Dolphin hits the home stretch

It’s been nearly three weeks since the car accident outside Tepic. Jacqui and I have been working hard everyday to put our beloved home back together. Today we reached a major milestone! With the installation of all exterior paneling and the door, it's excited to see how close we are to getting back on the road.

We have tried to recycle as much as possible, but have still gone far beyond throwing her back together. I can happily say, even unfinished as she is, the Dolphin is much sturdier than the day we bought her, or the day we embarked on this journey. So now, a bit of review is in order.

When we first started disassembly on the Dolphin, it was very disheartening. The further we tried to remove things damaged by the accident, the more rot and corruption we were finding that had already been there.

Even rolling off the factory floor in 1985, the Dolphin was essentially made of toothpicks and staples (yes, literally staples), which is true of almost all RV’s, even today. They’re naturally flimsy things, and with good reason. The vehicles they are built upon have limitations, and every extra pound puts stress on the suspension, engine and robs fuel mileage. So when your RV gets to…let’s say, 29 years old, there is bound to be a combination of problems that you’d find in poorly constructed homes AND in old cars.

When we finally gutted enough out of the Dolphin to make sure we were going to have a solid foundation to work upon, this is the sight we saw:

Some construction was already complete in this photo. Namely the box and structure around the wheel.

This is looking at the passenger side of the vehicle after quite a bit of work. A whole new wheel well arch was cut out of plywood. Rotted beams were replaced and held together with screws instead of flimsy staples. All wood that would be exposed to road conditions received a rubber coating to protect from rot.

This is post construction on the driver's rear corner of the Dolphin. The accident jarred the old girl so hard that this area, which was already weakened by dry rot, split and bulged out. Luckily this area didn't require excessive amounts of work since the rot hadn't spread too far.

This is a good look at how much floor we replaced. The entire structural integrity of the Dolphin depends upon anchoring everything to the floor, so this was a necessity. The bottom of the floor was sealed against water and double layered with plastic to make sure we won't get any rot. Finally, we reinstalled the bathroom wall, you can see its structure in the middle of the floor.

The walls of the Dolphin were dislodged and moved left during the accident. We used a come-along attached to the frame to pull the entire structure into alignment. Once everything was situated where it belonged, our new floor became the anchor point for all the walls. Heavy duty brackets, screws and bolts now make sure everything is as sturdy as can be. 

You can see the ratcheting wench (come-along) pulling everything to the right. Under the umbrella is John, a retired cabinet maker, who has been instrumental in repairing the Dolphin.

With everything bolted in place, all exposed wood under the vehicle was coated for weatherproofing, then the siding went back on.

Even with the driver's side of the Dolphin looking nice, there was quite a project left just around the corner. The door and its frame were mangled so lot's of hammering and creativity went into straightening the door, siding and trim pieces. At the same time a new entry step was constructed, and the combination dining seat/entry cabinet was reconstructed trying to reuse as much of the original as possible.

Hard working couple.

The project was definitely drawing the attention of fellow RV'ers. This is also known as RV TV.

Entry step built and entry cabinet reinstalled/repaired. 

The back side of the entry cabinet, which doubles as the dining seat backrest, which sits on top of the wheel well and also serves as a cabinet. Everything multitasks in an RV.

The professional sider hard at work reinstalling all the Dolphin's skin.

Doorjamb finally going into place after hours of straightening.

All of the exterior siding that could be salvaged was installed. But a few pieces were mangled beyond repair, and some were just outright missing. So we made a trip into Mazatlan to buy raw sheet metal, cut it to shape, and primed it for installation. 

The wood around the wheel well was coated with a rubberized spray before the metal was installed. Then our new metal was wrapped around the inside of the wheel well with a little finesse and persuasion from a mallet.

Freshly cut piece of sheet metal receiving some primer for rust protection.

Finessing it into place, then sealing it with silicone. 

With a block of wood, a pair of pliers and a hammer I could shape the metal around the contour of the wheel well. 

All wrapped in place and the wood underneath received a rubberized coating to protect from water.

At last the Dolphin takes shape again. While still being far from done, she looks full of promise.

You can still see the tire mark from the other car on the door.

After a hard day's work we got ourselves some Licuados (Mexican milkshakes) to go. Of course in Mexico they have special 'to go' cups.

Nothing like a milkshake in a plastic bag.

Somebody is relaxed after a hard day's work.

And an extra special thanks to John. He managed to escape from most photos, but he's been out there every day helping us rebuild the Dolphin. As a retired professional cabinet maker and carpenter, he's brought on a level of professionalism to our Dolphin construction that neither Jacqui or I could have ever done by ourselves.

