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Future of the Boat Development – Insight from 1970s

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Discover how people envisioned the future of boats since the 1970s. Gain valuable insights into the history of boat development, perfect for anyone interested in maritime advancements.

Recently I stopped in at a local boatyard to buy a few items of marine hardware. While the proprietor was making out a sales slip I asked him “How was business this summer?” “Fine, just fine, thank you!” was his happy reply. Thus encouraged I asked how his gasoline supply situation was. “Fine, too! No trouble at all in getting as much gas as I want!”

What a contrast to the way things were late in 1973. Remember? We were practically all ready to set fire to our boats and turn to tiddly-winks and butterfly chasing as replacement sports for boating and fishing. The yowling and yammering indulged in by the major news media had the country practically in a state of combined panic and paralysis. There was going to be drastic gasoline rationing, and there was a great rush to buy anything available in the way of a wood stove. Politicians were putting away their limousines and truck drivers were howling about the 55 m. p. h. speed-limit. The pleasure boating industry was frantically printing pamphlets on how to get more miles per gallon of fuel.

As things turned out during the summer of 1974, for all practical purposes gasoline was as plentiful as ever. The antics we went through late in 1973 amount to the nearest our great nation has ever come to panicking and some day scholars will come up with a thick book analyzing how it came to happen! To judge by the way the major news media all but forgot about it this past summer, and by how we used our boats, cars and planes as freely as ever (except for paying 20 cents more per gallon for fuel), one has to wonder how much truth there might be to stories that the whole thing was contrived.

What we read in the newspapers these days just adds to the confusion. One item says Venezuela has raked in so many more billions of oil dollars that she doesn’t know what to do with it all. The Arabs hint they might lower the price of oil, to which the oil companies reply “Fat chance!”. Now that winter is approaching, the news media are breaking their summer-long silence by coming out with wildly conflicting stories saying we are and we are not going to be short of oil this coming winter.

It is very little wonder, therefore, that many a boat lover finds himself wondering just what the future holds for this sport. Will we continue to have boats or won’t we? If somehow we manage to have them, what will they be like?

Trying to answer these questions would make old King Solomon start doubting his wisdom and the Oracle of Delphi shrug her shoulders and waggle her upturned hands in bewilderment. When boat owners get together these days, you notice their conversation trends in the direction of comparing their assorted boats in terms of how they fit the current economic situation rather than in terms of whose boat is the fastest and most powerful.

Every boat owner knows things are changing in unhappy ways. We saw the price of fuel jump abruptly and appreciably. There is worldwide inflation. This year, many heads of state have been forced out for assorted reasons having to do with discontent among the people. There is much talk of overpopulation and of dwindling resources. Crises are a dime a dozen – about the only thing around not hit by inflation!

The current craze for nostalgia might be interpreted as meaning there is such widespread uncertainty that people are turning to the old and familiar for some sense of security. You even encounter news items that 64 % of the people believe we are heading into a severe economic depression. We can hardly blame the boat owner for wondering about the future of his form of relaxation!

Fiberglass boat
Fiberglass is adaptable to mass production. If boats were still made of wood at today’s labor rates, they would be priced far out of the reach of most people. Also, really good boatbuilding wood is becoming quite scarce
Source: unsplash.com

We don’t presume to be omniscient and start telling the world what’s what. But, we know enough about the The Evolution of Boats with Outboard Motorshistory and technicalities of pleasure boats to be able to say some things that will help many a reader sort out his own thinking and make his own assessment of what might come as time moves along.

Today’s pleasure boating is in plain fact a creature of the petrochemical industry. Fiberglass, which dominates the hull materials field, uses resin that depends for some of its ingredients on crude oil. The Dacron and Nylon cloths which have replaced cotton for sailboat sails are also petrochemicals. The “rubber” tires on which boat trailers and tow cars roll are made of synthetic rubber derived from chemicals in crude oil. We were reminded of the dependence of boating on crude oil recently when we bought a gallon of polyester resin for a small deck fiberglassing job – the stuff cost $19,95 per gallon retail, an increase of 100 % in four years!

The reason Manufacturing of Fiberglass Boats and Design Featureswhy fiberglass is the leading hull material today is, very simply, the vital matter of labor. There is simply too much costly hand labor involved in making boats piece by piece from wood. Enough skilled woodworkers simply cannot be found. Good boatbuilding wood is becoming harder to find each year. A box of small brass screws that sold for $2,37 four years ago now sells for $7,50. A fiberglass hull just removed from the mold in which it was made has its outer cosmetic coating already on it in the form of the colored “gel coat”, whereas a wooden hull just off the building jig still needs a number of coats of paint, with attendant delay due to drying time and sandpapering between coats.

