What kind of boat is right for you? Will you use it in fresh or salt water? In shallow or deep water? Above a sandy or rocky bottom? In smooth or bumpy or ocean-like waves? Choosing a boat to match waterway conditions will prove crucial to your on-water enjoyment.
Luckily, you have plenty of choices. Unlike the auto industry, which has a handful of manufacturers, boat makers are everywhere. The USA alone is home to 1,400 boat manufacturers that build boats of fiberglass, aluminum, and even plastic. The pliability of these materials allow for plenty of variations in boat genres, styles, and lengths.
So let's get started. Water conditions as well as predominant weather conditions will greatly affect your choice. For example, fresh water lakes that are small and fairly calm are perfect for pontoon boats, deck boats, and outboard and stern-drive powered open- bow sport boats 23' in length and less. These boats are exciting to drive and offer plenty of access to sun and water for tubing, recreational water skiing, and boarding.
Boats of this size can handle 1-foot bumps easily with no rattle. Also, if you want some protection from cool temperatures, from the sun, or need a place to overnight, boat manufacturers typically build a cuddy starting with 20' models. The cuddy replaces the open bow section with an enclosed bow section with entry point near the driver's station.
A fun-driving alternative in the 15' to 23' range of open bow boats is the sport jet. Instead of a propeller, an impeller positioned within the hull sucks water in and shoots it out a nozzle at the transom of the boat. Sports jets are fun to drive as they are quick turning like their personal watercraft brethren. With nothing protruding below the hull, sport jets usually feature a minuscule draft of 12", making them perfect for shallow lakes, rivers, and even salty tidal waters.
If your waterway has a rocky bottom or shoreline, then an aluminum or plastic hull makes sense. These materials withstand bumping against rocks better than fiberglass, especially when you're fishing in shallow waters. And aluminum boats feature tall windshields to keep passengers warmer during that early morning run.
For big bodies of water like Lake Lanier, Lake of the Ozarks, and Lake Winnipesaukee, boats 23' and longer can handle the often bumpy conditions. For the bumps, consider the hull's deadrise (or amount of vee shape it has). Generally, the more deadrise, the better the ride in rough water. Deadrise runs from less than 10 degrees (fairly flat hull) for specialized inboard ski boats to about 15 degrees for deck boats to around 20 for open bow sport boats.
Next consider how much cockpit depth (freeboard) that you want for your conditions. Boats about 20' long have less 30" of cockpit depth while hulls 23' and longer have more than 30" cockpit depth. The deeper the cockpit the less spray hits passengers.
At 23' and longer, the head (toilet), located at the helm adjacent the driver, features enough space to make it functional. Also at 23' the cuddy cabin becomes more practical.
If you're thinking about overnighting, consider a cruiser. Cruisers begin at 24' and provide a step way down to the cabin, which is located forward of the helm. At 24' there's just enough room for a burner top, refrigerator, microwave, a removable dinette, sleeper, and standalone head/shower.
These days, boats are getting wider to accommodate more passenger space and features. Even boats of 21' long are now featuring an 8' beam - the maximum width for trailering without a permit. Most boats of any genre at 26' or less should not exceed 8' in width.
For an increasing number of boaters living along the coasts, builders are paying special attention to saltwater boats. Because of the corrosive threat of salt, these boats feature stainless steel throughout and have features such as wheel and bow railings and cleats for lines. Quality of "marine grade" stainless steel typically increases with the cost of the boat.
There's a huge range saltwater boats beginning with flats boats, which are super light and feature a shallow draft, allowing for fishing in very shallow water. Bay boats feature a center console design with modest freeboard. This allows you to fish in the shallows and near shore on calm days.
Center consoles offer more deadrise and deeper freeboard to venture forth in bumpy offshore water. The idea of the center console is that you can fish 360 degrees around the helm. The deck layout is open -- a perfect style for warm regions of the USA.
Boats primarily made for offshore fishing typically feature between 21 and 24 degrees of deadrise to let you go fast through the bumps.
To deal with really bumpy conditions -- no matter fresh or salt - consider a catamaran hull. The narrow, knife-like dual hull of a cat slices through rough water with very little jarring of passengers.
If you remember the #1 rule of boating Know Thy Waterway -- you'll be able to find a boat to satisfy your needs.
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(Zenon Bilas is a 7-time US Barefoot Champion, professional photographer with over 50 published water ski and boating magazine covers, and author of 1,000 articles on boat tests, product reviews, and water ski coaching tips. Zenon can also be scheduled for an appearance anywhere in the world. Click this link to view Zenon�s bio and booking page)