From the Boatshop
by Ron Magen

"The Miracle Material of the Age"
Have I got a Bridge for You !!

When I was about 13 we had a home appliance store in Atlantic City. Next door was a Harley Davidson Motorcycle dealer who also sold Evinrude and Johnson Outboard Motors. He then began to handle Fiberglass boats.

Needless to say I soon had the urge to ‘upgrade’ myself . . . from my 12 ft Pine-planked Garvey to one of those sleek looking, steering wheel & remote controlled, 15 ft ‘runabouts’. With a windshield, seat cushions and RED !!

For the two years I had it, I knew I had to put ‘bottom paint’ on that Garvey. Cheap, thick, messy, rosin stuff. My dad said, "Now you don’t have to worry about sloppy paint; barnacles won’t attach to Fiberglass". This was from a guy who lived in Atlantic City, couldn’t swim, and didn’t like being touched by the ocean. The ‘Evinrude guy’ didn’t say anything. Being a dutiful son, although NOT REALLY believing this, I didn’t paint the bottom.

Of course you all know what happened. During the Summer the boat kept getting slower and slower. {That 35hp was a BIG motor then, especially compared to the 9 I had on the Garvey} When we pulled her out in the Fall I had a beautiful ‘crop’ of everything imaginable hanging down. Hosing & scraping with a piece of wood got most of it off. However, long weekend hours in a cold, dark, & dusty warehouse, with a putty-knife scraper & pocket knife & sandpaper, taught me a lot of new words and a life-long lesson - TRUST NO ONE.

Last week I was in a local woodworking supply store; picking up a few things, on sale of course, and just browsing. Noticing my ‘North Sails’ hat, an older gent came over and asked if I was a sailmaker. This started a discussion concerning boat ‘usage’, size, costs, and MATERIALS.

This person, older than me, having previously kept a good sized boat ‘at the Shore’ before moving to the Philly suburbs, when I told him I built wooden boats replied . . . "Wood, that’s nothing but maintenance". In return I said, "And you think a Fiberglass boat doesn’t need ANY maintenance?". As the discussion continued, it turned out that he was looking for a small {15 ft max . . . to ‘qualify’ for usage on a local lake} sailboat, with sloop rig & sails, motor, and trailer. As I was taking his name & number I asked his budget . . . $800.oo he said. I simply closed my notebook and shook my head.

When he asked why the reaction, I told him, ANY ‘Fiberglass’ boat meeting both his criteria and price would NOT have been maintained, and pretty much equivalent to a ‘basket case’. ‘Production’ fiberglass boats use Polyester Resin, and some even ‘chopper gun’ application of the ‘glass. What he was looking for would be in the neighbor hood of about $3000.oo. I described our search for a similar sailboat about 10 years ago; the absolute pieces of junk we had seen at that price - Gelcoat shot due to UV exposure, gouges, cracks, rigging pulling out, rotted backing plates, etc. I also related how we had finally really ‘lucked out’ on an older, beautifully maintained 14 footer for $2, 500.oo.

Starting at the $3000.oo figure, and deducting items (Motor, Trailer, Sails, Mast) I showed him that there was only about $300.oo left for a ‘bare’ hull - which was the ‘core’ for everything else. For his budget I could build him a VERY SOLID, wood - hand laid fiberglass & epoxy sheathed - complete hull.

He asked for my phone number, and when I gave it he asked why not the address as well - he wanted to see my shop. And did I also do repair work on Fiberglass? "Yes, and I have two sailboats in the yard right now. One’s a 15 footer, with a cabin, cushions, rig &sails, and trailer that I’m refurbishing right now . . . my wife tells me it’s available for about $3,000"

He asked me to go down some road I never heard of, and look at a Fiberglass boat in a front yard with a $500 price sign on it - to tell him, "Is it worth it?" I demurred, saying I had other errands to run.

By the same token it’s not only ‘the old folks’ who have a ‘mental block’

At the time I got married I was very much involved with Photography. Besides being CHEAP, I had only graduated from college a few years prior, had just gotten a mortgage, and was not exactly rolling in money. So I built most of my darkroom equipment. One of the items was an adjustable height enlarger stand for an old 4x5 enlarger. My wife said of it that if there was ever a tornado, it would be THAT CABINET she would hide !!

I have since built a sloping 6ft x 10ft roof for our dog run {lasted 12 years . . . NO maintenance}, put a ‘2nd level floor’ in the garage for storing wood, etc., put in a folding ladder & floored the attic, etc. Not to mention building boats that have been sold . . . and no complaints in a very litigious society. With all that knowledge and background, my wife does NOT believe that a {smaller than a Frigate} wooden boat is safe. First I thought it was just MY boats. However, when pressed for an answer she told me not just mine but " . . .ANY ‘HOMEBUILT’ . . ." [she is very intelligent, mechanically aware, degreed thermodynamicist, working for over 20 years as a research bio-chemist, and used to do calculus in her head. She knows what ‘oil-canning’ is, has helped me work on 3 fiberglass boats, has seen the insides of many boats {usually to ‘humor’ me, and been to Mystic Seaport at least 3 times].

"How about ‘custom made to plans’ ?"

"No - ANY BODY’s wooden boat. Fiberglass ‘Production’ is JUST BETTER. Heavier, too."