Steel boats are great. Until they’re not. Seeing rusty drips down the side of a boat? Might make you wonder if steel is a good material for a sailboat. Read about Renovating a Rusting Steel Boat to find out what we did when our 50 year old boat got a bad case of the rusts. Or read on to explore the pros and cons of different boat materials.
The three little pigs building houses had it easy – just three materials to choose from – although with straw bale, wood frame and block/brick it might be hard to choose one these days. But what about sailboats? Is there a “best” material? Of course not – much of the decision will be driven by what is available when you are looking, and what you fall in love with. But it’s worth discussing again because we all spend time wondering… what’s best for us?
Boat Materials: Common Options
Ok, I’m not going to talk about kevlar or titanium or rubber or canvas… I’ll stick to what you might find in a typical used boat list.
Wood. My husband was a professional wooden boat builder, but he says we couldn’t afford for him to build a new wooden boat. You either want to build boats or sail them. And I thought an older wood boat would be too much trouble. My somewhat irrational fear is that it would spring a leak mid-ocean. In reality I now believe that wood boats are great as long as you live on them. Maybe not so great if they’re going to sit in a slip for a few years before you go. If you have wood skills and you find a well-found wood boat, and you will be living on it – go for it!
One advantage of wood are that it is naturally temperature and sound insulating. They are comforting to be in. They are the classic look. But make sure you have the repair skills before you buy an older one and, of course, get a good surveyor before falling in love.
Fiberglass. Chances are most would-be boat owners will look at fiberglass boats. They’re available, they’re not necessarily expensive, and they last. Our first boat together was a 1957 production fiberglass boat that literally was bullet proof, or at least Cascade Yachts claimed they shot bullets at the hull layup to test it. Although that particular boat wasn’t what we wanted to go offshore in, the material was not the problem. Fiberglass is strong enough for circling the globe. Blisters and water intrusion are the issues, and in some boats maybe the structure is not robust enough. But you are going to have a competent inspector, right?
And ferro-cement we weren’t gonna do. Most of them are ugly – sorry to any owners of lovely ferro-cement boats – but that was our prejudice. But what if you find a lovely one? Prices can be excellent – so that’s tempting. But it will be difficult to know how well they were built unless you know specifics about the history. And they rust from the inside out since the steel rebar is hidden inside the “skin”. That would worry me.
Aluminum. Sure, I’d love an aluminum boat. Don’t even have to paint it. I love the working-boat aesthetic of bare aluminum. But there aren’t too many of them and the ones we’ve found are too pricey for us. (There’s one at the Squalicum Marina that I would buy right now, were it for sale and had I won a small lottery…)
Steel. Steel is strong. Steel is heavy: a total steel boat would have a lot of weight (deck, house) up high which would be bad. But if you lighten that with wood decks on a steel boat you are asking for eventual rusting. And they are definitely not a good choice for smaller boats – our 41′ is about the minimum length, you could go down to 36 or 38 maybe. Also steel boats can be ugly. But you wouldn’t be choosing an ugly boat anyway. Who said that a steel boat “may not win the race but will definitely win the collision”. Is that really a priority in sailing? Maybe not, but it’s a nice extra. Reefs, whales, other boats, shipping crates… However the disadvantage is that you’ll need a welder for big repairs and at some point, when the boat gets old enough, you will have rust.
Why We Have a Steel Boat
Phoenix is steel. Why did we buy a steel boat in the first place?
Everyone brings fears to a new exploit, and for some reason my fears were centered around shipping crates. The waves didn’t bother me, being out there alone didn’t bother me, but for some reason nasty metal boxes lying just submerged in our path seemed terrifying. (And I hadn’t even seen “All is Lost” yet!) I think my expressing this somewhat irrational fear did push my husband more towards looking for steel boats which he had always been intrigued by. However many steel boats are ugly: boxy home-made affairs that just don’t make me swoon. And although there are worthy hard-chine steel boats, we just didn’t love the hard-chine aesthetic. So I thought a steel boat was unlikely to be my heart’s desire. But Jon found an inexpensive rolled-plate steel boat that looked like a wood boat (long overhangs, lovely round shape) and we were hooked. It had already sailed much of the globe, had the basic equipment we needed, and was just at the far end of my length restrictions (I thought 34-40 would be about right, both manageable and adequately comfortable, and this one is nearly 41). And she was cheap. (Only later did I learn that nothing is more expensive than a cheap boat!)
However Phoenix was also already 40 years old. And had a wood deck on steel shear clamp: wood + steel eventually leads to rust. Which it has. Jon repaired the steel along much of the port side and the transom before our 2008 voyage. In 2015-16 he did the starboard side, fore deck beams, and stem head. Plywood decks still, but the epoxy and fiberglass should prevent water sitting on the steel beams and shear clamp for another 40 years or more. Longer than our sailing life. (See Renovating a Rusting Steel Boat for more about this work).
And I’ve mostly stopped being afraid of shipping crates.
Which we’ll probably never hit anyway!
If you’re in the market for a sea-going sailboat I’m sure you’ve been reading the experts in the sailing world. If you want more, many of the books in Resources have excellent sections on choosing boats. Boat materials are only a one element of boat performance. It comes down to what you love, and getting an expert inspection – any of these boat materials can get you around the world.