Boat construction has changed over the decades, in ways that are obvious and not so evident.
Modern boat construction is highly standardized, computerized and constantly evolving. It’s based on new materials that were nonexistent not so long ago, and it yields vessels that are lighter, faster, stronger, more fuel efficient and infused with technology. These vessels are also faster and easier to build, will withstand greater forces and enjoy better longevity than boats of just 20 or 30 years ago. Jam-packed with amenities and systems, today’s pleasurecraft is at once more complex and easier to use.
Advances in technology have touched every aspect — design, materials, production processes, and fit and finish — which together create a luxurious, amenity laden experience on the water. Let’s break it down.
Changes in design have led the way in how boats are built. But design has also been affected by the availability of innovative construction processes and new materials. It’s a chicken- or-the-egg situation.
CAD (Computer Aided Design) isn’t a product of just the last 30 years but it has become more prevalent in boat building.
“Sea Ray was one of the first to employ computer-assisted design, allowing us to model boats digitally,” said Ron Berman, vice president of product portfolio at Sea Ray. “We use fluid dynamics testing to measure hull efficiency and create bottoms with less resistance while airflow analysis has helped us mitigate back draft and water spray. Access to advanced analytics has also led to a better understanding of what to expect from the strength and structural integrity of a boat.”
French builder Beneteau has a dedicated prototyping facility that includes robots that carve life-sized 3-D models of new designs out of foam. It’s a better way to get a feel for a boat’s dimensions than just inspecting a drawing.
A big focus has been on minimizing weight, and that starts at the design level.
“Weight-savings is key for both better performance and improved fuel economy,” said Laurent Fabre, president of Beneteau Americas. “We build lighter boats that require smaller engines and have better fuel economy.”
Boater tastes have dictated design changes too, leading builders such as Sea Ray to connect the interior with the exterior for a more open feel and to use more hardtops, which has eliminated many of the hassles associated with canvas enclosures. More and bigger windows, especially in the hull, have been added from consumer feedback.
“New materials and better design have allowed us to do all of these,” Berman said.
PROPULSION & HULL SHAPE
Developments in propulsion have impacted design as well. The advent of pod drives has introduced easy joystick maneuverability and enabled the use of smaller, more fuel-efficient engines. Of course, joystick systems aren’t limited to pod drives. Sea Ray uses both pods (double and triple Zeus pods with Cummins engines) and also V-drives that combine bow and stern thrusters for pod-like control.
“You get maybe three miles per hour more out of a pod boat as well as some fuel savings, but the cost of entry is higher with pods,” Berman said. “That’s why we offer both.”
The use of pods has also changed where the engines sit in the hull and therefore where the weight is centered. As engines moved aft, compensations had to be made so the boats would sit on their line. Pod boats also created more usable interior volume, which has made room for larger living spaces.
Another fairly radical design change was the introduction of the stepped hull, which reduces friction and drag so a boat can go faster with less horsepower. A notch in the hull introduces air from both sides, generating lift as the speed increases. The hull comes free of the water just aft of the step, reducing friction, so the boat can be powered by smaller, less expensive, fuel-sipping engines.
“Our stepped hulls are by designer Michael Peters,” said Phil Bourque of center console boat builder Mag Bay Yachts. “Because we build solid fiberglass hulls, the step offsets the weight with some efficiencies and performance.”
Fewer boats are stick built these days. Catalina uses five pieces in its construction — the hull, structural grid, hull liner, deck and deck liner — and tolerances, according to the company’s architect and builder, Gerry Douglas, are often less than one-eighth of an inch, so “precision is key, even on paper.” Watertight bulkheads have become standard and even Catalina’s hull to-deck joint has changed.
“We’ve done away with teak toe rails that could leak and had to be varnished and replaced them with an integral fiberglass cap,” Douglas said.
Allowances are also made in the design process for accessories such as gyro stabilizers. “On our center consoles, we offer both joystick control with the SeaStar Optimus and gyros,” Bourque said. “These weren’t even a distant dream on a 30-foot fishing boat a few years ago.”
