Sailboat hull and
keel types and

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This page updated: January 2012



Hull Materials:
From John Dunsmoor:
[Instead of fiberglass,] consider steel. While not pretty the number of deep water sailors that switch is high. There is nothing stronger than steel and it can be fixed, low tech any place in the planet. And the resell price of steel is low, compared to fiberglass. These are usually custom builds and many will be laid out as deep water boats, more so than production fiberglass. ...

... If you want a sturdy, built without compromise hull from fiberglass you have to go pre-1973, nearly thirty years. This is the time of the first oil embargo and that is when bean counter types enter the shop and said, "come on, we have to build these for less". [Robert Perry says this is not true; I asked him. But Bill Shaw says this is true, in Practical Sailor's 3/2000 issue. Captain Hugenot of SFSailing says it is true. And Ian Nicolson in "Improve Your Own Boat" seems to say it is true, at least of fittings.] Not that there does not exist some fine examples of boat building post 1973, but these are usually high dollar vessels ...

From Jim on Cruising World message board:
Most boats built of fiberglass before 1971 were heavily built (fiberglass was cheap) and have stood the test of time. Boats after 1971 often had cored decks and hulls (balsa) instead of plywood or solid laminations.

From Jeff H on Cruising World message board:
Actually, mid 1970's was the beginning of the worst period for blisters. While blisters can occur in fiberglass boats of any age, the worst problem boats start in the early to mid 1970's when polyester resin formulations were changed due to the fuel crisis. It was also aggravated by a change in gelcoat type to a thinner but more shiny formulation.

From Captain Hugenot of SFSailing:
The hulls built before the 1972-73 oil crisis usually have very few blisters. The blistering problem came when they began to experiment with different petroleum products used in the lay up process.

Most of the problems with older hulls will come in the wooden cores of the stringers. They appear to be solid on the outside, but if moisture has gotten into the coring it may all be rotted away. Today we use Airex or other PVC coring which will not rot.

During a survey you might want to drill all of your structural framing and see if there is solid wood inside. You can reseal the drilled holes with epoxy.

From Tommy in Benner Bay: builders started skimping on the amount of fiberglass cloth and thickness in the hulls in the later 70's; it wasn't a resin change.

From Gary Elder:
Some people believe that the older fiberglass boats are better than the new ones, even though many of them sail slower than the new ones. Also, most of the newer ones are lighter weight which is very difficult to compensate for when you slam into a wave, are riding at anchor, or passing through some large powerboat wake. Many of the older boats have less of a blister problem than newer designs, because of the materials used, and the fact that cost reduction methods were not as extreme as they are today (it is necessary to be careful though). Earlier this year, we sailed to Marathon in company of a Catalina 42...We got there first, by several hours, then spent some time aboard the Catalina in the anchorage. When we returned to our boat it was like stepping ashore because our boat was rock steady by comparison...Our boat is a 1978 model. That just happened to be the year they built the layout we wanted.

"Steel rusts, aluminum suffers from galvanic corrosion, ferrocement cracks, fiberglass blisters and wood rots."

From Jeff H on Cruising World message board:
If I had to rank desirable materials for a cruising boat, under 50 feet in length, I would rank them like this [best to worst]:
  1. Wood (cold molded)
  2. Fiberglass
  3. Aluminum
  4. Steel
  5. Ferro cement
If you were designing a custom boat for distance cruising then there is no material better than Cold Molded Wood. It produces the lightest most durable hull for the strength and puncture resistance. Cold molded wood can be repaired anywhere in the world with simple tools and materials easily carried aboard. If you add a couple laminates of Kevlar you have a tough, bulletproof boat. Properly built there is no lower maintenance material out there. Wood is quieter and provides better insulation than most of the other choices.

Fiberglass would come next. More is known about fiberglass than any of the other materials except perhaps wood. It shares the properties with wood that allow the material to be oriented to the loads and to be carefully thicked or thinned to put just the right strength and weight where it is needed. Given that fiberglass offers the greatest strength per weight but in its lighter forms lacks the puncture resistance and fatigue resistance of cold molded wood.

Aluminum is a very good way to build a boat. It is comparatively light about equal to wood, but lacks the ultimate strength, stiffness and puncture resistance of a cold molded wooden boat of the same weight. In small boats there is a minimum plating thickness to be easily welded and in boats 35 feet or less aluminum tends to be heavier than glass or wood. The big problem with aluminum construction is plate sheering. If you hit an object with a light weight aluminum boat, there is a problem with puncture. There is a tendency to think of aluminum taking a hit and just bending a bit. That happens with a big wave impact that uniformly distributed across the plate. If you take a point load hit, like hitting a floating log, unless the impact is right on a frame, there is a tendency to sheer the plate at the edge of the stringer or frame. Aluminum can be formed to complex curves which is very expensive, or can be multi chined which is a mixed blessing. On problem with complex shapes in aluminum, besides the high labor costs, is the amount of filler which is necessary to produce a fair hull. This is often a significant weight in small boats. There is the electrolysis and difficulty of getting paint to adhere to aluminum and the difficulty and expense of finding compatible bottom paint all of which are real problems but can be addressed with high tech solution. If I were building a boat, I would consider hard chine aluminum but would probably go with cold molding because aluminum tends to be quite noisy.

Steel is a good material for big boats, 50-60 feet or so. The problem with steel is the weight of the material that is necessary to achieve the necessary stiffness of the other materials. You end up with a very heavy boat at small sizes. There are designers who have done a lot to mitigate this problem, (Tanton has a real nice little design that looks like it works pretty well) but in the end you have a lot of weight just where you don't want it in the hull and deck structure. While many steel boats are built with wood decks for this reason, an all steel boat has a tough time making sense as a distance cruiser. You may think that we are talking about a cruising boat. Who cares about weight ? Weight is almost more important in a cruising boat. Every pound of weight in the hull is a pound that can not be used as ballast or in gear and supplies. Steel boats have notoriously low angles of recovery and tend to be rolly. I consider motion is a seaway and important issue to crew well-being and of course angle of recovery is critical to safety.

The other big issues with steel are like aluminum, electrolysis, paint adhesion, compatible bottom paints, cost of labor to build well, hard chine vs soft, etc are surmountable but require bigger compromises than I would want to make. According to an industry study a few years back, steel was rated as having the highest long term maintenance cost, except plank on frame wood, when viewed over a 12 year period. Lastly there is the problems of repairing steel in remote places. Steel takes proper equipment and electrical power to make a major repair. There are a lot of places, even in the US, where you can't get electrical power to repair a steel hull. One good thing about steel is that it has a very high resistance to abrasion. If you are designing a boat to scrape for hours on the rocks or against ice then steel is a good candidate. A lot is said about the inherent strength of steel but the reality is if you built a well-engineered cold molded wood or fiberglass boat they would be far stronger than a steel boat.

I actually like Ferro more than most knowledgeable sailors that I know. Ferro is another material that is at its best in bigger boats. There is a minimum hull skin thickness that is sufficient to properly cover the reinforcing steel. This thickness does not get any smaller whether you are building a 45 footer or a 25 footer so in boats under 45 feet or so you really take a weight penalty. In carefully designed and built boats over 45 feet this is not a problem but in smaller boats or carelessly built boats, this is a serious problem. Often the ferro boats end up reducing the percent and density of the ballast to keep the boat weight in line with some reasonable standard. This restricts sail area and recovery angles and can ultimately produce boats that are not great sea boats. In the best case however a well-designed, and well-built ferrocement boat can be quite sturdy, durable and low maintenance. There were a lot of excellent ferrocement boats built in Australia and New Zealand. In the states ferrocement suffers from the stigma of the "Hippie" boats of the Seventies and since high quality workmanship and construction procedures are so critical to ferrocement it is next to impossible to tell if you have a good one. Ferro like steel is a material that seems to be much stronger than it is. Again if you built a cold molded wood, aluminum or a glass boat with the weight of a ferrocement boat the cold molded wood, aluminum or a glass boat would be much stronger.

More from Jeff H on Cruising World message board:
Frankly, I am not a fan of metal boats. Compared to wood or glass I think they are way too heavy for the strength achieved and too difficult to maintain. They are noisy and prone to have problems that are not easy to get to and repair. For the distance cruiser any bonehead can carry and use glass or wood to repair wood or glass boats anywhere in the world. Welding a metal boat is another story.


There is a relatively small market in this country for metal boats; a bit in ignorance and a bit because metal boats really do not make sense for the venues that most of us sail in. While cruising people are a bit more open minded toward metal boats, I think metal boats will be a hard sell in this country for a long time making resale a bit difficult. Many of the metal boats that we see over here are crudely built hardchine affairs. The chines are often laid out without care for their visual impact. Cabin and deck structures are often rather primitive. Hardware is often painted galvanized steel. As they age they develop areas that have been dented in between ribs and other framing. It is not to say that there are not well-built metal boats, but the perception of metal boats comes from the poor examples.

