The Online Magazine For Amateur Boat Builders














A Brief Look at Boat Design Software
by David L. Nichols

Editor's note: Designer, Builder and instructor David Nichols has contributed before but now his plans are featured in our store. Take a look and see if one of these decked lapstrake canoes isn't just what you are looking for. He also has produced a great DVD in which he shows you how to build one of these boats.

First, let me say that I’m not a big fan of computers. I feel about computers the way you feel about the person in the office that has to have everything, and I mean everything, their way. They’re not rude, impolite, or mean, they’re just completely ridge and inflexible. They want everything presented to them just so, and if it’s not, then you’re back to square one. They can be hard to work with but they can also help you do a good job. So, I don’t dislike computers, I use them because they help me do a good job. But I don’t want to hang out with them or get to know them really well. I want to know what I need to know to get the job done and that’s all. Honestly, I think most of us fall into that category, well almost everybody I know anyway.

So with that brief introduction out of the way, I’ll tell you that I have used three pieces of boat design software. They’re the names you see advertised most: PlyBoats, Vacanti, and New Wave Systems and I’ve used them in that order over a period of about ten or twelve years. They are all good and do what each program are designed to do.

I bought PlyBoats 2.1 first and that was a happy accident because it is the simplest of the three. Up to that point I’d designed boats the “old fashion way” straight out of Howard Chapelle’s Yacht Designing and Planning, E. C. Seibert’s How to Design Small Sailboats, and several others. It is, at best, a slow process but it works. But when I was ask by a customer to design a lap strake drift boat I knew I needed to get some help from the computer.

At the time, ten or twelve years ago, it seemed that the learning curve for PlyBoats 2.1 was fairly steep but I hadn’t been using computers for that long either. I made a couple of calls to Ray Clarke, the designer, and with his help and the 116 page manual I muddled through and got the boat designed. The program worked well and gave me information I had never had before like stability to capsize in degrees of heel. Before long I learned to move around fairly quickly. My needs were simple really, I just needed a table of offsets and plank shapes and PlyBoats did that for me. I built the boat from the offsets PlyBoats gave me and she was fair, beautiful and she is still being used. Actually, I built several of those boats and it convinced me that designing boats with a computer made a great deal of sense. I could change things, like the width of the bottom or the garboard, and see what effect that change had on performance as well as appearance and I could do quickly. I certainly couldn’t do that the “old fashion way”, well not quickly, anyway.

Briefly, PlyBoats works by giving you a group of existing boats that you change to arrive at the design you want. Your boat can have a keel/bottom, a garboard, a mid-plank, and a sheer plank. If you want a skiff with a bottom and side then you stack the planks on top of one another. Simple, straight forward and it works. You are limited to that number of chines and you can’t do a round bilge boat, however. I did have a brief conversation, in the mid to late nineties, with Sam Devlin of Devlin Designing Boat Builders about PlyBoats. He had been given a test program by Ray Clarke that would do ten chines. To my knowledge, that program never made it to market and as far as I know, PlyBoats is still limited to three planks and a bottom.

A bunch of designers have used PlyBoats in the past, like Cris Kulczyki, the founder of Chesapeake Light Craft, and a large number of boats have been designed and built with PlyBoats. I’m not sure if Sam Devlin was using PlyBoats at that time we spoke or not.

Also, PlyBoats 2.1 is a DOS based program, at least the program I have is DOS based. That doesn’t mean much but it doesn’t seem to like running in Windows, particularly the later Windows programs. That’s not a problem if you have PlyBoats boot up in DOS. I had a friend set up an old Dell lap top so it would run PlyBoats in DOS. I’m not sure how he did it, though. Remember, I just want to know enough to get the job done.

All in all, this is an adequate design program, if can live with the limitations. Certainly, the price makes it attractive for designing a small, hard chined boat. And, of the three, it is certainly the simplest and least complex program.

Vacanti Yacht Design’s program, on the other hand, was and is very complex. A couple of years later, when I ordered Prolines, I found the learning curve not only steep, but it had a slight overhang. Because my experience with computers was and is so limited and I had never seen a CAD program before (both Vancanti and New Wave Systems are in a CAD type format), I found Prolines to be almost overwhelming. It was a struggle to navigate in the program and the manual was like learning another language. This is not to imply that the Vacanti program was and is difficult to learn and that the manual is hard to understand. It was for me. The problem was mine. I just didn’t have the computer knowledge and know how to get started. And while PlyBoats had become fairly easy for me, that didn’t transfer to this far more complex program.

I made calls to the tech support but probably didn’t know enough to ask the right questions. At that point in time Vacanti didn’t have a person answering a tech support line. You left a message and then someone got back to you. This isn’t unreasonable, after all this isn’t a $50,000 dollar program. I bought Prolines and then B-Plates, to get the designs into DXF files for the CNC router. The total wasn’t more than about $900 dollars. I managed to get the work done some how but I never got comfortable with the program. I want to, again, make it clear that the problem was mine and not the software’s. I have learned over the years that this stuff is cumulative and I just didn’t have the necessary accumulated computer knowledge to learn how to use the program. In time I might have learned how to use the program, I’m not stupid, but I left commercial boat building shortly after that for a couple of years.

That brings us to the present and the third piece of software, New Wave System’s Probasic 3. This is the software that I have the most experience with and it is the software I use now.

Before I bought ProBasic I called New Wave to see which of the three levels of software I would need. I described what I wanted to do with the software thinking that I would need ProSurf, the most expensive. Much to my surprise, I was told the ProBasic 3 at $395.00 dollars would do everything I wanted it to do. That was a pleasant surprise, I didn’t have to spend as much money as I thought I would and I was also told that if I found that I needed ProSurf I could upgrade for the difference.

I also ask about tech support, because I knew I was going to need it. There is, it turns out, a person you can call for help if you get stuck. You can speak to the program designer himself, Steve Hollister. OK, now I’m feeling really good- I didn’t have to spend what I was prepared to spend and there is a real person I can call for help. It’s during normal business hours, which is to be expected…this isn’t a $50,000 dollar program, remember.

The program arrives and I install it on my computer. No problem there and I pick up the manual and start to read. The manual is mostly defining what things are and what commands do. Now, I’m starting to feel overwhelmed again. This is a complex program. It is, as far as I can tell, equally as complex as the Vacanti program. I read the tutorials and try a few things but to no avail. I’m lost. I want to transfer my designs into the program so I can generate DXF files but I can’t make it happen. I call Steve and explain what I want to do and after many, many phone calls and emails, I’m getting it done. It’s not important how I did it but what is important is the fact that Steve was and is always willing to help. At one point I offered to pay for his time because I was using so much of it but he didn’t want to do that.

Really the program isn’t hard to use when you know what commands to give….the trick is knowing the commands and I’m getting what I need in order to use the program.

I want to say one more thing about tech support. We have all called tech support of some company and the guy’s voice on the other end, it is always a guy who does this, just drips with distain. You get the help but he makes you feel really stupid. I have never experienced that at New Wave Systems. Never.

As far as I can see Steve’s attitude is the same as mine- No question is silly or stupid. My boat plans aren’t complex but I get calls from people who have bought my plans…..There are just things that they want cleared up before they move to the next step and I’m happy to help them. It is, after all, to my benefit that they finish the boat and are happy and proud of the completed project. That is the way Steve feels. It is important that his customers be happy with the product. I am.