Building the perfect fishing boat

By: Tom Prince, Photography by: Pelagic Boats, Tom Prince

Presented by
  • Trade-A-Boat

How do you build a commercial aluminium fishing boat? Pelagic Boats explain how it's done.

Earlier this year we joined commercial fishing charters operator Matt Cini for a day charter aboard his custom-built 8.5m Pelagic plate-aluminium fishing boat. If you’re a Victorian angler then you’ve probably heard of Reel Time Fishing Charters, the fishing charter operation that Matt has run for the last 12 years.

We spent a day with Matt chasing whiting in Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay. The Reel Time Fishing Charters 8.5m Pelagic plate aluminium fishing boat is an angler’s dream, being immensely spacious, exceptionally stable, and built for no other reason but to ensure all aboard have a wonderful time catching as many fish as possible.


Onboard with Reel Time Fishing Charters

Matt Cini took us out for a day with Reel Time Fishing Charters chasing whiting on Port Phillip Bay. We got a very good impression on just how well this fishing boat rides and performs. See the story here: a day aboard a Reel Time Fishing whiting charter


Having spent a day onboard, we wanted to know the story behind such a unique commercial fishing boat. What’s below the floor and inside the hull? And how do you build one? Considering the Reel Time charter aluminium fishing boat is "only" 8.5m long, how much time and effort actually went into the build?

We asked the boat builder, Daniel Hemming from Pelagic Boats, to explain how he builds a plate-aluminium fishing boat made to the highest commercial standards. Take our word for it: you’ll be surprised by just how much effort, time and precision is required.

Commercial aluminium hull ready for welding
The Pelagic 8.5m hull ready to be welded.


Designing Reel Time Fishing Charters

Matt Cini has years of experience operating charter fishing boats. He’s owned dozens of fishing boats and operated numerous commercial fishing boat charters over the years. So when it was time to upgrade to a new commercial boat, he had a very clear idea of what he wanted.

It had to be a walkaround, obviously in Survey for 12+2 people. The cabin had to accommodate a lot of premium marine electronics while still leaving room for single-berth sleeping quarters and a stand-up toilet. More than anything, it had to be an amazing fishing boat, with a smooth ride, huge fuel tank, rock solid stability, and everything else you would expect in a premium fishing boat.

Seems straightforward, right?

There was just one small problem: the boat Matt wanted had never been built before. So he did what anyone in his position would do and asked the professionals to design and build one for him — quite literally, back to the drawing board.

Pelagic fishing boat plan layout
The initial design. To build "the perfect fishing boat" you need to design it first.

Victoria’s Pelagic Boats (PHA Welding & Marine to use the full name) was commissioned for the construction, with the custom design coming from naval architect Adam Schwetz, from Freemantle’s Nomad Marine Kits.

Daniel Hemming from Pelagic Boats has years of experience making customised plate aluminium commercial boats, as well as fishing boats for enthusiastic recreational anglers. Naval architect Adam Schwetz designs commercial boats (and high-end recreational craft), and even has an Australian Boat of the Year winner to his credit.

Matt Cini had done his homework before he approached Adam Schwetz. Seriously, talk about doing your research — he spent several days aboard an existing 9.1m Adam Schwetz-designed commercial boat, just to test its handling and ride characteristics! This boat belonged to commercial cray fisher Mick Spiteri who kindly showed Matt everything he needed to see.

It finally convinced Matt to commission Adam Schwetz to design a new commercial fishing charter boat. Out of happy coincidence, Nomad Marine Kits had a designated agent in Pelagic Boats. Not only had they previously worked together, but Pelagic Boats wasn’t too far from Matt Cini’s home base on Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula.

The design that Matt had in mind was a unique 8.5m Adam Schwetz hull, based around a centre cab, with a large bow and very spacious cockpit. You’d think that it’d be a straightforward job. Simply make a slightly different version of an existing design and be done with it, right? Not so.

Cockpit being built on Pelagic boat
Even before anything gets built, every part of the design must conform to rigorous Marine Board requirements. For example, something as seemingly innocuous as gunwale height might have to be raised if it’s as little as 50mm under minimum regulation height. Reputed boat builders will of course ensure all requirements are satisfied from the very beginning.

Being a commercial charter boat built to Survey it would require substantial reworking at the design stage to ensure it met the mind-boggling list of height, shape, blance and weight requirements set out by the government bureaucracy, aka the Marine Board.

