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Boat Development & Ancient History

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Boat building has a rich history dating back thousands of years, with early boats made from logs, reeds, and animal skins. Ancient civilizations like the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Greeks advanced boat construction techniques using wood, iron, and other materials. The Industrial Revolution brought mechanization, enabling mass production of boats.

Modern developments in shipbuilding include improved materials: fiberglass, aluminum and composites providing durability and lightweight construction; This includes computer-aided design (CAD) and automation. It is also important to use environmentally friendly materials and construction methods to reduce the impact on the environment. Innovative designs: hydrofoils, catamarans and other designs to improve speed, stability and efficiency. Technology Integration: GPS, radar and other electronics enhance Manufacturing of Fiberglass Boats and Design Featuresnavigation and safety features. Customization: Customized design and features to meet specific preferences and needs. These developments revolutionized shipbuilding, making boats safer, faster, more efficient and environmentally friendly.

Primitive people carved the wood from the center of logs to make early canoes (or dugouts) and they tied logs together with vines to make rafts. In ancient times, the cloth was linen made from flax fibers, and sails were developed for the rafts. Paddles and oars were still the primary source of forward motion. In 1947, the Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl, built a balsa wood and bamboo raft (Kon Tiki) in South America and sailed it to the Polynesian Islands to show those islands could have been originally populated by people from South America.

In 1969, Heyerdahl conducted a similar sailing trip from Africa to the Caribbean to show how ancient people from Egypt could have brought their pyramid building skills to Central America. Although these trips were in the open ocean, they were made at the time of year when the seas were relatively calm. This reasonable selection of a sailing time was emphasized in the 1960’s when a man from Miami, Florida sailed from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean to set a record for the smallest boat to make that ocean voyage. He sailed his eight-foot boat at a leisurely summertime pace.

As the need for larger, cargo carrying boats became evident, builders developed their talent to cut planks from logs, bend them by soaking in water, and hold them to frames with wooden pegs. The soft wood dowels were called tree nails or trunnels and they swelled when in the water to make a very tight fit. The planking was made watertight with tar, but the Vikings of Norway sometimes overlapped the planking edges to make a watertight seam (Lapstrake construction). The raft Kon Tiki and one of these Viking ships are on display in a mantime museum near Oslo, Norway. We can only guess at the voyages made from different countries, but there is a great amount of evidence to show ancient peoples recognized the need for strong, seaworthy boats and they used all the materials at their command to build better vessels.

Boatbuilders from different countries developed their own techniques for hulls and sails, but the common trend was towards larger, deeper and wider boats to carry more cargo. When iron became available, nails, straps and other forgings gained wide use on boats and the strength and seaworthiness was greatly improved. The fore-and-aft rigged sailing Dhow and Felucca became prevalent in the Red Sea and in the Mediterranean Sea as the limitations of the rectangular sail were realized. Even the latest. Twentieth Century square Recommendations for Choosing the Type of Boatrigged sailing ships can only tack from port to starboard through 180 degrees on the compass. Modem jib-headed (Bermudan) rigged sailboats can tack through 90 degrees on the compass.

The ancient Dhow or Felucca usually had a short, rigid mast (solid tree trunk) that supported the middle of a lighter spar lashed to the top of the mast. The sail was lashed between the mast and spar. The spar was held at an angle to the mast by a line attached to the bottom of the spar. The lower end of the spar was moved from port to starboard as the boat was tacked. In some areas, the bottom of the spar was lashed permanently to the mast at deck level, and the sail lashed between the two. A line from the spar’s upper end to the stem acted as the mainsheet.

The builder was the designer of early boats and the coastal countries of Europe and Asia saw the development of different types of boat hulls to suit fishing and coastwise travel. The bow and stem of early boats had pointed ends as the planks were bent to the centerline, and often they had carved figureheads at the top. The Chinese may have been the first to build a squared off stem with a deck house aft which was much higher than the bow. Possibly, they wanted to keep a following sea from breaking over the hull, or they needed room for the vertically sliding rudder they had invented. Early boats used a steering oar at the stem, and the rudder did not become popular until the twelfth century. A tiller was first used, and then steering ropes linked the rudder to the helm.

As more cargo weight was needed, the hulls became wider with more freeboard. This trend extended to the English and Spanish war ships that had at least two lower decks plus a gun deck and the main deck. The essentials of boat building and design remained virtually unchanged until the nineteenth century when steam ships were developed. From then until the present, boat design and construction has generally followed the progress of engine development, changing to meet the demand for larger and faster boat hulls.

