Production, custom or semicustom?
Posted on 01 December 2009
Written by Eric Sorensen
You get a truly unique boat with the custom route, but you’ll pay more for the one-on-one attention
In a more perfect world — that is, a world in which everyone is rich — custom powerboats would be the only boats built.
With a custom boat you get exactly what you want — the layout, look, dimensions — and the satisfaction of knowing no one else has one like it. You’d expect to pay for it, but then, of course, the extra cost wouldn’t matter.
On the other hand, very few in the general boating population know exactly what they want in a powerboat, or what’s practical to ask for, and would need lots of guidance drawing up the specifications. For most of us, production powerboats are there for a reason. Actually, several reasons, as we’ll find out.
Production boats keep us out of trouble, in a sense, because there isn’t much you can change, certainly nothing that’s fundamental about the boat, such as hull form, layout and structure. Let’s take a look at the differences between custom, semicustom and production powerboats, some advantages and disadvantages, and limitations and opportunities inherent with each, keeping in mind that the difference between these boat classes can get blurry.
For most people, getting the most bang for the buck is the No. 1 priority, and that’s where production boats deliver the goods. These boats come off the assembly line with very little that’s different from one to the next. A few hull colors to choose from, gas instead of diesel engines, the 250- instead of the 350-hp Yamaha, cherry instead of teak, red cushions instead of tan, the live well instead of the cooler, a windlass, a generator — these are the sort of options production-boat buyers may be offered.
Labor costs for production boats are much lower because the boats go down the line and are built by people doing familiar, repetitive tasks. Since lamination and assembly workers do the same job over and over, maximizing efficiency, labor costs are lower, as are overhead expenses — lights, taxes, the front office, heat — so each boat is that much cheaper with increased throughput.
The biggest reason a fiberglass production boat is so much less expensive to produce is the tooling — or molds — used to make the fiberglass parts. Tooling is expensive, on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a 30-footer. Once built, assuming regular maintenance, the female molds can be used to make hundreds of parts before they must be replaced. This means the cost of the molds is amortized over the production run of the boat model.
The finish of the fiberglass part — whether the hull and the one-piece deck/superstructure, or small components like a deck hatch or live well tub — will perfectly mirror the surface of the mold, so each part comes out, or should come out, glass-smooth and ready to use, with only minor touchup required. Hull molds in particular sometimes are used to create more than one model — for example, the same 28-foot hull is used for center console and cuddy cabin layouts. Some builders might use an older mold to make a new model by lengthening and widening it to create a bigger boat. It could also be that this modification will make a better running boat, if the original needed more bottom area to spread its weight over.
Also consider that quality also tends to improve when a process can be repeated in exactly the same way each and every time. Once a high-quality process is developed, using quality materials and components, and people are trained and supervised to repeat the process correctly, the finished result — your next boat — will also be of high quality. By “quality” I mean that a boat and all of its components will be reliable and durable, functioning properly over time with proper maintenance.
Production boats are also less expensive to build and purchase because, like the automaker, the boatbuilder can purchase in bulk. Imagine what it would cost to make a single dash panel for a Ford Taurus, compared to the cost of each of thousands made every week. Suppliers give discounts for materials bought in bulk and for long-term orders that help the supplier plan its own production rates and budget time and materials accordingly. Builders can buy seacocks, seat cushion foam, hose clamps, cleats, stereos, diesels and all of the hundreds of parts needed in bulk and on a comparatively regular delivery schedule, which greatly reduces the cost of materials.
Plant space also is put to good use, with the production lines from lamination to final finish tweaked and fine-tuned. To match the quality of a production boat, absent the repetitive nature of the tasks required, a custom or semicustom builder has to throw more labor — sometimes more highly skilled (and highly paid) labor — at the same job.
There are other advantages to production boats. They’ve been pretty well vetted by other owners, as well as by their designers and builders, so there are not likely to be major flaws with the product. On the contrary, if you take a typical 26-foot express cruiser, it would be hard to imagine a more efficient use of space if what you’re looking for is a floating RV suitable for a weekend on the water with two adults and 2.3 kids. That said, there’s a wide variation out there among the generic boat classes — bowriders, center consoles, cabin boats, and so on — in terms of ride, seaworthiness, reliability and durability; it pays to be aware of what to look for and who is doing a better job than the others.
As with used cars, an owner would have a pretty good idea what his or her boat would be worth come resale time two or three years down the pike, and they’d be able to sell it fairly quickly, since there are usually plenty of people in the market for that brand.
