How to Build a Boat

If you want to know how to build a boat you've come to the right place, because that's what we did, learning as we went. She's called Alacazam, and you can see her in action in the picture above, charging through the Caribbean Sea off Montserrat. And we're going to take you through the entire sailboat construction process...

Designers sketch of Alacazam, a light displacement cutter rigged sloop sailboatDesigners sketch of Alacazam

Jumping forward several years...

She was called 'Alacazam', from the great Nat King Cole's song Orange Coloured Sky, and these are her vital statistics...

  • Length overall: 11.5m (37.5 feet)
  • Waterline length: 10.6m (34.5 feet)
  • Beam: 3.9m (12.5 feet)
  • Draft: 2.2m (7 feet)
  • Displacement: 7,023kg (7.75 tons)
  • Displacement/length ratio: 159
  • Sail area/displacement ratio: 18.28

Of course you don't have to start from scratch as we did; there are a few other boat building options available that could save time and maybe cash too.

Whichever option you choose it's a very good idea to think the whole project through from beginning to end, as nothing can cause more disruption and additional cost than changing your mind halfway through a boat construction project.

It's an inescapable fact that cost and size are closely related, but not in a linear fashion as you might assume. If you double the length of the boat you're likely to increase the costs by a factor of four; and not just the build costs, but owning and operating costs too. Just wait until anti-fouling time comes around and you'll see what I mean.

Berthing costs seem to take a hike at around 12m (40ft) overall, and another at 15m (50ft), which was the final compelling factor in sizing our self-build cruising sailboat at 11.5m (38ft) on deck. This allowed for the anchor poking out at one end and the self-steering gear at the other, just in case any marina employee should get overzealous with the tape measure.

But where do you want to start? Here are your three main options:

  1. Buy an old, tired boat and completely refurbish her, or
  2. Buy a bare hull and deck moulding for home completion, or
  3. Start from scratch, and build the hull yourself.

We'll take a look at these three options in turn:

1. Starting With a 'Fixer-Up'

This can be a great option, particularly if you can get your hands on an old but tired pedigree boat with a proven reputation like the Ted Brewer designed Morgan 28 shown here - and you might just get it at an absolute knockdown price.

An old tired sailboat ideal for a restoration projectAn old, tired sailboat ideal for a restoration project...

With luck, much of the interior will be salvageable, but you'll probably want to bring the instruments and electronics up to date, replace the rig and all the rigging, install a new engine and stern gear and replace the hatches and much of the deck equipment.

But you really should get a professional surveyor involved before you take up such a project. Explain to him carefully what your intentions are, and ask him to prepare his report with that in mind; it could save you a whole heap of time and money.

2. Starting from a Bare GRP Hull

This approach will get you off to a flying start, particularly if the hull comes with the deck moulding already fitted and the bulkheads bonded in. The problem will be in finding one, as few manufacturers seem to offer this once popular option these days.

3. Starting from Scratch

You need to take a very deep breath before setting off along this route - and believe me, I know, because this is how we built our custom designed sailboat Alacazam.

Unless you're building from an established set of boat plans, you'll be well advised to get a yacht designer involved at the outset.

And one of your first decisions will be the choice of hull material - fibreglass, steel, aluminium, ferro-concrete or wood - but which one, and why?

The Outline Requirements for our 'Ideal Cruising Sailboat'

Jalingo 2, a heavy displacement, long keel, Nicholson 32 Mk 10 sailboat'Jalingo 2', my heavy displacement, long keel, Nicholson 32 Mk 10 sailboat

My current boat at the time was a Nicholson 32 Mk10. Jalingo was a narrow hulled, heavy displacement, long keeled cruiser that I'd sailed thousands of miles - much of it singled handed (until I met Mary, who put paid to all of that self indulgence) - off the shores of the UK, France, Spain and Portugal, and to the Mediterranean and back.

Her hull shape and displacement (Jalingo's, not Mary's) meant that she was comfortable in a seaway and great in a blow, but sluggish in light winds - and that keel meant she was a nightmare to handle in the confines of a marina.

Like all long-distance sailors we had a good idea as to what our 'ideal cruising sailboat' would be. I've always thought that a cutter rigged sloop is the ideal the ideal rig for a cruising boat, with a roller furling jib, a hanked-on staysail (easy to replace with a storm jib when necessary) and a slab-reefing mainsail with lazy jacks, as I don't trust either in-mast furling or in-boom furling.

Additionally she would:~

  • have high resistance to capsize;
  • be robust and easy to maintain;
  • have good performance under sail;
  • have a comfortable, easy motion underway;
  • be easily manageable by a small crew;
  • have sufficient internal volume for comfortable living aboard;
  • be affordable to own and operate.

Did we know how to build a boat with these desirable characteristics? No, but we knew a man who did. Enter Andrew Simpson, yacht designer, surveyor and shipwright - and one of my best chums...

The Designer's Proposals for our Ideal Cruising Sailboat

We discussed all this at length, and made a number of sketches of both the interior layout and an efficient, workable cockpit.

Andrew did the number crunching and came up with an outline design for a 38ft (11.5m) cutter rigged wood/epoxy (cedar strip) water-ballasted cruising boat.

"She'll be light, quick, robust and comfortable" he said

"And seaworthy?" we asked

"Eminently so" he replied

"Right" we said, "Let's do it!"

And so we did...

Next: How to Build a Boat, Part 1

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