My 1984 Bass Tracker Tournament TX17 Restoration: A Covid Project

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So this is my first post on this forum. Like many others here, I used this forum and others as a resource for my recent build. I liked this one the best so this is where I decided to post my story.

I originally had a different aluminum boat, an old rowboat that someone had done a so-so conversion on. I built it up a little, decided to repower it, and then learned it had a bad transom. This happened right at the outset of the COVID pandemic.

I put the word out among my friends that I wanted a cheap project boat. One of them came back with an intriguing possibility: a hunting buddy of his was trying to sell a boat that ran, but needed basically everything else done to it. I went and met the guy and looked at the boat. His story was, he bought the boat from a family member, on whose property it had been sitting for a number of years. It was junk, but he really just needed a floater to get him to this little island he liked to hunt on. His dad sank money into the motor to get it running but they ran out of enthusiasm when it came time to fix the rest. They wanted $800, which was how much they had in it. We made a gentleman’s agreement whereby if it didn’t run, we could revisit the deal, and/or he’d take the boat back.

The boat, an ‘84 Tracker, was pretty rough. The trailer was showing rust all over, none of its lights worked, the tires were bad. The carpet was ratty, all the seats were broken, and the main floor was soft and spongy feeling. The console was detached from its original location and just laying crooked on the floor. But, it had a working livewell and bilge pump, the navigation lights worked, steering was smooth, and it (supposedly) ran. So, I bought it and took it home.
 

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The first thing that needed to happen was to give the old beast a thorough inspection to see exactly what needed to happen to bring it all the way back. It was a long list, though, so at first I just focused on the biggest, most important items so that I could get it on the water again. From there, I could decide if the boat was worth keeping, and if so, how far to take it.
• The entire boat was filthy and needed a good cleaning.
• All wiring needed to be replaced: some of the wire in the boat was old-school residential wire with the cloth-like insulation on it; some was actually speaker wire. None was proper marine-rated wire. The fuses in the fuse box were all wrapped in tinfoil, so every circuit was jumpered around its fuse as a result. I resolved to NOT take out this floating fire hazard until all wiring issues were addressed.
• The console sat on the floor, leaving no room for legs and feet to go under. It was very close to the seat, and was crooked, dented, and full of holes where previous owners had mounted various things over the years. It had a tach gauge and a pH meter, neither of which were wired up to anything. Really, the only good thing about it was its intact (but pointlessly little) windshield. This thing needed lots of attention.
• All seats and carpet needed to be replaced. The cockpit floor was soft and needed replacing.
• The trailer was still sitting on its original leaf springs, was sporting a healthy amount of surface rust, and had some pretty wasted bunks.

Also, the bow stop was dry-rotted and brittle. None of the lights worked. And it was too long for my garage.

There were some not-so-bad things too. The livewell and bilge pumps worked. The front deck, which is made of wood in this era of Bass Tracker, was solid even though the carpet was pretty ratty. There is a neat little anchor assembly mounted next to the livewell, it has a retractable anchor rope with a locking mechanism on it. The reel that holds the rope is under the deck. (The locking assembly is still a trip hazard for anyone fishing from the rear deck, though, so in the long run it’s probably going to go, or at least be relocated.) The rear hatch lid is a neat plastic deal with the Bass Tracker name embossed in it. It’s cool, and not many boats out there still have this – but there’s a reason for that: it allows water into the rear compartment. The openings between the letters were originally intended, I think, to aid in ventilating gas fumes from the rear compartment. On later Trackers, they used a solid hatch lid in this location, and added the ventilation scoops in the rear corners that are more commonplace these days.

So, with a preliminary list in hand, and COVID keeping me from doing anything else, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
 

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Cleaning came first, of course. You never really know what you’re looking at until you scrape away the dirt. After using the shop-vac on the carpet, I realized it was a little better than I’d thought at first. I decided to leave it until I got around to rebuilding the front deck, at which time I will recarpet the whole boat. I can live with some bare spots and errant fibers sticking up here and there. Once the carpet was clean(er), I focused on the metal.

Probably the easiest and cheapest way to clean aluminum is with a vinegar solution. It’s acidic enough to actually do some work, without being dangerous enough to require you to wear a bunch of protective gear. I used some brush attachments for my impact tool, they made this chore much easier. I didn’t use any kind of scouring pad or wire wheel/wire brush anywhere except the bow.

The bow had some kind of old grip tape on it, sort of like what we used to put on our skateboards back when I was a kid. It was missing in places and basically had no grit left. Although removing it was easy, attacking the dried adhesive it left behind was a chore. I finally resorted to a wire wheel and some old paint reducer I had laying around to break through the old adhesive. The end result was a clean bow but with visible scratch marks on it.

I decided not to do the outside of the hull. I really have no way to separate it from the trailer at home so that I can get to everything, so I left the exterior alone. I wasn't doing a restoration yet, I just wanted to go fishing.

I tackled the wiring next. I decided to replace as much as I could without having to tear the boat down too far. For a job, I’m an electrical engineering technician, so tackling this task next helped me stay in my comfort zone a little – I was beginning to be a little intimidated by the amount of work that I had set myself up for. I bought a switch panel with a built-in voltmeter, a new fuse box, procured some scrap wire from work, and drew up a schematic to go by.

