Ask Sail: Steel vs. Fiberglass Hulls

I was raised sailing mainly on fiberglass boats. I am now preparing to purchase a bluewater boat that I can live aboard while doing some extensive cruising.
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Bob Herbert Niles, Michigan

Q: I was raised sailing mainly on fiberglass boats. I am now preparing to purchase a bluewater boat that I can live aboard while doing some extensive cruising. Over the past few years I’ve kept an eye on the used-boat market to gauge prices for the sort of boats that will suit my needs. I expect to buy something within 10 months and need to settle a question to narrow my search. Does a steel hull require more maintenance than a fiberglass hull? My perception is that a steel boat might be significantly more work. Will chasing rust become a lifestyle if I buy a steel-hulled boat?

Don Casey Replies 

A: Steel hulls do have a high potential for corrosion, but modern construction techniques and coatings can reduce that risk significantly. Unfortunately, many steel boats on the used-boat market will be short on such protection. Even if you know the construction pedigree of a particular steel boat, coating life varies widely. The most corrosion-prone areas are often hidden beneath tanks, machinery and furniture and are hard to inspect.

A steel hull does require more attention, but may not cost more to maintain if you have time do the work yourself. When you see a steel hull that shows no signs of rust, you can be sure that the owner has been exceedingly vigilant in maintaining the boat. If you become the owner, the same vigilance will be required of you. A fiberglass hull can wait months or years for attention, but the unrelenting nature of corrosion will severely punish the slothful steel-boat owner. If keeping a weather eye out for rust and dealing with it instantly when you see it seems like extra work to you, steel is probably not your best choice.

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Photo by Charles J. Doane

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