Which is the better boat building material, aluminum or fiberglass?
Aluminum VS. Fiberglass
Get a snook sharpie from Florida, a walleye angler from Minnesota, a salmon guy from Alaska, and an offshore aficionado from New Jersey, then put them all in a locked room and pose the question: which are better, aluminum boats or fiberglass boats? You’d better stand clear, because the discussion might get a bit sporty. If, however, heads remain calm and people remain open minded (as though that were still possible in this day and age), everyone would probably agree on one thing – the one only correct answer to this question is “it depends.”
There’s no denying that each material has its own pluses and minuses, which all have to be taken into consideration. So, the real question then becomes, which boat building material is better for the type of fishing you do? Thinking about the conundrum in this way explains why the vast majority of river-runners in Alaska are aluminum, and a similar proportion of center console fishing boats running through Egg Harbor Inlet are built from fiberglass. For many of us, however, the choice isn’t so clear-cut. If you’re engaged in the aluminum-versus-fiberglass debate, make sure you keep these considerations in mind:
Foot-for-foot, aluminum boats are historically less expensive than fiberglass boats. This may be in the process of changing; several builders announced price increases in the eight to 10 percent range after aluminum tariffs went into effect earlier this year. Assuming that sooner or later market forces come back into balance, however, aluminum should retain its position as the less expensive boat building material.
Many small aluminum boats are incredibly inexpensive. This 16-foot Tracker Super Guide V-16 SC comes with a trailer and a 40-horse Mercury, yet lists at under $15,000 brand new.
Since aluminum boats are lighter than boats of the same size made with fiberglass, they also gain an economic edge when it comes to powering and operational expense. Small aluminum boats may post the same speeds as fiberglass boats with significantly larger engines, thereby attaining five or even 10-percent higher fuel economy. And when you get up to larger sized boats, there are even some cases where an aluminum rig does just fine with a single engine while similar glass boats require twins. (Check out the numerous Yamaha performance reports online, which in our experience are quite accurate, to compare some numbers directly). Added bonus: lighter rigs also make for easier, more economical towing.
In this category, fiberglass generally gets the nod for a couple different reasons. First off, their heavier nature does help them bull waves out of the way. While aluminum rigs often feel like they’re being buffeted and battered, a fiberglass boat of the same size may have the heft to crush the chop underfoot. The weight can also help enhance static stability (as long as the boat’s designed with a reasonably low center of gravity). For light-tackle casters who like standing on elevated casting decks, this can be a big consideration.
A completely different reason for differences in seakeeping has to do with hull design. Aluminum can only be shaped so much, before constructing the hull becomes incredibly difficult. With fiberglass, on the other hand, you can design in just as complex a shape as you’d like (think: variable-degree deadrises, bow flare, hull steps, pads, multiple strakes, etcetera). Do the design and mold work up-front, and from that point on building the boat isn’t much different than popping a much simpler boat out of the mold.
Complex shapes and hull-forms are much more easily designed and built with fiberglass; trying to build something with a hull like that of this SeaVee 390Z out of aluminum would be just plain nuts.
Another seakeeping trait that has a big impact on us anglers is the way a boat drifts, and in this regard there’s often a big difference between aluminum and fiberglass. With their light weight and little hull extending beneath the surface of the water, aluminum boats tend to get blown around quite easily. If you like a slow drift, you’ll usually favor fiberglass.
Maintenance and Repairs
Aluminum’s a winner, on this count. You don’t have to wax it, aluminum decks are a breeze to keep clean compared to molded-in fiberglass nonskid, and fiberglass has a number of problems (like crazing and blistering) that can require maintenance and repairs but are non-issues with aluminum.
Another factor to keep in mind is that when it strikes something solid, aluminum dents whereas fiberglass cracks and/or breaks. And fixing a dent is a lot easier than patching up a heavily-damaged fiberglass hull. As a general rule of thumb smacking into solid objects (remember those Alaskans running through rocky rivers in search of salmon, who depend almost entirely on aluminum) is a much bigger deal if you’re in a fiberglass boat.
The pendulum swings back towards fiberglass, in this regard. Although we will stipulate that the modern baked-enamel paint jobs found on many of today’s aluminum boats are pretty spectacular, the blinding gleam of freshly-waxed gel coat, much less Imron or Awlgrip, is extremely tough to beat.
Glass boats commonly look better on the inside, too, because many components (such as leaning posts, livewells, and seat bases) can be molded right into the deck or liner. On aluminum boats, these are add-on fixtures that need to be bolted or welded in place. In the long run this can have a significant impact on resale value, too. On some aluminum rigs (particularly smaller, less expensive boats) relatively cheap accessory items are utilized. You’re more likely to see rotomolded plastic or wood pieces-parts, which deteriorate with time and send a boat’s value plummeting.
So, back to the original question: which is the better boatbuilding material? Neither. Both. It depends. What kind of fishing do you like to do?