Regulator boat in rough seas

If you are shopping for a Saltwater boat, you already know that it can be difficult to compare options.  The Saltwater segment represents a diverse group of boats ranging from small Skiffs and Flats boats to Offshore Center Consoles and Sportfishing Yachts that are sometimes 50’ or larger in length.   There are dozens of brands to choose from and many look the same on the surface.  But what lies beneath can often make the difference.

In this article, I dig into the key things to look for in terms of the boat’s construction, materials/components used, and other factors to help you evaluate the quality of a saltwater boat.  This information is based on my decades of experience in the boating industry along with input from representatives of a prominent saltwater offshore brand – Regulator.

Basic Considerations

As mentioned earlier, there are many different types of saltwater boats available.  The specific variety that is right for you largely depends on three factors:

Where you plan to use the boat. If the boat is to be used in calm and very shallow waters, then a Skiff or Flats boat might be a good fit. For inland lakes or near coastal areas, a Bay boat is perhaps your best bet.  However, if you plan on traveling away from land or boating in rougher conditions, then consider an Offshore boat.  There is even a subcategory called “Hybrids” for those who plan on doing mostly coastal boating but might want to venture offshore on occasion.

How you intend to use it. Center Console boats are typically designed with fishing in mind. However, if you want to use it for pleasure cruising only, then you might consider a Dual Console instead.

How much you plan to spend. This doesn’t impact the type of boat as much as it does the size and brands to consider and whether to buy “new” or “used”.

Once you have figured out the specific type of Saltwater boat that fits your needs and have established a budget, then you are in a position to compare the quality of boat brands.  While evaluating quality is important for all types of boats, it is especially critical for Saltwater vessels given the harsh environment and potentially rough seas these boats may encounter.

To better understand how to evaluate the quality of Saltwater vessels, I reached out to Regulator Marine.  In case you are not familiar with the brand, Regulator has a reputation for super-high quality offshore fishing boats that are built to handle some of the toughest conditions. The company was founded in 1988 when Joan and Owen Maxwell hired a navy architect to design their personal boat because they were unable to find an existing boat that met their stringent standards.   The manufacturer that supplied the engine (Volvo) wanted to showcase their boat at the upcoming Miami Boat Show.  As it turned out, someone at the show offered to buy it and so Joan and Owen needed to build another.  From this, the company was born.

Since their humble and somewhat accidental beginnings, the company has gone on to establish a premium reputation for discerning customers.  The average Regulator buyer is on their 8th boat, and customer satisfaction is typically in the high 90s.  In fact, Regulator has received recognition for customer satisfaction by the National Marine Manufacturers Association every year since the inception of the program.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Keith Ammons, VP of Sales and Marketing, and David Clubbs, VP of Engineering at Regulator on two separate occasions.  Each provided excellent advice on what to look for to evaluate the quality of a Saltwater boat.  Much of the information that follows stems from my discussion with these two gentlemen.

Construction

We will start by identifying things to consider regarding the construction of the vessel.

Hull shape – According to Keith, “The deeper the V, the more cutting ability you have, the better it is going to handle rougher conditions.  But, it will also be slower and less fuel efficient.”  There is clearly a tradeoff.  Regulators, for example, are designed to handle really rough conditions but are not going to be the fastest boat out there.  You need to consider which is more important to you based on your needs and the conditions you are likely to face.

Hull Construction – Solid fiberglass is extremely strong and therefore desirable for areas below the waterline that might come in contact with the bottom or obstructions. However, many manufacturers will use some sort of core material (foam, wood, etc.) in these areas to reduce cost and weight.  The problem is that you cannot tell by looking at the hull exterior.  David suggests that you ask to see a cutaway of the hull to determine how it is constructed.  And, if the area below the waterline is “cored”, you will want to find out what core material was used.

“Closed cell” core material (e.g., polyurethane foam) is preferable in areas that could potentially get wet because each individual molecule is isolated.  If a leak occurs, the problem should be fairly isolated making it easier to resolve.  In contrast, open-cell core materials such as balsa tend to absorb water and could spread the damage to other parts of the boat.

Regulator uses up to 8 layers of solid fiberglass in the keel for strength and durability. However, they do add core materials for areas above the waterline.  This begs the question as to why companies don’t use solid fiberglass throughout.  The simple answer is that fiberglass is very heavy and so a boat made entirely of fiberglass would not perform well.

