The topic of wooden sailboat ownership awakens some of the most heated debates among the sailing community. Owners simply love their boats and are ready to put whatever effort is needed to keep them in great shape. On the other side of the spectrum are those who say that owning a wooden sailboat, or indeed any wooden boat, is a proof of insanity. The argument usually revolves around maintenance, a subject that may sound trivial and even dry at first. However, the issue has many nuances that usually pass unnoticed.
Most of the controversy is, as it is often the case, a matter personal preferences. In this post, I want to demystify the issue by looking at the main points usually raised in these discussions but from different perspectives. I am not going to judge whether or not someone should buy and maintain a wooden sailboat. Instead, the goal of the post is to inform and stir thoughts, rather than to decide for readers.
Why a wooden sailboat?
Wooden sailboats have something incredibly emotional that is difficult to describe. The naïve would say that wooden boat lovers are fascinated by their beauty. However, there seem to be more in there than mere appearance. People often say that wooden boats are living creatures, which is very true. Indeed, a wooden boat doesn’t have one soul but many. Since conception and throughout their existence they accumulate the souls of all those people that life happened to put on their way. Naval architects, shipwrights and many owners, through hard work and love, have conspired to shape their beautiful and unique characters. Just as our souls are drawn by our progenitors and the many people that life puts on our way.
There is always something exclusive about craft work that captivates us. At least in part, this comes from pride for creation, something that has almost disappeared in these times of large corporations and mass production. Still, deep inside we strongly value it.
Emotional appeal apart, there are also practical reasons for owning a wooden sailboat. Probably the main one is that they can be incredibly cheaper than fibreglass boats. They are also usually old boats, which means from a time when seaworthiness was a priority for naval architects and builders (for example read more about the evolution of keels).
Why not a wooden sailboat?
So what are the downsides of a wooden sailboat? While I have to admit that I’m a big fan of wood, I will keep my promise of providing the two sides of the story. So here we go.
Wooden boat detractors often describe them as a sort of mermaid that first enchants sailors to then only bring misery to their lives. And in this case, misery translates into hours and hours (and money) going into maintenance and repair. But, is it really that bad? How much maintenance work does a wooden boat really require?
I’ve once heard someone say: “Let’s be honest, all materials degrade over time and require maintenance. Fiberglass blisters, steel rusts, and wood rots.” Yes, in theory all materials are equal, but in practice, some are more equal than others! When built with a modern resin, a neglected or poorly maintained fibreglass boat will perish a lot slower than a wooden boat.
Yes, the prevalent viewpoint among the community is that maintenance and repair are less time-consuming tasks for a fibreglass than for a wooden boat, although there are also those who challenge this idea. Obviously, this is a question that depends a lot on how skilled you are at working with these materials. For example, Lin and Larry Pardey built two wooden sailboats on which they did two circumnavigations. But in this case, Larry was a very skilled carpenter and boat builder. If you are good at wood work or at least are keen to learn, then maintenance should be a lot easier and definitely cheaper. Working with wood is also more pleasant than with fibreglass, although once again, this is a matter of taste.
And this brings me to the issue of taste again. The problem I see in discussions about maintenance of wooden sailboats is that it is usually assumed as a nuisance, rather than part of the many pleasures of owning a boat. Many people enjoy wood work and looking after their boats, and this has to be weighed. If you take this into account, then the game changes completely. What may be a waste of time or a pain for some is actually among the most rewarding moments for others. Put another way, what you need to maintain a wooden boat is love, in addition to time and money ;-).
Buying a wooden sailboat
Unless you are a skilled carpenter and already know a bit about how wooden boats are built and maintained, it is easier to start with a boat in good condition. Maintenance of a boat that has been looked after should not be much of an issue. If you don’t have much experience with wooden boats, it might be difficult for you to check the boat’s condition on your own. If this is the case, then it is important to not only get a surveyor but one knowledgeable and with good experience in surveying wooden boats.
Starting small is not a bad idea. Not only small boats are great fun but are obviously much easier and cheaper to maintain. As the main issue of wooden boats is maintenance, this will give you a taste of how challenging maintaining a larger boat can be. You will also learn a great deal about wood maintenance and be in a much more comfortable position to decide whether you’d like to move on to a larger wooden boat in the future.
Read, read and read. There are many good books out there that can be very helpful. Also, make sure that you can leverage other people’s experiences. This means picking a marina/mooring with other wood lovers and signing up for online forums.
A tough decision?
Sailboat owners never purchase a boat but a dream. How much does the creak of wood or the twinkling light of an oil lamp cost? How about the memories of a time you remotely remember or have even never lived? These little pleasures are priceless, at least for some.
When faced with a difficult decision, many ‘responsible’ people will advise you to use your brain. Others will tell you to follow your heart. Wooden sailboat owners are usually in the second group. It is up to you to decide whether you’d like to be sensible or passionate about living your life, so let’s not judge either side. People who think with their hearts are usually good people, so most of the time wooden boat owners are great individuals.