Photo by Muffy Aldrich
The Modern Guide to The Thing Before Preppy

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Reader Question: Wooden or Fiberglass Boat? A Friend's Response

Photos by Salt Water New England

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 friend's 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.


  1. What a lovely post. As someone who has only been a passenger on others' vessels this has given me a novel appreciation of boat craftsman ship.

  2. I've been on the HMS Endeavour. Well, on its replica in Darling Harbour in Sydney, Australia. Fun times. know, I don't think I've ever sailed on anything made of wood, or at least not wood that wasn't covered in a fiberglass shell.

  3. Wooden boats are beautiful and it's nice to have one that is different from everyone else's at the marina. But they are A LOT of work! Sometimes my husband spends more time working on the teak than he does sailing.

  4. I'm a romantic and prefer wood, but if I ever were so fortunate to own a boat, I think I would go for fiberglass, for the reasons pointed out in this post. Lovely and informative! You choose great guest bloggers, Muffy!

  5. Restored wooden boats can be beautiful, but who has the time to devote to the maintainence? Fitting out a fiberglass boat during the spring is more than enough work. Besides, do you really want a boat that is constructed of biodegradable material?

  6. Another thing to consider is sail or power. Also, fresh water vs. salt.

  7. Take great caution if one ever chooses to own a wooden boat larger than one can move around dry land by themselves. After fifty years in practical use, fiberglass is more than acceptable as a marine building material, leaving more teak and mahogany to be finished into beautiful brightwork.

  8. My father told me recently to never buy a wooden buy. Why, you may ask? Work, work, work. With a wooden boat, or an wood on any boat for that matter, you need to sand and finish it every season. Unless you can afford to pay someone to do it, you will end up doing a lot of sanding and painting. I personally think the beauty may be worth all of the work. Maybe some day I will find out...

  9. We are fortunate to have a waterfront location with a dock, rowboats and moorings, a neighbor who lets us store our boat off season (24' wood composite protected by cloth set in epoxy) with very little varnish protected from exposure inside the cabin. I spend just two days repainting the topsides and bottom each year, a good weekend's work. But if we had to have a boatyard do the work at their rates, pay for mooring services and join a club for launch transport we couldn't afford it, even with a fiberglass boat. It's not the initial expense for a boat, it's ongoing annual considerations.

  10. The long overhangs on classic sailing yachts were a design solution to beat rating rules used at the time. Boats of different designs were equalized for racing by assigning time penalties to those that were judged to be faster. Other factors equal, a boat with a long waterline length is faster than a boat with a short waterline. Long overhangs over the water when a boat is at rest make the measured waterline shorter and reduce any assigned time penalty; when the boat is heeled while sailing the overhangs lay down in the the water and increase the waterline length to allow the boat to sail faster.

    1. Interesting. The same principle applies, of course, to skis. The longer the ski the faster it skis. Downhill competition skis are much longer than those used by slalom skiers. The more contact there is with the surface, the faster the skier. This is why ski racers want to maintain as much as possible ski and snow contact. Jumps on downhill courses are dramatic but they eat up precious time. This in a sport where the difference between first and tenth place can be less than one second,

  11. Have you ever refinished a wooden boat ? I have . Not be recommended .

  12. Everybody loves wooden boats but as an outsider you simply underestimate the amount of maintenance required if you really use the boat on a regular basis.

    We had a Riva and in the end I was really a bit annoyed. Also repairs can not make everyone and are always extra expensive. After that we had a Fiberglass boat and it was much more relaxed. Now, many years later, the desire for a wooden boat is growing again. A Halberg Rassy, the boat somehow have another aura like a Bavaria etc.

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  13. So many choices, for so many reasons! Good luck!

  14. A twelve foot marine plywood sailboat requires enough regular maintenance to make a robust teenager feel it was an awful lot of work. If you choose wood, or even a lot of wood trim topside, be sure to factor in the difference between some wood and a whole lot of wood and how young and fit you are, although both concerns can be addressed by paying someone else to do the work.

  15. Agree with and will summarize most of the above comments: if you like to sail, buy fiberglass; if you like to maintain your boat 'on the hard', buy wooden. Although I'm curious: the questioner says the family is looking for a "new boat"; can one even purchase a new wooden boat in 2023, other than a custom build?

  16. I had some teak lawn furniture and the maintenance associated with that was unbelievably time-consuming. Every six months you'd spend a full day sanding and oiling, and the furniture would look pristine for about a month before starting to fade, discolor, and attract grime once again, no matter what you used to clean and restore the furniture -- teak oil, spar urethane, whatever.
    Some people appreciate weathered grey teak and think it looks rusting, charming, etc., but I don't like it.

    If it's that time-consuming to maintain some tables, benches and chairs... I can't imagine what it would be like to maintain a wood boat. The mind boggles. Fiberglass for me!

  17. I love reading Wooden Boat magazine and even subscribed a few years ago. But when it gets down to small-boat practicalities, fiberglass is the way to go. Ask yourself the all-important question: Forget money — how much time do you want to spend maintaining the boat versus sailing in it?


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