Wooden Boats are Not Always More Expensive than Fiberglass Boats

The world is filled with facts that appear to be true but are nothing more than simplifications of a complex subject. Wooden boats is one such subject. Almost universally, people think that wooden boats are difficult and expensive to maintain. This is sort of true, but it ignores the fact that it is possible to make an excellent argument for wooden boats under certain circumstances, where wood is a great option and even makes economic sense.

I just encountered such a situation and will provide specific details later on, but first let me lay some groundwork. While the boating world is presently filled with a huge number of truly miserable cheap fiberglass boats, a few nice fiberglass boats, and a very few fiberglass boats I even like, it is not true that fiberglass boats last forever without maintenance.

As a matter of fact, the world is filled with crappy fiberglass boats that just refuse to visibly rot away, but are rotten to the core. I make a decent living dealing with the costs of litigation and repairs of balsa cored boats and just because fiberglass does not visibly rot, does not mean that everything else in the boat does not degrade over time.

All boats require maintenance if long term survival is the goal. All boats require hull maintenance, bottom painting, engine repairs and overhauls, and equipment overhauls and renewals. The most significant difference between wooden boats and fiberglass boats is that wooden boats require more hull maintenance. Some people think that wooden boats require a lot more hull maintenance but that is not necessarily true. If one sticks to a number of basic rules, the difference between wooden hull maintenance costs and fiberglass hull maintenance costs is small in the overall cost picture and the purchase and maintenance of a good second hand wooden boat may actually be cheaper than the purchase and maintenance of an equivalent fiberglass boat.

These are the rules:

      1. 1.Unless you are a glutton for punishment only start with a good boat. Age is not important, just start with a good boat.
      2. 2.If a boat is not used, it needs to be carefully laid-up. If it is a wooden boat that is laid-up, it needs to be very carefully laid up.
      3. 3.Do not own a wooden boat if you do not plan to use it.
      4. 4.A wooden boat needs careful inspection and maintenance every year. The big difference between wooden and fiberglass boats is that wooden boats do not tolerate being ignored.

These rules would still appear to favor fiberglass boats, but boat ownership is not a commercial proposition; it is a crime of passion against oneself and is infused with a certain level of lemming behavior.

Those who blindly and emotionally buy boats without facing the realities of boat ownership will have an unhappy experience, but those who approach their passion with a certain level of introspection and rational analysis will find diamonds in the rough.

And what are diamonds? Well, diamonds are compressed bits of carbon made to look shiny that serves no actual purpose except somehow to compel humans to spends extraordinary amounts of money for tiny bits of it.

Fortunately, we are not discussing such madness and, instead, are talking about boats. Boat ownership actually can be rationally evaluated to a much larger extent than owning diamonds.

Recreational boats are a luxury product, but they can actually be used instead of worn. One can actually say: What do I want to use a boat for? (Try saying that with a diamond)

As far as boat usage is concerned that is still a complex question, but savvy boaters can provide some answers:

          1. 1.They want to use it to provide joy to themselves and to others. Maybe to know that they are part of a certain community. Maybe to realize they are part of a certain tradition. Maybe to own a thing of beauty. 2.Since a boat is a luxury product, they do not become a victim of it, or overextend themselves.
          2. 3.The smallest and simplest boat that can do the job is generally the best solution as far as boat selection is concerned.
          3. 4.Some simple boats can be much more satisfying and beautiful than some fancy boats.
          4. 5.Boats cost money and they want predictability in the amount of money they will be spending on their boat year in year out.

These truisms can be applied to any boat, but let’s take a specific example.

Suppose I want a power boat in the 21 foot range that is pleasing to the eye, appeals to me, those who see it, and those who join me for rides, runs nicely, has good performance and I have a purchase budget of $60,000. (For any boat the cost of maintenance, insurance, fuel, berth fees, etc, will easily hit an additional $8,000 per year)

That will allow me to purchase a SeaRay 6SPX210. There are less expensive boats, but this is a nice looking boat that will not embarrass one when viewed by discerning bystanders.

The boat is quick with a top speed of about 50 mph.

