My Love of Wood Boats

Wood is reliable and predictable.  It has been used in marine construction for thousands of years.  Basic hull construction still follows the same tried and true methods of overlay, fastening and caulking.  Wood will rot and decompose under all the right conditions.  But it is important to remember that a fine yacht is like a grand piano; properly cared for and protected it will last for many decades.  We know this to be true by seeing more and more restored yachts that were built sixty or seventy years ago looking and running like the day they were first launched.  How long does a wood boat last is still to be determined.  

This same question can be asked about fibreglass, a man-made material that has been around for fifty years.  Will it still have strength and water resistance a hundred years from now?  Will it still be able to flex and twist without becoming brittle?  Since the first fibreglass boats are now reaching the sixty year range, these questions will soon be answered.

With all boats, wood or glass, rot and mildew are always the result of water, usually fresh water, getting into places where is sits and puddles. Wood will rot faster in fresh water than salt water and here in the Pacific Northwest, rainwater is a major concern. On the bright side, modern sealants and finishes greatly enhance the ability of boats to shed any water hitting the decks.  In fact, this is the key to extending the life of any boat.  Ironically, we want to be on the water, but water is the problem!

Is a wood boat more work than a modern fibreglass boat?  Actually, I hardly think so.  First, all boats have to have the bottom cleaned yearly and painted at least every second or third year.  Zincs and through hulls are also replaced and checked at this time.  On a wooden boat if your paint has held up all you really need to do wash the boat down.  Whereas on a fibreglass hull you have to wash the boat and then polish the hull, house and decks to keep the gel coats from getting cloudy.  The sun’s UV rays can be your boat’s biggest enemy and an unprotected fibreglass gel coat will break down in short order unless waxed and polished regularly.  As the gel coat finish breaks down, water can more easily find a way in.  This is more of a concern in southern climes, which generally experiences increased UV levels, but it is important in the Northwest as well. We have all seen older fibreglass boats that look powdery and dull.

It is true you have to paint wood.  But as mentioned, the high quality paints and coatings available today are good for many years, so painting is no longer a yearly chore.  This is especially true if you have the proper number of coats on your bright work.  Today’s varnishes offer far better protection against harmful UV rays, helping the wood stand up longer.  There is nothing prettier than looking at the natural grain of teak or mahogany stained and covered with sumptuous varnish.  It is a classic look that appeals to many.

These are just some of the differences, but we can go much deeper comparing these two building materials:  Wood boats have a tendency to absorb the engine vibration and noise so most people find them far quieter.  Most wood boat owners will tell you they are also warmer, or at least stay warmer in the shoulder months.  All boats have a certain amount of condensation inside; the inside of a fibreglass hull sides will weep all winter, whereas a properly ventilated wood boat will stay perfectly dry.

People are also concerned about groundings; which material will best absorb the punishment of logs or rocks?  This will always depend on the severity of the impact and no material can withstand hitting a reef at speed.  It’s the little bumps and bruises that occur where wood is best suited.  A below-water rub or log impact may scratch or gouge a piece of wood, just as it can fibreglass.  The real problem comes if water penetrates the glass and gets into the core material or finds its way between the layers of glass.  A hole on a wood boat means just changing a plank or two.  On fibreglass (or steel) you have to cut out the damaged areas make sure no water is in the hull and match the gel coat colours, which is usually a major challenge, often only resolved by repainting the whole boat.

If you are a lover of wooden boats like I am, there is no difference between owning a wood or fibreglass boat.  All boats need care and attention.  A properly maintained wood boat will take the same amount of time as a fibreglass boat.  The appearance of your boat is just part of a proper maintenance regime.  Pride of ownership is revealed in a good looking boat, which maintains its value, and leads to a safe and secure boating experience.

Bruce White was brought up on boats from the time he was just a few months old.  He is a Certified Professional Yacht Broker who joined Vancouver- and Sidney-based Grand Yachts in 2001.  Prior to this, Bruce enjoyed a 25-year career with RivTow Marine, a BC-based commercial tug and barge operator.

If you'd like to contact Bruce  White call him on +1 (604) 220-8004 or e-mail for more information.

Next Dance a 32’ Grand Banks “woody” is on our sales dock at Port Sidney Marina.  

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