Here are six important things that Phyllis and I are taking into account as we think about buying a fibreglass boat.
And at least two of these warnings apply to the purchase of boats built from other materials, too.
Let’s dig in:
#1 A Name is Not a Guarantee
Back when I bought my first cruising boat, a Fastnet 45, I fell for the whole LeCompte story that they were “better than a Swan”, etc—every LeCompte boat owner would tell you the same thing.
The point being that myths can grow up around a brand, but that does not make them true—confirmation bias is a scary thing.
In fact, my boat had many construction fails. I’m talking serious stuff here like:
- Bulkheads that were not properly attached to the hull.
- A totally inadequate mast step.
- Scantlings too light in many places, even though she was built in 1968, before the first oil crisis made fibreglass expensive (see below).
- No proper reinforcing structures in the way of keel and mast step loads.
- No tie bars, or other structures, to properly distribute mast and shroud loads.
- Leaking hull to deck joint. (Glassing over the hull to deck joint might sound great, but if the bond is not perfect it can actually be a very bad idea—trust me, I know this the hard way.)
It took me over a decade of part-time work to fix this stuff.
And these kinds of problems are not limited to my old boat. For example:
- Not long ago I was on a generally great boat built by one of the best builders in the world, but cracks in the deck head (ceiling in the cabin) indicated that the cabin top had been flexing upward because there was no tie bar installed.
- Some years ago I looked at a boat built by another world class builder (at the time generally considered the best in the business) that had clear evidence of repairs to the chain plate supports. When I researched the problem, it turned out that the builder had drilled large holes in these supports to accommodate heater ducting, a problem that had to be fixed on several boats of the class, luckily before any chain plates pulled out, but it was close.
And even if the boat was originally built close to perfectly, that does not mean that there won’t be serious issues after decades of use. More on that in a future article.
I could go on and on, but the point is that every boat needs to be surveyed really well. Don’t trust blindly the reputation of a builder. And if, when you raise an issue you want to investigate further, you are told:
Don’t worry about it, these boats were built like a brick shit house.
Take it with a boulder of salt.
#2 Great Builders Are Not Always Great Builders
Also, know that just because a builder has built some great boats, that does not necessarily mean all of the boats they built are great. I just learned of a boat from one of the most expensive and storied builders in North America that suffered water intrusion into the balsa core in the hull to the point that she was essentially a write off.
Often this inconsistency is because the builder changed to using a new technology before they fully understood how to apply it. My guess is this was the core (ouch) problem in the above case.
Another reason quality varies is that many boat builders have changed hands several times, so what may have been a great builder under one owner, can quickly become a poor one under a new one.
#3 Never Buy A Boat From A Venture Capitalist
Talking of which, particularly in recent years, low interest rates have resulted in the holders of huge reservoirs of capital desperately looking for investment returns. Some of that loose-cannon capital has ended up buying iconic boat builders. And that in turn often leads to said builder being managed to maximize short-term profit.
Generally this has not gone well, and in some cases it has gone spectacularly badly, like the case where Oyster was sold and shortly after a keel fell off—ruined the crew’s whole day and bankrupted the builder.
Given this, Phyllis and I will research who owned the builder of a boat we are considering buying at the time she was built. If the answer is the original boat builder/ entrepreneur, we think the chances of it being a great boat are higher than if the owner was some venture capitalist or private equity partnership.
This is particularly true because many venture capitalists and private equity investors are spectacularly poor managers of any business that actually needs to do something real (like build a boat) rather than just move money around.
Don’t believe me? Just look at how poorly most private equity purchases of boat builders end financially for the investors. If they can’t even protect their own money, what the hell makes anyone think they can build a boat? Heck, here in Canada, a private equity company has even managed to screw up selling doughnuts and coffee. Oops, sorry, I digress.
#4 Secondary Bonding Failures
Enough of that general stuff, here are a couple of technical issues to think about:
Going back to the problems with my Fastnet 45, many of the most serious ones were due to secondary bonding failures.
Meaning that parts of the boat that had been added after the initial lay up of the hull, like the fibreglass tabbing holding the bulkheads in place or, in my case, not holding the bulkheads in place, had not properly adhered to the already cured fibreglass of the hull.
This is a much more common problem than many people realize. The underlying reason is that once polyester resin cures, more polyester resin does not stick to it well. In fact, polyester resin does not have great adhesion characteristics at all, no matter how well the surface is prepared.
By the way, for this reason I made all my repairs to my Fastnet 45 with epoxy resin, which sticks tenaciously to cured polyester as long as the surface is properly prepared. That said, epoxy is no panacea since it’s a bitch to get cloth properly wetted out with it, at least without techniques like vacuum bagging and/or infusion or pre-preg.
(Bonus Tip) The Gougeon Brothers Rock
That said, if you do find yourself with this kind of problem, like I did, and need to make a repair that will really work, I can’t say enough good things about the WEST brand of products and the associated manuals from Gougeon Brothers Inc. Using their products and books—and a vast amount of labour—I was able to turn a really shaky fibreglass boat into a strong, stiff and seaworthy one.
#5 Beware of Cored Hulls
Back to boat buying tips: I’m not one of those who say I will never buy a boat with a cored hull, but I do say that if there is core in the hull I will be double careful, and if the core is balsa, triple careful, nay, quadruple careful.
The reason is that, as I understand it, balsa core does not bend well to conform to the curves of a hull, so it’s made with kerfs (gaps) between small blocks, and there is simply no way to get those kerfs properly sealed with resin using a hand-wielded roller.
That said, there is no question that cored hulls have some big time benefits, including being stiffer and stronger, on a weight-for-weight basis, than any solid hull.
No fibreglass construction lasts longer than single skin—Chuck Paine
Sorry, no hard recommendation on this one, it’s a trade off, but Phyllis and I will be super careful about cored hulls. And the need for that care continues after buying the boat, since a small breach of the outer skin, or a lazy boat yard hand installing a through hull without replacing the surrounding core with epoxy filler, can spell disaster.
As an aside, cored decks, particularly balsa, can be problematic, too, but, while the repairs can be a bitch to do, they can generally be done at a price that does not result in writing off the boat. And at least the deck is not immersed for long periods in water like the hull is.
#6 Old Is Not Necessarily Better
If one more old fibreglass boat owner tells me that their boat is great simply because:
Back in the day they did not know how strong fibreglass is and so they overbuilt the hell out of it.
I’m going to throw up.
Sure, it might be a great boat. It also might have been built in a cow barn with no climate control by a bunch of unskilled workers who didn’t catalyze the resin properly.
And be particularly careful of fibreglass boats built in the early seventies after the first oil price shock hit. Even some good boat builders cut the scantlings way down to save money. I know of a Pearson from around 1974 that was paper thin and needed extensive reinforcing to be even halfway safe.
The point being that sure there are crap fibreglass boats built today, but there have also been huge advances in the last twenty years in the understanding of how to build good fibreglass hulls. Most notably in methods to make sure the laminate is properly wetted out, but not excessively resin rich, and in the use of better resins and barrier coats to keep the water out.