"You don’t touch anything until the Marine Board issues a certificate," says Daniel Hemming from Pelagic Boats. "The Marine Board sees the designs. They then make sure it passes by issuing a certificate of compliance," he says. "It’s pretty easy to say that your boat is built to Survey but it’s much harder to build a boat that passes Survey," says Daniel.

"For example, they might find that minimum gunwale height needs to be raised from 750mm to 800mmm. Similarly, the requirements for floor height have also been raised. So it’s not just a matter of bringing the floor height up anymore, but also the gunwale height. This adds to the height and therefore the overall weight. So the architect needs to work really hard to keep the Marine Board happy and the customer happy."


Commercial boat certificate

Once the design is accepted and the Marine Board issues its certificate, Nomad Marine Kits ships all the base building materials to the builder. Prior to delivery, the components are designed and laid out by the naval architect via a process called nesting. Basically, the parts are CAD-generated and then cut out of the aluminium slab with a CNC router. To minimise waste, all the differently-shaped cuts are situated as close as possible on the same material.

"It’s a much, much more efficient way to cut materials, and it’s one hundred per cent accurate," says Daniel. The pre-cut (and meticulously labelled) components are then shipped to the builder, where work on the commercial boat can begin.

"The first thing we do is build a jig. We set everything up with a laser level, both longitudinally and transversely, and from there the transverse frames are laid out," says Daniel. He points out that the materials need to be laid out as accurately as possible, to under 0.5mm tolerance.

We did say it was a case of measure more than once, right?

Then comes the keelson. This is the bit that runs along the keel line, but on the inside of the hull, from the anchor locker to the transom. It forms both the shape of the keel and the bow. Once in place, all the frames that will form the hull structure then lock into the keelson plate.

With the keel in place, next come the stringers, made from 6mm aluminium frames. But before you go further, it’s time for more measuring.

"We spend another day with the laser level, ensuring all the transverse frames are exactly where they were meant to be," says Daniel. "When you tack weld and heat aluminium you get some movement so a lot of time goes into ensuring everything remains in place."

Note (below) how the skeleton that will form the boat remains upside down.


Keel sheets

Laying keel sheets on a boat frame
Laying keel sheets onto the frame and stringers.

"Then comes the keel sheet. It’s one large sheet of alloy — one each for port and starboard — which is formed by hand," says Daniel. Indicative of the high quality commercial boat heritage, the chines are built into the hull, rather than being a separate extrusion.

Again, while all this assembly goes on, there is — you’ve guessed it — more measuring. A laser level remains in place to ensure all components are balanced and where they should be.

The continuous checking and (if necessary) miniscule adjustments could very well test your patience, but it’s precisely this degree of refinement that allows the boat to operate according to its commercial qualifications. Having said, Daniel concedes, it comes at a cost. "Few boat builders probably go this extreme," he says. "It’s enormously time-consuming."

We bet.

Side sheet on commercial boat
The port side ready for side sheet.

With the chines in place, the team adds the sidesheets. All seams are then welded inside and out. At this stage the Marine Board pays the commercial boat builder the first of several visits. During this inspection they will pull out an actual measuring tape and closely inspect the welds. The pedantic eyes of the Marine Board are watchful indeed and if a boat manufacturer were to attempt to try and pass off shoddy work, they’d likely get caught out at this stage. The welds even have their height measured and they are tested to ensure they don’t leak.

"At this stage the Marine Board may find something that needs to be changed. For example, even something as simple as the fuel pipe not having an Australian Standard stamped on it may need to be rectified," says Daniel.

Leak tested aluminium hull
The aluminium hull is rolled over once it is welded and tested for leaks.


Floor structure

Pelagic floor structure
Meticulous measuring ensures the internal floor structure sits exactly where it is meant to. Heated aluminium can move so re-measuring everything is one of the most time consuming aspects of the build. 

Once the boat passes (this particular) inspection, it is pulled off the jig and rolled over. Yep, who’d a thought? There’s more measuring and levelling.

To keep it in place, legs are welded to the chines. While an unforseen benefit is that this would deter anyone from stealing the boat, keeping it in place obviously ensures stability during assembly.

"We finish welding all the floor. Then come the killtanks and anything sub-floor. We’ll also pre-do all the plumbing," says Daniel.

As with the hull structure, all internal components must comply with specific commercial boat requirements. For example, the fuel tank is installed with what is known as a cofferdam. Essentially a sub-compartment within the fuel tank, it prevents leaks by isolating any spills. Foam is also added throughout the boat at this stage.

Floatation foam in commercial boat
Foam is installed in the gunwales.



