We've all seen them at anchor. Their designs are not easy to identify. They are boats we don't recognize. They are probably steel.
In the world of 'cookie cutter' production designs and with the abundance, or perhaps overabundance of fiberglass yachts available on the new and used market, prices have never been lower for owning a fiberglass boat. We see them everywhere, on all the world's oceans, and the majority may never experience any significant problems. Hunters have been sailed across the Pacific; Catalinas around the world. In the South Pacific, Beneteaus are now as common as Westsails once were. So why then do some people still choose steel?
The obvious reason is, of course, strength.
On our recent crossing of the Caribbean, from the Virgin Islands to Panama, we passed about 80 miles offshore of the mouth of Colombia's RÃo Magdalena. Due to recent torrential rain, the river was disgorging billions of gallons of muddy water mixed with trees and floating debris. We did not stress unnecessarily about this because we knew that if we did strike an object, a dent was likely to be the worst damage. When sailing in the confined and murky waters near the coasts of Belize or Panama, knowing that running aground will not necessarily damage the boat, is a definite advantage of a steel hull.
Others choose steel because it is inexpensive to work and maintain. Although steel is a higher maintenance material than fiberglass, when a major repair or change is undertaken, the costs are much less than on a fiberglass boat. One can reduce maintenance costs even more by hauling out in yards accustomed to maintaining work boats. Most work boats are steel and the yards that work on them are generally much less expensive that 'yacht yards' which cater to shiny, rich man's toys.
Another reason is the desire for a custom design. Having been involved in the yachting industry for over thirty years and having worked with many discerning owners, I realize that the older and more experienced people become, the less a production yacht is likely to fill their needs. A steel boat can be built as a 'one off' for little more than building to a production design. If you want something built your own special way, steel allows that at a moderate cost. On the used market, some very well maintained and brilliantly conceived custom steel yachts sometimes become available. These are often the result of an owner's many years of experience and, interestingly enough, these custom boats are typically no more expensive than a lightly equipped production boat. It seems that in the less experienced sailing populace, there is a fear of owning a custom boat and a general set of misconceptions about steel.
Let's address the three major concerns I have heard expressed about steel yachts.
Rust: Modern coatings systems have virtually eliminated the problems of rusting associated with older steel craft. With the new three-step coating systems available, keeping a steel boat rust free and looking great is easier than ever.
Low Resale: While this is truer now than ever, a properly built and maintained steel boat will always attract a following. The longer and further people sail, the more they come to appreciate the high tensile strength and peace of mind that having a steel hull under them provides.
Unfamiliarity with Unknown Builders
or Unfamiliar Designs: Although there are many reputable naval architects that have designed boats in steel, many of these are built by amateurs with varying degrees of success. If you are considering a design you are not familiar with or a boat built by a home builder or unknown yard, consult a qualified marine surveyor acquainted with metal boats and get his or her opinion before proceeding further. Disqualifying a boat because it was not built by a big yard is foolish, as many one-off builds or even home-builds can be far superior to a production or semi production boat.
Lastly and Most Importantly a Steel Boat is Often Unique: In a world of identical looking sailing yachts, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain your own identity; we find it refreshing to sail into a bay, crowded with identical looking white sloops and cutters, to see an esoteric steel yacht at anchor. A boat that is unique, sometimes unusual and refreshingly uncommon.
Todd Duff and One World are currently transiting the Panama Canal heading for the Pacific.