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Cheap Boats

Boat buying then and now.

September 7, 2012
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Cheap Boats

The Banks Dory is one of the most vaunted boat designs of all time. Everybody seems to have a dory story, and if you ask a boater chances are good he’ll tell you how seaworthy these simple wooden rowing craft are. Like many legends, that of the dory has grown exponentially in in the century-and-a-half since schooners plied the banks for cod.

But the truth about the dory is this: They were cheap boats.

Banks dories were designed to fulfill a specific mission. They had to be stacked one inside the other on the deck of the schooner they served, so the sides needed to be straight, rather than curved, and the bottoms flat. The thwarts (that’s “seats,” in case you didn’t know) were removable and so aided stack-ability.

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Even a freshman in naval architecture will tell you that a round bilged boat with permanently secured thwarts both rides the waves better and is stronger, for both the fastened thwart and the curves in its planks. But it takes more planks to build a round shape. And more time. And, more money.

Dories were built of one wide plank per side, and a single plank for the bottom. They had frames that, rather than being bent in as one piece, were three pieces of wood fastened together with metal clips. These features allowed dories to be series built, and quickly, of the then available stock of wide, white pine planks from first growth trees, which are all but gone now.

The schooners were owned by corporate interests—“Big Fish”—if you will, and those owners demanded a commodity price from what was considered a disposable commodity item. I wont delve into what those interests thought of their crews. You can decide for yourself.

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So, rather than define the Banks Dory as seaworthy, I’d define it as, “the most seaworthy boat that could be mass-produced of available materials and still fulfill its mission.” Sorry if I’m bursting some bubbles here, but I gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em.

I state that with no malice. By putting such an iconic boat type in perspective, we can look through a clearer lens when making our own boat-buying decisions.

“How good is good-enough?” That’s the question many buyers ask themselves as they shop, trade-in and trade-up. It’s a question for which there is no easy answer. Besides considering how, where and in what anticipated conditions the boat will be used, there is resale value, bragging rights (or lack thereof) and reliability over time to consider. You have to like the look of it. As I always say, there is no perfect boat, but there’s probably one that’s perfect for you.

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After a season on the Grand Banks dories were often worn out, broken up and burned. Then a new order would be placed with the builder. This dovetails nicely with another one of my favorite sayings: The cheapest boat to buy is usually the most expensive boat to own.

Takeaway: In a storm at sea I’d rather be with a good skipper in a so-so boat than in a good boat with a so-so skipper.

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