With hundreds of sportboat and runabout models on the market from scores of builders, making a decision as to which watersports towboat to buy can be difficult. Throw in the fact that there are four distinctly different types of propulsion in this category — sterndrive, outboard, jet drive, and inboard powered — and the fact that different watersports are best done with certain boat configurations, and we begin to see the magnitude of this decision. We’ll make the task a lot easier.
Like virtually all things in boating, if the "mission" of the boat is narrowly defined, the decision about which boat to pick becomes much easier. Most watersports boats are built primary for one or two specific activities. By first identifying the primary goal for a new boat and then by finding out what the builder's intention was when the craft was designed, watersports towboat buyers can zero-in on a short list of models that will meet their needs.
Adding a price-point consideration creates yet another dimension to the search for the best boat for any given need and budget. Then, there is the matter of warranty and aftermarket customer service. But before drilling down to those details, the type of boat must be selected first.
Most people started skiing behind general-purpose sportboats or runabouts, either powered by a sterndrive or outboard engine. These boats are fine for most casual boaters or beginners. This type of watercraft can be used for all sorts of things including cruising, swimming, fishing and just hanging out.
Specialized ski boats do not "cross over" well into other recreational activities. Ski boats are generally small and their focus is behind the boat where all of the action is -- and not in front of it. They are also designed to operate in flat, protected water, such as that found on small lakes where most competition skiing events take place. Generally these boats have low freeboard and low bows that can scoop water easily.
Because specialized wakeboarding and wake surfing boats are now measuring up to 24’ and built with more freeboard, they are better suited than strictly ski boats to all-around use as well as their intended mission.
As with any sport, the more experienced the individual becomes, the more specialized they usually want the boat to be.
The Traditional Approach. A handful of manufacturers have specialized in ski and wake boats for decades. Virtually all of these boats are inboard powered.
These specialty inboard boats have the prop under the boat and are carefully designed for action off the stern. Boats designed for skiing only are designed to minimize wake. Those designed for wake boarding or wake surfing are designed to create a high wake, usually with the addition of water ballast to sink the stern as well as a device on the stern to manipulate the wake.
Typically, in this genre, the fit-and-finish is superb and few expenses are spared in materials and workmanship. Buyers of these boats tend to be more experienced boaters who know what they want to do, and understand that the quality of the product that they are getting is going to cost a lot more than the standard sportboat.
Limitations. These boats are generally the most expensive in class. They are not designed for large lakes or coastal boating, and because of their low freeboard and low bows, they are best restricted to protected, smooth water locations on small lakes and rivers. Because they are specialized for towing, they are not intended to go particularly fast. Rather, they put a premium on low RPM torque to get skiers or wakeboarders up out of the water an on their boards quickly.
Some well-known brands in this category are Malibu, MasterCraft, Nautique, Tige’ and others. Recently, Sea Ray introduced an inboard boat to appeal to this market and combines many of the best features of both the specialized towboat and sportboat genres.
Sportboats are far more versatile than specialized towboats, and while the smaller models are best used in small lakes and rivers, the larger ones can handle coastal conditions. Some can even go far offshore. These boats are mostly sterndrive and outboard powered. The models specifically designed for wakeboarding often have internal water ballast bags, and now some even have devices on their sterns to help create more wake or to shape it.
Because these boats generally have an exposed prop behind the transom from either the sterndrive or the outboard, they are exclusively used for towing sports where a tow rope is used. They are not intended for wake surfing where the enthusiast is on a board close to the transom.
The single exception to this configuration are the few sportboats that use the Volvo Penta Forward Drive which has a lower unit with the props facing forward. Here the props face forward and are 26” forward of where they would be in a conventional sterndrive unit.
Virtually all boats built specifically for skiing and wakeboarding have a single inboard engine. Inboard boats generally have their propellers several feet forward of the transom, and, as a result, the vortex of the props’ thrust that goes up hits the bottom of the boat and is flattened out by the time it exits from under the stern.
Traditional inboard boats also have their engines placed amidships, often in the middle of a large, open cockpit. This placement serves a number of purposes. First, the engine is far enough forward that the props are under the bottom of the boat well forward of the transom. This translates to increased water safety.
Second, it moves weight forward so the stern is not weighted down, thereby creating less wake, which is desirable for skiers. There are a number of other advantages of having the engine in a box forward, such as being able to easily reach everything for repair and maintenance.
Over time several inboard engines were designed, specializing in ski boats. They optimized engine and tranny performance for fast hole shots and economy in the speed ranges preferred by most skiers, and did not go for the high top-end speed as is wanted by most sportboat builders.
V-Drive. A variation on inboard power that still places the propeller in a safer position under the boat and improves cockpit layout is the V-drive transmission. In this installation, the motor is positioned backward with the pulleys on the aft side and the flywheel and connection to the transmission at the front.
