Steel Boats: A Strong Alternative
For strength and security, steel boats deserve a good look. Some, you may be surprised to discover, are even downright pretty
Steel can be worked into nearly any shape imaginable. Clipper bows, canoe sterns, deep fin keels, tumblehome topsides, bowsprits or reverse transoms can all be achieved at commensurate cost. The skeg supporting the steel cruising boat’s rudder can be made so strong that the arrangement could hardly be considered vulnerable to damage by floating objects. Skookum’s stern even incorporates a welded tab and stopper arrangement to support the rudder in the event of the hove-to boat being thrown backward by a big sea.
Welding allows the creation of fabulous custom work on deck. Stainless steel bollards, chain plates, towing eyes, lifting lugs, vents and fillers can all be elegantly incorporated into the deck in an utterly waterproof manner.
Even the thinnest practicable steel plating (about 7/64-inch, or 12-gauge) is too heavy a material for a sailboat much less than 30 feet in length, hence you’ll find few really small steel cruisers. Any thinner plating creates problems with welding, maintaining a fair shape and corrosion tolerance.
Stock plans in steel for popular-size (35-foot to 45-foot) cruising boats generally show a medium- to medium-heavy displacement craft with average internal accommodation. These plans cost from $500 to $1,500, reflecting a wide variation in the amount of information given. Full-size templates for plating are even available with some designs. Very serious consideration should be given to the selection of the design: The one to two percent of the finished value of your project that you invest in plans could be 100 percent responsible for ultimate success...or disappointment. And you won’t find out until the first day’s sail. Designers’ work is best not to be messed with -- generally it’s not on the page if it’s not important. A custom design in steel could run to 10 percent of the boat’s value.
Chined construction, a method that greatly simplifies hull plating, is an attractive option for amateur builders. With little more than a welding machine and good cutting and handling equipment, a steel hull can be backyard built. Once I had learned how to handle the long pieces of steel properly, I found the hull construction to be most rewarding. Sparks flew, there was smoke and grit, but in essence it was a bit like sewing: I made Masonite patterns for each strake, traced around them and cut the material to shape, tacked it onto the upside down temporary frame, then finally seamed it all together. Welding is so immensely and immediately strong that I was as convinced then of the boat’s colossal strength as I am now, 50,000 miles later. Full-strength welding meant I could carry out 100 percent corrections of occasional cutting errors.