This is the first of a 10-part series on how to buy a boat.

Shopping for a boat can be a bit overwhelming – especially if you are a first time buyer or have not purchased a boat in a long time.  There are over a dozen boat types available and hundreds of brands to choose from.  You need to do a little homework first to avoid wasting countless hours searching every online classified listing or running from dealer to dealer.

To help narrow the field and find the right boat for you and your family, you need to first answer three fundamental questions:

  • What do you want to do with your boat?
  • Where will you be using it?
  • How many people do you want to accommodate?

We will go over each of these questions and their implications next.  As you work through each, it is important to review them with the other “stakeholders” (e.g., spouse, kids) in your boat purchase decision to help avoid any conflicts or disappointment down the road.


What Do You Want to Do With Your Boat?

From my experience in talking with hundreds of boaters over the years, the types of activities people like to do with a boat can largely be broken down into three categories:

  • Cruising (sight-seeing, swimming, relaxing, entertaining, visiting islands or sand-bars, restaurant/bar hopping, rafting up)
  • Fishing (casting, trolling, still fishing)
  • Watersports (tubing, skiing, wakeboarding, wakesurfing)

So the first step in defining your needs is to decide which of these activities are most important for you.  You will also want to distinguish between “primary” and “secondary” activities, if applicable.  This is because no boat is great at everything – they all involve a compromise of some sort.  While some are purpose-built for one particular activity (e.g., Wake boats or Bass boats), others are capable of doing multiple things fairly well.

Suitable Activities by Boat TypeHere is a graphic I created to help identify suitable boat types for various activities.  The green circles indicate that a given boat type is well suited for that particular activity.  Red indicates that the boat is not designed or intended for that purpose.  Yellow, of course, is somewhere in between.

You will want to find the boat type(s) that are “green” for the primary activity you intend to do with your boat and are at least “yellow” for anything else that is important to you.  For example, if your focus is to cruise and relax and perhaps fish on occasion, then a Pontoon might be a good choice (there are other considerations which we will discuss later).  And, if you want to do some “light watersports” such as pull someone on a tube, it can handle that fairly well too.  However, it is not as good as a Bowrider or Wake boat for that application (especially if you desire to ski or wakeboard).

It is important to note that this graphic is intended to show what a particular boat type is and isn’t good at.  This doesn’t mean that a given type is incapable of doing activities noted in red.  For example, you technically can fish from a Wake boat or Cruiser.  However, if fishing is your primary reason for wanting a boat, you will likely be disappointed with one of these choices.

Where Will You Be Using It?

Another key factor in deciding which boat to purchase is the environment where it will be used.  Specifically, if the boat will be used in saltwater or in situations where you may periodically encounter rough water or “heavy chop”, then you may need to adjust the type, size or propulsion of the boats you are considering.  Let’s take a look at water type and water conditions in more detail.

  • Water Type

If you plan to use the boat in the ocean, bay or intercoastal areas, you need a boat and motor that is designed to be able to withstand the harsh saltwater environment.  Aluminum Fish boats and Pontoons should generally be avoided because of potential issues with galvanic corrosion.  While some manufacturers do offer models for use in saltwater, you will need to take additional precautions to protect your vessel (e.g., maintain sacrificial anodes, apply anti-corrosive bottom paint, wash down and flush after every usage, etc.).

Likewise, Freshwater Fish boats are typically not equipped with the type of componentry needed to hold up over time in saltwater and so are not advised either.

Naturally, all Saltwater boat types (flats, bay, offshore) as well as Cruisers are made to hold up in a saltwater environment.

Pleasure boats such as Bowriders, Deck boats and Wake boats might be suitable if they are outboard powered (that can be easily flushed) or have a closed-cooling sterndrive or inboard engine (which use freshwater to cool the internal components).  However, you should still check to make sure that the electrical, plumbing, steering systems and hardware used are designed for saltwater.

  • Water Conditions

Suitable Water Conditions by Boat TypeIf you anticipate using your boat in high seas or heavy chop, then the design of the boat hull will greatly impact the comfort and safety of your ride.  Boats with flatter hulls (minimal deadrise) and low gunnel heights (low freeboard) are prone to pounding hard or possibly taking waves over the bow or stern in heavy waves.  Conversely, boats with “deeper Vs” (more deadrise) do better because they tend to cut the waves instead of slapping them.

But not all V-bottom boats are alike.  For example, Offshore boats have more deadrise (angle from water surface to the side of the hull at the transom) than Bay boats (and way more than Flats boats/Skiffs) and so, as the name implies, they are better suited for traveling further from shore.

Likewise, Deep V boats do better than Mod Vs in rough water and provide a drier ride – an important consideration, especially in colder climates.  For this reason, Deep V Aluminum Fishing boats are much more popular in northern areas of the US, whereas Mod Vs are far more common down south.

