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Making a Better Boat

Advances in technology have helped fuel new-boat development and quality builds. Here an expert goes behind the scenes to explain exactly how a boat goes from the drawing board to the lay-up stage.

In my youth I worked as the mate on a custom-built wooden fishing boat operated by a rather cantankerous skipper. He wasn’t much for words and often didn’t have an answer for hello. But when he did task himself to speak, words of dubious wisdom would soon follow. Despite his personal shortcomings, his boat was a showpiece of the time and he was justifiably proud of it. So when a customer chanced to ask during a lull in the fishing if the boat was built by men, the skipper sneered, “Of course it was. Who do you think built it, a bunch of monkeys?” I don’t recall the tip I got that day, but I remember the look on the guy’s face who asked the question because I often see similar stares during boat shows when people wander through good-looking display models in awe and amazement wondering just how that boat came to be. 

Boatbuilding has evolved from the time when wooden boats ruled the seas to the advent of fiberglass, which is the most popular material on the water today. And while wooden boats may look similar to fiberglass vessels—pointy on one end and square on the other—the construction techniques are decidedly different. Wood boats basically start with laying a keel to which frames or ribs are attached. Planking covers the framework, paint and varnish follow, and the hull is complete. In essence, the wood boat is built from the inside out. But stick-built hull construction requires an inherent obligation and commitment to heady maintenance, because if water wicks its way between the frames and planking, or through the myriad holes drilled to accept equipment and accessories, the wood and its fasteners, be they mechanical or synthetic, can be compromised leading to a weakened structure. Wood may have been the first boat material used, but there are not many of those early boats around anymore. Wood is still certainly good, but the best boatbuilding material for recreational boaters is fiberglass, also known as FRP, or fiberglass reinforced plastic.

A deckhouse is removed from its open molding session.

When the first recreational fiberglass boats began appearing in the late 1950s and throughout the early 1960s, sellers tried arguing that fiberglass was virtually maintenance free. Don’t we wish? However, what was and remains true to this day is that a molded fiberglass hull is a singular structure devoid of underwater seams, which require sealants or adhesives, except where there are penetrations for hardware like through-hull fittings, struts, and rudders. Fiberglass combined reduced maintenance, easy moldability, and reusable molds, thereby sparking the lightning rod that spurred the growth of the sport enjoyed by millions of people today.

Instead of hundreds of individual pieces that it takes to build from wood, a modern fiberglass boat is generally no more than three to four major components: the hull, the deck, a flying bridge, and perhaps an interior liner or two. Each part is made from a separate mold and when joined together with mechanical fasteners, fiberglass tabbing, and suitable adhesives, the result is a durable, strongly constructed boat. Looks being subjective, however, early fiberglass boats were at the mercy of designers, some of whom, it must be said, were not blessed with good taste. In fact, in the early 1960s, a lot of boats sported tailfins, not unlike the automobiles of the time. 

Fiberglass boats have only a few major components, like this deck assembly being installed in the hull.

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.