On the Water
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Which Boat is right for YOU?

First, you have to know your family.
Are you: Fishing Fanatics, Wild for Watersports or Multi-use?

By Dave Kelley
Published: February 1, 2006
There’s nothing that compares with buying a really great new toy, especially if that great new toy is something really, really cool, like a brand-new (or at least “new to you”) boat.
Sure, some people may argue that boats aren’t toys, but let’s be honest – anything that’s not an absolute necessity is, when you get right down to it, a toy. You could make an argument that your cabin is the biggest, bestest toy of them all, and I’d be inclined to agree. And I’d agree that nothing would look better than a new boat in the water near that cabin.
That is, as long as that new boat is the right boat for you and your family, a boat that meets your needs and matches your lifestyle. And, of course, a boat that fits within your budget.
Your budget is your business, so we’ll leave that to you. But when it comes to choosing a boat that fits your family’s wants, needs and lifestyle, there are some guidelines that will help you zero in on what’s right for you.
Over the years, we’ve found that just about every family falls into one of three categories: Fishing Fanatics, Wild for Watersports or Multi-Use. Odds are your family falls mostly into one of these categories. So figure out which camp your family belongs to, and read on …

Photo by Duane Barnhart
Unless you make your living fishing the Wal-Mart FLW Tour, forget the stereotypical bass boat that sports a 300-horsepower outboard motor and has a top speed of around 100 mph. Fishing with the family, even a family of fishing fanatics, doesn’t require the ability to get from Point A to Point B in record time.
Fishing with the family does require a boat that’s suited for the conditions, the intended use and the people who will be on board.
Of those three criteria, the last – the people on board – is arguably the most important. After all, if you have a family of five, for example, some are going to be left out and unhappy if you buy a bass boat designed for two. At the same time, that theoretical family of five won’t be much happier if they’re put on a boat with plenty of room for people, but no room for rods, tackle, bait … or catch.

You need space
It sounds trite to say that, for a family, you should buy the biggest boat you can afford, but it’s a cold, hard fact of life, especially when it comes to fishing boats. You need room for people, you need room for gear and – the thing we so often forget – you need room to move around and cast.    

A boat that seems flat-out spacious can suddenly seem like a broom closet when you have three or four (or more) people trying to cast without hitting or snagging each other. So, look for a boat with elbow room, but is appropriate for the waters it will be on. (You wouldn’t want to try to squeeze a 40-footer onto a 15-acre lake.)
In addition to elbow room for casting, Fishing Fanatics will need storage space – and lots of it. To maximize space and long-term happiness, look for boats with built-in amenities like rod holders and tackle drawers. If you have built-in tackle drawers, for example, you save space by not having to bring a tackle box on board. Rod holders keep rods stowed neatly, saving more room. Same goes for built-in livewells and bait boxes. True, these items will bump up the initial cost of your boat, but as a bonus, they’ll also increase its value – sometimes dramatically – when it comes time to trade in or resell.

Fish specific?
Sometimes, a Fishing Fanatic Family will be focused on a particular quarry, and so will need a very specific type of boat. If, for example, you’re obsessed with largemouth bass to the point that you can’t imagine ever catching anything else, there’s no reason for you to look at anything other than a bass boat. Most anglers, though, aren’t quite so single-minded. For them, choosing the right boat is more a matter of where they’ll be fishing than what they’ll be trying to reel in.

Blue water
There are, generally speaking, three fishing areas: shallows, green water and blue water.
Blue water boats are what you want if you’re going to be going out in the open ocean in search of big game; these boats are designed to handle big water and even provide overnight sleeping accommodations and full galleys.
These boats sport super-deep V hulls, multiple engines, and large, aerated livewells that can store bait and catch for several days. And if a full array of electronics – including radar, VHF, and chart plotter – isn’t built in, a blue water boat will be designed so that you can install them yourself.
Other than ocean cruising, if your cabin is near a huge body of water – one of the Great Lakes, for example – and you expect to occasionally spend a couple of nights out of sight of land or deal with waves or swells taller than your boat, you should play it smart and get a blue water boat.