The only disassembly I did for this was to remove the cover panel that extends from the control box back to the transom. I left the control box bolted to the cover panel and just laid the whole thing over to the side. Once I exposed the wires, I immediately ran into a problem: I couldn’t pull most of the wires anywhere. Apparently, they were embedded in the pour-in flotation foam. They were totally immovable. Since I couldn’t replace them, I left them where they were and just ran fresh new wires. My hope was that I could remove the junk wiring later, during a more involved rebuild.

I built a junction box for the rear compartment. It managed all of my boat’s core accessory wiring – lights, pumps, etc. The purpose of the junction box is to provide a place to run all the wires that are in the back of the boat, allowing me to keep the wiring back there clean and tidy. I was able to repurpose a box from my job that had been incorrectly made for one of our projects. I lucked out, because the junction box is IP67 rated (withstands dust intrusion & submersion in water up to 3 feet deep for up to a half-hour). I was able to mount it so that water couldn’t pool on any flat surface. It has industrial wire terminals in it, and every wire in the back of the boat lands on a terminal before going forward to the console. This allows me to address wiring issues without having to deal with splices, and the terminals offer convenient test points for a multimeter. The junction box is for accessory wiring only: pumps, lights, etc. These items run from their own battery, whose power cables also run through this junction box.

I also installed a 2-bank battery charger, which is hooked up to the trolling motor and outboard starter batteries. My accessory battery is isolated from them, and I charge it on an as-needed basis whenever the voltmeter drops to 11V or so.

The console wiring didn’t get addressed until after I did some work to the console. I needed to cut out a spot for the switch panel, and I decided to relocate the fuse box. The switch panel wasn’t too hard, other than having to cut through part of the wooden board that was used for mounting the steering wheel. The fuse box was a little more involved.

No one wants to have to lie down on the floor of their boat and work upside-down, under the console, to address a blown fuse. Since my console was already full of holes, and since somewhere along the line I’d made a random and arbitrary decision to cover it in carpet to make it look nicer, I was like ‘What’s one more hole?’ So I cut out an access door for the fuse box. I put it on the left side of the console, and I can now check the fuse box from the pilot’s seat.

When I got this far, I was faced with the fact that I couldn’t hook the console up to the new wiring until I had relocated the console from its previous position.
 

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CONSOLE REFURBISHMENT/RELOCATION

At the time of purchase, the boat’s console was in a terrible position. Sitting on the floor, it was too low to ever be comfortable. My knees were against the steering wheel, which was barely at waist level when sitting down. I immediately decided I wanted it up higher. After a lot of messing around and mocking up the console on top of pieces of wood, I came up with a height to lift it by, then set about reworking the console.

I built the base from marine grade plywood, covered in several coats of sealant. In order to approximate the curvature of the floor, I made a scribe and used it to draw out a template. But, since I didn’t (and still don’t) own a jigsaw, I couldn’t really cut out the nice smooth arc that I drew. I cut it with a circular saw and just dealt with it not being a perfect fit to the floor.

I had already bought carpet to use for the cockpit floor, and now had to replan my usage of it to ensure I would be able to have enough to cover the console too. After replacing the floor (covered in the next section), I moved on to the console. (When I started to cover it, I already had the switch panel and fuse box installed and had them wired together.) Making this happen was not easy because the console is not regularly shaped. Wrapping it up in carpet left some seams in funny places. I handled these mostly by trimming the carpet to have a flat and flush seam, then running some Velcro strips along the seam to hide it. This sort of makes it look like the console has carpet with black trim. The carpet was held down with 3M Super 77 spray adhesive. I used c-clamps and blocks of wood to hold the carpet on while the glue dried.

The overall result isn’t bad. I actually like it. I had originally repainted the console black, to hide all of the little holes, but the first time I put the boat in the driveway to work on it I saw that this was ill-advised. Even on a cool day, the sun made the console untouchable. The carpet takes care of that, while hiding the holes and also providing me a convenient place to hang a lure while I’m switching tackle.

COCKPIT FLOOR & SEATS

Seats were easy; I reused what had been in my last boat, which got junked. (Eventually I replaced even these seats with newer items of better quality and color.)

However, the cockpit floor that was in the boat when I got it wasn’t good enough to keep. The whole thing was soft, and was so dry and rotted that it had literally buckled and lifted off of the hull stringers. Knowing that the old style of foam used back then could get waterlogged, I also was keen to pull out the floor and see what I was facing.

It wasn’t a pretty picture. Even though the boat hadn’t been in the water for more than three years, and had been sitting out of the weather for that amount of time, much of the foam under the floor was still damp. It was also pretty gross. So it all came out. And what lay beneath it was pretty concerning: nearly every rivet in the center portion of the hull was not only not original to the boat, but also was slathered in one material or another – ostensibly, to address leaks.

