Q&A: Homebuilding A Boat

Question: I am a novice at sailboat construction, but found a beautiful fiberglass hull on eBay and couldn’t resist the challenge of building my own [boat]. It’s 45’ LOA, 36’ LWL, 5’-3” draft, 14’ beam and 9’-6” depth of hull amidships. The hull is believed to have been built in the early 1970s, but there is no documentation and no plans that go with it. On the plus side, it has remained, since its construction, in a warehouse, protected from the elements. It is really a shell sans bulkheads, frames or stringers, but with exquisite lines. The construction appears to be ½” Airex core, skinned inside and out with ¼” fiberglass. I want it to be a center cockpit schooner and was hoping that you could steer me to some place where can I get some kind of professional help for bulkheads and the like.

Answer: Over the years, I have considered building a boat a few times, but have always chickened out of taking on such a mammoth task. I also have a huge amount of respect for people who pull it off.

On the positive side:

  1. A home builder knows his or her boat inside and out, making repairs easier when required.
  2. Successful home builders get a tremendous sense of satisfaction from completing the project.
  3. A successful home builder gets a custom boat at a price that is substantially less than the cost of building a custom boat in a yard. However, be careful on this one. Unless you have a huge amount of experience, what you think will work well when building a boat may not be so great when you actually come to sail her.

What I have learned from watching others who go for it is:

  1. It is almost always far more work, takes far longer and is much more expensive than the builder anticipated.
  2. It is rarely, if ever, cheaper than buying a good second hand boat. This is even true if you cost your time at zero and will be particularly so now with the fantastic bargains out there on the used boat market due to the economic downturn.
  3. I would guess that if you are boatbuilding full time it will take you three to five years to finish the boat and at least ten years if you have a full time job.
  4. A home built boat, no matter how well finished, will always have a lower resale value than a factory built one. Incidentally, we were only able to afford to buy the current Morgan’s Cloud because she was home built.

If you decide to go ahead with the project, keep the following in mind:

  1. Before starting, make very sure that this hull is sound. Remember that the hull is about ten percent of the cost of a boat, but if there is anything wrong with it you will be out the other ninety percent that it takes to complete it. To be sure that you are not trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, you need a really good survey from someone that understands fiberglass construction and the associated engineering. I would even go to the extent of taking core samples—maybe you could do this in the way of the through hulls—and have them analyzed in a lab that specializes in fiberglass laminates.
  2. You need to hire a qualified and experienced naval architect to design the rig and bulkhead layout. Don’t skimp here; get this stuff wrong and your boat will be disappointing to you and probably near worthless to anyone else. A naval architect can also take off a set of lines and give you an idea of how the boat will sail before you even get started. You may wish to talk to Ian McCurdy of McCurdy and Rhodes who designed Morgan’s Cloud. If Ian is not interested in taking on the project he might know someone who would be since he teaches naval architecture.

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

2 comments… add one
  • Anonymous Oct 13, 2008, 1:31 pm

    Most custom boats have a dreadful interior…Probably due to a lack of overall vision at the start or lack of budget as the project progresses. Another problem is the layout which is often very personal. One thing many custom builders seem to forget is that one day they may have to sell the boat again. As a result the final product is too much custom (and personal) and too little mainstream.

  • Anonymous Oct 13, 2008, 1:31 pm

    I’m actually building a boat. I’m in touch with many other builders all over the world and can agree with certainty that the comments about it taking longer and costing more are universally true. My build is near completion after almost four years but we planned on it taking about two and a half… It’s cost about a third more too, and we tried to be very pessimistic with our original costing. That said, I’ve enormously enjoyed about half of the work and got considerable satisfaction from finishing most of the other half! If you decide to self build be prepared to be pushed to the limit mentally, physically and financially; don’t do it unless you actually want to BUILD a boat, if you just want to go sailing, this is not the way!

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