult was it installing the first of your bulkheads? 

LF: It was not hard at all. This was one of the times our family came up to help. And since everything was pre-built, it really was like laying out an erector set. 

JG: Walk me through the process of framing your hull. I understand you got some help from your daughter and your son-in-law? 

LF: We measured out where the frames would go on the building form. We then set up the frames on the form and held them in place with scrap wood. After everything was set up we ran the 2 x 4 keel down the center. The keel held everything in place and true. We then put the side longitudinals in place. The entire hull was fastened with epoxy glue and hot dipped galvanized screws. Within two days we had the hull framed in, ready for sanding. 

JG: Was installing the pontoon sides next? 

LF: Yes. This went fast and was exciting, because the large pieces of plywood allowed us to see progress. The funny thing was that once you put glue on the plywood, you had to install it right away. Naturally we would always check the local weather forecast. There were many times we had to finish installing plywood while we were dripping wet. Of course the forecast always called for sunny and warm weather! 

JG: How did the tunnel planking go? 

LF: The tunnel planking was harder than we anticipated. It meant continually climbing over the hull cross beams. This also was a job that our children helped us with. Our daughter was very good at climbing over the beams. What she didn't know at the time was she was several months pregnant. 

JG: The thought of starting to fiberglass is daunting to many people. Was that next when you finished the tunnel planking? 

LF: First we sanded and filled all the screw holes with putty. Then we fiberglassed the hull. Fiberglassing the hull was not really hard, just very time consuming. This was one area where the building of our first boat gave us valuable experience. 

JG: How did the painting of the hull go? 

LF: The only difficult part of painting the hull was the bottom paint. There were so many brands and types of bottom paint that the selection of the proper paint was mind-boggling. This is where the West Marine Advisors really helped us. Using information from the West Marine catalog, we prepped the bottom and applied modified epoxy paint. Before launching we will need to redo this part. 

JG: How did you come up with the design for the interior of the boat? 

LF: Sandi and I had an agreement. The outside was mine and the inside was hers. We visited houseboat manufacturers, went to houseboat conventions and looked through houseboat plans to get ideas. The final floor plan was Sandi's design. The hardest part for me was prying any space for incidentals, like the helm and engines away from her cabin. 

JG: What was the process in designing and making the cabin sides? 

LF: The idea for the outside design actually came from the fairy boats at Disney World. We thought the design looked "riverboaty". We built the cabin sides in the garage so they could be assembled on the hull later. 

JG: I believe the next step in this adventure were the "I" beams for the roof. How did that work?

LF: They didn't. While installing the first "I" beam one of them blew over and hit me on the head resulting in a cracked beam. So we gave up on the "I" beams, and resorted to solid wood. 

JG: I know you made a modification to the design and added a third pontoon. What was the reason and how did it go? 

LF: The third pontoon is probably overkill. The hull was designed to carry the weight of the Sandi Lee. However, since the start of the project Sandi had expanded her second deck cabin to include the pilothouse and a lounge area.  

So while the figures kept telling us the pontoons would carry the additional weight, we kept thinking "what if" we were wrong. So to be on the safe side we added the third pontoon. 

JG: In December 2000 you turned the hull, what was that experience like? 

LF: Awesome! We had no idea if the hull would hold up. We had planned out how the crane would turn the hull so thoroughly that it only took an hour and a half. During that time our street became congested with onlookers. The crane operator was impressed at how strong the hull was. 

JG: Can you take us through the process of putting the sides on the hull? 

LF: The sides were built in 8 ft. sections. Totally completed, fiberglassed and painted in our garage. Sandi and I had tried to precisely build each section so it would fit together. We had to get help to lift the sides up and put them in place. They were bolted to the hull much like a house is constructed. The neighbors were astonished at how quickly the sides went up. 

JG: How did it go, putting up the bow cabin frames and the roof beams? 

LF: The roof beams and cabin frames were just like building a house with the exception that everything was glued and screwed together instead of nailed. 

JG: From the photos the Sandi Lee was looking very impressive, how did the work go for the bow and stern porch? 


LF: The bow and the stern porch walls are plywood covered with fiberglass. We had the windows cut at a local glass shop out of inch safety glass. We framed this in and the final product will have rope trim around it. The bow porch post helps support the roof, which is covered underneath with aluminum soffets. We had a lot of fun building the Sandi Lee sign for the stern porch. It's really just plywood, fiberglass and molding. 

JG: I know you've been doing a great deal of work on the cabin since last spring, what's your crew been working on?

 LF: The crew of the Sandi Lee (that would be Sandi & Lee) has been working on the interior cabinets, electrical wiring, plumbing, bed frame, vanities, trim work and painting. Once again we had more sweat than money so we built all the cabinets from scratch. This made them light and very strong. 

JG: How soon, do you believe, before the Sandi Lee will be ready to go into the water? 

LF: Our goal for the main boat is August. Our plan is to finish the main cabin and then build the second deck cabin. When we haul the boat to the river we would like the crane to lift the second deck cabin and place it on the Sandi Lee. There have been so many interior projects to complete, that we are now very excited seeing it all come together. 

JG: What has been the most challenging aspect of this project? 

LF: Keeping Sandi from adding 8 more feet to make it 56 ft. and convincing her that I do need space for water tanks, gas tanks, batteries and everything that makes a boat go. The most challenging part was putting the sewage holding tanks in. This was due to the fact that Florida outlawed Type 1 MSD's after we built the pontoons. We were going to use this system to treat the sewage. So, we had to put large tanks in small spaces that we had not planned to do. 


JG: What has been the most fun? 

LF: Working together and the interest that other people have shown. We have received emails from Belgium, Nova Scotia, Peru, Australia, and Chile, just to name a few and of course all over the USA. They keep up with our project and that excites us. 

The plan still calls for an August launch but you never can tell. Sometimes there are delays within a two-person boat building company. At least one thing is for certain, with Sandi and Lee both on the job, the world is once more spinning in greased grooves.

To read more about the building of the Sandi Lee, be sure and checkout

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