With current V-drives, the transmission bolts directly to the front (which is really the rear) of the motor and the shaft angles down and aft, creating a V-shape. The advantages of a V-drive is that it places the engine aft in the boat (not quite as far as a stern drive, but close), which opens up cockpit space and eliminates the big box in the middle of the passenger area.
Because the propeller of an inboard boat is under the boat and not abaft the transom, inboard boats have a definite safety advantage. If an inboard engine is left on or even in gear while a skier is in the water at the stern, it’s less likely that the person will contact the propeller or rudder, but with that said, it’s always a good safety practice to shut off the engine whenever a person is getting in or out of the water.
Skiing tournament rules were promulgated decades before the advent of the sterndrive in the late 1950s. As a result in virtually all high-level competition skiing events only approved inboard-powered boats are used. This levels the wake so judges can focus solely on the artistry and skill of the skier.
The broad appeal of stern-drive powered runabouts, especially in fresh water, see many enthusiasts using them for wakeboarding, but their wakes are still on the large side for water skiing. Because sterndrive boats have their props close to the surface of the water some thrust is directed up as well as aft and down, which adds to the boats’ natural wake.
A sterndrive or inboard/outboard, aka I/O, is a combination of an inboard motor with outboard drive. The engine sits just forward of the transom while the drive unit (outdrive) is outside the hull. The outdrive carries power from the inboard engine through the transom and downward to the propeller below the waterline.
The outdrive resembles the bottom half of an outboard motor and carries power through two 90-degree turns to the propeller shaft. Some efficiency and horsepower is lost in this transition, but not much.
A sterndrive boat is steered by pivoting the outdrive, as on an outboard motor, and no rudder is needed. The outdrive can be tilted up for trailering but cannot trim clear of the water while in use.
Forward Drive Sterndrive. Volvo Penta takes a new approach to the sterndrive idea with its Forward Drive, which was developed specifically for wake surfing towboats. The DuoProp propellers face forward from the lower unit and pull the boat through the water instead of pushing it. The drive is still installed at the transom, but the propellers are 26” (.67 m) farther forward than they would be with a sterndrive, which makes the drive a safer choice for wake surfing.
We tested the Forward Drive on a wake surfing boat (http://www.boattest.com/engine-review/Volvo-Penta/27000108_Forward-Drive_2015). We found that it did improve handling when compared to a traditional inboard and that included maneuverability around the docks. For wake surfing, the twin propellers help a boat track straight and they create a symmetrical wake for surfing on each side.
Obviously, this drive cannot be trimmed up as can conventional drives when going into skinny water or when being trailered.
Outboard-powered boats have been used for skiing for decades. Today, outboard-powered boats are also used for wakeboarding. Proper-selected outboard engines offer plenty of torque and are in many cases just as quiet as an inboard or I/O application. Obviously there is the safety concern of having the propeller closer to the person being towed but it’s hardly any different than a sterndrive. Outboard powered boats are lighter and are much easier to maintain in a saltwater environment.
The New Breed of Outboard Sport Boat. Historically, outboard powered boats had only small appendages to each side of the outboard engine that made launch watersports difficult. However, today most sportboat builders have designed port and starboard swim platforms that offer almost as much launching space as that found on a conventional sterndrive. In these boats, enthusiasts can slip into the water astern or to the sides.
For the last decade jet boats have become increasingly popular. While one might think that these buyers are coming from PWC owners trading up, most of the buyers are coming from traditional sportboats. Jet boats are famous for getting on plane faster than virtually any other boat in the size range. Since they have no external propeller there are safe for people in the water. That, together with the fact that they produce a large wake, particularly if their stern is loaded, makes them a prime candidate for casual wake boarding and wake surfing.
Slow-Speed Operation even settings which meant even with the reverse bucket in neutral the boats often wandered. In the past couple of years, boat and engine manufacturers have worked together to develop jet innovations that make them feel more like “regular” boats when docking. New bucket designs have virtually eliminated wandering and in fact some models even have an adjustment at the helm for positive neutral.
Bucket List. With its Rotax engines, Bombardier uses two features to improve slow-speed maneuverability. First, hit “Docking Mode” on the touchscreen control at the helm. It reduces the amount of power the engines apply to a blip of the throttle doesn’t result in a launch into the dock. Additionally, a bucket abaft the jet pump directs the water laterally when maneuvering at slow speeds. This makes the boat much more responsive around the docks.
Companies such as Chaparral and Scarab are using the Rotax engines and pumps and in select models that are equipped with a full complement of wakeboarding and wake surfing gear to make their boats more attractive to a wider audience.
