If a man is to be obsessed by something, I suppose a boat is as good as anything, perhaps a bit better than most. (E. B. White)

Those who have spent many years afloat, or work in the industry, may one-day dream of building their own boat. The driving factors for this tend to be either the end result; a boat that matches specific needs and requirements, or the challenge of the build process itself. In this series, we will examine the many factors to consider when approaching this challenge and offer practical advice for those embarking on a self-build project.

Choosing a boat to build

4 key areas for consideration are: Design, Build, Budget & Timescale. It is highly likely that compromise will be required between the forces at play here and expect to revisit the friend and foe that are ‘desire’ and ‘cost’ many times. Another crucial factor for sound consideration is the capability of the builder. If experience were limited, it would be wise to aim for a more modest vessel, where the seasoned boat builder may wish to rise to the challenge of a more elaborate project.

A sensible first step in choosing the right boat to build is to establish the priorities for example sailing performance versus comfort of accommodation. There exists a fine balance here; prioritising, while not compromising on core requirements. An important note too, is that while the boat may be for your own use now, it’s suitability for sale should always be a factor in the planning stage.

In addition to the builder-specific requirements, there will be external factors that have considerable influence on the most suitable vessel to build. The geographical area to be sailed will heavily influence the external design and materials used. A boat destined for the Pacific Islands, for example, will need minimum draft, to allow navigation through gaps in the coral reef and to get as close as possible to the islands themselves. Those heading for the European Canal, however, would have strength as a priority as they will be susceptible to damage in the locks and to grounding. A steel vessel would therefore be the recommendation here.

Length of voyage will impact on both internal and external design. If destined to cross the oceans, the boat must be robust enough to cope with bad weather and fitted out with crew comfort as a higher priority for longer journeys.

Temperature and climate will play their part in shaping the design of the boat. For sailing in the harshest temperatures, found at the highest and lowest altitudes, the provision of a wheelhouse and well-protected helm position would be advised. In warmer climates, sufficient power will be needed to run an appropriate level of air conditioning – that being far greater for the middle east say, than for the more moderate heat of the Mediterranean.

When it comes to creature comforts, a general rule of thumb is the longer the time spent afloat, the greater the emphasis should be on facilities for you and the crew. Rather like camping, the priorities change when we are away from home, the focus shifting to basic comforts such as temperature control and washing / sanitary facilities – so make sure these are top of the list if planning to spend a long time on-board.


Powering Up

Engine size and capacity is a more obvious consideration for motor vessels, but even a sailing boat will benefit from a modest engine to enhance progress when needed and navigate ‘tricky’ situations. When weighing up the advantages of the mechanical and power systems available, is it essential to check that they are compatible with each other and that there is sufficient power generation and battery capacity for them to function efficiently. Such systems must be marine-specific and able to cope with the harsh marine environment, unsuitable or poor quality materials will otherwise quickly erode. It is worth examining the possibility of adopting ‘green’ power generation, such as solar, wind and water generators, with the potential for environmental and cost-saving benefit. However, suitability of these will depend on the location and use of vessel. Trade shows are a great place to assess providers of such equipment and their products.


Registering your boat

There is another very good reason for giving early consideration to where you intend to sail your boat, as this will dictate what will be needed in terms of certification and registration. If you plan to remain within UK waters, it is not a legal requirement to register the boat and its owner. However, there are advantages of doing so. Registration can be done online, costs around £25 and lasts 5 years, so well worth doing for the protection it offers, particularly in terms of ‘proof of ownership’. If venturing outside UK waters, or if the boat carries any outstanding mortgage, registration is mandatory for insurance purposes.

In order to navigate the UK’s inland waterways, an additional licence is required, usually obtainable through a 1-day course. You will also need to prove you have, and can use, a VHF radio, for which you will pay an annual fee. Like a car, your boat needs to be licensed, insured and safety checked; for inland waterways this is enforced by the Boat Safety Scheme (BSS). The purpose of the BSS is to minimise risks to visitors, prevent environmental damage to the waterways and adjacent properties, and protect the workforce. Once a boat has passed the BSS examination, a safety scheme certificate will be issued, which lasts 4 years.


