A Case for Metal Boats:
By Charles Neville
I talk to a lot of folks about the best boat for their
needs. Among the group, many have questions about or are considering
metal boats. As we sit and chat about their plans, and they ask their
questions one thing usually becomes very obvious. It is the likelihood
that the folks I’m talking with have seldom if ever seen a modern metal
boat from a quality builder. I know this is not just true for clients
with whom I’m talking. I have seen or heard the same concerns and
questions expressed in print or echoed in the pitches of salesmen
selling their wares.
I suspect the problem is one of familiarity. For many people, their only
exposure to metal boat construction include badly abused commercial
boats, obvious home made building projects, or other “less than yacht
like” examples. The mental image a metal yacht conjures up is therefore
boats of indeterminate age, rust streaming down the sides, with bumps,
bruises and unfair lines barely camouflaged by the paint system which
appears have consisted of a bucket and a roller. With those visions
popping to mind, who would not understand the concern? It is also not a
surprise that some selling fiberglass boats are prepared to use this
little piece of mental leverage to their own sales advantage.
These images of metal boats, however, are not – I REPEAT NOT- a true
indication of a quality metal boat construction. They are no more
representative than assuming that all fiberglass boats are merely an
amalgam of blistering gel coat covering cracking and delaminating
fiberglass structures. Hopefully a bit of history may help to put some
of this into clearer perspective.
Fact: the overwhelming number of true MegaYachts are constructed of
steel, aluminum or a combination of the two. I’m talking about boats
costing anywhere from several million dollars to tens of millions of
dollars. This is a market place that does not readily embrace shabby
quality. They have made metal boats their choice. Steel and aluminum are
obviously very versatile materials suitable from everything from
buildings to bridges to sculpture. They are also excellent and versatile
boat building materials. In this regard the yacht industry has benefited
significantly from technologies developed for not just ships, but also
for military and aerospace applications. The evolution of modern paint
and fairing systems which allow us to successfully and cost effectively
control corrosion have been a primary factor allowing us to turn out
today’s world class modern metal yacht.
If you have spent any time walking the docks in large boating centers
you’ve probably seen quality metal boats. Because of the level of
finish, however, you just did not know it. Today this quality is not
limited to big boats. The same degree of sophistication seen in these
multimillion-dollar boats has funneled down into the smaller sized
vessels that interest most of us. In the US, however, it has happened
slowly. Why? I think part of the reason is the reality of the
marketplace. The other part is related to the kind of boats many of us
were buying then and what we are now buying.
For 40 plus years fiberglass was undisputedly the most cost-effective
material for building small boats. The material itself was cheap and the
labor required was also reasonable. Though costs have escalated that
fact remains unchanged especially for high volume production builders
where the economies of scale offsets huge up front financial investment
required for molds and other tooling. Unfortunately for custom boats and
boats expected to sell in the handfuls not hundreds these costs are
likely to be prohibitive. This generally limits a builder’s option to
developing projects likely to appeal to the broadest pool of prospective
buyers. Because of this narrow focus and the unforgiving nature of
tooling the builder is locked in to an unalterable product sometimes
years before the first client can see it or judge it on its merit. .
Metal construction does not suffer this constraint. A builder can often
accommodate the potential client who likes everything about a boat but
want’s it 2-feet bigger or with the head moved, or the staterooms
changed. These are things that most production builders would not even
The owner can have a great deal of flexibility, from simply
modifications to an existing design all the way up to the development of
a totally new one. All of these possibilities even with design fees
included can be well within the cost of a standard off the shelf boat
comparably equipped. The actual equipment you choose, however, need not
match “comparably equipped”. The equipment list can include all the
bells and whistles or be whittled down to a Spartan retreat. The choice
is purely a function of your own cruising needs, the money you choose to
spend, and the geometry of the space that’s available.
Look at it this way: doesn’t seem odd to pay hundreds of thousands of
dollars (or more) only to be told by the builder that the only way you
can get it is the way that it comes? How many folks would consider
buying an upscale home under that group of rules?
Metal boats, particularly steel boats, have also become more popular
because of the kind of boating we are doing. When I began designing
displacement boats in the late 70’s they were (to be kind) an oddity.
There were a small group of buyers who had already discovered Robert
Beebe’s Voyaging Under Power (First edition). It was, however, a very
small group. Many if not most of them were forced into the custom
marketplace because production boats that accommodated their cruising
plans simply did not exist.
Today much of that has changed. There is now a large group of owners for
whom speed is not the issue. They not only accept, but seek out boats
that travel at displacement speeds: boats with the legs to travel long
distances: even oceans. For them, the additional weight that steel
usually brings is not a problem. In return, it offers great strength,
reparability worldwide, and the easy motion in a seaway that is a
derivative of the extra mass that steel brings to the equation. Clearly
these boats, once a niche market, have found their way into the
mainstream part of the boating community.
Steel hulls with aluminum deckhouses are a good choice where the profile
gets high or when you simply need more control over weight. They also
offer increase the flexibility of doing developing intricate design
details. Where higher speeds are necessary or for owners who simply
prefer the choice, all aluminum construction is also an option.
With metal boats some marketing department does not make your decisions.
It is a decision you can make based upon your own needs. The decision
you make will be, and should be understandably subjective. Before you
finalize your choice, however, you may want to take a fresh look at
metal boats. Building skill and modern technology make it a good time to
consider a quality metal yacht.