The first cruising couple I ever met who was sailing an aluminum boat told me an interesting story. They were French—of course. They’d been anchored a long time and had a lot of growth on their hull. When finally they decided to move on, they jumped in the water to scrape the boat clean. When they climbed back aboard they found their previously perfectly dry bilge sump was slowly filling with water. As they searched frantically for the leak, the flow of water suddenly stopped. Mystified, they jumped overboard again to see if they’d missed anything and found a jellyfish clinging to the hull, so they knocked it off. When they climbed back aboard they found the boat was leaking again.
Eventually, they figured out what was going on. A tiny camera battery had fallen out of a drawer into the bilge. It slowly ate its way through the hull but was held in place by the heavy growth. When the growth was scraped off, the battery fell out of the tiny hole it had created. The jellyfish came along and—schlup!—got sucked in over the hole.
American sailors point to tales like this as evidence of why aluminum boats should be avoided. They’ll also try to scare you with comments about evil bogey-people casting pennies into your bilge. Somehow stories about fiberglass hulls ravaged by osmotic blisters don’t seem to bother them much.
The fact is you can build a boat out of almost anything. Bernard Moitessier, when stranded on Trinidad with no money, even cooked up a plan to build a boat out of tar and newspaper. He got the idea from junks he’d seen as a boy in Indochina that were constructed of bamboo wickerwork covered with cow dung, oil and resin. He went on, of course, to become famous sailing a steel boat around the world.
Every hull material has its advantages and disadvantages. Wood, fiberglass, aluminum, steel, cow dung and bamboo, they all have their Achilles heels. As in so many things, it’s a matter of picking your poison.
I sailed fiberglass boats for many years and was often annoyed by deck leaks. I had one old boat that took on water every time you buried the rail. The whole hull-deck joint leaked like a sieve. Skippering a much newer glass boat on a delivery years later, I was alarmed when the electronics cut out after we spent a few hours heeled over in strong weather. I wasn’t surprised when I discovered the electronic junctions under the nav seat had all been drowned by a deck-joint leak. It’s the sort of thing that just gets boring after a while.
I’ve now been sailing aluminum boats for going on 15 years. I haven’t had a single deck leak, though there have been other issues. Yes, I do have to keep the bilges super-clean to thwart the penny-flinging bogey-people, and I’m afraid to leave my boat unattended while plugged into shorepower, lest it be transformed into a giant sacrificial anode. I’ve also noticed aluminum doesn’t hold paint very well.
On the other hand, aluminum doesn’t really need painting, so you can just let it go if you want. It’s a fantastic material for people, like me, who excel at neglecting cosmetic maintenance. It’s also quite light, no heavier than fiberglass, so it doesn’t really cost anything in terms of performance.
I was reminded of what I most like about aluminum as a hull material this past summer while cruising the coast of Maine. I was sailing down a narrow, buoyed channel, and got distracted chatting with my charming, lovely wife. All of a sudden there was a thunderous banging noise. I’d failed to account for how much the current was setting us and collided with a big red nun. Ouch!
A few hours later, after we anchored, I got in the dinghy and searched around the hull looking for damage. Finally, I found it, a tiny dent, no bigger than a camera battery, on the aft port quarter. In the middle of the dent was a speck of red paint from the nun. I debated whether to clean it off with some acetone, but decided to leave it, as a badge of honor.