Nearly all fiber-glass boats are now turned out of molds, and the molding process, for the hull and deck of stock designs, though simpler and quicker than wood or steel or aluminum construction, still requires heavy equipment, exact engineering and a large initial investment of time and money. Virtually all U.S. manufacturers of boats between 25 and 45 feet use the same techniques: a wooden, so-called male "plug" is built—a full-size, minutely detailed dummy of the designed vessel. Next, fiber glass is laid over the plug to form female molds, for the hull and the deck. The boat itself is built up inside these female molds—gel coat first, containing the desired color (as shown in the photograph on page 61), then layers of glass mat and roving (a coarse material like burlap), bonded by liquid polyester resin, which soon hardens. Later the deck is fastened to the hull, again by fiber-glass laminate, forming a structure of great strength and watertight integrity.
Unfortunately, the plugs and other preliminary steps in molding can cost almost as much as a finished wooden yacht of similar dimensions. According to Breckenridge Marshall of American Boatbuilding Corp., which builds the Block Island 40, "a single hull to the Bermuda Rule limit of 73 feet would be incredibly expensive, costing perhaps three times as much as wood. And the breaking point where the price would be comparable would be at about eight units."
In the case of the Invicta class, Everett Pearson says: "We will probably write off the cost of the mold over 10 to 12 units to keep the individual cost down for the buyer, but we could write it off with six hulls and still produce a boat competitive in price with comparable wooden boats."
In time, the cost factor in mold building should yield to technological advances. Meanwhile, despite the initial expense, fiber-glass boats are taking a larger and larger bite out of the market. The only remaining pocket of resistance to glass is among the big builders of power cruisers. Chris-Craft and Owens, the giants of the stock power cruiser industry, have not switched to plastic, although the latter will soon offer at least one smaller fiber-glass model.
"Those two just about own that part of the market," commented a rival builder. "It hasn't been necessary for them to change; they're doing all right as it is. But a situation might develop like Detroit and the compact cars, and they might find themselves losing enough sales so that public demand would force a switch."
One boat that may force the switch is Richard Bertram & Co.'s forthcoming 31-foot version of the Moppie design (SI, April 25), which won this year's Miami-Nassau powerboat race in such spectacular fashion. Another is the Hatteras 41, a combination sport fisherman and cruiser, and a third is Alden's 47-footer by Halmatic.
Today, four years after its first strong step into the boating industry, fiber glass seems more than ever the perfect material for boats. Unfortunately, some excesses have been committed in its name by manufacturers who were more promoters than skilled designers or builders. And in these cases complaints seem to stem from faulty construction rather than faulty materials. But as these fringe builders improve their standards—or are eliminated—and cheaper, quicker molding techniques are developed, it may well be that the wooden boat will become the marine curiosity of the future. Captain R. S. Mandelkorn, former comptroller of the Navy's Bureau of Ships, speaking unofficially but perhaps prophetically, declared that once standardization in construction is achieved, the wooden boat, for Navy purposes, would become "as obvious an anachronism as the steam locomotive." Another strong vote comes from America's Cup designer Olin Stephens. Asked recently what sort of craft he would design for himself, he replied, "I'd probably go along with the rest of the world and have a fiber-glass boat."
I believe I would, too.