Last but by no means least, production boats usually are sold by a dealer network, so buying a good boat from a good dealer — one with a reputation for service responsiveness, competence and honesty — makes a world of difference. What good is a $250,000 boat if the water pump shreds on a Friday afternoon and you need a tech to fix it today, not in two weeks. I would put a good deal of focus when choosing a boat brand on the local reputation of the dealer, and ask around to see who is well-regarded, who has trained technicians, and so forth.
Also check JD Power and Associates (www.jdpower.com) to see which brands are rated highly by their owners. Dealer scores aren’t broken out, but you can learn something about them by inference from the overall rating simply because a great boat with a lousy dealer will rarely get rated highly by its owner.
A custom powerboat starts with a clean sheet of paper or — just as likely — a blank computer screen. The boat is unique in terms of dimensions, hull form, deck, superstructure, arrangements, features and components, how it all goes together. A custom boat is expensive to build, in part, because the fiberglass parts, including the hull and the deck/superstructure, are one-offs, with no female mold for layup. This means the hull is either built over a male mold, or a limited-production female mold is created just for this boat. And once the hull and other parts are built, a tremendous amount of labor is required to fair the fiberglass surface to yacht standards compared to a molded production boat.
Depending on the builder, all the talent to create a boat may be in-house, or the builder may opt to bring in others for a collaborative effort. A great deal goes into building a successful boat, at least one that is to incorporate the best hull form, structure, propulsion, electrical engineering, etc. Anyone can draw a pretty hull, but making it perform well in rough water — seakindly, seaworthy and controllable — takes a special talent that is often lacking today.
A client might choose a designer or naval architect to design the whole boat from stem to stern, or it might be a collaborative effort with one person doing the hull and someone else the styling, including the hull sheer line and some hull topside details, such as flare and tumblehome. Another person or firm might be brought in to engineer the structure — specifying the laminates, cores, stringer system and so on — and someone else might design the electrical and mechanical systems. With larger yachts, it’s common for an exterior stylist and interior decorator to be brought in as subcontractors. These subs have their roles and responsibilities clearly spelled out in the contract, and they all work for the builder, so the buck ultimately stops with one person.
This approach lets the builder and owner take advantage of the strengths different firms or people have. You get the ride and seakeeping you want, for example, along with the looks that appeal to you. It may also be that you are sold on a particular builder, having built several boats with him previously, but want your next boat to be more efficient and, therefore, lighter. In the process you may be “moving” the builder to the next level technically, which might require bringing in an outside firm to engineer the structure and train the builder’s lamination team in resin infusion.
The other approach is to hire one firm to do it all: hull, layout, structure, styling, propulsion and systems. The advantage here is that you have a single telephone number (the general contractor’s) to remember. This one-stop-shopping approach is the most common way to have a custom boat under 100 feet built. Many yards have less than 30 people on staff, but almost all of them typically are cross-trained and multitalented. I’ve met craftsmen who might be laminating the hull one month and shaping teak for the helm station or installing the electrical system the next.
For any of these approaches to building a custom yacht — and there are many variations and permutations on the preceding sketch — at least half of the fun for the owner is likely to be in the creative act, bringing a one-of-a-kind yacht from concept to commissioning. For such people, the point is to have a boat that is unique, just like the owner. The metaphor and the motivation are pretty clear in this case. The product of the owner’s efforts is tremendously rewarding, even if all does not proceed in lockstep during the building process.
It’s also true that a person can get into a lot of trouble specifying a boat that in the end won’t work very well — and that no one else will ever want to buy when the time comes to sell. However, it seems that nature tends to find a balance here in our actual, imperfect world. Many or most custom clients have owned a number of boats before and know what they’re about when drawing up specifications for their next one. And, fortunately, most custom boatbuilders have been around long enough to know when something the client requests is a bad idea. In this case, the builder must have the fortitude and common sense to say so.
Henry Hinckley, the Maine boatbuilder, was very good at this. He made sure his Hinckley sailboat owners got a great boat with a few personal touches without ruining the boat in the process. Owners who might have wanted to cram too many staterooms into too small a hull or make the cockpit too small must have thanked him once they’d owned their boats for a while.
In a nutshell, custom means no one else has this boat, this hull, this look, this deck plan. It’s completely fresh, new, unique, which is the whole idea. The downside, of course, is it’s going to cost you more, maybe as much as double that of a production boat of the same size, though the difference narrows with larger boats. Plus, it’s going to take you longer to get your boat, although in these tough times you can count on less of a backlog.
