This story was originally published in the Lake Murray edition of the Chronicle's Lakeside magazine for summer 2023.
The Spirit of Lake Murray has hosted many occasions over the years.
Ken Colton bought the 80-foot Skipperliner yacht in 2008, relocating the vessel from Florida to its namesake reservoir, where it was the largest boat and only yacht operating on the water.
Colton put the boat up for sale in 2021, having largely ceased renting it out in 2019 and unable to take care of a litany of maintenance issues due to a battle with cancer and his duties as pastor at Rehoboth United Methodist Church in Leesville, where he recently retired.
But in its heyday, the yacht was a fixture, hosting some 100 weddings and, on some occasions, a very different kind of commemoration.
“We’ve even had funerals,” Colton told The Lexington County Chronicle while the boat was up for sale.
There will be no funeral as yet for the Spirit of Lake Murray. The boat is set to hopefully ride again this summer, as new owners have purchased the yacht and set about completing extensive renovations to get it ready to host tours, parties and other events.
The new ownership group, Lake Murray Partners, consisting of Norm Agnew, Rick Crout, Tyler Ryan and Steve Price, bought the boat in October 2022 and sailed it from Hollow Creek Marina to Agnew Lake Services to begin overhauling it.
Upon reaching its new home, the yacht was fully gutted from top to bottom and hull to rear. Ryan said a majority of the boat's structure had to be replaced due to rust. Though they were prepared for rust, there was more than they had originally anticipated. The owners say they’ve taken the necessary steps to making sure it won’t return.
“There was a lot of rust and corrosion and stuff,” Ryan said of the boat. “She’s a 1994 and spent the first 15 years of her life down in salt water, down in Florida, and salt water, it just eats boats.”
“Rust will continue to eat away. It's like a cancer,” he added. “So either we could fix a spot and it would still continue or we just said, ‘Heck with it. Start over.’”
Readying the boat, which ceased hosting large groups four years ago due to inspection requirements that necessitated removing it from the water, to return to service at all, let alone carry its passengers in comfort, is a large task. But they think reviving the amenity, which stands apart from other entertainment offerings on the lake, will pay dividends.
“This is a unique experience that you can only get on this boat on this lake,” Ryan said. “And I think that's the exciting part.”
The new owners say they each have their own specialty as they take on as they work to bring the Spirit back to life, with Agnew handing a majority of the design, Crout serving as one of the captains, Ryan being the entertainment/cruise director, and Price taking over the general manager position.
For instance, having a partner like Agnew, who owns his own dock construction facility on the lake in Ballentine, was a big help when it came to getting the boat out of the water to complete repairs.
They currently project the yacht will sail again in July, flaunting a brand new look they say will be almost unrecognizable compared to the boat’s previous appearance.
The partners want to leave the price for this transformation up to speculation.
“I think most people will look at this boat when we're done and think it's a million-dollar boat,” Crout said.
Making the boat look like a million bucks is but one part of the task in front of the new owners. Multiple different certifications must be obtained before it can be fully operational.
Ryan told Lakeside that the most vital certification is the one granted by the Coast Guard, adding that they will inspect the Spirit and her crew with a fine tooth comb.
Crout, in his role master captain for the yacht, will have to demonstrate his skills in operating the ship, showing the inspector that he is able to do the necessary tasks, including parking. The crew’s knowledge of boat operations, safety and emergency scenarios will also be tested.
Once renovations are complete, the revived Spirit is expected to have a capacity of 130 people, though the owners say they will most likely cap public charters at around 100-110 guests, as this increases the sense of intimacy.
Miriam Atria, CEO of the Capital City/Lake Murray Country Regional Tourism Board that promotes the region and operates a visitors center on the northern shore of the reservoir, said the boat was missed after it ceased operations.
“It's just another product that we have to market and sell to the area,” she explained. “It is one of the top requests for tours on the lake.”
Artia added that her organization brings in a lot of potential investors who want to experience the area, and Spirit brings the opportunity to treat them to a meal on the water.
Creating a space where guests can enjoy a meal on the lake is just one of the possibilities the new owners foresee when their vision for the yacht is realized.
Upon walking up to the yacht, patrons will see it sporting a fresh paint job adorned with the company's festive new red-white-and-blue branding. As they enter the lower deck, guests will be greeted by a revised layout and a brand new color scheme.
When asked about the style they were trying to achieve, the partners said they want the yacht to be classy, contemporary and modern.
“You can see how dark this room was with all the dark wood around,” Ryan said during a tour of the under-construction boat. “Not that it didn’t look fine, but it’s just dark. … Lighter colors make it look bigger.”
The revised layout highlights a brand-new bar with a steel interior and a countertop made from Brazilian Tigerwood.
“The bar’s made out of some special wood that Norman had in a truck, sitting up in the woods for about 10 years. One day, he said, ‘You know what? I think I got some wood.’” Crout said “So we went up there, followed our way through the trees and unlocked the back of a truck.”
“It was special stuff,” he added.
The fully stocked bar will feature beer, wine and liquor. Price shared that a friend of his who has been a bartender for more than 40 years will be setting up the bar and getting the staff up to speed on how to make all the necessary drinks.
The partners added that there will not be a blender on board, as they do not intend on supplying their guests with slushies.
Tables will be placed throughout the room on the lower level, with what the owners see as a potential VIP seating area at the front, with a 180-degree view, taking the place of the yacht’s former bar.
The boat is set to feature a state-certified kitchen, a luxury that the yacht was unable to provide previously. While the menu and food items are still up for debate, the owners said there will be some form of regular menu, but some items, such as steaks, will most likely be saved for special catered events.
“We're gonna offer basically food and a good time,” Crout said, adding that the owners are looking into the possibility of inviting guest chefs on board for special events.
The second level of the yacht is smaller and will feature an outdoor portion with a retractable awning. The partners said this level will be available to book separately, allowing for more intimate experiences.
The outside deck also has the space for a live band to be brought on to entertain the guests. Ryan shared that the yacht will be decked out with an AV system, allowing those below to hear the live music through speakers.
“Anybody can ride around on a boat. They were riding around on this boat for 10 years drinking slushies,” Price said, before promising, “This whole experience is going to be second to none.”
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