Managing the build


Failing to plan, is planning to fail

When it comes to managing the project, it’s worth investing proper time into who is going to oversee every detail and keep track of progress at each stage of the build. You may decide that if you are going to take care of most, or all, of the build yourself, it’s worth hiring an experienced Project Manager to stay focussed on the bigger picture. If you are going to undertake this yourself, then it’s well worth looking at applications or software that will help you. For relatively small-scale build, an Excel document or basic Gantt chart will most likely suffice. For larger, more complicated builds, project management software will help track time, costs and communications at every stage of the build.

A word to the wise on budget: It is unlikely that this will be unlimited, so realistic assessment of time and cost is highly advisable. Remember to factor the VAT charge on all goods relating to the build, which is almost impossible to legitimately avoid. (The exception here is if you are building a ‘house boat’ as a permanent residence, but these fall under very stringent criteria.) Like any construction project, modifications or additions at a later stage will force the spend over budget – so make sure everything is included in the planning stage. If you are a lover of lists, here is your chance to shine!

TOP TIP – Calculate the space needed by taking the length and width of the boat to give m2, add room to manoeuvre and work, plus storage.

Careful consideration of the build site is a must – and there are many factors at play here. It can be of great advantage to build the boat as close by as possible – ideally your back yard. This saves a great deal of time travelling to and from the build site and allows you to put in an hour here and there, which can quickly add up and keep the project moving. However, the logistics of getting the vessel afloat on completion should also be considered, as should the space and shelter your build-site offers. Transportation from an in-land site to the water has much improved in recent years, so if location of sufficient space is needed and boatyards are cost-prohibitive, a farmer’s barn or a disused hanger could provide a workable solution. If the boat is to be transported to the water on a trailer, then be aware that since 2012 these vehicles are covered by stringent legislation, including the use of individual registration plates. For a trailer to be deemed road worthy, it must have an ‘A’ frame style construction and have side and end marker lights, as well as break rod systems that comply. You should also bear in mind that working at a remote site will require precise planning of the materials and equipment needed at each stage – the absence of even the smallest, but essential item could cause an unnecessary trip to a chandlery.

TOP TIP – Make sure once the boat is built, it will fit through the opening of the building!

Whatever site you settle on will need to have suitable provision of water and electricity (both dependant on the build materials), adequate cover to protect the boat from the elements, and a clean, dust-free and tidy environment. Good lighting and heat will make for much better conditions to work in, as well as extending the hours available to work during the day, particularly during the winter months.

If hiring space in a boatyard is a viable option financially, the facilities and equipment offered can save money and time elsewhere in the project. When budgeting, it’s important to realise that if the project goes over time, so will the rental fees for the space – even assuming an extension is granted. When considering this as an option, be sure to assess details of all costs, your rights of access to the site and the insurance that will cover you during the build. All of this should be clearly stated in the agreement between you and the boatyard owner. Before signing any such contract, it is highly advisable to have it thoroughly examined by an appropriate legal advisor, acting on your behalf.

The ISPS Code essentially covers who and what can enter a dockside site, so familiarity of this governing code is a must.

Some boatyards may offer assistance with the build, or even completion of the build in its entirety (though don’t be tempted if the rewards of your own labour are an important element of your project). Such help with the build could be a viable option where time consideration out way that of than cost. You could consider paying for help with a particular stage, for example, to complete the initial hull-build and then complete the rest yourself.

Staying safe

An imperative element of the planning stage will be to assess risks during the build – a working knowledge of the correct practices and procedures, applicable by law, is essential for compliance. No construction project is without risks, but an understanding of these at each stage of the build process can help to identify relatively small steps that can be taken to minimise them. Wherever the boat is to be built, make sure you have adequate insurance cover, including liability, to protect you in the case of accident or injury to anyone involved in the build. Security of the site will also need addressing, to prevent theft or damage, and may well be stipulated in your insurance policy. Security features such as CCTV and motion sensor lighting are low-cost and easy to install, and can act as a powerful deterrent to the opportunist thief.

