Metal Boat Q&A

Three aficionados deliver the lowdown on a growing market segment--where aluminum and steel hulls deliver a great boat at a good value.

Sea Owl 2 copyAluminum and steel are proven boatbuilding materials, and boaters are beginning to understand their advantages for numerous applications. While it’s generally tougher than other building materials, in many parts of the county, metal is more cost effective for smaller boats than other materials on the market.

We reached out to some of the industry’s well-known designers and builders to provide you with the facts behind this growing market segment. Whether we’re discussing luxurious mega-yachts, winning offshore racing boats (the English-built Cougar and Italian-designed CUV hulls) or the basic fishing boats trolling scenic lakes, the metal boat world has been turned upside down by today’s leaders with their cutting-edge concepts. Here’s what Dylan Bailey, Dudley Dix and John Simpson — three gentlemen at the forefront this exciting arena — had to say about the trends spotlighting the metal boat stage.

Q What is a metal boat?
A It’s a boat made of steel or aluminum. Both steel and aluminum come in different alloys, and the final choice is often determined by vessel application. In some cases, the hull may be of steel and the cabin/superstructure of aluminum. A third metal I believe someone tried was stainless steel: structurally, perhaps, not a good choice. Metal boat joints are welded, but riveting is often used on small (under 20 feet) aluminum boats. Joints between steel and aluminum can be mechanical (bolts) or welded using bi-metallic strip (Detacouple). — JOHN SIMPSON, SIMPSONMARINEDESIGN.COM

Q What are the advantages of a metal boat?
A Metal boats are very forgiving of navigation errors because they are so very hardy. Many of my metal boats have gone ashore in hurricanes or other storms. Not one of them has been lost; all have been refloated and sailed away. Others have collided with containers or other flotsam at sea without suffering more than a dent. Some of the glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) boats have not been as lucky. — DUDLEY DIX A These are some of the pluses of owning a metal boat: It takes abrasion and groundings better, it’s not flammable, and it doesn’t absorb water or show up on radar. Aluminum can be left bare (except for anti-fouling paint). Sanded aluminum decks are an effective nonskid surface. —SIMPSON4 copy

Q What are some advantages of working with metal?
A One of the biggest advantages working with metal is that a boat can be built without the need of a mold. This makes the material perfect for building one-off custom boats or boats of a limited run. For the builder who has the experience and equipment, any design can be built of any shape hull. — DYLAN BAILEY, DBYACHSURVEY.COM

A Advantages include relatively fast construction (good for one-offs), predictability, easy to repair and/or make modifications (secondary joints are as strong as primary), and the flexible environment (you don’t need a heated shop in most cases).
One thing I try to avoid is disguising a metal boat to look like a fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP) or wood boat. If the owner doesn’t like it, then don’t buy it. By the same token, metal can have some styling/features that can’t be duplicated in FRP or wood. — SIMPSON

Q Are there any advancements metal boat builders have taken advantage of recently?
A The biggest advancements have been in digital design and manufacture. It is now possible to design every last piece of the structure and most of the interior in a CAD program as a 3-D model. From that model, all components can be extracted and turned into digital files to be cut by CNC equipment for a perfect fit relative to all other parts. This all takes time and computing power, of course. The computing power is now available to almost anyone, through powerful laptop and desktop computers. The CAD programs are also advancing, to make the process simpler and faster. — DIX, DIXDESIGN.COM

Q What are a couple of the extraordinary metal yachts you’ve seen that people might not know are metal?
A A lot of the mega-yachts on the water are built from metal. With a well-built metal boat that has a yacht finish, it would be difficult to tell the difference to a boat built of fiberglass. When we were building yachts at Marine Metal, Howdy Bailey’s boatyard, people at the boat shows would sometimes argue that it wasn’t a metal boat that we built. They would want proof. That is one of the best compliments that you could get as a builder. — BAILEY

A I can only really reference my own designs. Imagine, a Dix 38 Pilot that was built to a very high standard by Italian builders, is aluminum and beautifully finished, so people can be forgiven for thinking that she is GRP. — DIX

Q What are a few of the favorite features you’ve designed for a metal boat?
A Sabbatical II was built for an owner who was extremely particular about what he wanted in his next boat. He sent me a large lever-arch folder as his design brief that included in-depth requirements on features, equipment, etc. — right down to cupholders. I prefer simple boats and this is the most complicated boat that I have ever designed. She was beautifully built by Howdy Bailey and his team in Norfolk, Va., to a very high standard. She has many features that were relatively easy to fabricate in aluminum, but would have been more complex or more costly in GRP. A big benefit of metal construction is that high-load items like mooring bollards, chain plates, etc., can be built into the welded structure and are not leak sources for potential problems in the future. — DIX5 copy

Q What are a few of the myths associated with metal boats, and what’s the truth behind them?
A The biggest myth is corrosion. Yes, metal boats can suffer from corrosion, but they don’t have to. The E word — electrolysis — is used a lot, especially regarding aluminum boats. This is not the correct term. Stray current corrosion and galvanic corrosion are what people incorrectly call electrolysis. If the builder does its job with proper wiring and isolating dissimilar metals, there should never be a problem. And with the epoxy paint systems that have been used for over 30 years for metal boats, corrosion is easily prevented on steel and aluminum. —BAILEY

A Steel boats are widely considered to be rust buckets that demand lots of maintenance. This may have been the case many decades ago, but now the paint systems are very good. Proper preparation and coating, both inside and outside, should ensure a low-maintenance boat, whether steel or aluminum, with coatings that will last for 20 years before the need arises to strip it off and repaint. It also requires that the crew keep up with inspections and sorting out any potential problems quickly. The same applies to boats built from any other material. If you bump into flotsam and damage the protective skin of a GRP, wood or metal boat and you leave it untreated, then water will enter the damaged area and lead to problems in the future. The big difference is that you can bump into much more solid objects and sail away safely on a metal boat than is likely to be the case with a boat built from other materials.

Aluminum boats are sometimes considered to be prone to corrosion problems, but there are proper marine alloys that must be used to build a boat, and they must be welded with rods or wire composed of suitable alloys for the metals that they are joining. The alloys used for skin plating are so corrosion resistant that the outside need not be painted above the waterline. The inside should be painted to protect the bilge from corrosion due to lost tools and other metal items that can cause damage over time. — DIX

A Several myths have floated around for years. For instance, they are a conductor and very dangerous in an electrical storm — a lighting strike can kill! Nonsense. In fact, you have a metal shield around you (Faraday cage) and you are safe; just ask any aircraft pilot. — SIMPSON

Q Has the appreciation and acceptance of metal boats — power yachts, specifically — gained ground?
A Small power metal boats have been popular for a long time. I see a lot of them when I’m in the Pacific Northwest. The material has been used for many years and will continue to be used in large yachts. Where we are seeing some popularity is in the 40- to 70-foot range of semi-custom yachts, both power and sail. Here in the U.S., metal boats still haven’t caught on like they have in Canada and Europe. It is up to the builders and owners, like the members of the Metal Boat Society, to help educate the boating public on the benefits of owning a metal boat. — BAILEY

A Yes, some of the features of metal have been softened to look less metal. That said, if you are ashamed to be seen on a metal boat, then don’t buy one. As with any material, owners should familiarize themselves with all the characteristics.

Finally, it may appear that I favor aluminum over steel. Yes, I do. For many applications, it just makes sense. Some years ago, I did a 26-foot fishing boat design in steel, because the client insisted. After two years of operation, he admitted that he would have saved money (maintenance, operating and fuel costs, payload capacity) with aluminum. — SIMPSON1 copy


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