Amongst the proponents of Metal boats, much has been made of the ability of metal boats to bend rather than puncture. I think this is a little bit bogus. That may be true of the extremely heavy boats designed to workboat standards, but not really true of boats built to meet yacht standards which tend to be much lighter. If they weren't lighter they would hardly sail at all. These lighter weight metal boats use lighter weight skins spanning between a more closely spaced frame and stringer system. If the impact is on a frame you are more likely to bend the boat than puncture the skin but an impact next to a frame or between a frame is more likely to sheer the skin than bend it in any impact that would be hard enough to puncture the average fiberglass boat.

The one advantage of steel is a higher abrasion resistance. In the unlikely event that you end up rubbing against a rock for hours on end without puncturing the skin, a steel skin can withstand abrasion better than glass. If you sail in an area where abrading against rocks is a serious problem then steel may make sense. It doesn't for me.

Metal boats are seen as being very durable, but again in the weights of materials used in yachts I seriously question that idea. All boats flex; it is only a matter of degrees. Over time this flexing work hardens and fatigues the steel especially the skins at frames and other hard spots. Rust, mostly from the interior makes the skin thinner. Like any other material each boat has a real lifespan. It may exceed our own but it may not. It is true that fiberglass will also fatigue and weaken over time especially non-cored hulls which tend to flex more. It is true that cored f.g. hulls may eventually delaminate from the core or the core itself may sheer but in well-built boats this is a very long-term process.

In a number of studies that I have seen over the years, steel is generally seen as being the most maintenance prone material out there, both long and short term. This is slightly offset by some of the exotic steels being used in the last couple years but for the most part, just like wood you need to keep the actual hull and framing protected from water and air. Unlike wood this means both inside and out. There are areas on a steel hull that are inaccessible but just because you can't see them that does not mean that they aren't deteriorating. Rust never sleeps and metal boats actually deteriorate mostly from the interior out.

Then there is electrolysis. This used to be the kind of problem that was a compelling reason not to own a steel boat. In the early 1970's I worked in a boat yard that had to do an emergency hauling of a steel power boat to prevent it from sinking. This boat which had been launched weeks earlier in perfect shape had changed slips and was tied up next to a boat with an improperly grounded 110 electrical system and in a matter of days the bottom of the power boat in question had lost sufficient thickness and was covered with small pin holes that the boat needed entirely bottom plating. This kind of loss was not covered by insurance. Today there are some ways to combat this kind of problem but they are bandaids and not solutions in my mind.

My biggest gripe comes down to sailing ability and how this affects deck and cabin materials. Some of this goes away as the boat gets to be 45 feet or bigger. In boats under 45 feet, steel hulls are just plain heavier for a given strength than any other material except perhaps ferrocement. Weight in and of itself has no advantage at all. More weight means that you need to have more sail area for a given speed and a given sailing ability. More sail area means that a boat needs more stability to be able to stand to this bigger rig which means more ballast which means more weight which means more sail area. The problem gets worse because steel boats often have steel topsides, steel decks and steel deckhouses. This is weight high above the center of buoyancy and as such reduces stability further making it hard to carry a decent sail area to weight ratio. In the ultimate bad sailing day, it also means that once inverted you are more likely to remain inverted longer. This problem is often addressed by the use of wooden deck and cabin structures. Deck and cabin structures are the area of greatest maintenance in a wooden boat and so you are just upping the amount of maintenance even further.

In fairness, I must point out that puncture resistance has never been a criterion by which I select a boat. My personal taste leans toward lighter boats. My current boat is a 4100-lb. 28 footer made of Kevlar over high density closed cell foam. I have always been a proponent of buying a boat suited to your anticipated sailing conditions and in my case my sailing conditions are strictly coastal and do not include passages to remote areas. If you are looking at passages to the remote areas of the Pacific Southern Ocean, then puncture resistance becomes more critical and the ability to make repairs in a remote area becomes even more critical still. You may also sail in a windier environment that I and maybe able to tolerate a heavier boat.


No matter what material you use, workmanship and quality materials will be critical. I do not believe that steel tolerates poor quality any better than any other material and since so much depends on the welds the welding needs to be top notch. Steel is not just one material but a family of iron based materials. How the metal is made, purified and alloyed affects initial strength, fatigue qualities and its resistance to corrosion.

You often hear that steel can be built cheaply. Quality metal construction never was cheap. You could build a quality boat in almost any other material as cheaply or for less. With advent of computer driven cutters and the more common availability of some of the newer (last 15 years) welding techniques steel has come down in price to the point that custom steel boats maybe less expensive than custom boats in many other materials. The problem in saying steel is cheap is that simple hard chine steel boats with workboat levels of finish are often compared to yacht quality boats of other finishes. Probably a comparable and less expensive construction is glass over sheet plywood. Properly done this can actually be a far stronger and more puncture resistant material than steel. Glassed inside and out with quality laminates and epoxy resins, the plywood boat would have far and away less maintenance costs and would have a much lighter hull weight than steel, thereby having considerably better sailing characteristics in all ways.

I think much of the answer in picking a metal boat comes from picking the right designer. If I had to list designers of metal boats that I like, I think that Van de Stadt from Holland does a nice job. Some of their designs seem to be IOR based, and as such, do not appeal to me as much as Van de Stadt's more straightforward cruising designs. Their design 46A is very appealing to me. Van de Stadt has a very strong reputation for quality engineering and has designed some very fast boats in their day. I think they offer some of their designs on disk so that they can be computer cut saving a lot of time and perhaps money. From what I gather they are a class act.

Yves Tanton in Newport Rhode Island does some very nice work. I think he is a very creative designer with a very nice eye for visual proportions. He is a sometimes participant on this board and I have seen his catalog and it is really an impressive body of work.

Dudley Dix from South Africa is a very interesting designer to me. I have never seen any of his boats in real life (that I know of) but he is terribly creative and seems to understand what it takes to design a nice performing boat that is also a comfortable cruiser. I like his Black Cat 38, which is a wooden boat. In metal I think the Dix 43 looks like a pretty nice piece of work. I have been drawing a blank on the name of the guy who has designed the Deerfoot series. I don't especially like his earlier designs but I think the designs have been evolving into more powerful hull forms closer in shape to my own thinking.

How could I forget Charlie Wittholz? I actually worked for Charlie Wittholz in the early 1980's. Charlie did some very nice, very interesting traditional designs in steel. Charlie was a neat guy. He actually worked for Alden and Rhodes before opening his own shop. I liked his work. His boats had a certain simplicity that was very elegant. He had a nice eye for proportion and a sweet line. Hard chine boats are actually very hard to design so that they look right. The chine forms a strong accent line that has to work with the desired hull shape, the physical properties of the plating and the other visual lines of the boat. Charlie was able to keep these sometimes-contradictory lines under control to produce attractive traditional craft. While I liked most of Charlie's work, one of my least favorite boats of his was a bilge keel cruising boat. (I drew many of the drawings for her.) This was a purpose built boat for the European canals and as such was a good boat for its purpose but was not my kind of boat. Charlie and I would have lively lunch time discussions on our divergent points of view on modern lightweight boats. We both loved wood as a building material. I loved his stories of Alden and Rhodes. Rhodes was very much a patrician gentleman but Alden was a very colorful character.


Bruce Roberts is popular but I am not a fan of his work. It is not so much that I do not like his work per se. I think that for the most part Roberts designs conservative simple boats, but to me they are dated. His Spray series have less than no appeal to me. Having read about the original Spray and the sailing ability of some of the so-called copies of her, I have come to believe that Josh Slocum made it around the world despite the short comings of Spray rather than because of her sterling virtues. Josh Slocum was the consummate seaman. Spray was a coastal oyster boat. Why anyone in this day and age would want to use her as a model for a whole line of boats is completely beyond me. But I emphasize this is only my opinion and Roberts has sold a bunch of these things so my opinion is not shared by everyone on this.

Roberts more modern designs were probably good designs in the 1970's but a lot has happened since then. To me his design ideas have not advanced as well. That said, Roberts has a boat he calls a 434 that someone built as a long range single-hander that looks like a nice boat but slightly dated to my eye. Still in all these are very heavy boats and I strongly believe that weight, in and of itself, has no inherent virtue and is a very serious liability.


