Clash of the Titans

Clash of the Titans - Metal Yacht Construction
Clash of the Titans
Thinking about a metal vessel? Which is better, steel or aluminum?

By Capt. Bill Pike — September 2001

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I was talking with an old friend recently, a master of oceangoing tugs. The topic was commercial shipbuilding and how there's precious little of it going on in the United States these days. After grumbling over this travesty for a while and then bemoaning the fact that the American Merchant Marine seems to be headed down the same rusty scupper that swallowed so many shipyards, we cheered ourselves up with an argument. What material should American ships be made of, if America ever goes back to seriously building them? Steel or the other biggie, aluminum?

"Deep water dictates steel," my friend concluded. A conservative, seaman-like position. With more holes in it than an old deck shoe.

"Yeah, but look at crewboats...they're aluminum," I countered. "More than 100 feet long, some of them. Fast and efficient. Running offshore in outrageous sea conditions. For years. Then reincarnating in the Caribbean as dive boats and ferries."

The tussle went on all evening. It was fun. In fact it was so entertaining that I resolved to apply it to the realm of custom yachts as soon as possible. With yacht builders and designers being at least as intense about building materials as my friend and I, doing this required little effort. I simply ran the aluminum-versus-steel thing past a few major-league yards in the States and Europe, and presto! Clash of the Titans.

I started with Dick Boon, probably the biggest booster for all-aluminum custom yacht construction in the world today. Founder and president of Vripack Yachting International, a well-known Dutch design firm with a long, salty resume and a raft of big-name clients like Palmer Johnson and Feadship, Boon is certainly qualified to be taken seriously. And he's serious about all-aluminum construction, not only for high-performance applications where weight is an issue, but also for larger, heavier, full-displacement craft that are normally built with steel hulls and steel or aluminum superstructures. It's this all-aluminum, displacement-hull idea, which Boon pushes with messianic fervor, that flies in the face of accepted belief. For years most experts have agreed that because of its greater weight and strength, steel is the safest, most stable material for building ships and big displacement yachts.

"But this is not true," says Boon, citing a list of successful all-aluminum projects like Palmer Johnson's La Baronessa and his own Doggersbank Series as well as pages and pages of test data and calculations. "Aluminum is better for big yachts. Even very big yachts. The Japanese, for example, are doing all-aluminum tankers right now. Of 90 meters [about 295 feet] or so. If a big commercial vessel can be built, why not a big yacht?"

Next page > Metal Construction continued > Page 1, 2, 3

This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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