Spending sensibly

Sourcing parts for your boat, particularly for the inexperienced builder, is a task that should be approached with caution and a willingness to seek advice ahead of any major purchase. The priorities of cost and quality will wrestle one another throughout the project, particularly if the budget is tight. However, as a general rule, the adage ‘if it seems to good to be true, it probably is’ would be wise to keep in mind, as would the question ‘What price on safety?’ The rising popularity of sites such as eBay has contributed to a huge rise in counterfeit goods, many carrying equally counterfeit certification. Wherever possible, parts should be purchased from an accredited supplier, who will own responsibility for the source and quality of the item. Ideally, you should build a list of suppliers that you trust and the parts you have purchased from them. It may be that parts have to be ordered in for you, and shipped from overseas. It is therefore highly worthwhile preparing a list of all parts needed before you start the build, to avoid doubling up on shipping costs or a frustrating delay while you wait for a part to arrive.

The list of everything needed for your build project is know as a B.O.M (Bill of materials), which will be created from the technical drawings and specifications for your boat design. The B.O.M details all the raw materials, sub-components and parts needed for the end product and once completed, will enable you accurately analyse the costs for this area of the project.

When assessing the component parts you will use, it is worth considering whether you intend to register the end product to carry the ‘CE’ mark. This is not a requirement if the vessel is under 24 metres long and for non-commercial use, however, it could considerably affect future ability to sell, should you wish to do so. The CE mark shows that a product meets with the safety requirements and complies with the legislation set out by the EU, and is approved for sale on the European market. It is highly likely that the UK will continue to recognise this mark, even in the wake of our exit from the EU. In order for a vessel to carry the CE mark, a declaration must be made, including submission of technical documentation and testing procedures. Once this has been completed and registered, the mark can be applied to the boat, though strict guidelines exist as to how this must appear.

For insurance purposes, once the boat has been built, it may also be necessary to gain a certification of ‘Type Approval’, which is essentially proof that the boat meets the relevant requirements for that type of vessel.

Tools & Equipment

Work spent on correctly identifying the best tools for the job will pay dividends, and should form part of the time / cost planning phase. Large investment in tools and equipment at the start of the project may well be unnecessary, they might not be needed until later in the build, and some may only be used once. This would therefore waste valuable resources on tool hire, so think carefully about what is needed and when. Plan carefully and invest, or hire, as you go – you may even make contacts during the build that can lend equipment or assist with cost-effective sourcing.

Please note, if building in a boatyard is your chosen root, tools and equipment may be available for your use, but again make sure this is clearly set out in the agreement made. Insurance policies will likely require that training is undertaken to demonstrate capability when using certain equipment.

Whatever the nature of the build-site, storing tools is extremely important – keeping them clean, dry and in good condition. Making your own purpose-built toolbox could be a great first step to your boat-building project!

TOP TIP – work with the best quality tools you can afford and keep them sharp.

There are a number of practical skills you will likely need in the build process, such as welding, angle grinding or lofting. If you are not confident in these, it may be worth attending classes to receive expert training, or alternatively consider paying someone to undertake this for you – but make sure their credentials are marine-specific.

Stowed Away

As your project progresses, you will gather a significant amount of paperwork, including proofs of purchase, certificates, warranties and instruction manuals. Storing these safely and in a logical way is essential, as an inability to locate important paperwork could cost you time, money or even mean you are operating outside of the law. Much of this paperwork will be needed on-board, for the repair of equipment, the replacement of parts, or for authority inspections. You will therefore need storage for this, which is worth factoring in at design stage. Good practice is to make copies and keep them onshore, always back-up electrical copies, and use hard copies for easy reference on-board.

Good advice

Discuss your plans with all those involved, even at the peripherals of the project, such as friends and family. Building your own boat will impact your life in many ways, the most common of which being financially and on your available free time.

Consider taking or refreshing your sailing skills, appropriate to your intended sailing environment, with an accredited school or club. Make sure anyone sailing with you has a good working knowledge of the vessel, equipment and safety procedures. At least one person should have first aid training and be familiar with the well-stocked first aid kit you should have on-board.

TOP TIP – Get your friends and family on-board with the project.

Enlisting the support of your nearest and dearest can be invaluable. Once they’ve bought into your ambitious idea, their help could dramatically reduce build-time, as well as offering a great support when things get tough. It helps if they too can look forward to the immense reward of sailing the vessel, so make sure they feel involved every step of the way. Familiarity of basic nautical terms is advisable and could be a fun way to make those involved feel at one with the boat and being afloat!

To learn more about the Boat Building process please take a look at Maritime Training Academy’s Boat Building Diploma course.

Boat Building Course