From Dave on Cruising World message board:
I have been a wooden boat man for many years, having built and owned several. When I retire (many years down the track) I will own a timber Concordia Yawl or similar, and absolutely revel in lavishing much attention on it. I now own a steel boat, and have no (well...few) regrets - it suits my lifestyle because it is EXTREMELY LOW MAINTENANCE and was the right boat in the right place when I had the money to upgrade. She was 10 years old when I bought her, and the survey showed up 1 (yes ONE) small patch of rust in the anchor well. This was easily treated in the first year, and the beast (rust) has been sleeping ever since.

People try to build a sliding scale of maintenance requirements that often goes something like timber (most maintenance) - steel - glass. (or as Jeff would suggest Steel - Timber - Glass). This may have been the case in the past, but today it is too broad a generalisation. A modern timber strip planked or cold molded boat sheathed in epoxies etc will be no more maintenance than a glass one (often less due to lack of osmosis problems). Similarly, a steel boat treated with modern epoxy paints will be no more (possibly less) than a glass one. Sure you have to be vigilant, but as soon as there is the slightest problem, you are aware of it. My boat is basically white all over, including in the bilge, so any rust would show up instantly (a very good reason NOT to paint your steel boat black). How many times have I seen on newsgroups etc people desperately looking for advice on how to re-core their decks because water has been seeping in around deck fittings and they haven't known - this may present a big safety issue, and at best major work is now required. Steel will tell you straight away, before any damage is done.

With steel, it all comes down to the boat being set up properly in the first place. I would be the last person to go out and buy an old rusty steel boat as a 'fixer-upper' - that is seriously hard work. However, I think Jeff is being far too harsh when modern finishing techniques are considered. As with epoxy/timber composite construction, the epoxy used on steel should be considered part of the construction material, rather than a surface paint.

As for the looks, Jeff has ignored round-bilge steel. There are a lot of steel boats lurking out there amongst the moorings (at least here in Oz) that no one actually realises are steel. They look just as sweet as any other building method.

Hard chines ? - yes I agree. Not the most beautiful things on the planet, and sure my timber boats were prettier than my steel one. My current boat is a Roberts 34 (with a re-designed cruising-fin keel), and while not a head turner, looks nice enough and is a very capable and seaworthy cruiser with a surprising turn of speed at times. She is no heavier than the next well-outfitted cruiser at 16000 lbs (not lightweight like Jeff's 4500 lbs by any stretch, but no heavier than a glass equivalent).

Other regrets ? - it took me a while to get accustomed to the noise in a less-than-perfect anchorage. Waves slapping the hull at night are definitely louder than in a glass or timber boat, but I don't hear it any more. Condensation is not a problem as the boat is well-insulated. The only drips on cold Tasmanian winter mornings come from stainless skylight and hatch coamings, and that happens on any boat.

From TrueMettle on the WorldCruising mailing list, about steel boats:
The first thing to look for is a properly coated interior. This is critical to a steel boat as they rust from inside out. The second thing to look for is the quality of the welds. If the welds look like a poor soldering job, all lumpy and potted then walk away. If they look like the bottom of a shallow lake with smooth evenly spaced ridges in the welds, you know that care has been taken. Make sure the limber holes are not obstructed and that water can drain from the bow into the bilge.

Hire a surveyor who knows steel boats. He will point out the good and the bad.

There is a number of books on steel boatbuilding, the best is "Steel Away" by Smith and Moir. It covers building from soup to nuts.

From Lee Huddleston on The Live-Aboard List:
I preached earlier on the advantages of a steel hull, so I will not repeat that sermon. You asked about the obverse of the coin, "What are the disadvantages?" Here are some thoughts. As a perspective, I own a steel-hulled boat (43 feet) and a fiberglass-hulled boat (25 feet).

A possible disadvantage of steel is that each hull is built individually (except for rare production facilities in Europe, so I hear). As a result, you have to look more carefully to see if the specific hull you are considering was built well. Of course, designers and builders of steel hulls do develop a reputation for quality that you can rely on to some extent, but there is not the exact-same-ness you can expect in fiberglass. This requires you to be lucky (as I was) or perhaps a little more knowledgeable to make sure that your steel-hulled boat was one of the many that was well built. This is not as daunting as it might sound. A poorly constructed steel hull is usually very obvious, even if you don't have any prior knowledge of steel-hull construction.

Another possible disadvantage of steel is the former constraints on construction and design. It apparently used to be very difficult and expensive to build rounded hulls for modest-sized steel boats. This resulted in designs with a series of hard chines. Some people do not like the appearance this gives a boat. More often than not, however, people don't even notice the hard chines until you draw their attention. Personally, I like the multiple hard chine style. Now it is relatively easy to bend and weld steel sheets to create any curve that a designer might like. So, if you buy a newer used boat or have one built, you can choose a rounded hull if that is your taste.

The expected disadvantage to steel hulls is rust. I have read and believe it to be true that steel boats used to rust from the inside, not from the outside. The steel transmits temperature rather well. Since the water is usually cooler than the air, condensation would form on the inside of the steel hull. This resulted in unpleasant conditions in the boat and a perfect breeding ground for rust. My steel-hulled boat has about two inches of foam insulation sprayed inside the entire hull and under the deck. Also all port lights are double-glazed. In addition to retarding condensation and rust, the insullation makes for a very quiet, comfortable boat.

Rust on the exterior is going to occur as well. With modern paints and other coatings, however, the problem is very easily managed. Except for places where I have banged something against the deck or hull (that would have seriously cracked a fiberglass boat) and chipped the paint, I have not had any rust develop. The water and air apparently just do not penetrate the modern materials. When a rust spot does occur, it is a very simple matter to sand down the spot, apply primer, then apply the finish coat of paint. Since I own both a fiberglass boat and a steel boat, my personal experience is that there is very little, if any, difference in the amount of maintenance that is necessary.

A disadvantage of steel is its lower resale value. Not because it is genuinely worth less as a result of being less seaworthy etc.; but simply because of the lack of advertising by fiberglass production companies. Of course, if you buy a used steel boat and eventually sell it used, the disadvantage is largely eliminated.

Finally, a disadvantage of steel boats is that they are harder to find in the design, quality of construction, and condition that you might want. There are just fewer of them. The advent of the internet has made the search much easier, but you still have to be patient and persistent to find just the right steel boat for you.

Much later from Lee Huddleston again on The Live-Aboard List:
Steel has the advantage of bending before it breaks. Fiberglass tends to be brittle. When a fiberglass boat hits a reef and gets a pounding, it often breaks into pieces. A steel boat would, at worst, get dents and bent places, but usually will hold together. And, of course, almost always steel will be much much stronger than fiberglass to begin with. This is why steel is preferred by cruisers who plan to go off the beaten path, especially to places where there might be ice or floating logs.

Truelove has been hit nine times by hurricanes, so far. I have ridden out three hurricanes on board. For hurricane Floyd I could not get to Truelove in time. When I got to the marina several boats had been pushed up against pylons on the north side of their slips. On the fiberglass boats their sides were seriously damaged. On Truelove at first I thought that my lines had held her off the pylon. Then I noticed the sawdust and splinters on top of my two-inch thick solid steel rub rail. The paint on Truelove was not even disturbed. The pylon was beaten badly. Steel boat versus wooden pylon - the pylon loses.

When damage does occur to a steel hull, it is relatively easy to fix. Just cut out the damaged area and weld in a new plate. As long as you go with a minimum of 16 inches of diameter for the new plate (to match the stretch of the rest of the plates), the repaired area and weld are just as strong as the original. Also, such repairs can be done all over the world. In the least developed areas of the world, there are still welders.

Another aspect to steel is that it does not get the pox. No blisters, no grinding off old gelcoat and waiting for the hull to dry off before putting on expensive layers of epoxy.

You can get a whole lot more boat for your money with a steel boat. This is partially because steel boats are usually custom built rather than production models. There is no large manufacturer hyping the boat and driving the price out the roof. Another reason that steel boats are less expensive is that it takes more thinking to successfully buy a steel boat. Some steel boats are built by professionals who do beautiful work. Some are built by very talented individuals who put a lot of love as well as beauty into their boat. But, some are built by people who have more hopes and dreams than talent. In other words, unlike production boats, not all boats built to the same plans are equal. I was very lucky to find a steel hull and deck built by professionals and the rest of the boat built by a couple with exceptional ability. Such boats are out there, but you have to look carefully and be patient. The reward is to get a boat as large and well made as a production boat costing two or three times as much.

When (if) you get ready to sell your steel boat later, it will probably take you longer because you have to wait for buyers that have more discriminating taste and requirements. Not everybody wants to be able to sail to the Arctic.

Most steel boats are designed and built with hard chines. This makes it easier to build them with steel plates without having to bend the plates very much. On some boats this is pretty obvious and on others you have to look closely to notice. Personally, I like the hard chines of Truelove, but some people don't care for hard chines. Steel boats now come with rounded hulls just like every other boat. Boats built by professionals, especially in the Netherlands, are more likely to have rounded hulls.