Square rigged ships gradually disappeared from commercial sailing, especially in the USA, where lumber schooners and privateers were shown to be faster. They had all fore-and-aft sails, usually schooner rigged, with two or more masts, depending on their length. They were more efficient during most of their trips when the wind was forward of the beam. Many of these boats had a short spar, or gaff, at the top of the quadrilateral mainsail. This gaff held the top of the sail out from the mast and allowed more sail area at the upper portions where the wind is gustier than on deck. In addition, the shape of the sail can be changed by raising or lowering the gaff. The high weight of the gaff reduced stability and this gaff rig was replaced with simpler and lighter triangular sail (jib headed).

Modern Boat Development

As propulsion methods changed from sail to steam, and then to the internal combustion engine, boatbuilding also changed both in design and materials. Small boats continued to be made of wood planking until the 1960’s, but the development of higher horsepower gasoline and diesel engines brought new hull forms to efficiently produce the higher speeds. Traditionally, boatbuilders made models of what they thought was an efficient hull shape. These small, wood models were towed in calm water to visualize the wakes and wave making resistance, and their dimensions were transferred to full-size patterns. Often, the hull lines were drawn on paper for later comparison with newer hull shapes. Drawings were seldom made for small boats as the builder was the designer and he personally supervised the construction crew during every stage of building.

Engineering principles were gradually applied to small boats and sophisticated test equipment was produced to measure the resistance of ship and boat models. These model tests show whether a new design is better or worse (has less resistance to motion) than the older design, whether power or sail. These model tests in a towing tank are very expensive and have to be conducted at a facility that has accumulated data for that type of hull. The scale of the model used is always a question among designers, but it is generally agreed that larger models produce more accurate results. The US Navy has used twenty-to thirty-foot models in their ship testing programs. These are towed in a long tank while resistance measurements are conducted.

Drawings of small boat hulls were not frequently made until the age of steam engines, but since that time we have an accurate record of all the changes as boatbuilders made progress in design and construction.

As the horsepower of marine engines made higher speeds possible, designers experimented with hull shapes for faster boats. The traditional round bilge was found to be only efficient for slow speeds and the round at the bilge was replaced by a sharp comer (chine) and became known as the V-bottom boat. This hull form has taken over the entire boatbuilding industry, with the exception of displacement speed ships and sailboats. Unusual hull forms were tried by many designers and builders, but the V-bottom planing hull has remained very popular.

One of the unusual changes in hull formation is the stepped hull. This involves an actual step across the hull from port to starboard (athwartships) about four to nine inches deep. This is an attempt to have the hull run on as little hull bottom surface as possible, thus reducing frictional drag, at high speeds See Figure 1.

Boat diagram
Fig. 1 Example of a stepped boat hull design

To eliminate any possible partial vacuum forming at the step at very high speeds, a tube is usually installed from the step to the deck level.

Since a stepped hull is only riding on a small area just forward of the step and at the stem, care must be taken to insure the total center of gravity of the boat’s weight is located halfway between the areas on which the boat is riding. More than one step can be installed in the hull bottom but the hull is very sensitive to changes in trim, in both athwartships and fore-and-aft modes. It is not historically clear which was developed first, but the stepped hull principle is the same as the hull shape used in a seaplane bottom or floats. Good engineering ideas are often used in many different specialties.

Hydrofoils have been tried since 1 900 but it was fifty years before they came into commercial use as passenger ferries in Italy, Hong Kong, the Baltic countries, and on the Volga River. They are essentially monohulls with horsepower sufficient to produced at least fifty knots of speed. They have thin titanium, horizontal or inclined foils supported by struts extending below the hull. At high speed, the foils produce enough lift to support the weight of the boat with the hull completely above the water. With the hull resistance eliminated, the hydrodynamically shaped foils result in very fast trips, but they are usually confined to protected waters. In open ocean conditions, the foils may not stay in the water when meeting the trough of a wave and the boat is not supported during this momentary loss of lift. It is a fast, but expensive, method of traveling on the water.

Air cushion vehicles (ACV) are called hovercraft in England where they were developed. They are really more of an aircraft than a boat as they use aircraft type propellers to move forward, above the ground level. They are supported by a cushion of air that is formed by large fans directing air flow against the surface of water or ground. Once free of ground friction, the resistance to motion is greatly reduced, and high forward speeds are possible. The high cost of construction and operation has limited their use to commercial and military purposes.