Regulator factory floor

Regulator Factory

Thickness of Gelcoat – Fiberglass is not very appealing aesthetically. That is why the exterior always has a layer of gelcoat to give it that beautiful, glossy look.  However, anyone who has owned a fiberglass boat knows that the gelcoat color will likely fade over time due to exposure to UV rays (especially if not waxed frequently).  Normally, you can restore the shiny appearance by light sanding/polishing.  But, if you only have a thin layer of gelcoat, you might only get one shot.  This is where having a thicker gelcoat layer comes in handy since it may allow you to do this a few times.

Ask to see a hull cut-out to determine the gelcoat thickness.  David suggests that you should minimally have 30 mils (1/32 inches) of thickness to give you multiple opportunities to restore the finish.  Plus, Gelcoat has value in protecting the resin from UV damage.  If the proper type is used, it can prevent blistering from extended saltwater exposure.

How Stringers/Grids are attached – Stringers add strength and rigidity to the hull but how they are attached matters. Those that are held in place with fiberglass will hold up better than stringers that are bonded with glue only.  How can you tell the difference? If you can see the stringers on the boat, the edge should be smooth and appear as one if “glassed-in”.  If they are only glued, you will see a harder edge and the seam will be clearly visible.   If you cannot see the stringers, ask the sales rep or research online.

Fewer Connections/Pieces – For things like decks or hardtops, it is easier and cheaper for manufacturers to build multiple smaller pieces that are fastened together vs. larger sections. However, Keith emphasized that you want the fewest connections or pieces possible because “everywhere you have a connection, you have a weakness.”  He recommends counting the number of connections or caulk lines when inspecting a boat.

Drainage – The interior of the boat will get wet on occasion – either from spray, rainfall, condensation, hauling in a big fish, etc. It is important to eliminate this moisture as quickly as possible to prevent things like mold and corrosion from forming.  This is why drainage matters.

Open all hatches and storage compartments to see how water comes off the boat.  Ideally you will want to see a gutter or channel that leads to a drain.  And draining the water out of the boat (through a fitting) is better than draining it to the bilge which will eventually need to be pumped out.  However, David added one other caution.  If the drain hose has a trap in it, this could hold water and freeze in Northern climates.  Be sure to blow this out or drain it entirely before winter weather occurs.

Through-hull fittings – According to David, fittings below the waterline should be bronze to prevent corrosion. Stainless steel is fine to use for areas above water for a nicer look (since bronze will often turn green) provided that the pieces are held together with the same metal.  Otherwise, galvanic corrosion could occur.  One exception is if the boat has a carbon fiber hull.  Because carbon fiber is electrically conductive like metal, you will want composite fittings instead.

Gunnel height – This is less about quality and more about getting the right boat for your needs. Higher gunnels will keep you drier but are less convenient for fishing.  You should consider your intended usage and priorities to determine which is best for you.

Storage – Whenever I ask boaters what they look for in a boat, good storage is frequently near the top of the list. More than just the amount of storage, also consider the size and location of storage compartments.  Ideally you will want a mix of different sized compartments to accommodate various items such as tackle, life vests, towels/clothing, personal items (phones, wallets, jewelry), boat fenders and lines, coolers, etc.   Also, items that might need to be accessed frequently (e.g., rods, coolers) should be easy to reach without displacing passengers if possible.  Make a list of the typical items you anticipate bringing on board and check to see if there is a logical place for each.

Hinges – Check to see if the hinges are sturdy or if there is any “play” in them. A full “piano” hinge is more robust than small “butt” hinges that some companies use. Because boats often take a pounding, a low-quality hinge will likely rattle and fail over time.

Storage Lids – Open the storage compartments and look inside. Ideally, the hatch door should be finished on both sides and have a gasket to prevent moisture intrusion (which will lead to mold and mildew). Some compartments might even have a mechanism to hold the hatch open which is a nice convenience feature.  Gas struts are great for this purpose because they are sealed, but coil spring are unlikely to last.

Fit n Finish – Most boats look great from the showroom floor, but the “hidden” or obscure areas can tell you a lot about how well the boat is made. The following are some specific things that David and Keith suggest that you look for when evaluating the fit and finish of a boat.

  • Hatches – are the insides finished or does it have raw fiberglass and sharp edges?
  • Hoses – are they labeled and clamped twice in opposing directions? (less likely to leak)
  • Wires – are they neat and labeled and secured every 12” or so? Are all connections waterproof?  Also, wires should be “sweeping”, not a hard 90 degree bend which is more likely to break over time.
  • Batteries – should be easy to access with only a few items connected directly to it. Industry standards dictate that there should be no more than five direct connections to the battery.  Plus, each connection should be protected by a fuse or breaker to avoid a potentially dangerous situation if a power surge or over-amperage is experienced.
  • Ease of Rigging – Look for pull strings for rigging later (e.g., upgrade your electronics). This is a good indicator that the builder understands boaters and the life of the boat.