A disadvantage to steel is that it rusts. Oddly enough, it doesn't rust on the outside if you maintain the boat properly. Modern paints and coatings make this task relatively easy. Predictions from friends that I would be spending all my time chipping paint have not been true. The only requirements for new paint on Truelove have been cosmetic, not to fight rust.

As I wrote before, the problem with rust is from the inside. Water that gets into the boat can cause rust in hidden spots. Condensation is also a problem. On Truelove the previous owner/builder put 2 inches of foam insulation in the overhead and inside the hull. This makes the boat quiet and very snug. Its main purpose is to prevent any condensation. He also double-glazed all closed ports to prevent condensation.

Unfortunately, when I recently pulled Truelove for new bottom paint, I found some rust spots in the hull. While the previous owner/builder did a great job on most things, he made one bad mistake. To keep brass strainers from touching the hull (can't mix metals, especially under water) on two water intakes, he bolted plastic pieces to the hull. Over many years these bolt holes allowed water to seep into the boat undetected. The water pooled above a horizontal brace and rusted the steel from the inside. I am going to have to cut out the rusted spots and weld in a couple of new plates. So, if you get a steel boat, you need to be able to check all of the inside of the hull from time-to-time to head off this kind of rust. Keep in mind that it has taken almost twenty years for this rust to develop. Rust is just not the big problem some people will lead you to believe.

An advantage and a disadvantage of steel is its ability to carry current. You may have seen the copper sheets or the Dynaplates fiberglass boats install so that their radio has a counterpoise or ground. On steel boats the whole boat serves that function quite well. The disadvantage is that you have to watch for electrolysis carefully. Truelove has four large bricks of zinc bolted to the keel and several other smaller blocks at thru-hulls. I am going to install an isolation transformer soon to keep shore power leaks from eating up the steel.

Steel is heavier than fiberglass. That is why steel boats are rarely smaller than 30 feet. The larger the boat, the less difference the weight of the steel makes. Still, steel is for the medium to heavy displacement designs. You probably will not find a steel catamaran or ultra-light. The weight does not make steel boats slow. The design is the primary factor on speed and comfort at sea. Truelove has a six foot deep full keel with forward cutaway and 32,000 pounds of displacement. Yet she has very fine lines and sails surprisingly well in light air. In stronger wind and waves, she heels over a little and sails fast and smooth. Since I am hoping to do a lot of offshore sailing and expose her to weather on occasion, I wanted a strong boat that will be comfortable at sea. If I were going to do a lot of gunkholing in protected waters, I might have opted for a lighter boat with less draft.

From Steve on Canals and Waterways mailing list:
IMO, far more important to the resilience of a hull - far more important than anodes, or even thickness of steel - is the quality of that steel. There are boatbuilders, some of them premium names, who have built boats with steel from Eastern Europe that is showing a decade's worth of wear after just a few years. It's always surprised me that people getting boats built will spend hours learning about the benefits of one design of ventilation mushroom over another, but accept their boatbuilders 'advice' without question when it comes to what the boat is built of.

From Sandy Gurnell: "Aluminum boats don't need paint and you can repair them with a Bernz-o-matic blow torch. The initial cost can be recouped by lower maintenance costs."

Improper shore power connection can cause severe corrosion damage to a metal hull in a short time.

From James Baumgart on World-Cruising mailing list:
Steel makes sense for very long-term cruises to some areas, like arctic/antarctic. In my opinion, a good solid heavy (previously-cruised) fiberglass boat makes more sense for the traditional areas.

Pros of Fiberglass:

Cheaper to buy, survey, outfit.
Lower maintenance on your voyage.
Easy to work in fiberglass if something breaks.
Easier to sell when the voyage is over.
Well-known cruising boats have predictable performance.

Cons of fiberglass:

Hull/deck joint.
Deck delamination (take care of these 3 in survey).
Greater catastrophic damage potential upon hard grounding, hitting reefs, rocks, or floating containers.

Pros of steel:

Stronger hull, pound for pound.
You can make the rigging and deck hardware bulletproof.
Easier to repair serious damage (holing).
Easier to engineer watertight bulkheads, etc.

Cons of steel:

More expensive to buy, survey, and outfit.
You'd better learn to weld (anyone can work with fiberglass).
Paint, paint, paint, 7 coats per year, inside and out!
Special hull coatings and bottom paint required (can not use copper bottom paint).
Zinc anode protection is critical.
Rust inside the hull in places you can't see or paint.
Many of the available boats have been backyard built - construction and seaworthiness maybe good, maybe not.
Steel boats usually do not have as deep a keel, and are usually heavier displacement, not known for upwind abilities or speed.
Can't really build a small steel boat. Usually steel sailboats are in the 40 - 45 foot range. Usually, cruising sailboats are in the 34 - 38 foot range (in my experience).

From Dan Walsh on World-Cruising mailing list:
In purchasing a steel vessel of any kind (sail or power), there are some very important things you should know. The first thing is in my opinion over all else is how corrosion has been managed. In my view it would be a plus if the vessel had been sprayed with urethane foam from the time it was constructed. In my view foam is the greatest extender of life of a steel hull. First it completely seals off moisture and oxygen from the steel. Rust can't begin unless those two element are present. Further it fills all voids where water can sit and begin the corrosion process process. The type of foam you use is also important. Using a 3 lb closed cell foam in the bilge will give you a very impervious coating to any kind of air or water penetration. It is normally applied to complete exteriors of homes in arctic. As far as checking the condition of the steel under the foam ... that is hard to do without actually chiseling out a section and looking at the steel. If the vessel is old and the foam recently applied then I would worry about it. Sounding the hull? I think if the vessel is well cared for and shows no signs or very little signs of corrosion I would not worry about it. You can't put foam everywhere so look around the stern tube, down under the water tanks if you can. ...

From Brent Swain on Cruising World message board:
Re: Steel or Aluminum:

A steel hull is more likely to have corrosion above the waterline where you can see it. An aluminium one is far more likely to have corrosion below the waterline where you can't so easily see it, and it can progress much more quickly. It is hard to find an antifouling paint that is compatible with aluminium. Steel welds are easily obtained that have 100% the strength of the surrounding metal. Aluminium, 60% or less. It is far easier to screw up an aluminium weld and be unaware of it.

From Osiris on Cruising World message board:
Re: Steel or Aluminum:

Aluminum hulls are much lighter and faster than comparable steel hulls and have similar strengths - but - the electrolysis problem is a killer with aluminum. Owners of aluminum hulls are "anal retentive" about anybody bringing anything onboard that can cause electrolysis if dropped into the bilge. And you need a reputable builder like the French or Canadians to make sure the proper aluminum allow and procedures are following during construction. Steel is much more "user friendly" and repair is easier - - if - - the boat is new or the previous owner kept the insides dry and protected. Buying "used steel" is dangerous if the previous owner is selling because they could not keep the boat dry inside and let the boat corrode. If the inside frames and stringers are corroded then the boat is worthless. So be very careful either way and really get down into the bilges and see what is really there if you are buying a used boat.

Summarized from letter by Peter Nicolle to Latitude 38 about ferro-cement boats:
  • Ferro-cement is a cheaper material, but all other boat systems (engine, rigging, sails, etc) cost the same, so the overall boat cost is not much cheaper.

  • FC boats don't have to be much heavier.

  • A well-made FC boat looks just like a GRP or wood boat.

  • FC boats are harder to finance, insure, find surveyor for. But finding a good surveyor can make the finance and insure parts much easier.

  • FC takes 30 to 50 years to cure completely. It "gasses" and forms small blisters between cement and epoxy for the first 15 years.

  • If the boat is 15 to 20 years old and is not "spalling" (losing big chunks), it is a good one.

  • FC is strong, good noise and temperature insulator, easy to repair, cheap to buy.

From Jeff H on Cruising World message board:
My take on Ferrocement is that it is, in fact, pound for pound the weakest of all of the commonly used boat building materials. Ferro operates by the same principle as fiberglass, in other words, a high tensile strength reinforcing held by a high compressive strength, low tension cement. The cement in Ferro ideally is a high strength portland cement. The cement in f.g. is polyester, vinylester or epoxy resin. The tensile reinforcing material in Ferro is steel (sometimes with glass fiber, and in fiberglass its glass in a variety of forms, kevlar, carbon and all kinds of new variations on these materials.

