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Friday, 23 March 2012

Fibreglass vs Aluminium Boats

Alloy versus Glass - the Vexed Question

In my opinion people have been sucked into the old marketing arguments of fibreglass versus aluminium.

Both are excellent materials to use in the manufacture of boats. There is far more value in discussing the design of the actual boats made with each material. For example many aluminium boats are flat bottomed and people immediately assume that this makes them more practical for river usage. Is this because it was flat bottomed or because of the material used in manufacture? Below is the Delta !60, a flat hulled fibreglass boat with exceptional durability and very light weight.

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Lets talk weights....

Yes fibreglass is heavier, but who is to say that lighter is better? A heavier hull has been proven to handle rougher water better thus producing a more comfortable and ultimately safer ride. Then there is the light weight aluminium boat, you can push it with a smaller motor thus saving on costs and fuel useage. Again there is a choice to be made. Comfort and safety against, ultimately - cost.

Fibreglass boats are more expensive. True again, but the hulls are typically more efficient giving you a better ride and a more efficient design. They also typically have a much higher re-sale value.

In New Zealand they have been using aluminium boats a lot longer than we have in this region (Africa) and this article comparing aluminium boats to fibreglass boats is very balanced. Herewith some interesting information.

Do I buy fiberglass or alloy? 
If you are honest, it is a scenario that manifests in future purchases also, for often through wrong advice and therefore sheer ignorance, you will continue down the same 'well-worn' road of buying exactly the same style and guise of vessel.

It has never ceased to amaze me why so many New Zealanders buy aluminium, and while that may appear a most controversial statement, I none-the-less can't for the life of me work out why it is. Sure the smaller aluminium dinghy seemingly has no peers when it comes to shallower river and estuary work, simply because of its light weight, stability and its obvious price advantage, but people should never overlook the alternatives. And not just the fibreglass option either.

Handling is something that varies greatly from boat to boat, be it aluminium or fibreglass and a lot depends on both size, hull shape and also weight. In the smaller entry-level area of 4.5m to 5m boats, few alloy boats come even close to handling as well as their fibreglass counterpart. But remember, it is swings and roundabouts and above all a trade-off, and handling may not always be your number one priority.
As far as a fibreglass boat being more efficient, I would say yes quite often it is and certainly in the 5-7m range, again because of the inherent ability in a fibreglass boat to mould in effective strakes and chines, and a deeper and more variable (bow to stern) V (deadrise). Many alloy boats have strakes, but it takes a vivid imagination to perceive them as effective, merely they are longitudinal hull strengtheners.

 Efficiency is broken down into handling, performance (speed) and acceleration, and here it is hard for the aluminium version to compete.
Generally speaking a fibreglass boat is quieter through the water, due to the sound-proofing qualities of what is a thicker and therefore denser bottom and topsides. This matters nought to the general performance of the hull, but is a significant pre-requisite in the 'enjoyment' equation. A quieter hull always gives the often deceptive impression that the hull is handling better, as the harshness factor is removed, but so often it is also the dryness of the ride that emphasizes the hull's actual handling ability. There are many who would suggest a fibreglass boat will always come out on top in any 'dry-ride' comparison, but not so, for in a lot of instances alloy manufacturers have gone to extreme lengths to overcome this idiosyncrasy, and offer a ride as dry as a fibreglass example.

Aluminium Boat

It has to be said though that there are still some really grizzly hulls out there in both fibreglass and alloy land, that take all the enjoyment out of a family situation, and that is perhaps the whole crux of this comparison. The humble fisherman in most cases will often totally overlook the home comforts if you like, in exchange for what he/she/they perceive as the ideal fishing rig.

A good argument too for the alloy protagonists in this instance, would be to suggest the aluminium hull is more robust and durable than fibreglass, but again I would argue the point for today's technological improvements in fibreglass construction, like its aluminium counterpart, have progressed dramatically. An example of this is the smoke-screen that is this constant fear of osmosis that is often instilled into potential clients contemplating purchase. This potential for fibreglass de-lamination through what the industry rather delightfully refers to as the dreaded pox (osmosis), was a by-product of a by-gone era.
Allowing water to infiltrate the porous gelcoat layer, to create this catastrophic situation, today of course that problem is non-existent - but it is amazing just how often this still comes up in conversation, through sheer ignorance or convenient manipulation (by some salesmen), when comparing the different construction materials. Like the 'pox', I have seen just as many bottoms literally fall out of aluminium boats, through electrolysis caused through the introduction of two dis-similar metals. Work-hardening of aluminium frames is another common scenario of by-gone years, but as in the osmosis scenario, today's design, technology and construction methods have addressed all these problems. So as far as robustness and durability go then, neither is any better than the other.

People will also suggest that the alloy hull is more durable from the perspective of its ability to be pulled up onto beaches and the like - they are more forgiving, they say. Are these same people then suggesting that you can't do that with a fibreglass version - what rot, of course you can. Sure, if you left it there all night then most certainly it would inevitably wear through the gelcoat finish, but in reality who does that anyway (with glass or alloy), as either is too hard to move when it is high and dry, well up the beach from the waterline. Such is the abrasive nature of sand, it will wear through anything in time, so in reality, in this day and age - alloy is not any more durable than fibreglass.

Another suggestion is that aluminium boats are easier to handle than fibreglass, a moot point the fibreglass protagonists can never hide from for most definitely the alloy versions boat for boat, are infinitely easier to handle - up to say 4.5m. This is the real attraction to most day boater(s), the fact the boat is easily handled by just one person. But beware, for over this length generally the two options are remarkably close in weight simply because, manufacturers are (successfully) introducing plate into the equation, to increase the strength and therefore the weight and handling ability, of their hulls. Neither therefore, is any easier or harder to handle, than the other!

Layout and features is one area where the alloy boat has improved in leaps and bounds, but it comes at a cost both in weight, and of course in the actual end-cost to you the consumer. They do have the ability to offer the consumer customization, although to be fair this is usually only available in the larger alloy boats. fibreglass manufacturers will always tell you they can produce a better layout and presentation, than alloy, and the alloy manufacturers will counteract this claim by suggesting they can provide a wider variety, at less cost.

Lovers of the aluminium concept will always suggest there is more room in an aluminium boat, a claim that I feel is so far devoid of reality, as to be laughable. Size of course is dictated by the designer, not the material used, so it will be the actual design concept and the innovation - that excels or disappoints. Fibreglass manufacturers have certainly compromised a little of their interior space in order to provide side-panel storage and other creature comforts, plus of course aesthetic appeal, but the trade-off to me is worth it.

I don't know about you but for me a fibreglass boat in Botswana is much more befitting than aluminium. My reasons are simple. Easier to repair if damaged, more forgiving with heat (metals conduct so much more than fibreglass) and much more comfortable. To be honest that would be my contributing factor to this whole debate.

What are your opinions??

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