Article: Different Strokes
YOU'RE FINALLY THERE. After years of saving coffee money and a thousand hours poring over catalogs, you’ve made the decision to buy your first drift boat. Yet there remains a problem: an overabundance of options. Do you need 15 or 16 feet? Two-, three-, or four-man? High- or low-side? Before you even get to those questions, you have to answer something more fundamental, something that will affect everything you plan to do with your new boat far more than the accessories you choose. These days, drift boats come in fiberglass, wood, aluminum, and newfangled plastic. Before you write a check, you have to decide which material will best meet your needs. We set out to make this all-important decision a little easier by polling as many drift boat manufacturers and enthusiasts as possible about the advantages offered by each of the four major materials.
A drift boat is generally defined as an unpowered, oared vessel meant for at least two anglers. According to Jim Hinman of Clackacraft, modern drift boats are mostly based on McKenzie river boats (sometimes called dories), which were developed in the early 20th century. These boats were rockered, meaning that the bottom curved upward at both ends, and they were usually shaped like a pointed ellipse, with the widest portion in the middle, where the oarsman sat. LaMoyne Hyde, owner of Hyde Drift Boats, explains that early drift boats were made out of a single sheet of 4-by-10 plywood: “You’d shave the edges to make a floor, add the sides, and off you’d go.”
The shape of a drift boat today hasn’t really changed. The basic layout is dictated by the need to steer in heavy current. When at the oars, you’ll have three main requirements: You have to be able to stop, to pivot, and to move side to side so that you can avoid obstacles easily. A rockered, more or less flat bottom allows the boat to be “planed out” by back-stroking. This lifts the boat up on top of the flow of water (kind of like a surfboard) and, with steady back rowing, causes it to “sit” in position. Because the oarsman is in the dead center of the craft, it can also pivot on an axis for quick turns to avoid rocks or trees (by stroking forward with one oar and backwards with the other). Finally, unlike with a canoe or kayak, most steering on a drift boat is done by rowing backwards, which also slows the boat. Experienced drift boat guides, such as Montana’s Greg Lilly, stress the following maxim: “Point your nose at trouble and back away.” In a drift boat, back-stroking while aimed at an object on, say, the left bank will cause the boat to drift to the right (thus avoiding trouble). Slowing the boat also makes better fishing sense, because current in the center of a river tends to move faster than current at the shoreline (and you don’t want to be dragging your anglers’ flies out of the seam).
Sports Car or Sedan?
The four different materials have pros and cons, and each affects a boat’s performance considerably. First and foremost, you have weight to consider. “Whatever you’re drafting [that is, how deep in the water the boat sits] is what you’re rowing,” says Clacka’s Hinman. Lighter craft sit higher in the water, making them easier to stop, steer, and pivot. On the other hand, according to Hog Island’s owner John St. John, “A heavy boat will resist being pushed around by the wind and also be better at tracking a straight line downriver.” LaMoyne Hyde agrees: “There is such a thing as a boat that’s too light. Just like with a sports car, you need some weight or it will glide all over the place.” And of course, all weight is relative: “We sell our boats with trailers,” says Clacka’s Hinman with a laugh, “so it’s not like you’re going to have to pick them up.” Lighter boats are less fatiguing during a long day on the water, as long as there’s not much wind. But if a boat is too light, it can swing from side to side while at anchor, eventually tipping and filling with water. Owners of lightweight boats should always be careful to anchor only in slack water.
Generally speaking, wooden boats and boats made out of a lot of plastic are the heaviest. Fiberglass and aluminum sit in the middle, while those made of thinner sheets of plastic (reinforced with wood or aluminum ribs) are lightest. However, those general rules are subject to how individual builders choose to use their materials. For instance, wooden boats can also be among the lightest craft, provided the builder uses high-grade marine plywood and builds with an eye toward cutting weight in the accessories. Because wooden boats tend to be the most individualized craft available, there is more variation here than with any other type of boat. Hog Island’s plastic boats are made using a process called “roto-molding.” As owner John St. John explains, “We have a hollow mold made, which we fill with plastic and cure. We actually hired the guy who builds the teacup rides for Disney to make us our mold.” Roto-molded craft tend to be relatively heavy due to the amount of material involved. They don’t require wood or aluminum reinforcement, as the plastic is thick enough to provide rigidity. (They are also arguably the most durable boats on the market, but more about that later).
