Sunday, February 20, 2011

Reader Question: Wooden or Fiberglass Boat? A Guest Response

My family is just starting to look at a new boat. Do you have an opinion about wood vs. fiberglass? Just curious. Thanks!

Here is a guest response from a licensed captain (United Stated Coast Guard 50 Ton Master license):

A preference between wooden and fiberglass yachts is a nuanced affair. A boat is not only a work of art, but also a machine of science based on technology developed over millennia. I urge one to consider the art and the science of any boat independently.

A successful yacht design combines form and function - art and science - into a package that is a beautiful creation both emotionally and empirically. There are endless variations of shape and style as well as many variations on structure: rig, hull and keel. And, form and function impact each other every minute. As one example, you have seen classic boats with long overhangs - the bow and stern project themselves graciously over the water - as well as more modern boats with a "plumb" bow and stern where there is much less overhang.

Years ago, a guiding design principle was less friction = faster (less hull surface area in the water = more speed). Modern physics, however, tells us that a boat with a longer waterline can actually move faster through the water (you may have noticed that war ships are usually long and thin). So, modern yacht designs will accentuate the length of the boat at the water line which impacts the style and look of the boat. You can stroll through your local marina and easily see examples of this particular stylistic and scientific difference. And, while you will certainly see more overhang in older, wooden boats than in modern fiberglass boats, there are more exceptions than rules.

When all is said and done both above and below the waterline, even the most highly-trained naval architect will ultimately describe a vessel by coming back to the most simple of terms: the "lines" or overall look of a boat which might be described as "graceful" and even tug at our hearts. Helen of Troy may have had a face that launched a thousand ships, but, each ship has lines that can launch a thousand nautical dreams - you just have to find the boat with the right lines for you. And, finding a yacht with good lines or a pleasing stylistic profile is a matter which can be debated for a lifetime - and frequently is.

To make matters even more nuanced, once you know your stylistic preferences, that style can be found in - or built out of - many different materials including wood, fiberglass, steel, etc. which are all suitable for different uses. Fiberglass is bullet-proof and will last forever in most circumstances. Steel might be the best choice if you plan to sail in the extreme latitudes. Wood requires more maintenance. To achieve different design goals, some people build replicas of classic, old wooden boats in fiberglass or carbon fiber with all the modern materials, equipment and conveniences. In these cases, you can tell at a glance if you like the lines, but you have to look very carefully to determine the construction material. So, each vessel requires its own respect and consideration.

On the whole, good, old wooden boats usually have classic, traditional appeal, but for ease of use and maintenance and for comfortable accommodations, a relatively modern design will usually win out. If you are going once around the harbor for cocktails, you might choose a wooden boat like you might choose a Model T car to drive around town on a Sunday. But, if you are sailing around the world, you might select a classic-looking yacht built from modern materials and with all the modern equipment - just as if you were driving across the country you might prefer the reliability and cup holders, etc. of a late-model car.

Having said all that, when Captain Cook set off on his globe-girdling voyages, the British Admiralty gave him the choice of any ship on the waterfront, and he surprised everyone by passing up the latest and greatest and choosing a vessel design which had carried freight along the coast of England for decades. As Cook sailed into the unknown, that unpretentious, tried-and-true yacht saved his life more than once - most dramatically when he got caught in the maze of the Great Barrier Reef near Australia and had to drag the boat by the anchors over the coral to free himself. Since the boat had a durable, flat bottom, it could easily survive that experience.