Fiberglass is forever

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We were looking through old stacks of Trade Only the other day for background when a front-page story I wrote nearly 25 years ago and had long forgotten jumped out at me.

Reading it reminded me of how much and how little things have changed. The headline declared, “Fiberglass: It’s turned boats into durable assets.”

Here’s how the story starts:

At the advent of the fiberglass era, skeptics predicted boats built of the new material woven from finespun glass filaments would turn into piles of dust in 10 years. Three decades later, many of these boats are going strong. There were 12.7 million boats five or more years old in service in the U.S. last year, up from 8.7 million 10 years earlier and double the number 15 years ago. Aluminum is a close second, but the majority are made of fiberglass.

For the industry, that means a huge and growing supply of long-lived product to be bought, sold and serviced. The service sector of the industry is getting bigger every year.

And here’s the kicker quote from the president of what was then the Yacht Architects and Brokers Association in Annapolis:

“Properly maintained, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we find some of these fiberglass yachts still in use 100 years from now,” Alan Hamerstrom told me.

In hindsight, a century might be pushing it a bit, although I did sell my 46-year-old Boston Whaler last summer, and she has a good many years left. And it’s been a long time since I’ve heard older boats referred to as “durable assets.”

I went on to quote brokers about how a well-built, well-maintained used boat “was a tremendous value” in the 1990 market.

One surveyor compared it to the auto market. “It’s sort of a like a car; most of the depreciation is in the first two or three years,” he said. “If you buy an older boat, someone else has already eaten all the depreciation.”

Other than depreciation, a Massachusetts broker said he saw little similarity between used boats and used cars. “It’s more like a house,” he told me 24 years ago. “If that boat’s been well taken care of, a 10-year-old boat can, in my opinion, be more attractive than a new boat.”

And Everett Pearson reflected on the late 1950s, when he and his cousin Clint started Pearson Yachts in Bristol, R.I. Pearson told me that they had engineered and built their Triton sailboat to essentially be bulletproof (I’m paraphrasing).

“Suppose the boat turned over and was lying on rock,” Pearson said. “We wanted the boat to be able to take that kind of load. We did a lot of work in all areas of the boat to make sure that what we were building was adequate because I felt at the time that we were sort of like babes in the woods. The last thing we needed to do was to start turning out something that would fail. They were engineered very conservatively.”

Lastly, the wise Lysle Gray, then the ABYC’s executive director, surmised that the real issue wasn’t whether fiberglass would last but determining when it made economic sense to rehab an older boat — and when it didn’t.

“[Longevity] will depend far more on the way the boat is used and the way it’s taken care of than anything else,” Gray said. “The material itself is going to survive.”

The more things change …

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