The hull now very much begins to take shape. Which naturally means it’s time for the Marine Board to visit – again – and check the build — again.

"They will ensure everything is still in place and the Surveyor will then give the go-ahead for the floor," says Daniel. "From there, you’re on the home stretch. Cabin, transom, fittings, even the rocket launcher get done."

Interestingly, Daniel says Pelagic Boats insists on not using stainless steel components on an aluminium boat, so as to prevent corrosion problems associated with dissimilar metals. He says he briefs the client in detail, where he explains the problems that may result from using such materials, and the fitout will usually be done in-house.

Cab being fabricated after floor being installed and fully welded

Aluminium cabin fabricated at Pelagic boats
The aluminium cabin is fabricated at Pelagic Boats.


Marine electronics

Furuno marine electronics
The marine electronics fitout was done by Melbourne's Nautek Marine. Matt Cini estimates the cost was about $35,000.

Next come the helm, seats, and electronics layout. Again, more clues to the unique commercial boat nature of this craft are revealed here. "On this boat we built the dash three times. Matt kept adding things…" says Daniel with a laugh, although he concedes that he’s probably his own worst enemy in that many of the changes and additions resulted from his own suggestions.

From here it’s time for the marine electronics fitout, in this case done by Melbourne’s Nautek Marine, the same company that restored the Trade-a-Boat Haines V19R project boat.

Nautek principal Michael Fitzallen has an avionics engineering degree from the RAN and his skills certainly came in handy for getting the most out of the $35,000 marine electronics package. Nautek also did a full vinyl wrap and assorted other components.


Is that boat in Survey… in Survey?

And then… the boat goes into Survey, right? Well not quite.

The boat is not in Survey until the Marine Board is satisfied that the boat has passed its test. This means taking the boat out on the water where The Powers That Be measure how far it leans.

Yes, they really do this, port first, then starboard, all while calculating the projected number of passengers onboard. And no, getting all your skinny friends to join you for the big day won’t help, because each person needs to account for the equivalent of 90kg, something the Marine Board factors into their calculations.

Once the lean test is completed, the architect and Surveyor will perform some very complex calculations. They work out buoyancy, the angle at which the boat lists, and other mysterious formulas. From these figures the naval architect and Surveyor agree on how much reserve buoyancy the boat has. They agree on a figure, which translates into the maximum number of passengers.

"Adam Schwetz is deliberately conservative," says Daniel about the architect’s design. "Unsurprisingly, the original projected number of maximum passengers was extended by two."

And then? After all that measuring, testing, adjusting, welding and building? Yes, the 8.5m Pelagic commercial aluminium fishing charter boat is finally in Survey. Not just built to Survey.

Matt Cini with 8.5m Pelagic fishing boat
Matt Cini triumphantly takes delivery of of his 8.5m Pelagic aluminium commercial fishing boat, now ready for fitout.


Recreational boats vs commercial boats

As mentioned, an unimaginable amount of time and effort went into the manufacture of this commercial boat. Daniel reckons no less than 1500 hours of welding went into its construction. By comparison, a mass-produced recreational plate aluminium fishing boat, as you can see below, can be put together in one week.

On paper, a recreational boat does much the same as a commercial charter boat. They both stay afloat, catch fish and carry passengers. But that’s precisely where the difference ends.

A commercial boat like the Reel Time Fishing Charters 8.5m Pelagic spends thousands of hours on the water. Commercial boats like this one easily spend more time on the water in a year than most recreational boats would in a lifetime. This means this boat does things and goes places that any lesser boat would never dream of doing. And this occurs day in and day out, in the corrosive and inherently hazardous environment that is salt water. Indeed, at the time of publication, the twin 200hp Mercury Verado outboards motors on Matt’s 8.5m Pelagic commercial boat had amassed 2000 hours of operation in just 18 months.

This is what makes commercial boats so different. They may have a passing aesthetic resemblance to recreational craft, but there is no comparison when it comes to safety, performance, reliability, comfort, or any other comparable quality. The biggest differences of all lie under the hull and in the welds

These qualities are why this Pelagic 8.5m aluminium fishing boat took 12 months to build from design to launch, consumed hundreds of kilometres of welding rod, and had to pass some of the most stringent and obscure government-mandated boat construction building standards imaginable.

All these reasons are why Matt Cini — a charter operator who has been in the game for more than a decade, who has owned dozens of recreational and commercial fishing boats in his lifetime, and who has spent tens of thousands of hours on the water — reckons the Pelagic 8.5m is the perfect fishing boat.


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