Finally, boats are now designed to do double and triple duty, so the whole family can enjoy boating. That has led to questions such as, “Is this a fishing boat that cruises or a cruising boat that fishes?” Boats simply can’t do just one thing anymore, and that has affected both how they are designed and built.
Arguably, the most impactful change in boat building comes from the materials themselves. Your dad’s resin, glass mat and gelcoat were a far cry from what’s available today. Gelcoat retains its color and resists cracks better, and adhesives are much improved.
“Structural adhesives have made headway as well,” Douglas said, “and we use them in our hull-to-deck joints. Not only is that lighter, it does away with leaks.”
New vinylester (vs. polyester) resins are more flexible, have greater resistance to moisture and are stronger, so less resin is used, resulting in a lighter build. Coring materials have evolved too. Balsa wood is still used, but some builders prefer PVC (polyurethane) foam to protect against water intrusion. Catalina has moved to a Carbon-Core plastic honeycomb for its deck sandwich, because it doesn’t absorb water — and it cut 400 pounds out of a new 42-footer.
Fiber has changed as well. Woven fabric has given way to knitted fibers, to create parts that are stiffer, stronger and lighter, because they require less resin to wet out. Multidirectional knitted fabric can take more stress (pounding into head seas), so parts last longer without cracking. Although knitted fiber is more expensive due to the complex machinery needed to produce it, it lays flatter and will result in less print-through, which is where the pattern of the fiber becomes visible through the gelcoat as the boat ages. Beneteau uses a computerized cutter for fiberglass cloth that is laid into the hulls, decks, liners and component structures. The strips of cloth are cut with precision, numbered, labeled and packed into a kit bound for a specific vessel. It reduces labor and enhances consistency. The pieces even have an arrow on them to show the orientation of the cloth to the bow.
Finally, carbon fiber has been touted as a miracle compound in numerous industries, and boat building is no exception. Aramid fibers, which are lighter and stiffer than glass fibers, allow a lower resin use per pound. But carbon fiber doesn’t come cheap. While glass fiber may cost around $2 per pound, carbon fiber can run upwards of $25 per pound, so it is often used sparingly for reinforcement or where weight must be kept down.
“We use carbon fiber in key areas like our hardtops and sunroofs,” Sea Ray’s Berman said. “You can’t beat it for weight savings up high.”
Of course, it’s not just the materials but how they are put together that builds a new kind of boat. There are three major types of building processes. First is traditional hand layup, which is the most common and is widely used by companies including Mag Bay. The second is resin infusion, a dry layup that is bagged and infused with resin through a vacuum; it’s used to make hulls, decks and component parts. Vacuum bagging allows a better fiber-to-resin ratio, wastes less resin overall, is cleaner and yields results that are consistent.
“We use infusion on our superstructure parts (hardtops on flybridges) to save weight,” Berman said. “It’s also more predictable for better quality control.”
Beneteau is experimenting with different bagging technologies, focusing on reusable silicone mats rather than plastic bags, to save money and lessen the environmental impact.
Finally, there is injection molding, where two molds are sandwiched around materials such as gelcoat, fiber and coring and then injected with resin to create a perfect finish on both sides.
There is no one optimal process. Instead, the choice of technology depends on the boat part being manufactured as the builder seeks to optimize the relationship between strength, weight, sound attenuation and thermal insulation, as well as provide a process that reduces labor and parts variability.
Most companies, including Beneteau, Sea Ray and Catalina, divide their facilities into three areas: molding, cutting/trimming, and assembly. “Not only does this keep the facilities cleaner, it moves the boat through its various production stages at an optimal rate,” Fabre said.
The tools of precision manufacturing have also made great progress. While CNC (Computer Numerical Control) cutting routers were available 30 years ago in other industries, they are now prevalent in boat building. Beneteau’s CNC deck-cutting robots carve holes for hatches, fixtures and attachments. A specific model’s deck is cut in a sealed room to make the process cleaner and faster. The process is also more precise, relying less on human handling.
Barrett Howarth, vice president of Mag Bay, said, “Our five-axis milling machine has really given us an advantage. It helps us cut from several different directions, increasing parts consistency.”