Shallows and green water
Shallows boats are designed, as you might expect, for use in very shallow water. These boats typically have very flat bottoms with little draft. They work great in estuaries and on calm, flat water, but if you get caught out in some chop, prepare to suffer. The lack of a “V” in the hull of a shallows boat means you’ll be taking a pounding as you battle your way through the waves. However, for those owning cabins located alongside shallow, protected lakes, shallows boats are often excellent choices.
Most of us, though, are best served by a green water boat, one designed for use primarily on lakes and rivers, exactly the waters most of our cabins are near. These boats have relatively deep “V” hulls to help them slice through rough water smoothly. These are versatile boats, and the versatility is increased if you opt for a center-console deck layout, which puts the helm station more or less in the dead center of the boat, maximizing the walking-around room and casting positions on board.

Photo by Duane Barnhart
Compared to the Fishing Fanatics, the Wild for Watersports Family has it pretty easy when it comes time to choose a boat: You either go for a highly specific, three-event ski boat, or you go for a versatile watersports-oriented boat. Really. That’s all there is to it.
Is yours a hardcore, tournament-level (or tournament-level potential) family that demands ultimate performance from themselves and their equipment? If so, you won’t be satisfied with anything less than a tournament-approved ski boat.
Or is your family one that does everything from slalom skiing to wakeboarding to riding inflatables – and loves to bring friends along for the ride? This type of family is best served by a versatile watersports boat.
What’s the difference? More than meets the eye at first glance.

Über skiers?
A clearly visible difference is that tournament-caliber ski boats are generally quite a bit smaller than the more versatile watersports boats. Hardcore skiers want the smallest possible wake from their boats, and a smaller boat will throw a smaller wake. Weight also plays a role in wake size, so skiers usually want as few people on board as possible – just a driver and an observer in the boat, with a skier behind – so there’s little need for a lot of passenger capacity.
If you’re a hardcore skier, you should already know exactly what to look for in a boat: a nearly flat bottom with a slightly angled transom for minimal wake; a center-mounted engine for balance and minimized wake; an engine and propeller designed for powerful low-end torque to pull skiers out of the water as quickly as possible instead of top end speed (tournament ski speed is only 36 mph, and serious skiers rarely get their boats over 40 mph).

Watersports boats
Everybody else, however, should look to the new class of watersports boats with the versatility to throw a decent wake for recreational skiing, a good wake for inflatable riders and a great wake for wakeboarders of any skill level. You want a boat with a fairly wide beam (the 8'6" is standard), with the engine (either a stern drive or a V-drive) mounted at the transom for maximum wake creation and shape, and with room for as many passengers as possible – because when it comes to wakeboarding and inflatables, the bigger the wake, the better, and packing people on board is a great way to add weight and wake – and fun – to your boat.
There are other ways to add wake, from bladder bags that can be filled with water for added weight, to deployable hydrofoils that pull the boat deeper into the water, to adjustable trim plates that change the boat’s attitude in the water for maximum hull wetting. All three methods work, but be aware that filling bladder bags to add weight, or deploying a hydrofoil to mimic weight, will alter the boat’s performance and handling characteristics at all speeds. Adjustable trim plates alter performance and handling, too, but the plates can be quickly and easily taken out of the performance/handling equation. (Tige ski boats, for example, have an electrically adjustable trim plate that can be fully deployed or retracted, even at full throttle.) Bags take a while to empty, and hydrofoils should only be deployed or retracted while the boat is motionless.