Ferro's weight comes from a number of sources. First of all, no matter how small the boat, there is a practical limit to how thin ferro can be. Ferro needs to have a minimum thickness in order to have sufficient depth of material to protect the reinforcement from moisture. Because of this boats below 40 to 45 feet are generally considered too small to use Ferro efficiently. (i.e. they weigh more than they would in some other material.)

The implication of the weight issue is not readily obvious. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Weight in and of itself does nothing good for a boat. It does not make it stronger, or more comfortable or more stabile. Weight does increase the stress on the various parts of a boat. It increases the size of a sail plan required to achieve a particular speed. It increases drag and typically means that for a given draft a boat will have a less efficient keel (i.e trading off greater drag for the same amount of leeway.)

In order to carry more sail area the boat needs greater form stability, which comes at the price of a choppier motion and greater drag, or greater ballast or deeper ballast which adds more weight and drag and perhaps depth.

To keep the weight down, many Ferro cement boats have reduced ballast ratios when compared to other construction techniques. This means that they need more sail area because of their weight but they can't carry more sail area because of reduced ballast ratios without using lower aspect rigs which are by their very nature less efficient.

This is further complicated by the fact that a higher proportion of the weight in a Ferro boat is carried in the in the topsides (and sometimes decks). This means a high center of gravity which has a variety of implications; reduced stability, wider roll angles, smaller angles of ultimate stability, and more prone to excitation rolling (which may be slightly offset by the greater inertial moments due to weight).

Then there is maintenance costs. In a study performed some years back looking at the life costs of various materials, Ferro-cement came out as the highest cost material (if I remember worst to best was ferro, steel, conventional wood, aluminum, fiberglass, cold molded wood). Of course as with any generalized study there will be case by case exceptions.

Other problems with Ferro cement is the difficulty of connecting things to it, and prevention of rot in wood in contact with ferro. The difficulty in bolting to Ferro is that ferro hates localized loadings. It's hard to glue things to ferro. secondary bonds are greatly weaker than primary bonds.

Then there is the market value thing. Ferro does have a reputation in the States that does not match the comparatively high regard that it is held in other countries. Some of this is just plain unfair prejudice but some of this comes from real shortcomings in the materials as noted above. A well-built ferro boat can be a good cruising boat. The real problem is telling whether the boat that you are looking at is a god boat. It is very hard to do non-destructive survey techniques to tell whether the original work was done well and is in good condition.

The good condition part is very significant. People who buy boats because they are priced well below the market, often are overly frugal or just plain do not have the money that it takes to properly maintain a boat.

To me the real cost of owning a boat is the difference between what you paid for the boat, the cost of upgrades and maintenance and the price that you can get when you sell the boat. The problem with a lot of low value boats is that the sales price is always limited no matter how much you put into the boat.

I guess my conclusion is if you are strictly looking for an initial up front cost boat and don't mind putting some sweat equity in, and you can look past the sailing shortcomings, and you actually find one that was well-built and well-maintained, a ferro boat might work. For most of us, they do not.

From Mystique on newsgroup:
Recently I saw what has to be one of the prettiest, best-kept, most well-maintained 45' ferrocement boats I've ever witnessed. It had been freshly painted with glossy topside paint on the hull and deck, and the hardware was clean, polished where applicable, and everything appeared to be in good repair.

Then I had a chat with the boat's owner, who was lamenting his complete inability to sell the boat. He'd had only one potential buyer so far, and he was turned away by a bad survey. According to the owner, the surveyor didn't find anything wrong with the boat, but simply said it was a "very poor risk" due to the construction material. Furthermore the potential buyer could find absolutely no lender willing to lend money for the boat. The owner's asking price? $25K -- super cheap for a 45' boat in near pristine condition, I'd say.

The bottom line is that FC boats are albatrosses around their owner's necks. They require constant monitoring to insure hull integrity, they are next to impossible to resell, and lenders and insurers generally don't want anything to do with them.

More from Jeff H on Cruising World message board:
The very first Ferrocement boat still exists and is over a hundred years old BUT very few modern ferrocement boats will have anything like that kind of lifespan. The high carbon content steel typically used in modern Ferrocement boats is highly rust-prone and when it does rust the corrosion expands the concrete and provide passages for increased rust area. Modern ferro boats are subjected to higher tensile stresses than this material would prefer and so develop small hairline cracks that spread the problems. Ferro is fatigue-prone and so flexure becomes a bit of a problem at bulkhead and other concentrated load areas. Glassing over Ferro with glass and epoxy, on both sides, really extends the life of a ferro boat but also adds a lot of weight to an already overweight building material.

The other issue is with areas beyond the hull alone. Most ferro boats are simply wooden boats with Ferro hulls and you have real interface problems between the two materials that mean that you have most of the worst problems of a wooden boat (deck and cabin) that has been poorly built.

There are ways of sound testing and impact testing Ferro just like glass or concrete but these are not extremely reliable. There are higher tech methods but they tend to be a little inconclusive and quite expensive. One of the biggest problems with ferro cement (beyond performance resale and insurance in the USA) is this crap shoot about the condition issue when you own one.

From "Your First Atlantic Crossing" by Les Weatheritt:
Petronella [C-Mist 32 double-ender loosely following the Colin Archer style] has a ferro-cement hull and deck. ... Her construction gives me enormous confidence in her integrity and her ability to withstand some hard knocks. ...

I rate ferro-cement as second only to steel for blue water sailing, and well ahead of plastic and wood. I am not even convinced that steel is better. I know that most of the sailing world begs to differ over the merits of ferro, and so be it. Most of these people have never lived with a ferro boat so they don't know the real qualities of the material. Much of the bad image of ferro comes from unfinished wrecks left rotting in the front gardens of amateurs who started building blue water 40-footers when they would have been better off with a reservoir dinghy. ...


All of these [hull] materials have their benefits and their drawbacks. All have evolved, so that there are now many forms of construction for each of them. None of them are wonder materials, as might once have been claimed. There is no perfect boatbuilding material. ...

GRP is physically the weakest of the construction materials, ... but GRP hulls at least have the integrity of being a single moulding. ...

[Steel is strong but rusts. Some owners keep right on top of it, living aboard and chipping and painting; others wait until holes appear and then grind and weld patches.]

Aluminium alloy was at one time the wonder material to replace steel because it didn't rust. But nature is not to be cheated so easily. Aluminium erodes by electrolysis, which is always a potential reaction in any salt solution. The sea is a battery, and electrolysis is unpredictable - also, it is often invisible and deadly. ... aluminium is not easy to repair in out-of-the-way places.

Stainless steel, by the way, is a bit like aluminium. It is a metal alloy capable of rapid rates of erosion through electrolysis. The higher the grade of marine stainless steel, the better the components have been mixed. Even so, local concentrations can't be ruled out and these, when they occur, cause the erosion. ...

Ferro is the least common and most ignored material. ... it was cheap, required few skills, no expensive mass-production mouldings, and could be built in a backyard. These were wonderful advantages for the home builder, but the average home builder is such a bodger that the material got a bad reputation. Many people were carried away by the thought that they could afford a 55-foot homemade ferro hull instead of a 35-foot factory-moulded GRP hull. They forgot that the hull is only about one-quarter the cost of the finished yacht, and that the cost of fittings goes up exponentially with size. They went bust trying to fit out the bigger hull. ... [Ferro boats are cheaper to buy and harder to sell.]

Re: fiberglass on wood hulls, from the IRBS live-aboard mailing list:
From Tom O'Meara:
... a wooden vessel that has been fiberglassed over as a panacea to other problems is an abomination and will be a source of never-ending problems.

From William Carter:
... whoever put fiberglass over the wood has written a death warrant for that boat. The glass has created an impermeable skin, trapping moisture between it and the wood. This moisture will in time leach the oils from the wood, and rot will then develop.

Summarized from Delwin D Fandrich:
A complete hull job with epoxy and fiberglass over sound, dry wood can work. Any deviation from this (partial coverage, polyester instead of epoxy, rotted wood, wet wood) is fatal.

Summarized from Alexey Verkhovsky:
If glassed over from the beginning, and if the glassing is done properly, it lasts almost forever.

From John McGinnis:
Done properly with the right materials and technique glass over wood is serviceable. At its heart that is what the West Systems technique is all about. ... polyester as compared to epoxy has sufficient deficiencies as to warrant the extra expense of the latter.

My father built our first boat in the backyard using plywood and poly/glass. The result was fine so long as:

1) The glass wood interface was looked after. Allow a little water via neglect to get under the glass and trouble is soon to follow.

2) Impact loads were kept to a minimum. We finally pitched the boat 4 years later as the hull had indeed delaminated due to what we believe were impact loads. The bottom had several 'stars' in the areas around where the delamination occurred while the top sides were in perfect shape.