When fiberglass was new, the ease with which it could be formed in molds led many of its boosters to predict that it would bring the cost of boats down drastically. These naive souls – some of them prominent businessmen who should be wiser in the ways of the world—reckoned without the factor of inflation!

The climbing cost of fiberglass, along with intermittent shortages of resin linked to the petroleum situation, is already prompting some people to look for other materials adaptable to boatbuilding. Aluminum isn’t too attractive to these seekers after low cost, for although it is one of the world’s most plentiful metals, a lot of labor, equipment and electricity is needed to produce it and the makers of aluminum boats have become accustomed to getting frequent notices of price boosts. So from the boat manufacturer’s point of view, this metal has no particular appeal over fiberglass from the materials cost standpoint.

Since sophisticated and expensive metalworking machinery is needed to turn it into boats, it does not appeal to firms just entering boat production and remains a material of interest chiefly to firms which already happen to possess the required equipment. These include chiefly the makers of aircraft components, makers of tanks and containers, mobile homes, etc., so don’t look for a sudden flood of aluminium boats.

Very simple, angular boats are quite easy to make of aluminum, hence the recent popularity of the low-priced but unseaworthy “john boats”. But costly dies are needed to form aluminum into compound curves. This discourages its use in larger pleasure boats where sleek appearance and up-to-the-minute styling are vital sales features. On the other hand, the light weight of small and medium sized aluminum boats can translate into fuel economy, and so if the price of gasoline goes any higher people could be forced to look for ways to build the kind of boats they want of this material.

Research is going on today in chemical laboratories to find and develop new kinds of plastics that could be used for boatbuilding. Nobody can tell what may come of this work; all we average boating folks can do is keep the realization alive in the backs of our heads that some day, some presently unknown material might come along and gain widespread acceptance.

Chrysler V-8 engine
With very few exceptions, today’s marine engines for pleasure boats are based on automotive engine blocks. This Chrysler V-8 is built up from a stock automotive engine, with small changes and accessories to adapt it to boat use

Ferro-cement boats, made of Portland cement and steel wire and rod used in a certain way, have received much publicity in mechanical and marine publications and to read some of the claims made for the process, you tend to wonder why the pleasure boat industry isn’t swinging to it joyfully. The answer comes when you look into it enough to find out what it’s all about.

At its current stage of development, this material is well adapted to amateur construction of boats of fairly large size, but that is all. The amateur is not counting the dollar value of his spare time – and a lot of time is in fact put into accurately bending and setting up the substantial number of metal rods and wire mesh that is necessary to give strength to the concrete. Where a good fiberglass mold can turn out hundreds of boats with only a quick cleaning and waxing between use, the metal web for each new factory-built ferro-cement boat would call for many hours of labor.

As currently done, the cement is applied to the metal form with trowels, considerable care being taken to cover and completely embed the metal, and to achieve uniform thickness. More time! The concrete must then be cured for a length of time that does not appeal to production managers. Having been troweled on, its surface is not particularly smooth, especially when compared to the high gloss of a fiberglass part from a polished mold. More labor is needed to smooth it up and finish it presentably. It’s thus true that while the sand and cement used in the process are cheap compared to glass cloth and resin, a lot of labor is involved and that is what bothers the production managers.

The stuff has its advantages in other ways, and its disadvantages. Because massive wooden timbers are not needed, the weight of a large concrete hull is usually not greater than that of a similar large wooden hull. The absence of heavy internal framing affords more usable room inside the hull. But when you get down to the small boats of interest to most sports fishermen, ferro-cement tends to be heavier than fiberglass to an objectionable degree, due to the skin thickness necessary for strength.

It is perfectly possible that as this material is refined and improved, it might be made adaptable to mass production. Pressure to find a cheaper material than fiberglass could very well accelerate the development of ferro-cement. You have to maintain a flexible attitude toward all materials; no one can really predict what new ideas and techniques will come forward as a result of the pressure applied to boat manufacturers to find ways to keep prices within reason.

What future boats will be like is not simply a matter of materials. Hull design and propulsion are also vital matters. The trend in the last several years has been to larger boats. Not many boat owners realize that boat size has a lot to do with profits and therefore solvency in the boat manufacturing field. If you review the companies that have been in (and out) of the field over the last 20 or 25 years you will see that most of those which succeeded are the ones that went in for larger and larger models. The plain fact is that there is more profit in a larger boat than in a smaller one. There has to be good profit in boat sales, for the overhead and risk involved in running a small business of the size typical in this field is very high.

