Part 1 of the Series – Have you Ever Wanted to Build Your Own Boat
Before you embark on a building project, start making sketches and notes—when you are out on your own boat or when you are at a boat show looking. When you find something that you like make a note of it, or when you see something that irks you, figure out how you would improve it.
For example, if the top of the cockpit coaming hits you right in the small of the back when you lean back in the seat, you might make the coaming higher, add a cushioned back rest, or make the seat lower on a new boat. Write it down and bring it to the designer’s attention when you develop a new design or use your own skills to adapt the plans to your requirements.
Walking around a boat show, carry a digital camera and a small tape recorder to make quick and instant records of interesting features. Collect brochures of boats of the size you are interested in, and analyze the features and gear supplied. By developing a solid analysis you will be able to decide whether a production boat will fill your needs instead of building it yourself.
How will you use your boat?
Write down how you plan on sailing your new self-built boat. Do you race a dinghy on weekends? If so, will your new boat be competitive when it is finished? Do you sail only from one port to another? If you plan on continuing this style of sailing, what will your new boat offer that you don’t already have? Do you routinely fish twenty miles offshore? If so will your new boat allow you to explore new fishing grounds? Will it be safer or easier to fish from? Do you intend sailing around the world? If so, will that dream hold for the five years that it will take to build your dream boat?
Unless you intend to change your sailing style radically, a new boat should be configured to reflect what you have done in the past. Most people are comfortable with the type of sailing they enjoy and don’t want to change it too far from what they love.
Prioritize the Equipment you Install on your Boat
By making a wish list you can prioritize the equipment that you install on the boat. For example, if you are going to build a new racing dinghy, look at how every piece of gear is used and see if you can eliminate it, make one piece do the job of two or design a new piece of gear that is lighter and stronger.
If you plan on building a small cruising boat, figure out what you are going to install and what can be eliminated. For example, living on a 24 footer (about 7.5 m) is more akin to camping out than it is to a hotel room. So ask yourself what makes your camping more enjoyable. Is it higher headroom, having a flush head going to a holding tank, having a two burner stove? If yes, you might want to look at more conventional hull shape instead of a flat bottomed racing style hull shape.
Use the same techniques when determining how a larger boat should be equipped. For example, if you want a cabin with a double bunk and head for yourself, two staterooms each with a private head for your children, a place to work and another cabin for visiting Aunt Polly, you will either have to make some compromises or build a 60-foot boat.
Continue prioritizing with a list of gear. For example, if you feel you really must have a large freezer/refrigerator in the galley, give it a one. If you can compromise on the size, give it a two. If the freezer is not particularly important, make it an icebox and give it a three. When this list is done you will have a good idea of the equipment you’ll really need and a basis for the list of specifications that either you or a designer uses. It can also be used to get an idea of the overall displacement of the boat.
What hull material should you build your boat out of?
The selection of a hull affects many of the other decisions that need to be made in the design. For example, suppose you decide that steel is the only material for your purposes. It is relatively inexpensive, it can easily be welded, and it can be repaired anywhere in the world.
But steel boats tend to be heavy, so the sail plan will be larger, the rig taller, and the engine larger, which means that the fuel tanks will need to be larger, so your savings in material costs almost disappear.
By comparison, a composite boat with more expensive hull materials will be as strong as steel, but much lighter, meaning that the sail plan, rig, engine, and tankage will be smaller and less expensive and fuel and new sails will be less expensive over the life of the boat. Plus it will sail faster and will usually get you into harbor before bad weather strikes.
Is a Semi-Custom build an Option?
Understanding how boats are built might save you time and money. A production boat is produced from production tooling and is virtually identical to every other boat in the line. Options are available to customize a boat, but the basic hull and interior layout is the same on every vessel.
In contrast, a custom design is one that is designed specifically for a client. The client pays for the design, and the tooling (if any), and usually buys the rights to one-time use of the plans, unless a production arrangement is entered into.
Both options require forking over a large sum of money right at the beginning. Most amateurs want to build their own boat because they can do the work themselves and because they can get exactly the boat that they want.
However, there is another path, semi-custom building: buy a hull and deck from a production builder and fit out the interior yourself. You can often obtain a semi-custom boat in several stages of completion. The most basic method is to buy a hull and deck only. An amateur builder will have to build the interior, fit the keel and rudder, install the deck and bolt it into place, and do everything else to make the boat float.
An easier stage might be to have the major bulkheads installed where you want them located, the hull and deck fitted together, the engine, keel, and rudder fitted, leaving the plumbing, wiring, and interior furniture for you to finish. For a person who does not have a lot of time or skill this method provides a viable option and generally cuts the cost by about 20 to 30%.
Building your own boat, then, requires a commitment of time, materials, and effort, but the end result is often a beautiful boat, be it sail or power, that saved the owner significant amounts of money. Eventually it will be finished…and your family and friends will still love you when the project is over and you emerge from your hermitage (also known as the boat shed) at the end of it.
Roger Marshall is the past North American Editor for the Yacht Report, former Technical Editor for Soundings, and a Director and past President of Boating Writers International.