My overall feeling is that poly/wood combinations are long term headaches. It has become common knowledge that polyester is a water barrier but is not waterproof. Eventually conditions will occur where the polyester will permit permeation of the wood underneath. At that point you are at the mercy of the situation.

"Covering Wooden Boats with Fiberglass" by Allan H. Vaitses.

From John McGinnis on the IRBS live-aboard mailing list:
I have boats built of trees and oil.

Boats from Trees:
+ Reasonably quiet compared to oil boats.
+ Has some self-insulating properties
+ Can be worked on by a knowledgeable wood worker.
- - You have to keep maintenance up. Let it slip and stuff can go bad quickly.
- - Insurance can be harder to get.
- - Resale is not as good.

Boats from Oil:
+ Easier maintenance.
+ Costlier.
+ Easier to insure.
- - An Oil boat with the pox is worse than a wood boat with rot.
- - Dear God they all look the same.
- - Working on an oil boat requires a little more understanding of materials.
- - The smell of poly in the salon is worse than cedar in the head.

A lot, from my viewpoint depends on your personality. If you are the kind of person who dotes on your hobbies and would do the same with a wood boat you have a good fit. If your lifestyle tends toward fits and spurts of use and maintenance you might be better off with a fiberglass boat. My experience is that wood is good but it fares better if it is used often and cared for by a loving owner.

A wood boat in the subtropics/tropics also requires more attention to the top deck. I had constant problems with top deck leaks until I fully replaced the sub decking and recaulked. Maintaining a watertight seal was a constant battle.

About wooden boats, from Tom O'Farrell on Cruising World message board:
I had a 43' sailboat built in Norway by Anker & Jenkins in 1952, it was the most beauteous creation of all time, in my view, when I bought it, a sight to behold, drew raves. In extraordinary condition. Could have been the subject of magazine articles for its inherent beauty , photographed like Cindy Crawford, slim and gorgeous. I worked on it solidly for four years non-stop just to keep it up. Did a bit of sailing but generally had no time as the maintenance schedule was far more important than sailing schedules. By the time I had worked my way from stern to bow it was time to start all over again.

If you want a working hobby, and some people do, not a sailing hobby buy a big wooden boat. If you want a working hobby that allows some sailing buy a small wooden boat. If you want to sail buy an aluminum or fibreglass boat. Some work but nothing like wood. Steel falls somewhere in between. I now have an aluminum boat, virtually no maintenance at all, I don't have a single drop of paint on it, anywhere, period. No pieces of wood either. Keep it simple and aluminum or fibreglass and you can go sailing.

About wooden boats, from Gene Thompson on Cruising World message board:
My first "big" boat was a 30' wood ketch. Spruce spars. Everything was varnished. Imagine what it's like to varnish the masts from a bosun's chair. How many coats? The decks were glassed over plywood (they needed major rework). Wood boats vary a lot in quality of wood used and construction techniques. The one most important thing to remember is that you cannot let them go. You must keep up the maintenance or they will go downhill quickly.

It is also safe to say that you will go sailing less if you have a wooden boat. You will be at the dock working on it. Everyone will admire it however. They will all say "Beautiful boat, lot of work though" as they pass by on the way to their boat to take it out sailing.

The positive side to having a wood boat is that they are quiet and "feel" better. They smell different too.

About wooden boats, from Jeff H on Cruising World message board:
Having owned three wooden boats, I found that they are not that much more work than a glass boat of the same age, if they start out in good shape and you keep them that way. Of course this assumes that the fiberglass boat is maintained in as perfect condition as the wooden boat has to be (which is a rarity). The big difference in a wooden boat is that the boat sets the maintenance schedule. You can't put things off. When a finish or a caulking goes bad it must be taken care of promptly or the damage will expand rapidly. You can often afford to let things go on a glass boat and they will come back with little or no expansion in the work. ...

From Jeff H on Yachtingnet's Sailboat forum:
In looking at a boat to buy, I always like to think that I am not buying a whole model line, just the one boat that I am going to end up purchasing. Generalities about one model boat or another, or one manufacturer to another, are helpful in focusing on general models to consider. In the end, you are only really looking for the one individual example of that model that is either in good shape or priced sufficiently low to cover the cost of the repairs, your time and your efforts to make it right. In this discussion, I think it's a mistake to universally rule out a cored hull in preference to either a solid glass hull with a glued in structural frame or a solid glass hull with no frames. None of these methods are inherently more durable, or better or worse than the others. They all depend on proper design and engineering.

Let me explain. Lets start with the solid glass hull with no framing or coring. If you build a solid glass hull without framing it is either very heavy or very flexible. Since the boats you are considering were all of similar weights, this means that a solid glass hull with no framing or coring will be considerably more flexible. Fiberglass hates flexing, over time it results in fatigue of the bond between the resin and laminate, and a general reduction in strength. This problem is particularly acute adjacent to rigid structures like bulkheads and bunk flats. I have looked at older solid glass boats where you stand on the ground and could pick out every bulkhead and glassed in structure. In boats that have been sailed hard, these areas are often marred by spider cracks and other signs of distressed laminate. By the mid 1980's quality builders of solid glass hulls placed soft material between the hull and bulkheads. This reduced print through but does not solve the more global problem of repetitive flexing. Increasing the hull thickness can help some but at the price of greater weight and also greater stresses due to that greater weight. Greater weight in the hull reduces stability and, for a given weight, means less ballast and/or carrying capacity.

Then there are boats with solid glass hull with molded framing but no coring. During the era in question this was very popular with boats build in England. Ericson really popularized this construction in the States with their force grid. Essentially this was a molded frame system consisting of longitudinal and athwartship frames molded in a grid and then glued in. In concept this is a very strong way to build a boat. (It was my favorite at the time.) It reduces flex and in doing so reduces fatigue. BUT it too has its problems. The grids were generally installed with a polyester resin slurry. Polyester used in this manner is brittle and does not form great secondary bonds. In normal conditions, that is no problem but over time, or when exposed to impact, the bonds can fail and are very hard to repair. Ericson actually experimented with using laminating resin rather than finish resin on the inner laminate for its boats to get a better bond between the grid and the hull. They had hoped to that the interior painted finish would block out enough oxygen to promote a final set. This was not a great idea, in that, years later the resins were still soft and tacky to the touch.

Another problem is with impact in a frame and skin hull. If we are considering boats of similar weight, the weight of the framing by necessity is made up for by reducing the thickness of the skin. This works fine in most ways because the thickness of a fiberglass hull is actually determined by the need to have adequate stiffness rather than by a requirement for absolute tensile, compression or bending strength and the frame work provided the necessary stiffness. The smaller panel sizes result in reduced spans for the skin so the thinner skin does not have to resist as much bending stress as well. The problem comes with point impact. If the impact occurs between the frames, the skin is more prone to fail not only because the skin is thinner but because of the sheering action between the relatively stiff frames and the point of impact on the skin. (Sort of like a scissors). If the impact occurs on a frame, it can break the bond between the frame and the skin. This is often hard to detect and can be very expensive to repair.

Lastly, there is a cored hull. Cored hulls provide a lot of skin stiffness. Cored hulls were often combined with internal framing providing the best of both worlds (my current favorite ways to build a hull). In theory, cored hulls have nearly the same laminate thickness as a framed hull. In an impact a cored hull behaves a bit differently than a solid hull. In theory, in a sold unframed hull some of the energy of the impact is absorbed in localized flexing of the hull. In a framed hull this does not happen as readily. In a cored hull, the coring acts as a crush zone. So while the outer skin may puncture, a certain amount of energy is absorbed by the core and by the compression of the outer skin against the core. This absorption of energy may actually result in some chance that the inner skin may remain intact, albeit delaminated, during an impact that might have pierced an un-cored framed hull.

We are all aware of the problems with cored hulls. If they are abused or poorly maintained they could have areas of delamination. They have a thinner outer skin that is more easily damaged in an impact with a sharp object. They don't like water intrusion. This is more true of balsa coring than the higher quality-higher density closed cell foams. That said balsa is lighter and is more sheer resistant than foams and, if used properly, is reasonably durable. I have owned a 25-year-old boat with cored decks (it happened to be a 1965 C&C designed Grampian Classic 22) that had no signs of delamination in the decks. (Decks are more prone to problems than hulls, which have fewer horizontal surfaces to trap water and fewer penetrations.)

This brings me back to my first point. You are only looking for one boat in good shape. With a cored hull, a good certified NAMS or SAMS surveyor can tell whether or not the boat is healthy. You need to take some care to maintain that health. On my current boat, a 15 year old cored hull, I have the hull sounded every 4 or 5 years. Early on, I had an area that sounded different. I actually took a couple small corings of the suspicious area and found nothing wrong but it was easy to do and was a great relief.