On the other hand, Boulder Boatworks’ co-owner Chris Schrantz explains that his plastic boats are made out of thinner sheets of high-density material, which “we weld together in a way very similar to how wooden drift boats are made out of marine plywood.” Thanks to the welding process, Boulder Boatworks’ boats are much lighter, but require wood or metal reinforcement for structural support. Rigidity is an important performance characteristic, too, probably second only to weight. A boat made of material that is too light or under-reinforced will flex in the middle when the oarsman rows, sending out shock waves and diminishing the rower’s power. (Early prototypes of plastic drift boats had this problem, leading the manufacturers to reinforce them more heavily before bringing them to market). For this reason, most modern boats have some form of structural rib or skeleton built into the design; depending on the material, these ribs may be visible or buried in the hull. The most important parts of a drift boat, from a structural standpoint, are the chines, the sharp edges of the bottom of the boat. These take the most abuse in the water, and also affect how the boat will handle. “A sharp chine, like the edge of a snow ski, will tend to ‘hook’ the water in a turn,” explains Hog Island’s John St. John. “We like to make our chines more rounded so the boat will slide.”
Other makers differ on this point: “Sharper chines do help the boat track straight and also seem to make it row better,” says Robert Eddins of Ro Drift Boats. “But,” he admits, “sharper chines also tend to take more damage, which is why we offer both.” On a fiberglass boat, chines are made of many layers of material so they will last as long as possible and protect the boat from impact. This area is the most frequently damaged part of a boat and thus the area that requires the most off-season maintenance.
Clackacraft, along with Hyde, Ro, and many others, builds many of its boats out of fiberglass, “because you can do things with fiber that you can’t do with aluminum or wood,” according to Clackacraft’s Hinman. One example is what Clacka calls the tunnel hull—a scalloped bottom on some models that allows the boat to plane out easier, because water is scooped downward when the oarsmen back-rows (forcing the boat upward). Other builders integrate this theory across the whole bottom of the boat, by making it arched or curved rather than flat. This feature makes the boat easier to stop, and is easy to build out of fiberglass (making it cost-effective). Fiberglass (as well as plastic) boats also have the advantage of flexibility—since the bottom can flex, the boat will slide over rocks that would stick to aluminum or badly mar wood.
Hyde Boats makes both aluminum and fiberglass craft. LaMoyne Hyde explains that aluminum boats are popular in the Pacific Northwest, partly because the region has traditionally had many aluminum boat manufacturers, and also partly because of the heavy, sometimes dangerous river flows in that area. “An aluminum boat can hit a rock and it will take a dent, which doesn’t look good, but at least you can keep going,” Hyde says. “With a fiberglass boat, you might have to take it in to the factory to have that dent repaired.”
Finally, the shape of a boat can change how it handles considerably. “Wood boats are actually a pleasure to row,” says LaMoyne Hyde, “because so many of them have long straight sections along the edge of the bottom.” The straighter the boat’s footprint, the better it will be at tracking a straight line (but, conversely, the harder it will be to turn). Most drift boat companies have arrived at sweet spots which allow their boats to track and turn equally well, but you’ll want to consider the region the company comes from. Many companies with heavy whitewater in their DNA wind up making a rounder, more maneuverable (but poorer-tracking) boat. Conversely, manufacturers in areas with wide open tailwaters tend to favor a straighter boat that resists wind but is not so maneuverable. (The best example of the latter would be the “skiff” design developed on the South Fork of the Snake River, which is a low-sided, square-ended drift boat meant for nearly still water. This design, in fiberglass, is currently offered by several companies.)
After the performance characteristics determined by the weight and shape of a boat, the next most important consideration is going to be durability, and the maintenance you’ll need to perform in the off-season. Plastic is the most durable boat material for most practical fishing conditions. Modern UHMW (ultra-high molecular weight) plastics are slippery, so they slide off rocks, and are also resistant to impact, because they can flex. Early plastics had issues with UV decay from sunlight, but Hog Island’s St. John explains that new UV inhibitors in the mix mean “the boats have a life expectancy of fifty years on the Equator.” Some anglers continue to take issue with plastic boats deforming on hot days, so if you live in a hot climate, keep that factor in mind. When it comes to the bottom of the boat, plastic clearly wins this category—so much so that many wooden boat builders and some fiberglass boat owners are now affixing plastic “shoes” to the bottoms of their boats.