Materials/Components Used

In addition to the construction process, the quality of materials used can also have a big impact on the performance and longevity of the boat.  The following are some specific things to look for.

Core Material – As mentioned earlier, nearly all fiberglass boats will contain some core material (not just solid fiberglass). The important things to consider are where and what core materials are used.  Boats made with wood or balsa cores are generally lower in quality and may rot if exposed to moisture.  A solid fiberglass hull (no core) below the waterline is more durable and therefore preferable unless you are looking for a faster, lighter boat.

Upholstery – The thickness or firmness of the cushions is important for comfort over a long day on the water. If you can pinch or compress a cushion with just two fingers, it probably isn’t high quality.

Hardware – Fasteners and other hardware above the waterline or in the boat interior should be made of stainless steel (preferably grade 316 or 314 and Chrome Plated) to resist corrosion.

Electronics – The electronic equipment installed on the boat can add several thousands of dollars to the purchase price. Therefore, it is important to ensure you are getting items that are acceptable to you.  For example, is the size of the display(s) adequate and is it from a reputable manufacturer?  Also ask how and where each device gets power.  It is very common to replace or upgrade electronic equipment over time and so it is helpful to know how challenging of a task this might be.  Finally, look at the quality of the installation.  If the cutouts were sloppy or oversized, this could cause leaking or failure down the road.  And, as noted earlier, the wiring should be neat and secured to reduce chaffing and have waterproof connections.

Source of Components – larger boats might have things like a TV, light fixtures, a refrigerator or microwave installed.  In some cases, they come in a unique size and are custom fitted to the boat.  If an item fails, consider whether you could get it replaced.  Items from popular brands or in standard sizes are more easily replaced than uncommon components. 

Other Considerations

In addition to the construction and materials/components used, the following are some other things to consider when shopping for a Saltwater boat.

Weight – If you want a boat that will go fast or is fuel efficient, then having a lighter-weight boat with a less pronounced V (less deadrise) is advantageous. However, if you want one that can deliver a smoother, safer ride in rough water, then you will want the opposite.  This is because a lighter boat is going to be pushed around more in waves and might not hold up as well over time in pounding seas.

To get a feel for how solid a boat’s construction is, Keith recommends examining the “Weight Per Square Foot”.  This is calculated by dividing the weight of the boat by the product of the Length x Beam.  Of course, boats with a larger ratio are likely more solid and perhaps better suited for rough conditions.

Warranty – The term (length) and breadth of coverage of the manufacturer’s warranty is a clear indication of their confidence in the product’s quality. Also, if you are considering buying a boat that is still under warranty, find out who would be responsible for handling warranty repairs – not only for the boat but also for the engine and electronics as well.  Some boat manufacturers (and their dealers) take responsibility for handling everything which is a nice convenience.

Resale Value – A good proxy for product quality is to look at how well the resale value holds up over time. If a manufacturer has been making a particular model for several years, an easy way to check the resale value is to go to the JD Power website (formerly NADA) and examine the “average retail” value (not the suggested list price) for the most recent year where data is available. Do the same for the prior 3 or 5 years for the same base model.   Comparing the ratio of older to newer boat values across brands is a good indication of the relative quality.

Take a Sea Trial – Given the price of most boats, it is a good idea to take a test drive before finalizing the purchase. How to do a Sea Trial was covered in an earlier article but you can find my checklist here.

Take a Factory Tour – Finally, if you are thinking of buying a new boat, consider taking a factory tour of the top 2 or 3 brands you are considering.  Most quality brands offer this and, according to Keith, you can tell a lot about a manufacturer by looking at the guts of how a boat is made.  And a company that will not allow you to take a tour should give you pause about doing business with them.

Conclusions

As you can see, there are a number of things to consider when evaluating the quality of a saltwater vessel.  And, it is likely that many of the boats you are considering will not excel in each of the areas listed and that might be Ok.  There is no such thing as the “perfect boat” and all involve tradeoffs of some sort.  The key thing is to be mindful of your budget and where and how you intend to use the boat as you evaluate your options.

Special thanks to the folks at Regulator Marine for assisting with this article.  BoaterInput received no compensation for featuring them but selected Regulator because of their excellent reputation within the industry.

While they are not for everyone, if you are looking for premium boat that will last a long time and can handle some of the toughest conditions, then you should definitely consider a Regulator.

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 BoaterInput.com website.

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