We love wooden boats. Not as a tree-hugging denial of the engineering present, but as a modern composite design material. Properly-done custom wooden boats are considerably more efficient to build than most similar fiber-reinforced plastic, or metal craft. And natural materials, like wood, are also attractive options in marine design and engineering. If you don’t believe that, go look up flax composites and see how the same stuff they wear in Game of Thrones finds its way into high-tech boats.
With that said, we’ve never condoned the other end of the wood debate: The “wood bigot.” The fellow that seems only happy when every last itty-bit of a “wooden boat” is made of wood. No other material is allowed. Wood must be wood must be wood. Ecch.
To all of you, then, who insist that every last stick in a boat must be a fibrous material pulled from a living tree, may we present you Italmas. Our brand-new 45-foot “mahogany” (note the quotes) cruiser going together at Van Dam Custom Boats up in Boyne City, Michigan.
This most-lovely Big Lakes boat is mostly made of carefully-selected hand-crafted mahogany. And Ben Van Dam, who recently took over as president of the shop from his legendary wooden-boat building dad Steve, does train his woodworkers thoroughly before plowing into that wood stock. We stopped over for a chat with Steve few a weeks ago. And we can confirm that it is (mostly) chisels and planes that are building Italmas. It’s amazing.
But even so, all this old-world craftsmanship does not mean Italmas lacks for modern innovation. After all, wood is good.
Innovations we think will put this throw-back looking design right up there, next to any other big lake boat of her size for performance and features. Here are our top predictions on Italmas:
She’ll crush the competition to windward: Even though the sheer and basic hull form is straight out of the traditional Big Lake boats idiom, like this 33-foot Stars Echo, we sneaked in a super-efficient keel and rudder and a modern low-wetted surface hull. We then took advantage of Van Dams’ skill with wood, and tailored our engineering to make this boat strong and light. Just trim her and she’ll cough up skads of windward gauge over similar boats.
Idiot-proof water ballasting: Italmas was so light that we found a ton of spare space between the lead at the bottom of the bulb keel and the bottom of the hull. So much so, that we could engineer in a 60-gallon tank of fuel right there in the keel! Assuming each gallon of diesel weighs 7 pounds, that’s about 420 pounds — or two big crew people — that can be taken on and off the boat depending on conditions. The big secret of the Great Lakes is ports are close by. This is a boat that can be topped up or down easily with fuel. Meaning, Italmas will feature an everyman’s water-ballasting option: If it’s kicking up that day, top up the fuel tank for more windward punch. Want to strip down for lighter days? Run the tank closer to empty. She’ll move right along.
She’ll be roomier below: Because we were dealing with a classic cold-molded beamy design with relatively high freeboard for a spirit of tradition boat, we created all sorts of extra space below. Italmas will be open and airy for a boat her size. She’ll feature large forward spaces, plenty of room for gear and people. And a fair amount of privacy in various pockets around the boat. Rest assured, the owner’s family will not kill each other after a week on this boat.
She’ll be easy to sail: Since Italmas is lighter, stiffer, and roomier than you would expect, we matched her with a custom engineered modern wood spar that mixes in advanced materials where needed. The refined rectangular-section wooden mast will be reinforced with composites in high-load areas. Especially where the carbon roller furling boom is attached. All that saved weight and windage can then be invested in a taller rig. Italmas will have enough sailing horsepower for some serious “get up and go” in the light stuff. This will be a sail plan that will be forgiving and easy to manage.
She’ll be Comfortable When It Pipes Up: With all the space and weight saving, we were able to work in a hard dodger that incorporates metal framing and modern engineering. To the point where, the foam-core roof will handle the mainsheet loads and also let us tuck in the halyards and sheets inside this roof. Spray and splashing water won’t matter. And all but the worst rain can be ignored. The coach roof will also spare older skin the bright mid-west sun.
Reality may finally prove us wrong. But we doubt it — we’ve done this a time or two before. Italmas’ owner will discover he may own a boat that weighs nearly 12 metric tonnes. But she will perform like a comfortable and much lighter, more racing-oriented craft. And she will stand right up to all but the most aggressive performance cruisers.
Italmas will get to open water easier, get home faster, be more seaworthy in the sloppy stuff and easier to handle than most than any other boat of similar classic look.
The magic is mixing the right advanced materials with wood.