Take for example a fifteen foot boat, and a similar twenty-footer. The seats, windshield, instrument panel, steering wheel and other stock items are identical. If it’s a wooden boat, the stem, frames, transom, keel, etc. of the 20 footer require the same number of hand operations in picking out, cutting and assembling the wood as for the 15 footer, the only difference being that there might be a few more ribs and the longitudinal members are a few feet longer, but requiring only a few additional seconds to run through the rip saw or planer. If it’s a fiberglass boat, when modern production equipment is used the layup process for the larger hull takes a neglibible amount of extra labor and there might be fifty or a hundred dollars more glass and resin in it. But the bigger boat can be sold for many hundreds of dollars more than the smaller one. The customer thinks he’s getting his extra money’s worth in carrying capacity and living space, so is happy. The boatbuilder makes a lot more money for a little more work and material, so he too is happy.

The same thing is true in engines. A ten h. p. two-cylinder outboard motor contains the same number of parts as a 40 h. p. two-cylinder outboard, the only difference being that in the latter, they are a little larger. Same number of steps in designing, tool-making and production line setup. The 40 h. p. motor gives his boat a lot more performance than the ten, so the customer is quite willing to pay somewhat more for what amounts to 25 or 30 pounds more of aluminum and steel.

It goes the same way in Self-Survey Criteria for the Engine and Electrical Systemsinboard engines. A basic V-8 block can start out as a 265 cubic inch job of moderate horsepower and over the years this same block and the production line that makes it can be adapted to produce more and more power. The cylinders can be bored out more and more. A new crankshaft with slightly longer throw can be produced to further increase displacement. Compression ratio can be increased (or could be, before emission control standards stopped this race).

Dynamometer in use
This strange device is a dynamometer, used for testing outboard motors for power output. A V-6 power head is in place on top of the device. Its drive shaft extends downward into a power-absorbing device in the base of the dynamometer. Tests for power certification are run under carefully-controlled conditions for the sake of fairness, uniformity and accuracy

Single-barrel carbs and simple intake manifolds can be replaced by two and four barrel carbs and more sophisticated manifolds. You can end up with a 350 cubic inch engine that puts out about twice as much power and which can sell for a lot more, even though it costs rather little more to produce. All this is not a sneaky “rip-off” of the customer, it is merely the realistic manufacturers’ way of treading the complex path between keeping a firm solvent on one hand, and catering to public tastes on the other.

Practically from the beginnings early in this century, powerboat design has followed a path laid out by powerplant availability. Most popular inboard marine engines are based on automobile, truck and industrial engine blocks. It’s the only economical way. It pays off to the consumer because the highly sophisticated quality control methods developed to produce such engines by the tens of millions can benefit him when he uses such engines by the tens of thousands in hoats. A firm making special marine engines only, in very modest quantity, could not afford to buy such production equipment and still be able to sell motors at a price people could pay.

Pride of ownership and prestige are deeply involved in the making and selling of larger pleasure craft. Very naturally, as the “horsepower race” went on in the car field, it spilled over into the boat field in the form of larger and larger inboard engines. When you get into boats costing well up in the five-figure range, the price of gasoline for a dozen Sundays on the water works out to a very small proportion of the total purchase and operating cost. So the designers made boats higher, wider and handsomer and looked to Detroit to supply the needed additional power to push these boats along at a satisfying clip. Hull efficiency and economy of propulsion took a back seat.

Read also: Basic Hull, Keel, and Rudder Shapes

Already, though, Detroit is showing signs of changing to be in tune with the times. You run into indications of this all the time in small news items. Chrysler has stopped making their biggest hemispherical-head V-8 engines which were used in “super cars.” High insurance rates on such cars killed these engines. GM is putting back into production their V-6 engine. All car makers are lowering their engines’ compression ratios to enable them to meet air pollution emission standards. The higher prices now asked for small imported cars are hurting their sales, and the sale of domestic cars is benefiting from this.

Yet Detroit is uncertain of what to offer the public; while some firms announce plans for making sub-compact midget cars, others curtail production of their compacts because the public seems to be favoring “intermediates”. All anyone can say is, things are in a state of great flux, manufacturers are feeling their way into a period of change and uncertainty, no one can really say what’s going to happen. A lot depends on such intangibles as how a handful of potentates in oil-producing nations happen to feel upon arising of a morning!

Motorboat on the water
Heading for shore
Source: unsplash.com

You can get a fair clue from the news releases announcing new models of outboard motors and marine engines. The new ones are pretty much the same as before, nothing really different about them, mostly detail refinements and small changes in carburetion, ignition and control systems aimed at improving fuel economy at the recommended intermediate throttle settings for cruising speeds. You can see that the manufacturers are not allowing uncertain conditions to panic them. They are offering more or less the same power ranges as before, leaving it to the public to decide for itself what engine power it prefers in light of the fuel cost situation.

