The steel versus fiberglass hull debate is a debate that has gone on for a very long time.
Ask any boat owner, and they will have their own opinion about which is best.
Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but in the steel vs. fiberglass discussion, we think these 8 things are very important to consider:
1. A Brief History Of Steel Sailboats
Steel has long been used as a material for building boats in all different shapes and sizes.
Steel replaced wood as the most common material used for building large ship hulls in the early 1900s. This was due to several factors, but the main reasons were the relatively low cost of steel, the strength and availability of steel, and the fact that steel is somewhat easier to work with (and to repair) than wood.
However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that steel was used to build sailboats of more moderate size.
The famous French sailor, Bernard Moitessier, was an early pioneer of steel yachts. He commissioned the construction of his 40-foot steel ketch Joshua in 1961, which competed in the first solo round the world race, the Sunday Times Golden Globe, in 1968.
These days small and mid-size sailing boats are not often built from steel. This is because they are heavier, which means they are slower than other yachts of the same size, built from lighter materials.
Because of the extra maintenance due to rust and corrosion, a boat owner needs to be on top of things.
Yet steel yachts are known for their strength and seaworthiness, and so steel sailing yachts do have a following amongst long-term cruisers and people who liveaboard.
2. A Brief History Of Fibreglass Sailboats
The first fiberglass boat ever built can be credited to a Mr. Ray Greene, an officer in the US Navy who was an assistant supervisor overseeing small wooden boats.
The year was 1942. The first small day sailing dinghy he built was a one-off, but Ray Greene built many more fiberglass sailboats and was a pioneer for fiberglass’ production boats’ or boats built in large numbers.
Fiberglass or Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) sailboats exploded into the sailing scene in the 1950s, when serious production for the commercial market began. Previously, the sport of sailing had been reserved for the elite who had the money to commission once-off custom-built yachts.
The arrival of mass-produced sailboats made the sport of sailing more accessible, as it made boats more affordable. Plus, the new fiberglass boats needed less costly maintenance than the classic wooden sailboats.
Nowadays, the production of fiberglass boats is a worldwide, multi-billion dollar industry with most, if not all of the big players like Beneteau, Hunter, and Catalina (amongst others) all producing fiberglass or GRP yachts in a range of different sizes.
3. Are Steel Or Fibreglass Sailboats More Popular?
There is no question that the most popular of the two is fiberglass sailboats.
This is backed up by the sheer numbers of fiberglass boats in clubs and on the water. Take a stroll in any marina, anywhere in the world, and the majority of boats you see will be made from fiberglass.
The popularity of fiberglass boats can be attributed to the fact that they are massed produced, which makes them easily available. In addition, they look good, are strong and durable, and are relatively easy to maintain—all at a relatively affordable price.
On the other hand, steel sailboats are not so consumer-friendly. Due to steel qualities, they cannot be mass-produced and have to be custom or semi-custom built; no two steel sailboats will be the same.
Plus, a steel boat owner needs to be extra vigilant to stay on top of the maintenance due to corrosion or any rust.
4. When Should You Choose A Fibreglass Sailboat?
Fiberglass sailboats are the overall majority of the market, which most boat owners are thrilled with.
It has been the most common boat building material since mass production started in the 1950s and 1960s.
You can choose a fiberglass sailboat for almost any sailing discipline, whether racing, daysailing or long-distance cruising.
When choosing a fiberglass sailboat, there are many different brands, models, and sizes to choose from, both new and second-hand. The more popular a brand, the more information is available through owner websites and sailing forums.
Make sure you establish the type of sailing you want to do and how many hours you plan to spend on the water before you commit to buying a boat. You don’t need a fully equipped +40 foot sailboat if you only plan to daysail on your local waters.
5. When Should You Choose A Steel Sailboat?
Steel sailboats are stronger and more impact-resistant than their fiberglass equivalents.
Steel is straightforward to work with as a boat-building material which makes them popular for DIY boat-building projects and easy to repair in remote places. However, steel boats are prone to rust if not properly maintained, especially below the waterline.
In addition, steel boats need to be properly insulated, otherwise, they will be hot in hot climates and cold in cold climates, plus they do require special anti-fouling paints.
If you are planning a circumnavigation, to go long-distance causing, or you are looking for a solid liveaboard boat, then a steel sailboat is a good choice. A steel hull gives a skipper confidence when entering an unfamiliar rocky coast, and there is less worry about hitting unidentified submerged objects.
Apart from keeping an eye out for rust, their only real disadvantage is that steel hulls make slower boats, especially in smaller boat sizes.
6. What Material Is The Most Durable?
There are very few people that will argue that fiberglass is more durable than steel.
The physical properties of steel allow steel boats to survive grounding or to remain physically water-tight if they have been involved in a collision. Plus, they are best for surviving a fire onboard.
In addition, there have been huge advances in paint and metal coating technology. So, if these paints or coatings have been applied correctly, and if a steel sailboat is well looked after, there is no reason that a steel sailboat won’t last a lifetime.
However, fiberglass has become the material of choice for most sailboat builders over the past few decades. Fiberglass sailboats are lighter and faster than steel sailboats.
In addition, they are strong, durable, and corrosion-free, which makes them a great solution for the average sailor.
7. Does It Affect The Resale Value Of The Sailboat?
Every boat will depreciate, but as there is relatively little data available, it is hard to forecast how much.
According to YachtWorld UK, the resale value of a sailboat will depend on the brand, model, condition, and age of the boat. “As a rough guide, new vessels generally lose around 40-50 percent of their initial cost over the first 8-10 years, with around half that figure loaded on the first two or three years. Once a boat is a decade, old depreciation generally slows to less than five percent annually.”
However, different markets have different demands, and so resale values will vary. For example, the American market has never warmed to metal boats, neither steel nor aluminum.
So, if you are looking for a steel sailboat, you might be lucky to find an unwanted bargain, or you could pay more as there are fewer steel sailboats around. This is compared to the French market, where French sailors love their steel or aluminum boats, so demand is higher.
Fiberglass sailboats are found worldwide, so they are not a niche market, but their resale value will depend on local markets and their condition. Historically, boats have been more expensive to purchase in places like Australia, where there is no local production.
As a rule of thumb, any boat that has been well maintained, whether fiberglass or steel, will hold its resale value.