Looking at the individual fibers.
Carbon: Carbon has two very important characteristics, 1.Carbon has a comparatively high tensile strength but 2. an extremely high Modulus of Elasticity in tension and moderately high compressive E. This means that Carbon fiber composite parts have a lot of strength in bending but more significantly they can take big loads without much changing shape. It is this property that makes carbon so ideal for masts and other spars. It is also a reasonably light fiber. Carbon has some big negatives as well. Carbon is only moderately in resisting fatigue and so can breakdown in situations where it alternatively flexed and un-flexed. One characteristic that is often overlooked is that Carbon fiber conducts electricity and can be electolytically active (i.e. subject to electrolysis) (One popular theory on why Coyote lost her keel was that there was problems with the grounding of 24 volt generator and the carbon fiber attachment of the bulb keel bolting plate was weakened.) Carbon is also not very good in resisting abrasion. These properties makes it an ideal material for short lived race boat parts and light weight spars like windsurfers and spin poles but not so good for a cruising boat hulls or long life items.
Kevlar is one of my favorite materials. This is one very tough material. It has very good tensile strength properties (but not as great as Carbon or S glass). It also has a large E. Unlike carbon it has excellent fatigue resistance and abrasion resistance. It is extremely light and will actually float out of the resin. You must either vacuum bag kevlar or use a fabric with both glass and kevlar in it. You can’t sand a laminate with kevlar in it. Trust me I have tried. The kevlar balls up. The way I have dealt with repairs over kevlar is to cut the kevlar strands with an Exacto and then finish with a layer of F.G. cloth. Kevlar is amazingly tough to cut or work with. If you drill though a Kevlar boat (Rugosa had a kevlar hull and deck) and you don’t use a sharp drill the kevlar will not cut and will wrap around the bit and drag the drill to a stop. To me it is an ideal material for the exterior laminates for boat hulls. Kevlar is not too great in compression, so it is best used in concert with S-glass, so that the S-glass can take help take compressive loads.
S glass is a type of fiberglass. There is a lot that distinguishes S glass from E glass, but basically, when glass fibers are made there are a variety of ways of doing it. All of the methods result in glass fibers that are not smooth on the surface when seen in a microscope. The roughness is actually small cracks in the surface of glass fiber. The fewer breaks the stronger the tensile strength of the fiber. Also the longer the fiber the fewer the un-restrained ends of fiberglass fiber and therefore the stronger the composite. The process that produces S-glass produces longer, less fractured fibers and then uses that fiber in fabrics that minimizes crimps in the fiber. S-Glass has really good tensile strength but does not come close to carbon or kevlar with regard to elongation. It is a good alternative for the interior of cored hulls where
E-glass is the run of the mill everyday fiberglass laminate. E glass is used in virtually all production boats and has reasonably good properties for most applications. It is the least specific specification and can vary very widely in quality. All early fiberglass boats were made of E-glass. E-glass can have especially poor fatigue qualities and only fair Tensile strength. It has terrible E properties in tension and only so-so E-properties in compression. In other words it is very flexible. While it is initially true this flexure has little to do with the bending strength of the material, in a material that is not very good in fatigue, flexure can be a significant problem.
One statement you see a lot is “Early boat builders did not know how strong fiberglass was and so made it very thick.” Horse Feathers! This is just plain bunk. The federal government had done a lot of research on Fiberglass and the information was widely available in the 1960’s. As a kid, I had literature on fiberglass that pretty clearly analyzed its properties. Guys like Carl Alberg, who was working for the government designing fiberglass ammo boxes when he was hired by the Pearsons to design the Triton, knew exactly what fiberglass would do. They knew that the e-glass of that era was pretty poor quality and was especially prone to flexing and to fatigue. They attempted to design fiberglass boats to be as stiff as wooden boats of the era. This took a lot of thickness since F.G. was very flexible compared to wood. This was especially true on a pound for pound basis. They also knew that if the boats were not as stiff as wood, there would be major fatigue problems. This put early designers in a bind. If they made the glass boats as thick as a wooden planked hull they would be impossibly heavy. If they did not, fatigue would condemn them to a short life. They mostly chose to compromise. By that I mean they chose to do boats that were not as stiff as the wooden boats they replaced but were heavier. Early glass interpretations of wooden boats were generally heavier and carried less ballast than their wooden counterparts. They were much stronger in bending but not as stiff. As fatigue took place some of these early glass boats became even more flexible which leads to more fatigue, which can lead to a significant reduction in strength.
Coring allowed the hulls to be made much thicker without the weight penalty. In calculating the stiffness of a section, the thickness is to the third power and so small gains in thickness result in big gains in stiffness. Coring allows a boat to be very stiff and strong and thereby reduces fatigue. Its not that coring comes without problems. The core is primarily subjected to horizontal sheer. To visualize Horizontal sheer, (Take a deck of cards and bend them. As you do you’ll feel the cards slide one over the other. That slippage is horizontal sheer.) The core material must be able to withstand the reversing horizontal sheer loadings without fatigue. That is what Balsa core does best. But balsa core can and does rot. It takes a higher density foam to equal the sheer strength and fatigue resistance of Balsa. That said, if you are building for durability, nothing beats medium density foam coring.
There is an oft-quoted statement floating around the internet “Cored laminates are stronger in flat panels, but are weaker when used with curved surfaces.” There is no scientific basis for that statement. When cored materials are applied to curved surfaces the core materials are designed with small stipes that allow the compound bending. When the core is properly vacuum-bagged into place, these stipes fill with resin and greatly increase bonding and the horizontal sheer of the panel. So, while cored laminates are stronger than solid panels on the flat, they are much stronger than solid panels when used on a curved surface. The author of that statement also has some dramatic photos of delamination problems on cored hulls but all of those photos appear to be low-density foam coring, which is almost never used in sailboat construction.
Mat vs. oriented fabric:
Mat (or chopped glass) does a number of things. First and foremost, almost all fabrics are directional. Mat and Chopped glass are not. Directional fabrics are weaker at bias angles that bisect the primary load directions. With good stress mapping you theoretically could use all directional material carefully oriented but because boats are subjected to loads from all different directions there needs to be an offsetting fiber orientation across the bias. Since mat has equal strength in all directions mat helps resist those loads that do not align with the direction of the directional materials. Mat also serves a more practical purpose. Course materials like woven roving, which have a lot of strength and which represent an easy way to build depth quickly have rough laminated textures. Due to this rough surface it is difficult to get a proper adhesion between course laminates without using too much resin. Mat is able to contort to the texture and make a good connection between the course laminates. Mat has another function as well. Resin shrinks as it cures and resins cure over very long periods, as much as years. If you put roving against gelcoat, the thicker resin in the course laminates shrinks proportionately to the thickness of the resin. This results in “print through” where the pattern of the fabric can be seen by sighting down the hull.