Monday, February 15, 2010

Ferro-cement Boats: Worst Sailing Invention Ever?

Two or three decades back, ferro-cement construction seemed to be all the rage among home boat builders. The material itself, properly constructed, probably wasn't so horrid. If nothing else, the boats could have made durable undersea habitats for marine creatures.

Unfortunately, for some reason, the technology seemed to attract the loonier or less competent fringe among amateur boat builders. Hundreds or thousands of boats were started but never completed, with half-completed hulks left to dot the landscape. Others may have been built, but poorly, resulting in vessels with safety and performance issues.

And even those that were relatively well built may not have exactly offered the greatest performance. By the nature of the material, even the better ferro-cement boats weren't exactly lightweight greyhounds of the sea. The worst ones may have been more like wallowing tubs.

Perhaps these builders could have learned a cautionary lesson if they'd looked at some concrete examples from a couple of generations previous.

During World War I, with U boats torpedoing ships in the Atlantic and a shortage of ferrous metal for shipbuilding in the United States, the country decided to experiment with building concrete tankers. Unfortunately, the ships didn't go into service until just after the war. With reduced post-war needs, the planned quota wasn't built.

The ships were perhaps not terribly efficient and had short careers. One of them, the S.S. Palo Alto, was "rescued" from the mothball fleet and towed to the central California coast south of Santa Cruz, where it was beached perpendicular to the Pacific coast shoreline. It became an "entertainment center" of some degree of notoriety for a brief period from around 1929 to 1931. Eventually, the company running it went bankrupt and the Palo Alto cracked in the middle, losing enough structural integrity to become uninhabitable. The ship was stripped and served as a fishing pier for a while, but then become to unsafe even for that minimal use. It retained enough structure to become a home for wildlife. To this day, clouds of seabirds think a concrete ship is a perfectly marvelous place to roost and dump bird poop, although an expensive clean-up was required when it was found that residual oil from the ship had contaminated some of the birds.

Would ferro-cement construction be the worst sailing innovation? No; it didn't even make my top 20 list. But, during at least one generation, it did create something of an embarrassment and many local eyesores for the sailors.

3 Comments:

At 6:05 AM, February 16, 2010, Blogger Overboard said...

Nice post. Full of originality. Love it. I'd never heard that about ferrocement boats before.

 
At 9:00 PM, April 21, 2013, Blogger Nick Mournian said...

So I think it's interesting that while fiberglass and wood boats by the thousands have passed into and out of service and disappeared completely in most cases, the ferro cement boat leaves more of itself behind., whether for fish or fowl to call home the material has proven its durability. For a look at what can be done with ferro cement take a look at courageofcatalina.com - that capt is finishing a job begun in the sixties!

 
At 7:50 PM, November 08, 2013, Blogger George Brisbin said...

A large pat of the problem with the Ferro boat craze was the hype done by the yards and designers wanting to sell the product. I remember clearly the promise of building a boat for 1/2 the cost in any other material. The number was nearly true for the hull only. When it came to the rest of the boat the price of an engine is the same as with the rigging sails etc. So many went out wanting a $90,000 boat an had $43,000 to do it with. At the start everything worked out OK as the hull came in at a great cost savings but that was only a 1/3 the cost of the boat. The other costs came in at full price so the home builder quickly learned that he needed $75,000 not $45,000 and the completed hull became a fish pond in the back yard till it was hauled off.
I have owned two different Ferro boats. Both were pulled out of the backwaters of life in a semi finished condition. I have logged nearly 10,000 miles and 15 years of sailing. The hulls are great and the sailing good. Just too much bad hype killed a good material for boat building.
George

 

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