Time on a watersports boat is usually spent sitting around, laughing and talking while waiting your turn. So seating is more important than walking-around room. Rear-facing seating is best, except for the driver who, of course, really ought to face forward.
Even more important than seating, though, is the now-ubiquitous tower, which arches over the passenger area. This provides a high pivot point for the tow rope, helping pull novice riders up out of the water quickly, as well as helping pull wakeboarders “up” during aerials. Bonus points are awarded to the tower that provides storage for wakeboards and skis, as well as attachment points for stereo speakers and lights. Clearly, a tower is a requirement for the Wild for Watersports Family.
An engine/propeller combo that can drive the boat at 65 mph is not a requirement for the Wild for Watersports Family. Tournament skiers perform at 36 mph; recreational slalom skiers ride at speeds ranging from 30 to 36 mph; wakeboarders ride at speeds ranging from 18 to 25 mph; and inflatables are ridden at speeds ranging from 10 to 20 mph. There’s no need for a 500-horsepower engine on a watersports boat. Instead, you need an engine and propeller that will deliver solid low-end pull. On a 26-foot boat, a 300-horsepower engine will provide all the power a watersports enthusiast will ever need.
Photo by Duane Barnhart
It’s safe to say that the majority of families are Multi-Use Families. Sometimes we like to fish, sometimes we get the watersports groove, sometimes we cruise from here to there and back, and sometimes we just bring some friends out to enjoy a festive beverage while we watch the sun go down.
The best boat for a Multi-Use Family is one that’s as comfortable and versatile as possible. And here I’m going to speak as a guy with more than 15 years’ experience writing about and testing boats, and I’m going to say right up front: You want an open-bow runabout, a deck boat or a pontoon boat in the 24- to 26-foot range.  That’s the base. Build from there.

Lots of room
The open bow, the deck boat and the pontoon share wide-open layouts which allow for plenty of lounging as well as walking around and even casting and reeling in catch. The 24- to 26-foot size is a good, comfortable size that’s easily trailerable to and from the cabin.
You really don’t need an engine with more than 300 horsepower, unless you have an urge to use way more gas than necessary.
You need a wakeboard tower because it’s hugely functional (it even provides great rod storage when you’re fishing) as well as stylish.
And you need canvas, like a bimini top, for a little shade and comfort when you’re out cruising or entertaining. On the pontoon, a camping enclosure will not just allow for extended outings, but an extended season, since you can in effect create a cabin cruiser and enjoy sunset cruises well into fall and even early winter.     
Those are the non-negotiable aspects of a good multi-use boat.
Hull and drive
One of the most overlooked aspects of a multi-use boat is the hull and drive design. For maximum versatility, look for a boat with a moderately deep “V” hull. A flatter hull will throw a smaller wake and be able to operate in shallower waters, but a deeper “V” will provide a drier, smoother ride, and that’s a trade you should be willing to make. Of course, a pontoon provides just about the ultimate in dry, smooth riding, although, generally speaking, a pontoon won’t provide as much acceleration or top speed as a runabout or deck boat.
Stern drives (sometimes called inboard/outdrives, or I/Os) and V-drives are what I recommend for Multi-Use Families’ boats. Outboards are great for fishing and direct-drives are great for skiing, but neither offers the versatility of a stern drive or V-drive. By putting the engine at the transom, designers are able to incorporate sun lounges and walk-through access to swim platforms, as well as leaving the boat’s interior relatively wide open for better entertaining.
Storage is a critical feature on a Multi-Use Family’s boat. A good boat will offer storage compartments big and small enough to accommodate everything from a wallet to a wakeboard, preferably with locks on some compartments for security. Every seat cushion should lift up to reveal storage beneath, and there should be storage in the floor as well as the gunwales.
Choosing the right boat can be an arduous task, but if you know how you plan to use the boat, where you plan to use the boat, and who will be on board with you, you’ll have a head start on finding exactly the right boat for you and your family.

Dave Kelley writes and boats from his cabin near Lake Travis in Austin, Texas. His second boating book, “Chapman Practical Boat Handling For Every Situation,” is scheduled for publication in May 2006.

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