There was a time, in the 1950s through the 1970’s, when backyard boat building was a worldwide craze. The thought of being able to build a boat from some crude drawings a stack of exterior plywood, some bronze/or stainless screws. A sack or two of galvanized nails, some fiberglass cloth and resin to add strength and keep the water out, coupled with a dream of sailing off to tropical isles for a few thousand dollars ( because after all, the wind is free) was enough to cause even some sensible people to convert their barn or shed into a berthing area for the perfect nautical escape module.
This cult of dreamers was made up of a large number of visionaries, societal drop outs, and even some hard working engineers and semi normal “Joe Lunch bucket” types who were near retirement or feared that they would soon be downsized out of their job. They fed off each others dreams, they followed the nautical pied pipers of the time. I know about these things, because I was swept up in that wave. I even invented and developed products to help these people make their (our) one off dreams.
My First Real Self Built Boat
In the early 60s my first “live aboard” sailboat was a 24 foot trimaran made of 3/8″ exterior ply which was glassed over. I built the whole thing and launched it in 90 days. It was a leading edge design and had minimal accommodations. A port-a-potty, no sink, a 5 horse outboard motor for power, a minimum sized mast and 3 sails, a main, genoa (forward sail), and a second very small foresail (Storm jib). I intended to sail this homespun lash up off to the fabled South Pacific Islands, and I wasn’t daunted the first time I flipped the boat over off Marina Del Rey in Southern California. I figured I’d just fix the design faults when I rebuilt the broken parts and re-assembled the whole thing. The second time around was better, but not the perfect escape module by any means. I did, however, discover some needs I shared with other builders. I developed and patented a couple of plastic gizmos (an O ring sealed deck plate and a line of plastic port holes). These items were the beginning of Progressive Yacht Hardware International (PYHI). That marine hardware company eventually grew to include dozens of products made of plastic that found use by sailboat, powerboat and jet ski manufacturers.
During the heyday of backyard boat building, boats were even made of cement. The misconception by many of those setting out to home build a boat was that the hull or hulls (catamarans and trimarans) represented the expensive part of a boat. In actuality, the hull represents only about 1/6 of the expense and effort to build a boat. Sails, rigging, engine, lifelines, electronics, keel, rudder, interior furniture, cushions, wiring, plumbing, safety equipment and on and on were the realistic expenses that shocked many dreamers, killed budgets and stalled out many a project.
The First Production Fiberglass Boat Building Companies Spring Up
As with all Capitalistic societies, where there was innovation, there were individuals trying to monetize it. Boat builders, some not so great, and some so great that their boats are still revered today, began to take their molds for fiberglass boats and form companies.
Boat building companies were springing up like weeds. It was magnificent.
With this new industry came some surprising changes:
1. You could now buy a boat, designed by experienced designers, and manufactured professionally by trained builders, for nearly the same cost that you could build your boat for, maybe a little more.
2. Due to this new found access to boats, it opened the doors for many would-be sailors to make the plunge - and consequently the number of docked boats in marinas shot up dramatically.
3. As the decades went by, the numbers of these boats didn’t decrease, and boat owners weren’t forced to buy new boats. Fiberglass, for the most part, didn’t sit and rot or degrade like wooden boats did.
4. A resale market was created by the 1980’s that meant that you could buy a well designed 1960’s or 1970’s boat for far less than you could build one from scratch. This inexpensive resale market didn’t exist before because wooden boats required a lot of maintenance to up-keep, which meant that resale prices were quite high comparatively.
5. Consequently, many of these boat manufacturers had simply run themselves out of business - they couldn’t sell enough new boats, because the old boats were still floating proudly!
The Reason You Probably Don’t Need to Build a Boat
The simple fact is, there are so many used production built fiberglass boats around today that are 10-40 years old and still in very usable condition, that it might make great sense to buy one of these boats at a fraction of what it would cost to build from scratch, and instead invest 25-50% of what it would have cost to build from scratch into a retrofit and save the rest for your cruising kitty.
Think about it, the best designers in the world have designed a boat for you already and she’s floating in a marina somewhere with a for sale sign on her. Could you really do better? Is it worth it?
Now, Why You Should Build a Boat From Scratch
Many talk about “building a boat and sailing around the world”.
If you’ve sailed boats your whole life, know a lot about sailboat design, and most importantly, have never found the exact layout or design you’ve been looking for, you’re probably a good candidate to build a boat.
You should build a boat if you crave a design that hasn’t been built in production or that is impossible to find used (due to low production numbers).
If you lack the knowledge, the hours behind the helm to know what you like or don’t about hull and layout designs, etc. then you should probably think about buying a boat, as mentioned before.
Building a Boat Doesn’t Have to Mean Designing from Scratch
You can very easily pick up plans from noted designers on the internet for hundreds of dollars. Nearly every major designer of the last 30 years has their boat plans posted online, many of models that were never put into production. Its like buying home plans from designers… this is a great place to start with, whether you build exactly to plan or make some small changes.
That said, if you’re planning on making a lot of changes, it might be best to start a whole new set of plans to begin with, and use the designed plans as reference.
Just be sure one end of your boat has a point on it.
I will talk about specific materials in a later post.
However, here are some basic pointers:
WOOD: DO NOT TRY TO BUILD A WOOD BOAT UNLESS YOU KNOW PRECISELY WHAT YOU ARE GETTING INTO. Wood shaping and materials require meticulous craft and care to achieve perfection. Building a wooden boat, as you might know from my other posts, is my least suggested course of action. The upkeep is high, the build costs are high, and it is simply unnecessary in the 21st century given the alternatives. Of course, wooden boats are still probably the prettiest of the bunch, and many skippers have an affinity for them, so if you are thinking of building out of wood, please talk to some wooden boat builders and owners in detail before making a final decision.
PLYWOOD / GLASS: This is most likely the best all-around combination. Provided it is properly assembled and you get no blisters on the glass, this is 90% of what you see in marinas today.
STEEL: Steel is mostly outdated. Of course, it’s strong. I’ve seen a steel boat go through a reef near Moorea, and was pulled back out through the reef with only a couple of dented bilge plates. The reef looked a lot worse. That would have instantly sunk a glassed or wooden boat. The downside of steel is the rust and extreme weight issue.
CEMENT: Great idea, very difficult to properly implement, can degrade over time, very heavy. Also, mostly uninsurable.
ALUMINUM: The real building material of the future for one-off boats. Very strong, lightweight, and easy and quick to build with. It’s also the most expensive of the building materials, and very difficult to form into compound curves.
Now, for MY Plan
To cap off this post, I do have to admit that in spite of my advice to everybody else, I will more than likely BUILD my next boat, out of aluminum. Why am I contradicting my own advice? Well I want to get back to multi hulls (where I started 50+ years ago) because designs, materials (marine grade aluminum) and building techniques have progressed to the point that it is conceivable to weld one up with the skills and tools I already have.
My guesstimate is $60K and 90 days of my labor will get me to a sailaway 36 foot aluminum catamaran with a 20 foot beam. I will cut the pieces and tack them together, leaving the seam welding to a pro. To have this boat built would be at least $250K. I can’t afford that. So on I go, doing my Don Quixote imitation. For me it works, even if it fails. I just love building floating things with one (or two or three) pointy ends and the ability to be my magic carpet……to Shangri-La!
As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!