COLUMN | The “best” material for fishing boats

The Alaska limit-seiner Magnus Martens under construction at the Fred Wahl Marine in 2012 in Oregon shows the flexibility afforded by steel in maximising the dimensions of a vessel. Photo: Wahl Marine

There was a time, not so very long ago, that most fishing boats in the 20-metre range were built of wood.

In British Columbia the planking on a boat that size was most often tight-grained, old growth, edge-grain fir. In Thailand it was old-growth golden Takien, again edge grained.

Other countries used pine or teak. It was always preferred to have a wood with natural oils to resist rot and teredos. The edge grain helped reduce the absorption of seawater. Framing was of some wood that could be steamed or heated and bent. If no good bending wood was available the frames could be sawn to shape the hull.

Although there are still beautiful wooden boats being built in Southeast Asia and, by true aficionados, around the world, there is no denying that the fine old growth wood and the skills to shape it, are becoming scarce. Planking, when you can get it, is likely to be wide grained second growth plantation wood.

So, one by one, the fishermen, who have grown up on wooden boats, are faced with making the choice of a suitable material, other than wood, for their new vessels. The Pacific Northwest spanning the US states of Oregon, Washington and Alaska, with the Canadian province of British Columbia occupying a 500-mile stretch, has an eclectic mix of modern building materials.

Misty Moon in the Canadian Johnstone Straits southbound after a season in Alaska, built 1976 by Delta Marine of Washington. Photo: Alan Haig-Brown

Each of the contemporary materials: steel, aluminium and fibreglass, tend to have their impassioned supporters. Given that a new, high tech seiner or combination boat can cost several million dollars, the allegiance to the build material is understandable. The owner’s boat likely cost more than their house.

Steel has been used in building fishing boats since the nineteenth century Grimsby trawlers. However it wasn’t until World War II popularised welding technology and trained thousands of welders that it became common. Skippers that I have talked to like its weight in a seaway, which makes for a steadier ride. There is a class of larger seiners in BC that were built in the 1970s with the raked bow and cabins of that era.

Meantime builders like Wahl in Oregon have been building combination Alaska limit seiners that rig easily for long lining or seining, in ever beamier and deeper configurations to take maximum advantage of the 58-foot (17.7-metre) limit. While the steel boats are known to ride well at sea, they are also prone to rust. Maintenance can be expensive with the scraping of rust bubbles and maintaining out-of-the-way places like the lazaretto.

Over the years, I think that I have seen more steel boats rebuilt in larger versions of themselves. Lengthening and sponsoning are relatively easy with a steel boat. It is also a fairly common practice to have a small welder onboard for repairs of modifications during the season.

Fibreglass boat owners, like steel, often refer to the weight of the boat for giving stability at sea. Although I think I have seen more rolling chocks or bilge keels added to fibreglass boats than to steel or aluminium. When this is done I am told that it is for working gear at a standstill of slow speeds. Taking waves broadside can make deck-work difficult if the boat snaps back and forth too quickly. But I would think this is more a factor of hull design than hull material.

Of course cost is the most often mentioned as an advantage to fibreglass hulls. Once made, the mould can be used many times with each hull reducing the average cost. Moulds can be designed to allow widened and lengthened to produce some variation in size. One of the nicest fibreglass seine boats that I have seen built was formed with fibreglass panels set into a custom framework and then covered inside and out with fibreglass roving. This was for an owner who wanted the maximum size allowable for a specific license and obviously was more costly. He ended up with a beautiful boat.

The fluid and flexible nature of fibreglass lends itself to some very pleasingly designed and executed hulls and cabins. Colours can be included in the fibreglass and gel coats added for yacht-like appearances. Recently, since the fire on the California dive boat, I have heard more concern about the flammable nature of fibreglass.

The aluminium seiner Kwiaahwah, built by Shore Boats of Richmond BC in 1986, towing on a 2010 seine set in Johnstone Straits. Photo: Alan Haig-Brown

As recently as the 1980s, aluminium was derided as impractical due to the dangers of electrolysis in salt water eating up the hull. Aluminium began to win a place in the BC salmon seine fishery in the 1970s, in part, due to the increasing difficulty to get tight grained old growth wood but more importantly because of its growing popularity in the small boat fleet of salmon gillnetters in both the Alaska and BC.

Builders understood that it was essential to isolate certain metals from the aluminium. They made use of stainless steel for shafts and props. Keel coolers were literally integrated into keels by way of aluminium water channels in the keel or aluminium coolers built into the hull bottom plates.

The aluminium, due to the lightness of the material, tended to ride high in the water. This was corrected with ballast tanks and/or weighted ballast in the hull. If lead was used it was carefully insulated from the hull. One builder has told me that he also taught new owners to avoid mooring beside old wooden boats with power cords draped in the water or other such dangerous situations. Today there are a good many seiners in the BC and Alaska fleet that are 30 to 40 years old and still going strong.

Builders and owners also reference the saving on the extremely low maintenance of aluminium boats. This is especially true if one resists the temptation to paint the boat and allow a natural patina to form and protect the metal. There is virtually no wasting of the aluminium over time and a competent aluminium welder can easily complete repairs.

In reviewing this little summary I note a seeming personal preference for aluminium boats. However I have spent some time on boats of all three materials and believe that each has its advantages. I invite our readers, who likely have knowledge not available to me, to send me their thoughts and preferences for a possible future article. Email: alan@haig-brown.com


Alan Haig-Brown

Alan Roderick Haig-Brown is a Canadian novelist and non-fiction writer. He specialises in commercial marine and commercial fishing writing and photography. He is a regular contributor to a number of marine publications.