Many different hull forms have been tried in the twentieth century in the quest for higher speeds and a more comfortable ride. We can’t say one is better than the other, with the exception that some powerboats built for racing should only be used in calm water. Today, we see multihulls, both power and sail, charging across the ocean in search of record breaking history, but they do make these trips in the relatively calm summertime weather. It is not clear whether one hull form will eventually replace another, but probably each type will be further developed to produce better boats. The future emphasis on boat progress will probably be in the areas of greater boating safety and automation of engine maintenance, navigation, and anchoring.

Recommendations for Choosing the Type of Boat“Boat draft depending on its weight” notes the average weight of fully loaded boats and the weight of bare fiberglass hulls. Average boat weight (displacement) of recreational boats can be calculated by taking one-half of the cube of the designed waterline length (DWL) in feet. Boat weight vanes greatly with the use of the hull. The same length hull can be used for a recreational boat or a commercial fisherman, possibly doubling the displacement.

Boat Materials

Glass Fiber

Most of the recreational boats built around the world are made with glass fiber, or a combination of glass fiber, aramid fiber, or carbon fiber. These are generally called plastic composite structures. The fibers are made with loosely arranged short fibers, woven fabric, and knit fabrics, or a combination of the three. The materials look similar to a coarse burlap in texture, although glass fiber is white, aramid fiber may be yellow, and carbon fiber is black.

These materials are saturated with a type of resin that forms a chemical bond with the fibers. The resin hardens by using a chemical additive and a hard sheet of plastic is formed with all of the strength provided by the encapsulated fibers. Layers of fabric and resin are laid on top of each other to achieve the required thickness. There are many different types of resins available for specific uses, including polyester, vinylester, and epoxy. Each forms a different chemical bond with the selected fibers and varied laminate strengths result.

When the fiber material is laid into a mold, it conforms to the shape of the mold surface. Almost any conceivable curvature can be made into a plastic composite laminate. The outside of boat hulls is coated with a special type of resin called a gel coat about one-sixteenth of an inch in thickness. This protects the laminate from the absorption of water and from the damaging effects of ultraviolet sun rays. The edges of the laminate at the sheer, and wherever a hole is cut for a through hull fitting, must be sealed with resin to prevent delamination from the entrance of water.

There is very little maintenance required on a glass fiber hull and this is the prime reason for the overwhelming acceptance of the material. Annual waxing of the exterior deck and hull is necessary to prevent fading and chalking of the gel coat. If there is a chip in the gel coat, or the hull becomes damaged from hitting the dock, repairs are easily made by the owner or by any qualified boatyard. Additional glass laminate over a hole in the hull is normally made with glass material and epoxy resin.

An average laminate weighs 96 pounds per cubic foot. See Figure 2.

Boat hull diagram
Fig. 2 A section of a glass fiber hull


This lightweight metal can be made in various alloys and degrees of hardness. Only the alloys having a four number designation starting with 5 can be used for boat hulls as these alloys are not corroded by saltwater. For example, alloys 5052 and 5086 are most frequently used, and they are not heat treatable. Many structural and architectural shapes are made by aluminum extrusion and some carry the designation 6061 or 6063 which are commonly used and which are heat treatable. These extrusions can only be used inside the hull or above the main deck. Sailboat masts are sometimes extruded from 6061 alloy and they should be anodized, painted, or waxed to prevent long term corrosion.

Aluminum weighs 169 pounds per cubic foot and is very desirable for custom boats where light weight is an asset. There are some, aluminum boatbuilders that produce very fine boats, but most have concentrated on high speed commercial vessels. Many custom boats have aluminum superstructures above the main deck, even though the hull may be built of glass fiber, wood, or steel. This is done on some glass fiber custom hulls as the aluminum fabrication may be less expensive than the time consuming sanding of a custom glass structure. Aluminum deckhouses are used on wood or steel hulls to reduce the weight and maintain a lower center of gravity.

The proper alloy of aluminum produces good hulls with good saltwater corrosion resistance and the hulls do not have to be painted either inside or outside. But, both aluminum and steel are subject to electrochemical corrosion if there are stray electrical currents in the water from poorly wired shore power supplies. Both hull materials must have many zinc anodes and a meter to detect any hull voltage that may lead to corrosion of the aluminum. This problem only occurs around shore facilities and is usually not in evidence when underway.

