A sure way to start a fight on a boating forum is to ask what the best boatbuilding material is. If you do, you’ll likely be rewarded with a drawn-out battle between the metal-heads, the wood lovers and the plastic addicts, running to hundreds of posts before getting either modded or Godwinned to oblivion.
The reason nobody ever gets a clear win in these fights is because there is no generally applicable right answer. Most private vessels in the 20 to 100 foot range fall very near the balancing point where you could get excellent results in aluminum, fibreglass or wood composite, and a significant fraction of those boats could be built equally well in steel or in traditional wood methods. What really matters is whether it’s designed and built correctly—it’s quite possible to build a modern ultralight ocean racer out of wood, and it’s quite possible to spend a few million dollars on a wallowing pig made from the finest aerospace composites.
That being said, there are quantitative ways to compare the structural properties of different materials, and we’ll look at a few of them today.