In buying a cored hull, its not that hard to tap out a hull for any major glaring problems. You'd be surprised how easy it is to hear a big problem and that would save the cost of a survey on a major lemon. Of course you should still have the boat surveyed since a qualified surveyor has the experience and equipment to catch things you or I would tend to miss.

As to the boats that you have narrowed your choices to (early 1980's Tartan, C&C and Pearson, Bristols, Ericsons and Morgans), they really represent a narrow slice of fairly equal quality segment of the market place. On general, Tartans, C&C's and Bristols of that era were slightly better built, Pearsons, Ericsons were a step down and Morgans, depending on the model were below the others. But that is just a broad generality. Morgan had some Brewer designed 32's and 38's that seemed to be better built than some of their other boats of this era. The early 1980's were not a great period at Ericson. Ericson's reputation for quality comes later especially after Pacific Seacraft purchased the tooling from the bankrupt company. The early 1980's Ericsons were essentially early IOR based hull forms with race rule conscious rigs (big jibs and small mainsails). The C&C's of this era were similar in that regard, although I really like the line of C&C's that were introduced around 1983 or 84 or so.

The real issue with boats over this age is often a death of a thousand cuts, so to speak. I think that the real end of the life of a f.g. boat is often going to be economic. In other words the cost to maintain and repair an old boat will get to be far beyond what it is worth in the marketplace. I would guess this was the end of more wooden boats than rot. I can give you a bit of an example from land structures. When I was doing my thesis in college, I came across a government statistic which if I remember it correctly suggested that in the years between 1948 and 1973 more houses had been built in America than in all of history before that time. In another study these houses were estimated to have a useful life span of 35 years or so. As an architect today I see a lot of thirty five year old houses that need new bathrooms, kitchens, heating systems, modern insulation, floor finishes, etc. But beyond the physical problems of these houses, tastes have changed so that one of these houses, even in perfect shape still has very small market value. With such a small market value it often does not make sense from a resale point of view to rebuild and so these houses are often sold for little more than land value. At some level, this drives me crazy, since we are tearing down perfectly solid structures that 35 years ago was perfectly adequate for the people who built it, but today does not meet the "modern" standards.

The same thing happens in boats. You may find a boat that has a perfectly sound hull. Perhaps it needs sails, rigging, a bit of galley updating, some minor electronics, the atomic 4 rebuilt, or for the big spender, replaced with a diesel. Pretty soon you can buy a much newer boat with all relatively new gear for less than you'd have in the old girl. She's suddenly worth more as salvage than as a boat. A couple years ago a couple friends of mine were given a Rainbow in reasonable shape. Needed sails and wanted an auxiliary, but even buying everything used the boat was worth a lot less than the cost of the "new" parts. When they couldn't afford the slip fees the Rainbow was disposed of. She now graces a landfill and the cast iron was sold for scrap for more than they could sell the boat for.

From Jeff H on Cruising World message board:
... From my experience, a good wooden boat in well-maintained condition is no harder to maintain than a fiberglass boat if you are trying to keep both in the same condition. The big difference between wood and fiberglass is that with wood you have to maintain the boat on its schedule or it starts to deteriorate. Once you start the deterioration process it becomes a race to bring the boat back before you lose more of the boat. With fiberglass if you let the boat go, you can usually bring it back much easier. For that reason, it is easier to live aboard and do distance cruising on a fiberglass boat.

I think that it is a misconception to say that wooden boats are less expensive than fiberglass to buy. That used to be true but these days quality wooden boats that are well maintained and in solid condition actually cost about the same or more than similar vintage glass boats. The reason that wooden boat prices seem to be less expensive is that you see a lot of tired wooden boats for sale and they are less expensive because of their condition rather than because they are built of wood.

It's also to point out that wooden boats vary far more in building technique and materials than a glass boat. A cedar or teak planked hull with copper rivet construction, lead ballast with bronze keel bolts and a glassed rather than teak deck can last almost for ever. An epoxy saturated, cold molded wooden boat can last a lot longer than fiberglass and have less maintenance than fiberglass. BUT the run of the mill wooden boat out there was designed for a limited lifespan and yards that could do amazing "long term maintenance". Growing up in the 1960's it was routine to see yards wooding the topsides (stripping all of the paint down to bare wood). It was routine to see boats being recaulked, refastened, reframed, replanked, and even re-hulled. Today there are few yards that can do this work and the cost of doing this kind of work can easily cost as much as buying a fiberglass boat of the same length.

From "The Essentials of Living Aboard a Boat" by Mark Nicholas:
One advantage to wooden boats is that they are cheap. An old wooden boat can be purchased for far less than a comparably sized fiberglass boat. Consequently, you get more space for the money. Wooden boats also tend to look and smell nice, and even an inoperable boat might be an excellent choice for someone who does not want to leave the dock or perform much maintenance.

Wooden boats require more care than fiberglass boats. You might not be able to finance the purchase, get the boat insured, or sell the boat. ...

Some travel lifts will not haul wooden boats because of the stresses that are placed on the hull. ...

From "Voyaging on a Small Income" by Annie Hill:
... there is no such thing as the perfect material, and when you come to select your boat for voyaging, you will, in fact, find yourself considering the Osmosis 32, the Dry Rot 30, the Anode 35 or the Rust Bucket 31. Whatever the advertising blurb says, none of them will be "maintenance free" and all of them will have virtues and drawbacks. ...

  • Fiberglass == fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP) == glass-reinforced plastic (GRP).
  • Laminate == glass plus resin.
  • Gelcoat == pure resin.

Fiberglass layer types:
  • Cloth: fibers woven into thin cloth.
  • Roving: continuous fibers woven into coarse, thick cloth. Strong, but bonding is mediocre.
  • Mat: short fibers in random directions. Bonds well, but low strength.

Fiberglass laminate == fibers (glass, Kevlar or carbon) woven into cloth, mat or roving, then saturated and bonded together with plastic resin (polyester, epoxy or vinylester).

Factors that make a boat harder to insure: home-built; custom-built; non-fiberglass hull.

Lenny Rudow's "Boat Building: Basic Construction of Resin, Fiberglass, and Cores"
David Pascoe's "Are They Fiberglass Boats Anymore?"
David Pascoe's "To Buy or Not to Buy ... A Blistered Boat, That Is."
"The Good, The Bad, The Ugly" (delamination) article by Nick Bailey in issue 2000 #3 of DIY Boat Owner magazine
Metal Boat Society
SailNet - John Kretschmer's "Rust Never Sleeps"
Wooden boat construction article by Mark Smaalders in Sept/Oct 2000 issue of Good Old Boat magazine
Benford's "Boatbuilding Materials"

Hull Structure:
  • Fiberglass hulls should have longitudinal and transverse members (stiffeners, stringers) glassed-in to reinforce them; many don't. Make sure stringers are continuously bonded to the surface they're on.

  • Bulkheads should be:
    • Thick.
    • Continuously bonded to hull, instead of tabbed.
    • Bonded to deck.
    • Reduced as little as possible by cutouts for passageways.

  • Fiberglass hull: Two schools of thought:
    1. Want solid, not cored (at least below waterline), for strength and to prevent water intrusion.
    2. Want cored (at least for coastal cruising), because it is stiffer and lighter.

  • Fiberglass hull: gelcoat stretches less than laminate before breaking, so cracks appear in gelcoat before the underlying laminate cracks.

From Russell on Cruising World message board:
People go on and on about how the hull-deck joint is fabricated. Here's my question: How often is there a structural failure of the hull-deck joint? I've read about all sorts of failures in heavy seas: ports being stove in, anything mounted on the deck being ripped off, cabin trunks being crushed, demastings, etc. The first two seem so frequent that they are sometimes mentioned in passing. But only once have I ever read about the hull separating from the deck.

A simple leak is the kind of hull-deck failure I have seen, on quite a few boats. This is no surprise. Adhesives age, water finds its way in, the freeze-thaw cycle does its job, and gradually there is some intrusion. I think the ideal hull-deck joint is glassed over. But that is an expensive operation I don't expect to see in many boats. As long as the joint relies on adhesives and sealants to keep the rain and sea out, the main quality I want in a hull-deck joint is accessibility. I want to be able to reach and inspect every inch, from the inside, so that if a leak does develop, I can trace it back to its source and fix it. On far too many boats, the hull-deck joint is inaccessible, behind some kind of pan or liner. The owners have mysterious leaks that they can never find. Which means that water damage proceeds, undetected. ...

Also see the General Choices section of my Choosing Boat Models page.


