Friday, March 14, 2014

The Useful Life of Cruising Boats

Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida

Next year, Tarwathie will be 40.  Our friends on Wind Chaser have a Beneteau that is 20 years old. So, are boats like used cars with a few exceptions, but with most becoming junk after 10 or so years?  No, it's not that simple with boats.

First, I must qualify what I say by the hull material.  Again with some notable exceptions, wooden boats have a very short lifetime.   Even the famous Yankee Clipper ships such as the 449 foot long Wyoming were intended to have a lifetime of only 10-12 years.   For a notable exception, think of the USS Constitution.

The Wyoming
Steel ships also have a finite lifetime limited by corrosion.  Yet the life limit is very much longer than wooden ships.  Just think of the many WWII war ships still seaworthy.

That leaves concrete and fiberglass hulls.  I don't know much about concrete boats, so I won't discuss them.  Fiberglass is a nearly ideal material for hulls. As far as I know, a fiberglass hull will last forever.

But most modern fiberglass boats have some kind of core material sandwiched between inner and outer layers of fiberglass.  Perhaps plywood core, or plastic core, or other materials.   Plywood cores are subject to rot if water gets in.  That is perhaps the most common form of "death" for modern boats.   Other core materials can also become detached from the fiberglass, leading to structural problems and likely abandonment of the

Boats build prior to 1980 enjoyed much cheaper material costs.  Westsails like Tarwathie have solid glass and resin hulls with no core material at all. In fact, I heard an ex-Westsail employee say in 2005 that building a Westsail 32 today would cost $275,000 for the resin alone.  In 2014, that would probably mean $350,000 for resin, and perhaps $700,000 overall manufacturers cost for a 32 foot boat. For that reason, fiberglass boats from the 1970s are sought after and treasured.   Real sailing purists may be willing to buy an old boat, strip it down to the bare hull, and build a new yacht based on that hull.

But rebuilding a boat takes a mind numbing amount of work.  All of your spare time for 7-10 years is perhaps the typical amount of effort.  Clearly, anyone who does this does it as a labor of love.  It is far from the cheapest or fastest way to get afloat.

So, what do you have to do to make your cruising boat last indefinitely?   One crucial requirement -- you need to use it.  Use your boat and cruise with your boat.  If you go away and leave the boat in storage on water or on land for long periods, it will decay.  You must use it to preserve it.  However, the definition of "use it" includes keeping up with a never-ending list of boat projects.  It also requires a significant budget for boat projects and modernization.  Over the years, you will repair and/or replace every part of the boat except the hull and the deck.  You'll also do a fair amount of hull maintenance, but you won'/t replace it.

There may be other design and brand specific flaws that limit the lifetime of your boat.   I've heard of designs with chronic structural weaknesses.  The much respected and admired Morgan Out Island 41 that was not designed to allow engine replacement at a cost less than the full value of the boat.   But such flaws are exceptions, not the rule.  Every boat has some flaws, but almost all are repairable.  Very few are fatal flaws.

So, the primary way that cruising boats die is to not be used.  The secondary way is when the owners get too old to keep up with their list of boat projects.  Other than that, the sky is the limit to the useful lifetime of most fiberglass cruising boats.  

Boats may be more analogous to houses than to cars when it comes to useful lifetime.  Two to four hundred year old historic houses are common.  I expect the same with sound designs like the Westsail.  Some day, a future blogger might be writing about Tarwathie's 400th birdday.

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