Total Control. Yamaha has its own line of jetboats with twin engines. To make the boats more maneuverable at slow speeds, they are equipped with the Connext helm and Drive Control. The Connext system lets the driver stay on top of all engine functions as well as the ballast system. A key element of the Drive Control is Yamaha’s Articulating Keel. It’s basically a rudder that extends the keel past the dual jet pumps. Because it’s connected to one of the two jet pumps, it helps make the boats more maneuverable at all rpm ranges, including no-wake and docking speeds.
Catch the Wave. The sport of wake surfing and boarding has grown so much in popularity, for some, it has become a lifestyle. It was only natural that wakeboarders would come from the ranks of snow and skate boarders. These aficionados are young and tuned into the specialized towboat brands. Ski boat builders realized earlier than others how popular wake sports could get and quickly did whatever they could with their inboard boats to induce more wake. Wakeboarding and wake surfing have surpassed skiing as the most popular activities on a rope behind a boat.
Today most specialized wake surfing and boarding boats are equipped with devices to create larger wakes usually in the form of ballast systems or trim-tab-like foils.
It’s really quite simple, the bigger the wake the higher the jump and more airtime for the wake boarders. Wake surfers however want the big wake so they can actually ride the wave. Once set on the wave, wake surfers let go of the tow rope altogether and surf on what amounts to an endless wave – something they don’t have with even the best ocean surf.
Tubing is the least specialized of all the water sports, and because it appears to require little skill for the rider besides hanging on, it is the most popular of all four of these watersports. Surprisingly, while people towed car inner tubes 75 years ago, it was not until recently that all of the spectacular plastic tubing products were developed. They come in all shapes and sizes and hold anywhere from one to six or more riders.
Caveats. Because tubing looks so simple most participants do not realize that it can be dangerous just like any other watersport. The operator of the tow vehicle must be careful not to swing the tuber into an obstruction or another boat. The person being towed must be aware of what is going on in front and to the sides and take preventative action if something looks amiss. Virtually any boat -- even personal watercraft -- can tow a tube, so the emphasis here is less on the type of boat employed and more on the experience and skill of the person driving the tow boat.
In all cases, you will want a boat with a fast 0-to-plane hole-shot time. The longer it takes a boat to reach planing speed without a tow (which is how BoatTEST.com tests boats) the harder it will be for the participant to get up on the skis or wakeboard. Skiing and wakeboarding require strength and the slower the planing time the stronger and more skilled must be the person being towed.
The boat’s horsepower is important. Many entry-level sportboats come standard with 3.0L engines rated at 135-hp. This is the smallest engine generally used in sterndrive sport boats because it keeps down the price of the boat.
A 3.0L engine might be enough power to bomb around the lake with two or three people aboard in a 17-footer, or for casual cruising and tubing, but be woefully lacking for more strenuous work. For serious skiing or wakeboarding, particularly if the skier or rider is inexperienced, or if the owner plans to carry a crowd aboard, a larger engine is recommended.
The next largest is a 4.3L engine with either 180-hp or 200-hp. The newest entry into the MerCruiser stern drive series is a 4.5-liter V-6 that’s available in 200-hp and 250-hp versions. In past years, a 5.0-liter V-8 engine offered a good combination of power and fuel economy with 220-hp. The seemingly ageless 350-cid small-block V-8 was an industry standard for decades, but now MerCruiser has the MX 6.2 that comes in either 300 or 350-hp.
It’s rare to find a big-block V-8 in an inboard towboat, but they are more prevalent in sterndrive runabouts longer than 24’ or 25’. The MerCruiser 8.2 MAG ECT is rated at 380 hp and the H.O. bumps up the power to 420. Remember, an under-powered boat -- no matter what the brand -- is the worst boat you can have. One of the most often heard remarks among the sportboat owners filling out BoatTEST.com’s “Owners’ Reports” is the lament that their boat is under-powered.
Generally speaking, the specialized inboard ski and wake boats are all adequately powered. Their buyers are not looking for the lowest price, and the builders would not risk the reputation of their brand with an underpowered boat. Typically the smallest engine these companies offer is a 5.0L engine developing 250-hp. It is not uncommon to see these boats powered by engines developing 375-hp. With that kind of power, the engine will deliver lots of torque at the low end where skiers and wake boarders need it.
In order to make the best choice answer these questions--
1. Which is the primary towsport activity that will be employed?
2. How serious a level do you want to attain?
3. What is the skill level of the enthusiast involved?
4. What is your budget?
Wake surfing should only be done from an inboard, jet, or Forward Drive sterndrive boat.
Wakeboarding can be done behind a specialized inboard, sterndrive, or jet boat, and in all cases they should have water ballast bags for best wake.
Waterskiing can be done from any boat, but for best results a smooth wake is preferred.
Tubing can be done from any of the boats listed, including PWCs and pontoon boats.