After about 5 years the boat will be worth about 50% of the new purchase price.

This boat is like a car and for it to look nice, it takes a fairly large amount of buffing and scrubbing.

The alternative I am proposing is a real life case and concerns a wooden 1956 21 foot Zobel Sea Skiff.

In 1956 such a boat could be purchased for $4,000. Today a new version of such a boat would cost about $120,000.

However, here is a Zobel Sea Skiff that that was excellently restored in 2005 and today is in excellent structural condition. It is fitted with a low hour V6 Crusader, and comes with a very nice trailer.

The boat has not been recently run and needs a good buffing but has no rot or other serious problems. It is a simple boat which allows inspection of every structural detail and also makes it very inexpensive to maintain the systems as compared to a fiberglass boat.

This is a Sea Bright Skiff style boat which runs beautifully, both at low wake speeds (which many modern boats do poorly) and at full speed which is about 20 miles per hour. This boat will delight anybody who meets it at the dock, sees it on the water, or gets a ride in it.

The Owner is trying to sell it and will sell the boat and trailer for $18,000, if not less.

The running maintenance on this boat is identical to the Sea Ray (The fuel cost will be much lower for the Zobel, but so is the top speed, and it will take a bit more work to place insurance on the Zobel), but there is an additional maintenance cost for the wooden structure.

So how much more is the maintenance of the wooden structure?

That can vary from year to year, but this is where rule 4 (do not ignore wooden boat maintenance) comes in. Suppose we want to give the Zobel a nice buff. A marina with wooden boat experience will charge $10,000 to make her nice and fresh. That means that the Zobel purchase cost will be $28,000 versus the Sea Ray purchase cost of $60,000.

So what to do with the additional $32,000? This is where wooden boat discipline comes in. You have now purchased a lovely boat. A boat that will be great fun, run very well, and truly stand out in a crowd for half the price of anything remotely comparable. Now go and put that $32,000 in the bank and each year commit to spending $4,000 (in addition to the $8,000 per year that any 21 footer will cost to operate per year) at your favorite boat shop to keep the boat in tip top condition. That $32,000 provides 8 additional years of joy and satisfaction, and if, after 9 years, you decide to sell the boat, you will have a buff boat that you can sell for $28,000 to another discerning boater.

In other words, it will be a wash as far as cost goes, but there is great satisfaction in not being a lemming. All of this assumes hands-off outsourced maintenance, if one gets joy out of maintaining a wooden boat the Zobel becomes an even more extraordinary deal. However, remember that $4000 of Do-It-Yourself maintenance equates to 30 hours per year. That may be possible for some boaters, but, again, it requires a true commitment, if you cannot spend that amount of time in any one random year, that year you will have to spend $4,000 in a boat shop to prevent the boat from degrading.

If you are interested in a boating adventure of this type, and are willing to commit, drop me a note and I will get you in touch with the Owner. Four years ago, I would have purchased this boat at the drop of a hat, but my life has changed and I am now spending much more money per year to satisfy my boating needs. Please note I am not doing this for financial gain, I am doing this as a social service in the name of boating truth and justice, and a desire to see this boat go to a proper new owner.

In the department of weird timing, I was mentally putting this blog together, when I happened to be at Scarano Boat and was having a chat with John Scarano while checking out the seasonal maintenance work on the wooden America V2.0. She is now 11 years old and just had most of her teak decking replaced because it wore out from the foot traffic by her thousands of passengers. Teak decking is a choice that is not related to the hull material of a boat (it is a decorative decision), and, as such, is not related to wooden boat maintenance costs. But when checking the underlying wooden hull interior, I was deeply impressed with her condition and from a structural point of view she is a new boat.

I raised the Zobel subject with John, and this master of material choices told me that, in his half century or more experience, he has discovered that wood is the most economical hull material for commercial vessels of the type he builds and operates, and even more so when modern construction practices are used.  And: As long as their maintenance is not ignored!

The Scaranos are putting their money (saving?) where their mouth is. They are building another new USCG approved commercial passenger schooner in wood.