The wholesalers who stock aluminum are usually cooperative in providing information on aluminum boats and Kaiser Aluminum in Oakland, CA has published an excellent book. Aluminum Boats, describing all the basic techniques of aluminum boat construction. The material cannot be overlooked when considering an entire boat or just a lightweight deck house.

Steel Boats

All ships and most small commercial vessels are steel as the cost of the material is lower than any other option. Welding is available in all ports of the world and repairs are easily made. Considering small craft, steel construction is normally too heavy unless the boat is a slow, displacement speed vessel. Tugboats and The Evolution of Boats with Outboard Motorssome fishing boats as small as fifty-feet are often built in steel, but yachts less than 130 feet long seldom are made from the material. Steel weighs 490 pounds per cubic foot, and is available in many alloys with different strength properties.

Maintenance problems with steel, both rusting and galvanic corrosion, are discouraging to the average boat owner, when they have seen rust streaks on some commercial hulls. If the paint coating has been scraped or chipped, the steel will definitely rust and people have received a bad impression from commercial boats that have only occasional care. Primarily, rust on steel hulls can be minimized when the hull is built by thorough cleaning and priming. In the high humidity of most builder’s yards, a rust bloom will form on steel in a matter of minutes. The surfaces must be sand blasted or wire brushed over a small area at one time, and the primer coat must be applied immediately.

Steel can be bent, pressed, and formed into a slight compound curvature, but building a boat is much easier if the hull shape has lines that are conically developed, either on the drawing board or by computer program. The hull surface is part of the surface of a very large cone. To avoid cutting the sheet of steel into small triangles in order to conform to the compound curve lines, many commercial boats, and sailboats, are designed with a V-bottom (chine construction). Sometimes, two or more chines are used to make the hull shape closer to a round bilge. The surfaces between the sheer and the chine and between the chine and centerline keel are conically developed to make construction easier. This V-bottom shape does not detract from efficient operation, in fact, some builders insist on using chine construction.

Without a doubt, steel construction will continue to be a mainstay of shipbuilding. Builders worldwide regularly have schools to tram a continuous supply of welders.

Metal boat hull
Fig. 3 A section of an aluminum or steel hull

Wood Construction

The traditional methods of wood boat construction are too time consuming to be used in volume production but wood boats are still popular with those who like the feel and smell of natural wood, and who plan to keep them for a lifetime. Wood requires much maintenance to keep water from soaking in and causing long term deterioration, both inside and outside the hull. Many of these problems can be avoided by covering the wood hull when the boat is built. The outside of the hull should be covered with glass fiber set in epoxy resin, and the same resin is used inside to thoroughly seal the wood. A construction section is shown in Figure 4.

Case diagram
Fig. 4 Section of a wooden hull

There are some custom boats built today in the classic wood style, but most are built by owners who want to reduce costs by building their own hull. Frequently those builders use the strip plank method where almost square planks of wood are spliced together and then epoxy glued to the frames and to each other. In this manner, a lesser grade of wood can be used and labor is reduced as the planks do not have to be shaped (spiled) to fit the curvature of the hull. Only silicon bronze or stainless steel screws and bolts are used in boat hulls. Nails and staples are never installed. Strip planking also avoids the necessity of caulking the seams between planks and greatly reduces the required maintenance.

Read also: Characteristics of Different Types of Construction Materials

Other forms of wood construction have been used in various parts of the world with different degrees of success. One method that has been very popular with those building a very light weight hull for racing is cold molded construction. This uses many layers of thin wood veneers placed diagonally and athwartships over the hull and secured with epoxy glue.

Summary of Boat Materials

We really can’t say any one particular boat material is any better than others. Large and small boats built of all the available materials have crossed the oceans and sailed around the world. We can use any material of varying thickness to meet any structural requirement. It is possible, however, to have a lightweight hull made of glass fiber or aluminum and still have the same total structural strength of a hull made from steel. When designing boat hulls we use an allowable material strength of 30 000 PSI (pounds per square inch) for steel, 18 000 PSI for aluminum, 14 500 PSI for glass fiber, and about 300 PSI for white oak, after applying a suitable factor of safety.

Most builders of custom hulls concentrate on one particular material as they have found the most efficient assembly methods and have trained their personnel to work with that material. When considering a custom hull, it is wise to look at the hulls the builder has previously built.

Author photo - Olga Nesvetailova
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  2. Motor Boating & Sailing, P. O. Box 10075, Des Moines, IA 50350.
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