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The stuff boats are made of

If Noah could have picked a time to build his Ark now would be a great time to start. Today, boat designers and builders use wood, fiberglass, aluminum, steel and combinations of these materials and others to build bass boats, speedboats, sailboats and houseboats some of which could pass for an Ark. On Lake Tahoe wood and fiberglass boats are the most common.

Wood, once the choice of the small boat builders, is used less frequently today. This is not because wood is an undesirable construction material. Some of the most beautiful wooden boats call Lake Tahoe home. The Concours d’ Elegance exhibits the best in wooden boat artisan and craftsmanship. Those people would never trade a wooden boat for a Clorox bottle (affectionate term for a fiberglass boat). Wood is absolutely gorgeous if properly maintained and it can last a long time, but wood demands considerable attention. Wood boats are in constant need of scraping, sanding, varnishing, and painting. The seams of wooden boats need periodic caulking to keep them watertight.

For many people, fiberglass is the boat building material of choice. Fiberglass boats account, in large part, for the rapidly growing popularity of recreational boating. The material is relatively inexpensive and can easily be formed into complex shapes. It is easily repaired when damaged and most importantly for the average boat owner fiberglass is easily maintained. Most fiberglass boats have some wooden parts for structural support such as longitudinal stringers and the transom contains wood for reinforcement.

A serious disadvantage of fiberglass boats is the ease with which shoddy workmanship can be masked. Air bubbles in fiberglass laminates weaken the hull yet they are almost impossible to see. There are so many layers of fiberglass in the hull that air bubbles in the innermost layers are undetectable. When complete, it is impossible to inspect most fiberglass hulls, as decks and other structures cover them. If the boat sits in the water for long periods of time these air bubbles can appear as blisters on the bottom of the hull. If the blisters are left unchecked they can destroy your boat. Usually an expensive bottom job is needed to repair the damage and there is no guarantee the blisters won’t return. So much for the maintenance free boat.

Another disadvantage of a fiberglass boat, especially if it lives on a trailer, is its weight; strong fiberglass boats are heavy. In fiberglass hulls strength and weight are related. A rule of thumb is that a well constructed, hand laid fiberglass hull weighs about 100 pounds per foot. Because fiberglass and its resin coating is heavier than water a fiberglass boat filled with water will sink unless it has built-in flotation. Styrofoam most often provides the flotation for boats less than 20 feet.

The aluminum boats I can think of on The Lake belong to the US Coast Guard, Placer County Sheriff’s office, and the UC Davis research boat, so aluminum hulls must be good. Aluminum hulls are lightweight and they cost less than hulls made of other materials, and they can take the hard knocks of running into docks, buoys, and rocks. Canoes, skiffs, jon boats, runabouts, sailboats, and small cruisers among others use aluminum. Aluminum has the disadvantage of being noisy; all water noises are heard through the hull. Noises inside the hull are transmitted to the water; that is important consideration for those who fish in the shallow parts of the lake. Aluminum is also a good transmitter of heat, so hulls made of it tend to sweat considerably. Although not a big consideration up here aluminum boats are prone to galvanic corrosion, which is the loss of metal by means of electric current, found in water. This is more a disadvantage for boats navigating salt water. If you use your aluminum boat here in the summer and in San Francisco Bay in the winter months there are two ways to protect your hull. One is to use a layer of non-metallic paint between the hull and anti-fouling bottom paint. This works fine unless a scratch exposes the aluminum hull. The other alternative is to use a polymer, anti-fouling paint. This paint is expensive and very difficult to apply.

Steel is a great material for battleships. Unfortunately, steel-hulled boats under 30 feet tend to sink.


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