If price is an issue, consider a custom builder who is not as well known. You might get a boat you’re just as happy with for a good bit less. Do your research. These fellows are out there. On the other hand, the premium names in the custom yacht world command a higher resale value, so paying more up front may pay off in the long term if you eventually decide to sell the boat.
There is a middle ground between production and custom: the creatively named semicustom yacht. This is a less-expensive, less-demanding and faster way to go than custom-build for the reasonably well-to-do individualist. Semicustom simply means you’re starting off with a stock hull and deck/superstructure and go from there. Many Maine yachts are built on a semicustom basis, starting with the kit boats that include the hull with bulkheads installed and a stock deck/superstructure.
The semicustom builder should be flexible, within limits, regarding structural bulkheads. Typically, you’d find four or five in a 40- to 50 footer: one in the forepeak, creating the anchor rode locker; the forward and aft engine room bulkheads; and the lazarette bulkhead below the cockpit between the engine room and the transom. The builder should be able to move structural bulkheads around to accommodate your layout, especially if the hull is cored and the stringers strong and stiff enough. Just ask.
When you order a hull and deck, you can usually specify whether the hull is solid glass or cored, and what it’s to be cored with, the type of resin and the hull color. If you’re a do-it-yourself builder, you can also likely order it with the engine, running gear and fuel tank installed, or in pretty much any stage of completion. You can get it finished off like a workboat or go the distance with a forest of varnished teak and other luxuries.
An important digression. On any custom or semicustom boat, I would make sure there were enough bulkheads so that if you were to punch a hole in the hull, or a saltwater hose let go, the subdivision created by the spacing and number of bulkheads would prevent the boat from sinking. This can be done with enough thought expended by the designer and builder. If they say it can’t be done, find a builder who can. There’s no substitute for the feeling of security you get from a boat that’s hard to sink.
This is called a single-compartment boat, and building one is not rocket science. The designer just has to make sure there’s enough reserve buoyancy and stability remaining with one flooded compartment to keep the boat floating and upright. That requires at least four bulkheads dividing the boat into five compartments, and they have to be watertight (no limber holes or other penetrations) up to the main deck to contain the water.
With a semicustom boat, the choice of power and, to some extent, the location of the engine room is pretty much yours, whether powering with inboards, pods, waterjets, surface piercing drives, sterndrives or outboards (longitudinal center of gravity and hull design permitting). Just make sure you also listen to the builder. The accommodations are up to you, as well. Three staterooms and two heads, two staterooms and two heads with a shared shower, two staterooms and an office, even one big stateroom with an adjacent Jacuzzi and his-and-her hanging lockers if that’s what you’ve always wanted – and you’re willing to pay the freight.
This is important: Do your homework and chose a proven hull. It still happens that someone will design a custom boat that turns out to be a dog in rough water — maybe it’s wet or bow steers downsea or pounds running upsea. With a semicustom boat, as long as you sea-trial the same basic boat offshore in advance, you should have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into.
A semicustom boat is a good choice for someone who really likes a basic design, but wants a different space distribution — for example, taking four feet from the cockpit to enlarge the saloon, or two larger staterooms instead of three small ones, or the master forward instead of below the saloon. You also get to choose the décor, including the choice of wood inside. You should be able to add a circular staircase from the saloon to the enclosed bridge if you want, or specify 24-inch hatches in the cabin instead of the stock 20 inches.
What a semicustom boat is not is one that has fixed bulkheads with a set floor plan (if you’ll forgive the non-nautical term) and maybe a couple stateroom layouts to from which to choose. This is a production boat with two stateroom options.
A semicustom boat costs less than a custom one for the simple reason that the hull, deck and deckhouse have all been engineered and, in the case of a fiberglass boat, there’s female tooling for it, speeding up production substantially. It costs more than a production boat because much of it is built to order, which slows the process, increases labor, and increases the cost of materials, since economies of scale are lost. But you end up with a boat that fakes custom pretty well and reflects the owner’s tastes, wants and personality for decidedly less money. Not a bad tradeoff.
It’s a good time to buy any kind of boat, simply because there are more sellers than buyers. For a custom or semicustom boat, the chance of finding a builder who can take your project on in the near term is very good, and I’d be surprised if the price you’re quoted isn’t substantially less than it would have been 24 months ago. The same goes for production builders in that, absent the big backlog of orders many builders had two years ago, you can probably order and have delivered that new boat sooner than you might think. In terms of supply-and-demand and price, this is a great time to buy a boat.
Eric Sorensen was founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice and is the author of “Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance.” A longtime licensed captain, he can be reached at
This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.