For many anglers, the most important consideration is simple: cost. New fiberglass drift boats remain the least-expensive commercial options, with a number of companies currently offering basic models, with a trailer, for around $5,000. Of course, you could always choose to build your own wooden boat, which can cost either less or more, depending on your woodworking expertise and the tools and materials you use. Plastic boats of all kinds are currently more expensive due to their relative newness and the high cost of the equipment involved. Over time, these prices may fall more into line with fiberglass as new companies recoup their initial capital investments. (Boulder Boatworks is offering a competitively priced “River Taxi” model already.) Aluminum boats remain the most expensive by a small margin.
LaMoyne Hyde explains that aluminum has traditionally been a more expensive material “because you have to weld it together, and that’s labor intensive.” However, interestingly, “you need to remember that the price of fiberglass is tied to the price of oil, thanks to the resins.” As a result of rising oil prices in recent years, fiberglass boats have become more expensive (meaning today’s top-of-the-line fiberglass boats cost nearly as much as aluminum). Finally, there are many quality boats to be had on the used market, and Web sites such as Craigslist make it easy to find older boats. Drift boats naturally become “used” fairly quickly, which is a consideration to keep in mind when contemplating buying a new boat.
Aluminum boats take durability to an extreme. Although they can take a lot of visible damage in the process, they will hold up to rocks that would crush fiberglass or wood and even puncture plastic. For this reason, aluminum remains popular among anglers who must occasionally run white water, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Ironically, aluminum has the opposite problem from plastic from a comfort perspective: “In winter, a lot of anglers find aluminum boats to be unpleasantly cold,” says Hyde. Fiberglass boats require some maintenance, especially to the bottom. Most glass-boat companies now offer relatively affordable refinishing services for the bottoms of their boats, as well as chinereplacement kits. As fiberglass boats remain the most popular fly-fishing craft among guides (thanks to cost and availability), it’s not uncommon to hear them swapping stories in the winter about the number of hours they expect to need to get their boats in shape for spring. Fortunately, “fiberglass is really easy to repair,” says Ro’s Robert Eddins, who also points out that fiberglass is a bit like Goldilocks’s porridge: “It’s cool in summer and warm in winter—probably the most comfortable all-around material out there.” Finally, wooden boats have historically been the least durable of any craft, although they’re improving thanks to better-quality plywoods and resins, not to mention the use of plastic shoes.
Dave Zielinski, a wooden-boat builder and enthusiast, points out that the construction and preventive maintenance of the boat is key. “If you store the boat dry and keep it out of the sun, you can go years without any maintenance whatsoever. I have one boat that’s seen about sixty days on the water since 1996, and I have never had to repair it.” Wood boats offer the advantages of being able to be repaired at home, for cheaper than a professional’s services. As resins have improved, wooden boats have also become more resistant to UV damage from the sun. “The bottom line is you have to take care of a wood boat,” says Zielinski, “but if you do, it can be just as durable as any other material.”
The Final Decision
When deciding on which craft to buy from a performance perspective, the first-time buyer would be wise to look hard at his local river. Is it a wide open tailwater with lots of wind and few bottom-shredding rocks? Heavier boats with straight, sharp chines track truer, and repairs aren’t likely to be an issue, so wood or fiberglass might be in order. On the other hand, are you planning to float skinny, fast currents with many riffles? Nimbleness and shallow draft are advantages here, meaning a lighter plastic boat might be the ticket. Are you going to be diving down canyons in class III rapids? Heavy plastic or aluminum boats can withstand rocks and resist strong pocket-water currents. Whether you’re looking for a beater drift boat to teach yourself or a loved one how to row, or you’ve reached the point where only the best will do, your most important decision is the one too many anglers overlook. There are a great many drift boat options available, some of which you might not even have been aware of. Before buying, go to your local river and look at which boats are in use. Ask the oarsmen why they made their choices, and if they would do so again. Then, when you’re ready, crack open that piggy bank and prepare to ply your very own oars.
Zach Matthews is a frequent contributor to American Angler. This article originally ran in the November/December 2010 issue.