Some rivets were covered in what appeared to be hot glue, some in silicone, there was some sort of adhesive asphalt strip on a few, and others had been covered in some sort of unidentifiable material that had eroded or broken down over the years. All these rivets were hollow-core pop rivets. Clearly, at some point in this boat’s history, someone tried to address leaks. I actually think somebody either wrecked the boat or ran over something that damaged the keel; there are grease-pencil markings on the bottom of the hull pointing out several rivet locations, and the rivets there are all hollow-core pop rivets. But I didn’t see anything there to suggest the boat is unsafe; it was just repaired with the wrong kind of rivet.

However, this presented me with a dilemma. I had no way to put the boat in the water to see whether it leaked. Filling the hull with water didn’t really show me much, beyond some dribble marks on the outer hull. I felt sure it would reliably float, and frankly every other 30-40 year old rivet-hull boat I’ve ever been in leaked at least a little bit. I decided that for now, knowing that the next major project for this boat would be a deck rebuild with fresh flooring and carpet, I would only address the rivets that were under the cockpit floor and see where that got me. I can always try something else during the deck rebuild if need be, since at that time I’ll basically have the entire inside of the hull exposed at once. And, worst case scenario, at that point I wasn’t even $1000 into the boat, and I knew I could recover all my money my removing the outboard and selling it.

Because I was on a strict budget for this build – COVID and the ensuing lockdowns and restrictions had really put a chokehold on my wallet – I went with something I hadn’t seen anyone do before. I used adhesive-backed aluminum roof flashing. This material is basically aluminum foil with an adhesive bitumen (asphalt) backing. It’s very similar to Dynamat. It’s extremely sticky, gooey in fact, and can be pushed into small openings and crevices. I cut it into strips and laid them down in between the stringers so that every rivet was completely surrounded. Then I smoothed the material out around the rivet using a heat gun (on LOW!) and made sure it was firmly glued to the metal. The result was a really good and dry seal.

However, in retrospect, this might not have been the best solution. Removing that material later will be an absolute pain. Should this boat need another hull repair in the future, this could present some difficulties. A cheap and effective repair, sure, but it could greatly increase the cost of someone’s work in the future. (Hindsight, meh.)

Anyway, with the potentially leaky rivets addressed, I added in new flotation foam in the form of exterior foam insulation from the hardware store. This material is a closed-cell foam, suitable for use in a boat even though it’s intended for other things. I completely filled the voids in between the stringers with new foam.

I cut the new floor out of a single sheet of marine grade plywood, but had to install it in two pieces. This is because the front deck had a lip on it that prevented the floor from going in as a single solid piece. I can only assume that originally, the floor was installed before the front deck. Since I didn’t want to tear down the boat any further, and since I knew that I would be redoing the cockpit during the deck rebuild anyway, I decided to just cut the floor into two pieces and install it that way. I painted the wood with a few coats of sealer before gluing on the carpet. I did not use any staples on the carpet; glue only.

The carpet is cheap stuff from the hardware store, I only needed it to last a year or two at most. Once the floor was in, I was ready to install the console and finish wiring the boat.
 

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RESULTS

So, at this point, the boat was done enough to use. And it did get used! Maiden voyage/shakedown cruise was a week-long camping trip to Nolin Lake in my home state of Kentucky. I’ve been back to that lake several times, as well as to other lakes in the region. The boat’s been on the Ohio River too, where it performed well (or, as well as any small boat does on big water lol). The old Merc 50 pushes the boat at 28-29 mph on average. Ideal conditions will see it *just* clear 30. It still isn’t running 100% perfect but there’s nothing there to make me worry. The boat does take on a small amount of water each time I go out, but never once has it been enough so that the bilge pump can actually suck any up. I just watch it leave the drain after pulling the bung, that’s the only way I even know it’s there.

This Tracker helped me get through the worst part of the COVID lockdown. It gave me something productive to do, kept me full of daily goals to chase down, and in the end, became the best boat I’ve so far owned.

Maiden voyage was summer 2020. I used the boat weekly or more until it got really cold (and even then, I still used it a little), and resumed using it a lot in the spring. All the while I kept a running list of what I need to look at next. Rod storage was a big issue, as it often is on a 17 foot boat. The existing hatches and lids could stand to be replaced. Livewell lid has never been a perfect fit to the opening. I wanted to extend the front deck aft all the way to the console. I needed more hatches, and some courtesy lights would be nice too – I typically fish either late or early in the day, and my trips almost always either start or end in complete darkness.

Summer 2021 arrived, and with it, my desire to make this little Tracker into something finally came to the fore. I had been compiling parts, making wish lists, and had a plan. I came in to a small amount of money, enough to do the project with, so I took the plunge.
 

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Hi! I just purchased this same boat and intend to do a full remodel as well. The one thing I am trying to figure out is the total storage length from tongue to prop trimmed down. Any chance you could take this measurement and let me know?

Thanks!
 
Hi! I just purchased this same boat and intend to do a full remodel as well. The one thing I am trying to figure out is the total storage length from tongue to prop trimmed down. Any chance you could take this measurement and let me know?

Thanks!
And also, how long is the actual boat itself? I’ve seen 17’ and I’ve seen mid 16s. I don’t have the boat yet, so I am asking these questions as I plan for storage.
 

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