Hope for the Dolphin

As Jacqui and I woke that morning in 3 Amigos RV Park, there was hope in the air. We crawled around our belongings to emerge out the front, still functional doors of the cab, where so many friendly faces greeted us. Taking our first shower in days seemed to wash away many of our troubles and doubts. Clean and refreshed our friends Debra and John treated us to breakfast. Having gone to bed with no dinner, a hot breakfast and good company was building us up to deal with what had to come…making a decision about the Dolphin.

With the help of our friends we investigated and probed until the decision was made: we will breathe new life into the Dolphin. There are significant amounts of damage, but at the end of the day, the Dolphin is just made of plywood and sheet metal. If you have the time and energy to dedicate, which we do, the materials really aren’t that expensive. So the re-remodel moves forward while Jacqui and I do our best to stay positive.

I won’t lead you to believe every aspect of this project is smiles and positive attitudes. While we tear out entire walls, gut the interior we worked so hard to put together, and discover problems that were long hidden even before the crash, emotions definitely run high. It all seems so extremely overwhelming, and it’s hard to visualize this project ever coming to a conclusion. One moment Jacqui and I are working as a team, the next our frustrations with the project can leave us fed up with each other. We frequently have to take a breath and remember that it’s only a hiccup in the grand scheme of things. It’s humbling moments like this that remind us we are human. We fight, we love, we argue, we agree, we work, we play, but most importantly, in the end, we’re a team. We both know we’ll push through this small hurdle and love our trip even more. After all, the harder you work for something, the more rewarding it is in the end.

But all of the credit can’t be given to Jacqui and I. The rebuilding of the Dolphin wouldn’t be possible without the wonderful people we are surrounded with. I’ll leave out names, but I’d really like to share their actions.

Happy hour outside our temporary home.

Currently Jacqui and I are staying in a beautiful, giant RV parked directly on the beach at no cost to us. Honestly, it is larger than many apartments I’ve lived in. The couple who own this beauty had to fly home for an emergency, and even though they’ve only known us for a week, when learning of our situation, they offered us to stay here without hesitation. But even that wouldn’t be possible without our current next-door neighbors who were responsible for arranging everything. Despite having only known us for a week, they have gone above and beyond kindness to help us. They’ve connected us with skilled workers in the area, left groceries outside our door when we woke, treated us out to breakfast, arranged storage for our Dolphin and altogether have been amazing, supportive and wonderful people to be around. The ability to ever repay them is truly beyond our grasp.

The generosity certainly doesn’t end there. We’ve received gifts including a new shade canopy and a collapsible 50ft hose. One of our friends is a retired cabinetmaker who has an amazing amount of carpentry tools he’s made available for our use, and so many other people are giving in ways that aren’t tangible. Advice, lending a hand or even knowing there’s good conversation, when the last thing you want to think about is the project at hand, goes a long way. It’s times like these Jacqui and I are reminded that we never travel alone.

As it currently stands the Dolphin is very much in pieces, but soon we can start rebuilding the old girl stronger than ever. Tomorrow a welder is coming to reinforce some areas that we’ve decided were never strong enough from the beginning. Jacqui and I both hope to share some rebuild progress with you soon.

Getting ready for disassembly 

The insides move outside

Pealing back the panels

The Dolphin grows naked

No end in sight

Our poor old bathroom

Selecting our Dolphin

As we decided to head out on this journey we asked ourselves what would be our ultimate mode of transport. Luckily, as Cameron is a mechanic, we had options available to us that otherwise would be too costly. Essentially, a fixer-upper was our target.

Other than cost, our main considerations were:

  • Dependability and availability of replacement parts across the border.
  • Automatic v. manual. We ended up with an automatic, acceptable in the reliable Toyota chassis, yet Cameron still dreams of a manual.
  • Fuel efficiency. We didn’t want an 8-cylinder gas guzzler or anything too large as we’d end up paying to lug extra weight around.
  • Storage for our kite gear. Would it be on top of the vehicle, inside or back in a trailer?
  • Comfort. This one came from my court, I did want a few elements of comfort as we’d be living in this vehicle for a long period of time! Comfort also included conversations around having a toilet/black water tank or having to rely solely on doing our business elsewhere.

The main contenders:

01. ’87 Toyota Vanwagon, pimped out with window tint. At the time, Cameron had this beauty in his possession. We considered an addition of a roof-top sleeper with gear storage in the back, or pulling a trailer for gear. We quickly decided to sell the Vanwagon as we wanted more space and didn’t think pulling a trailer would be easily maneuverable.

02. Cargo van for gear, while hauling a trailer to live in.

03. Class C RV. 20’ or less. Allows us to fit into most regular-sized parking spaces. Would be reasonable for gas mileage.

In the end, the Dolphin was the first RV we looked at and, although she needed a lot of work to be road-worthy in our eyes, she met all our criteria. Check here to see the work and love we put into getting the rig ready.