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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 consider.

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.

Charles Neville



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