Finally, boat building is all about process, a systematic industrialized approach that is borrowing from other businesses for better efficiencies. Groupe Beneteau builds nearly 8,500 boats annually between more than seven brands in 16 production and assembly facilities in four countries, including the U.S. With volume like that, process efficiencies come under the microscope.
“We’ve studied best practices in other industries like automotive, and we focus on elements of lean manufacturing, just-in time supply chain management and continuous process improvement,” Fabre said.
Beneteau has eight building facilities in France alone. Boats are grouped and assigned to a plant according to size, not type (power or sail), because larger boats take more time to build due to their complexity. Similarly sized boats move along the line at the same rate. In each plant, tooling is mobile so work stations can be disassembled, moved or changed on the fly to mirror changes in sales orders. Boats are lined up on the beam and move down an assembly line to a new workstation every one to three days.
Sea Ray also separates larger and smaller boats. “The electrical skills needed on a 50-footer are specialized, while on a 20-footer it may be more plug-and-play,” Berman said.
Standardized workflow for plumbing, electrical and furniture installation is a highly repeated process that minimizes errors. Boats are built from the hull up, so everything, including the engines, systems, bulkheads and furniture, is often installed before the deck goes on like a lid.
Catalina, on the other hand, adds the deck and then inserts the systems via the companionway. Douglas recognizes the importance of being able to remove systems later and highlights access to key systems. Wiring is color-coded and plumbing is fully labeled. What your dad wouldn’t have given for that during his maintenance projects.
On the newest boats, engine filters and strainers are grouped behind a single panel in the aft cabin.
“If you can’t get to it, you won’t take care of it,” Douglas said. “The whole boat is designed around accessibility.”
At Beneteau, components are binned per vessel, so a specific model receives crates of all wooden parts, fixtures, hose and wire delivered directly to the workstation. Work times are closely monitored and documented for continuous improvement.
Quality control is at every step, including testing through-hulls and engines in a pool before the boat is prepared for shipment.
FINISHES & AMENITIES
Changes in construction have been driven by technological advances but also by the changing tastes and expectations of boaters themselves. For example, boats have become wider and taller to offer greater interior volume and better headroom. Boats have also become less utilitarian by design. All materials and finishes aboard have been elevated in quality to match the at-home experience.
“People want to feel like they’re spending the weekend at a luxury spa, not camping,” Berman said. “We can’t get away with Formica counters on a 50-footer today.”
Granite countertops, full-sized appliances, high-end textiles and leather accents abound. A few years ago, energy efficient LEDs set boat lighting on its head. Soft indirect lighting has brought a glow to interiors while color-changing, sound-synchronized underwater lights have created new environments outside, unimaginable just a few years ago.
Faster and easier manufacturing of component parts has brought cabinetry that’s finished from every side while engineered woods have lightened the load and helped usher out Tupperware-style white fiberglass surfaces. Beneteau’s woodworking facility in France supplies the interiors (the most expensive part of the build) for all its vessels worldwide. Furniture is made with both traditional wood and engineered Alpi wood, a material that won’t warp, creates lighter cabinetry and bulkheads, and is pressed from wood from sustainable sources. Some wooden parts are hand-milled while others are built with computer-assisted cutting and varnishing. Complex curved trim pieces are often made of pressed layers of wood that are cured in 20 minutes using molds with high-frequency sound waves.
Catalina’s focus is on use of solid wood in doorframes and cabinet corners. This approach yields more durable edges that can be fixed, sanded and re-varnished in case of damage down the road. The expectation of a high-quality finish is pervasive in all segments.
Hidden technology has brought Wi-Fi and remote Bluetooth enabled interfaces just like at home, and in many cases, it all had to be built in before the deck ever went on. The advent of digital switching, which brings multiple systems under one control, has served to mitigate the complexity that has come with additional technology. You can interface with climate, lighting and generators from one panel with better monitoring and diagnostics overall.
“Digital switching has made boats friendlier,” Berman said. “We borrowed the approach to our user interface from Apple with the attitude, you already know how to use this.”