Pontoons are great in moderate waves but not so much in heavy chop (3’+).  This style of hull floats on top of the water instead of slicing through it.  However, when waves reach a certain height, they could “break” over the deck and wash out/flood the interior.  Tritoons are better than traditional pontoons in this regard because the extra tube adds buoyancy. Nonetheless, you still need to be careful if you plan to use a Pontoon or Tritoon regularly in rough conditions.

Freshwater Multispecies boats are fine in rough water but Fish N Skis might not be.  This is because some Fish N Skis are based off a shallower Bass boat hull while others use a Multispecies platform.  You will want to inspect the boat from the rear to assess the amount of deadrise and whether it would be suitable for rougher conditions.

One other fairly obvious point is that longer boats tend to perform better than shorter ones in high waves across all boat types.  Not only do larger boats typically have more freeboard (distance from waterline to the deck of the boat), but they also have a greater chance of spanning from one wave crest to the next rather than spearing the upcoming wave. So if you plan to use your boat on a large body of water or in rough conditions, upping the size of the boat should make your ride safer, drier and more comfortable.

A final point regarding rough water – these guidelines are based on the water conditions you anticipate encountering regularly.  It is not meant to dictate your boat choice for conditions that you might encounter on an infrequent basis.  For example, I live on a fairly large lake (25,000 surface acres) and one of my boats is a Mod V Aluminum Fishing boat.  Not ideal for windy days but I choose to not go out in those conditions most of the time.  And, if I am out and a front blows in, I know that I will need to go slowly and will have a very bumpy ride but can manage to get back safely.  Likewise, tournament bass anglers occasionally face challenging conditions but almost always choose a shallow v-hull bass boat for performance reason.

How Many People Do You Want to Accommodate?

Passenger capacity by Boat TypeOne other importance consideration when shopping for a boat is to determine the number of passengers you wish to accommodate.  But be aware, the legal passenger limit stamped on the inside of the boat or listed on a manufacturer’s website has nothing to do with the number of seats available on board the vessel.  Instead, it is a mathematical calculation based on the amount of weight the boat is able to safely hold and is approximately equal to the following: capacity = length (ft) x width (ft) / 15.  So, if you have eight passengers but only seats for six, the legal capacity of 8 won’t do you a lot of good – although it might keep you from getting a ticket from the water patrol.

I’ve created a graphic that shows the typical length ranges and practical seating capacities (not the legal capacity) for a majority of boats of a given type.  Of course, there are exceptions, but this should give you a good idea of the number of passengers each type could potentially handle.

In some cases, you might need to alter the type of boat you are considering.  For example, a married couple with two kids that wants a boat for pleasure cruising and occasional watersports would be well-served with a bowrider.   However, if you also want to bring along Grandma and Grandpa and some of the kids’ friends, then you should take a hard look at a pontoon.

More often though, the number in your crew will impact the size of the boat needed rather than the type.  This is because, most types are available in a variety of lengths that can handle a wide range of passengers.  For example, bowriders and saltwater boats have been getting larger in recent years because of the use of higher horsepower or multiple-engine outboard installations from boat manufacturers.  So, you could purchase a 15’ Bayliner Element with room for 6 or step way up to a 33’ Sea Ray SLX with twin outboards that could easily accommodate 12 of your closest friends.

When deciding how many passengers you want to be able to accommodate, think in terms of the maximum quantity you would need most of the time – not the total you might like to bring along on infrequent occasions.  This is because the cost to purchase and maintain a boat increases substantially based on the size.  And, larger boats are typically more difficult to operate.  So, unless you have a substantial budget and considerable boating experience, pick a size that should serve your needs 80% of the time.

Taken together, the answers to these three fundamental questions – how you plan to use a boat, where you plan to use it, and how many people do you wish to accommodate – will help you decide what type and size of boat is right for your needs.  Of course, once you get further along in the shopping process, you should make a list of more “micro” needs or wants that are specific to various boat types and applications.  For example, if you plan to do watersports, look for boats that have a ski pylon or tower; if you intend to fish, the amount and location of the livewells and the size and quality of the installed electronics might be very important to you; if you plan to pleasure cruise in saltwater and want to keep the women happy, look for a boat with a good “head” design.

In the next segment of this series, I will discuss some considerations when establishing your budget.  Sign up for our free monthly newsletter so you don’t miss an issue.

Jerry Mona - BoaterInput

About the author

Jerry Mona is an avid boater and angler and long-time boating industry insider. With over three decades of experience, he is often considered to be the leading research expert with boaters and has helped numerous manufacturers and trade associations to understand the needs, wants, attitudes and behaviors of boaters. He now shares many of his insights about boats and boaters for free on his website.

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