Keel types:
  • Fin:
    Faster; more responsive; less leeway; better steering in reverse under power.
    But more draft; less sturdy; sails around anchor/drogue a lot.
  • Modified-full / long-fin:
  • Full:
    Less draft; very sturdy; protected rudder and propeller; tracks well; heaves-to well; easier to haul/careen.
    But worse performance (especially in light air); harder to tack; more leeway.
  • Centerboard:
    Variable draft; may take grounding with less damage.
    But more things to go wrong.
  • Swing: Similar to centerboard, but thicker, often very thick at bottom where ballast is.
  • Wing: Wing shape at bottom of keel.
    Heeling when aground increases draft (bad).
  • Dual/twin: two keels side-by-side.
    Easier to careen; doesn't lean when grounded; less damage when grounded.

"Keel Design" article by Ted Brewer in July/August 2000 issue of Good Old Boat magazine
Keel internals and problems article by Roger Marshall in 9/2008 issue of Sail magazine.

Deep keel (long leading edge): good for windward sailing.

External lead keel best.

SailNet - Bruce Caldwell's "Centerboards and Swing Keels"
"Inspecting and Repairing Your Centerboard" article by Ken Textor in 4/2001 issue of Sail magazine
"In Search of Shoal Draft" article (various types of boards) by Ted Brewer in July/August 2001 issue of Good Old Boat magazine

Had this dialog about centerboards with John Dunsmoor:
From me:
Went looking at boats for sale this weekend. Told a broker I wanted to cruise in the Keys and Caribbean, and he immediately said "Oh, you probably want a centerboard boat for the Keys and Bahamas". He didn't have any such boats to sell, it was just his opinion. He seemed pretty balanced and reasonable about other questions I asked him.

What do you think ? I've heard a centerboard boat puts a wet joint inside your boat, and the board or hinge can break or jam in a serious grounding. And I assume few big centerboard boats were made. Keep in mind that I'm thinking 38-44 feet LOA.
From John Dunsmoor:
It just never ends, does it? Here you thought you had the bases covered and someone throws another tid-bit of stuff in the mix.

Two kinds of centerboard boats. Those with reasonable draft and desirous of better upwind performance and those that are true thin water machines. For the Bahamas, Keys and east coast the shallower the better, but five feet or so is fine. That is what most other cruisers are living with. Our Beneteau 400 has four foot ten draft design and I would guess that it is just under five loaded. Makes a large difference. You can not imagine how geometrically more difficult life gets with increase in draft. 6 1/2 feet and it is a pain, seven feet and you are having to work the tides all the time, eight feet and forget it. There is just a lot of places you can not get. Example: anchoring. With four feet you are a hundred yards from the beach, six feet and you are 3/4 of a mile from the same beach.

So what to purchase, name off the parameters and compromises you want and are willing to make. You want to explore, get close, go places not usually gone to by other boats, you love wild life, birds are a passion and your cruising grounds are the Keys, Bahamas, East coast and Caribbean. Get a cat, forty feet, you'll more room than you know what to do with. Float in three feet of water and sail like the wind.

You want to be a reborn Hitchcock or Slocum, sail the oceans of the world. Touching land will be a side-bar to real blue water sailing. Then a steel fifty foot ketch with seven feet of draft and a thousand gallons of tankage is the choice.

Most of us are somewhere in between. We don't want to make long passages, but they are necessary to get where we want to cruise. Many of the old CCA designs had center boards and they are great sailing boats. But it is rather superfluous to add another maintenance item to a boat just so we can sail from Miami to Bermuda in one day less time. I was on a Burger sailboat, 85 feet built in 1934 and we had two center boards. They extended the draft from six feet to twelve feet. They were huge and did a fine job making the boat go to windward. You could mess with the trim by raising one or the other.

Going aground with a centerboard. Not a problem most of the time. I used to use a centerboard as a mechanical depth finder. Boat was a forty foot Morgan design and you would sail till you heard the board bump and then tack. This was a nice board, about 250 pounds of bronze. Some are stainless and some are iron or steel. Rust, fairing, bottom paint, cable maintenance, hinge pins are all things that can go wrong.
From me:
Do monohull centerboard boats tend to have a "hump" or something in the cabin sole above the centerboard ? Does it screw up the interior layout ?

Is there any problem with the watertightness of the hinge ? Seems like if it's accessible from inside, it is another through-hull to worry about.

It sounds like you are saying that there were a fair number of monohulls produced that have centerboards ?
From John Dunsmoor:
Goes back to two kinds of centerboard boats. The ones that are looking for performance enhancements the answer is no, mostly. The ones that are thin water sailers, the answer is mostly yes. With notable exceptions. Even when the centerboard trunk, "hump" is located in the living interior of the vessel it is usually designed to be livable. Sometimes as the support for the table in the main saloon or something.

In the two different styles the hinge pins are located outside the vessel in performance boats and inside on thin water boats. The hinge pin is not the weak link, the mechanism for lifting the board is. This is usually a compound cable to a drum winch of some sort.

The hinge pin is usually robust, 1" to 3" stainless. Even the trunk is more trouble than the pin many times.

Fair number, not rare, but not the every day either.

From Bob Diamond:
We had a Pearson-40 with a centerboard in the program a few years ago. Like almost all large centerboard boats it could be sailed with the board up or down. It needed to be sailed board down for efficient upwind sailing but the boat still couldn't be called a performer. Many shoal draft fixed keel boats sailed better than the centerboard boat. I would consider one of those.

From Peter Hendrick, who owns a Wauquiez Hood 38:
> Do any drawbacks of having a centerboard come to mind ?

Yes, it's a moving part which could be damaged when going aground, esp if in reverse. One needs to remember to pull it up when in very shallow water. Since our boat is a centerboard/keel (ie, it has both) then the centerboard gets withdrawn into the recess in keel and does not infringe upon the living space (ie, entirely below sole). Of course, all shallow draft boats tend to have a smaller bilge, hence less storage. As you've undoubtedly realized, everything on a boat is a tradeoff. All things considered we don't regret the centerboard feature of our boat. It only gets used when on a close reach.

From Gary Elder:
In my opinion centerboarders are reliable if properly maintained. If you, or a previous owner didn't do the necessary checks, their reliability can be suspect. I know people who have had their boards drop, with no way of retracting them, because the pennant either broke or came loose at the attach point. I have heard of boards actually dropping out of the trunk, and being lost.

A friend of mine, has an Erwin 52 that he sails along the Atlantic coast and to the Carib., also just returned from Cuba. He removed that very large board, and glassed over the opening in the hull in such a way that the board can be re-installed if necessary. His logic is that since he never used it, he didn't need to be carrying it around. His logic further states that he, like a great many cruisers never sails to windward. If he needs to go upwind, he either motors right into it, or motor sails. Remember, this is a 52 footer that carries lots of fuel.

In my opinion, when used properly, a centerboard can enhance performance considerably, but when stuff happens, and it will, it can be a nightmare. In my case, I accept the extra leeway, caused by shallow draft, in exchange for simplicity.

From Barry Brazier on WorldCruising mailing list:
I have an Irwin Citation 39 with a Centre board. I sailed her from CT to Australia via Panama. The shallow draft was an advantage in a few locations. The centre board help windward ability but was no help in a blow. I would have preferred to have had the lead lower down to increase stability. This would have been far more helpful when sailing to windward in 30 or 40 kts.

I broke the centre board on two occasions: once when grounding and once while in open ocean. Maybe I hit a big fish? The slot did not fill with weed being well down and antifouled. Keeping on the move with CFP (copolymer antifouling) loosens growth. Not so good if you stay in the one place for months.

The board rattles in the slot in a seaway. Can be annoying over time. It rattles less when up and more when down.

SailNet - Don Casey's "Keel Bolt Concerns"
SailNet - Don Casey's "Keel Bolt Repairs"

Crack between keel and hull, from BillZ on Cruising World message board:
I would suggest dropping the ballast enough to be able to inspect the bolts. If they look Ok then clean the adjoining surfaces and lay a good bedding of epoxy before drawing the keel back up to the keel stub.

Do not try to draw the keel up simply by tightening the bolts. Instead position a hydraulic jack under the keel and jack it into place, then tighten the bolts after the keel is positioned.


[Use epoxy or 3M 5200 ?]

A friend did the 5200 thing. He did not have a bad experience but the keel would still work and the seam would open up every year. Not to mention my fear that the constant working will cause fatigue to the metal of the keel bolts. The epoxy will actually to a degree help to stiffen the keel.

Also the longer water is allowed to penetrate to the keel bolts, the more prone that they will be to deterioration from oxidation or electrolysis.

I have dropped and rebedded the keel on several older one-designs (that are similar to a Soling). What I found with these boats is that the keel working actually slows the boat down. Each of the three boats that I did went back in the water considerably faster than when they came out.