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I suspect I’ve been annoying my friends with a Facebook feed full of politics over the last couple of weeks, and I suspect it’s not going to get better until the 19th. Suffice to say the ugly, dog-whistle racism that has been embraced by Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada has infuriated and sickened me, and I’ve been venting that frustration with a huge wave of re-posts of political stories and out-of-context Rick & Morty quotes. So I’m not going to do any of that today.

I’m still unemployed, but there’s been some hopeful developments which I’m not going to jinx by discussing. While I run out the clock on those I’ve been playing a lot of classic WoW, mostly random-dungeons with complete strangers, which has led (in conjunction with election news) to a growing suspicion that all people, everywhere, are horrible.

The other thing I’ve been doing is window-shopping for used sailboats. I recently splurged on a copy of Don Casey’s book This Old Boat, which I promptly read cover-to-cover and heartily recommend to anyone planning on doing what I want to do: refurbish and sail a boat on a shoestring budget. The window shopping, which is primarily happening through Kijiji, reveals that there are literally hundreds of project boats for rock-bottom prices in Ontario alone (including a Tanzer 22 here in Peterborough that was posted this morning for $100!) There’s also a number of “sail away” boats posted for well under $5000, which is not unusual for this time of year: people want to get rid of their old sailboat before having to pay for a winter’s haulout and storage.

Alas, I won’t be helping someone get rid of an old boat this year. Despite being unemployed, I’ve managed to save about $500 towards my someday boat, but that’s not enough to commit to even the cheapest project boat, even in the short term. I did consider that Tanzer 22, but from the description in the ad it’ll need a couple of thousand dollars worth of crane rental and new trailer just to get it out of the current owner’s driveway before a couple of years’ worth of time- and resource-intensive refitting.

I’ve had a couple of people who know about my boat dreams ask me why I’d be looking at boats that are, in many cases, older than I am. It isn’t just because of economy (although brand-new boats are indeed hideously expensive) but because, by and large, older boats are of considerably better quality than newer ones. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s true. In order to understand this, you have to understand the history of yacht building.

Until the 1960s, yachts were hand-made of wood and not mass-produced. Building, crewing and maintaining a custom, one-off wooden-hull sailboat was (and still is) breathtakingly expensive. Wood, in fact, is a piss-poor material to make a boat hull out of, especially in the tropics where rot, marine growth and teredo worms actively begin attacking wooden hulls as soon as they’re placed in the water. Making boat-hulls of other available materials, such as steel, just trades one set of material and maintenance costs for another. Anyone who’d commit to maintaining a wooden sailing yacht would have to be rich, obsessed, or both.

Enter the new miracle material, fiberglass. It’s cheaper to build with, it’s easier to work with, it requires minimal maintenance, and with even the slightest amount of care a boat made out of it is virtually indestructible in almost all reasonable conditions. And best of all, fiberglass hulls can be mass-produced. A small boat shop with half a dozen employees could turn out a couple of hulls a week relatively inexpensively, and by the late 1960s that was exactly what was happening around the world… especially around the Great Lakes. Dozens of boatbuilding companies churned out tens of thousands of fiberglass sailboats during the 1970s, and because they were still learning about the new wonder material, they overbuilt those hulls… in some cases massively so. Most modern fiberglass sailboats have hulls that are — at most — 3/8th of an inch thick. Some of the early fiberglass boats had hulls that were built up to the same thicknesses of an equivalent wooden hull, sometimes a full inch of fiberglass. This made for heavy but incredibly strong and durable hulls.

These boats were often “classically styled“, that is, they were designed to look like traditional wooden sailboats in their hull form, so these older, 1970s-era boats were often quite graceful and beautiful… although some not so much. During the boat boom of the 1970s boat manufacturers started experimenting with various designs, and ended up with some pretty weird configurations, such as the double-ended Halman 20 or the flush-decked Tanzer 28. There were also some downright ugly and ungainly sailboats built (anything by S2 Yachts, for example.) Full keels, fin keels, fin-and-skeg, full-keel and centreboard. Aft-cockpit, center cockpit, pilothouse, flush-decked. Sloop-rigged, yawl-rigged, ketch, cutter, cat-rigs… even junk-rigged. A bewildering variety of boats flooded the market… and every fiberglass hull would last decades or possibly even longer. Every couple of years the boatbuilding companies would come out with longer and larger models of boat, and some boat owners would sell their old boats and trade up for a model with two or five feet more length (and correspondingly more interior space.) Their smaller used boats would be sold to someone with a smaller budget and the cycle would repeat, apparently indefinitely.

If you’re into economics, you can see the inevitable in this situation: There’s a finite limit to how many sailboats the market could absorb, and if the old boats last then that limit is going to be reached pretty quickly.

The crash happened in the mid-1980s, roughly about the time of the oil crunch and its associated economic downturn. People didn’t stop sailing, but they stopped buying bigger boats every couple of years and the boat-building industry was in bad trouble. In 1987, the Royal Bank of Canada virtually destroyed the Ontario boatbuilding industry in a single panicked day by calling in every loan and line of credit for boat manufacturers (even those who might have remained financially stable with support.) Yacht-building languished for much of the 1990s, and when new yachts really started being built again in the early 2000s there was not nearly the diversity of design that flourished in the heyday of boat-building back in the 1970s. Like any ecology that’s suffered an extinction event, only those species which proved to be viable in the new circumstances survived.

A “modern” yacht is usually a simple sloop rig, lightly built, with a fin keel, a broad beam and high freeboard for maximum interior space. They’re designed to do exactly what 90% of yachties tend to do: stay parked in a marina as a sort of floating cottage, with the occasional day or overnight sail in protected waters. Their interior layouts are almost carbon-copies of each other and the details vary only in the number of luxuries piled aboard. Multihull luxury sailboats are a prime example of this trend: any sailboat with a sliding glass patio door isn’t, in my personal opinion, what one could call blue-water seaworthy but I bet a 40 foot catamaran’s comfortable as hell in a sheltered anchorage someplace warm.

Real, rugged, blue-water, ocean-crossing seaworthiness is not a priority for modern boatbuilders, unless they’re building kevlar-and-carbon fiber professional racing hulls. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few 1970s-style sailboats still being made (such as my own lottery-win dream-boat the Dana 24) but they’re very much the exception, not the rule. Partly that’s because the market is geared towards the maximized profit-potential of floating luxury palaces, but mostly it’s because the blue-water market — even decades later — is still glutted with cheap, seaworthy, virtually-immortal 1970s-era “plastic classics.”

And every autumn, like clockwork, the plastic classics start getting posted online for cheap. I can only wish I could afford one this year… and I just hope I can afford one next.

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