Boating in any conditions can be hazardous, but the waters in this neck of the woods are much less forgiving than the small lakes I grew up on back in the Midwest. Harsh, rocky shorelines. Daily tide swings of 8 feet or more. Currents that rip at more than 6 knots between jagged seashores. Water temperatures that rarely get about 55 degrees.
My first summer in Bellingham was a scorcher by local standards, a toasty 90 degrees outside. I thought I’d take a dip in Bellingham Bay to cool off after ripping across the waters in a Laser from the local boat club, but I was out of the water faster than I went in, the breath taken out of my lungs. I couldn’t believe how chilly the waters were – and it was August!
There's A Reason Aluminum Boats Are Popular...
I later learned that it takes about fifteen minutes until complete hypothermia takes over in these waters, making the number one rule of boating ever more important: keep the ocean out of the boat. While it might be an inconvenience in some other parts of the country to have something go wrong with your craft, here it might literally mean life or death. Lifetime mariners in this area understand and appreciate the circumstances and they never underestimate them, which is part of why you’ll find so many aluminum boats here in the Puget Sound – and their numbers are growing.
But why aluminum? Let’s start by looking at its main competitor: fiberglass. Developed in the 1930s, fiberglass’s first major commercial use was in the boat-building industry due to its versatility, inherent strength, and weather-resistant finish. Being heavier than aluminum boats, fiberglass boats generally offer a more comfortable ride through the water by dampening noise and vibration. And, unlike metal, it will not bead moisture (the ‘soda can effect’) inside the cockpit when the water is colder than the air, which it commonly is here.
But that’s where the advantages stop. For starters, aluminum boats are much lighter than fiberglass. With a lighter hull comes greater efficiency and – all things being equal – you need less horsepower on an aluminum boat than you would for a fiberglass boat of the same length. Damage resistance is another hugely important benefit, especially given the shore conditions and hazards of our waters. While you might be able to get away with minimal scratching to your gelcoat beaching a fiberglass hull on soft sand, there is no way to safely beach the same hull on the shores of, say, the San Juan islands. Why? Because there’s no such thing as a soft sandy beach in the San Juans! Just lots and lots of rocks.
From a production standpoint, aluminum is easier to work with than fiberglass. The setup costs per boat design are relatively low in comparison. So low, in fact, that single made-to-order aluminum boats are available from several different designers and manufacturers. With glass boats, smaller models need to be produced en masse to recoup the costs of molding and to be profitable. This is why you rarely find smaller, custom-order fiberglass boat builders. Small aluminum boats can be custom made per build, and we work with many builders who are constantly engineering new designs or modifying existing plans to accommodate customer requests. This process simply can’t be done in a cost-effective manner with fiberglass molds, which means that small-craft fiberglass boats run on a production schedule similar to car manufacturers, with models running for several years before they are phased out.
With a relatively low barrier to entry, boat builders working with aluminum come in all forms. By ordering plans or a boat kit, even the home welder hobbyist can construct his own aluminum boat. This is where CNC router cutting becomes an essential step in the process. Without a mold to lay fiberglass into, aluminum boats are built with jigs and essentially come together like a puzzle. And, just like with a puzzle, it is critical that the pieces are cut and formed exactly to specifications so they fit together perfectly. Having the aluminum pieces for your boat router cut with a CNC machine means that every line is cut precisely to the design. Whether it’s the weekend warrior or a larger boat-building operation, every aluminum boat builder benefits from the accuracy of the CNC router cutting process.
Growing up in the Midwest, I used to capsize small sailboats for fun, if for no other reason than to cool off on a hot summer's day. Now, here in the frigid waters of the Pacific Northwest, I want a craft that will keep me safely out of the cold water. Although my small fiberglass boat works for now, my next craft will be made out of aluminum.