The darling of the progressives a few seasons ago, the Wankel engine seems to have been put into a holding pattern for a while. Its big appeal to the automotive world was its ability to meet strict emissions standards without a lot of costly accessories. With all the talk going around about relaxing these standards because of the fuel situation, of course engine building executives are not as anxious as before to propel this engine into volume production. It was known to have very peppy performance on the highway, but to have more of a fuel appetite than the piston engine. With the public so concerned about fuel mileage, this is of course a poor time to introduce such a powerplant.

All a reasonable person can say is, there will probably be more emphasis on getting Boat Performance Factors Explained: Key Metrics and Analysis Guidereasonably good performance out of engines in the intermediate power field, as far as boats are concerned. In the dim past, boats of creditable performance were built around one- and two- cylinder two-cycle engines. They tended to be on the long, slim, light side such as various dory and skiff types, launches, etc. Such engines are still made today by the Acadia and Atlantic companies in Canada. They are practically unchanged from 50 and 60 years ago and find continued favor in remote areas of the north where gasoline and parts have always been a problem. Big and heavy for their power, and started by hand, they probably would seem too primitive for most sport fishing and pleasure boating uses.

Production line of the boats
Production lines in a modern fiberglass boat factory are very well organized. Shelves to each side of the line hold items needed for finishing off boats. Lines for electric and pneumatic tools hang from the overhead girders. Casters for each boat’s cradle run in metal channels to keep things moving straight and orderly. This is a scene in the Chrysler boat factory in Texas

More likely, power boat designers will find themselves doing a lot of thinking about the various engines in the 20 to 60 h. p. range now being made for use as auxiliary power in large sailboats. These are based on readily available tractor and industrial engine blocks, so are moderate in price. They have been in production for years and are thoroughly proven. Service and parts organizations are in existence. Already there have been a number of articles in the yachting press discussing ways of designing powerboat hulls that will give satisfying performance on modest power.

Many years ago we traveled with another writer to Lake George in upstate New York to visit the late Fred Streever, at that time dean of American hunting dog writers. In a boathouse Fred had a long, slim, displacement-hull launch dating from the 1920s, in which he had been doing a lot of experimenting with the then-new technique of deep trolling with wire line. He took us out on Lake George in this boat to demonstrate his methods and I still remember clearly how pleasant it was to glide smoothly and easily along over the waves in this sharp-prowed, deep-bodied old lady of a boat. Once you get accustomed to going places at a more relaxed rate of travel, the quiet and comfort of such a boat has it all over banging and slamming along the choppy surface in a planing hull.

Changes are coming. They probably will, come along gradually. The marine industry is watching current events very carefully. But you don’t hear words of pessimism at all, just of alertness and caution. We’ve all seen how wildly and temporarily conditions can fluctuate. Hardworking Americans want their sport and recreation very badly and will go to considerable lengths to get it. So, get ready to read about the many different boats designed to feel out the problems of building craft that are able, yet economical.

Author photo - Olga Nesvetailova
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  2. Motor Boating & Sailing, P. O. Box 10075, Des Moines, IA 50350.
  3. Multi-hulls, 421 Hancock St., N. Quincy, MA 02171-9981.
  4. Nautical Quarterly, 373 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016.
  5. Sail Magazine, P. O. Box 10210, Des Moines, IA 50336.
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  7. Small Boat Journal, P. O. Box 400, Bennington, VT 05201.
  8. Soundings, Soundings Publications, Inc., Pratt Street, Essex, CT 06426.
  9. The Practical Sailor, Subscription Dept., P. O. Box 971, Farmingdale, NY 11737.
  10. Wooden Boat, Subscription Dept., P. O. Box 956, Farming-dale, NY 11737.
  11. Yacht Racing/Cruising, North American Building, 401 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19108.
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  14. Chapman, Charles F. Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling, 56th ed. New York: Hearst Marine Books, 1983.
  15. Coles, Adlard. Heavy Weather Sailing, 3rd rev. ed. Clinton Corners, N.Y.: John De Graff, Inc., 1981.
  16. Pardey, Lin and Larry. Cruising in Seraffyn and Seraffyn’s Mediterranean Adventure (W. W. Norton, 1981).
  17. Roth, Hal. After 50 000 Miles (W. W. Norton, 1977) and Two Against Cape Horn (W. W. Norton, 1968).
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  19. Kinney, Francis S. Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design, 8th ed. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1981.
  20. Street, Donald M., Jr. The Ocean Sailing Yacht, Vols. I and II. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973, 1978.


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