When it comes to family fun, sportboats or runabouts were the original do-everything boats. Today, the majority of these boats are bowriders, with cuddy-cabin models making up only about 3% of the market. Bowriders are used for everything from cruising and casual fishing to tow sports. Let’s take a look at 12 of the most important features a buyer should look for in a bowrider or sportboat.
Any bowrider or cuddy with outboard, stern drive or jet power needs adequate muscle for the variety of tasks it will be asked to perform. Don’t buy the cheapest boat with the smallest four-cylinder engine. Chances are that it may not have the grunt – with a number of guests aboard – to tow a tube, never mind pull a full-sized man up from a deep-water start on a slalom ski. A boat also needs the oomph to get on plane quickly and to carry a load of people without mushing along.
Entry-Level sterndrives are often powered by the smallest engine on the market, a 135-hp 3.0 L MerCruiser. These 4-cylinder engines have the advantage of being lightweight and low cost. By keeping the package price down, builders are able to make it relatively easy to get into a stern drive boat.
When it comes to performance, we have actually made a video of a boat powered by one of these engines pulling up a skier with two people aboard the boat. Having said that, when the boat is loaded up with passengers its performance is greatly altered. All boats are weight-sensitive, but with minimum horsepower performance is vulnerable.
Larger Engines. An 18’ (5.5 m) or 19’ (5.8 m) stern drive bowrider with a 4.3-liter V-6 engine will be able to handle greater loads with better performance The carbureted versions are rated at 190-hp and the fuel-injected versions range up to 220-hp.
Moving up to 21’ (6.4 m) or 22’ (6.7 m) means more boat weight and more carrying capacity, and therefore would do well to have a larger engine; such as a small V-8 5.0-liter rated at 260 hp. A 23- (7.01 m) to 24-footer (7.3 m) generally comes with a small block V-8 that makes 300 hp. Traditionally, these were 350-cubic inches (5.7-liter), but today there are also 6.2-liter 300-hp V-8s available.
On the outboard side, only recently have we seen runabouts and bowriders designed for clamp-on motors. A boat in the 18’ (5.5 m) size range should have a 150-hp outboard while a step up to 20’ (6.1 m) to 22’ (6.7 m) will usually require another 50 ponies. A 24’ (7.3 m) boat should have at least 250-hp.
V-Bottom. Whether it’s running through endless wakes on Missouri’s crowded Lake of the Ozarks or the windblown chop on Long Island Sound or Chesapeake Bay on a Sunday afternoon, a bowrider needs to provide a comfortable ride. Most have a deep-V bottom design with a transom deadrise of approximately 20 degrees. A bowrider should also have a deep entry at the bow to cut through waves and reverse chines and spray rails to keep the deck dry.
Shallow V. Sportboats that will be used on small inland lakes and rivers can have a lower deadrise angle at the transom and so are as low as 16 degrees – simply because they will not encounter truly choppy conditions as one might find offshore. Flatter bottoms have the advantage of being more stable and being easier to push. That means that they can have lower horsepower engines – or perform better with higher horsepower engines. But, remember, it can get rough even on a small lake, so be prepared for a “washboard” ride in some cases.
Cathedral hulls on sportboats are intended to maximize stability. They are suitable for small lakes and rivers without much chop. They are also good for children or older people who only want to putt-putt around a lake.
We measure the cockpit depth and freeboard of virtually every boat we test, but there’s an easy way to tell if a boat feels secure enough. Sit in all the seats, especially those in the bow. Obviously, it depends on the size of the boat, but on a model in the 20’ (6.1 m) range, an adult should sit up to his or her mid-back in the forward section of bow when leaning back against the cushions. Just in front of the console we would hope that the seat back comes as high as the armpits.
People stay the same size no matter what size boat they are on, and on very small boats the builder is limited by the size of the boat as to how much cockpit depth can be provided.
The aft cockpit will usually be as deep or deeper. While 24” is the minimum depth we usually find, families with children will appreciate 28” to 30”, or more of cockpit depth. Larger boats can have deeper cockpits.
There should be grabrails in convenient reach for all passengers. The driver should have a supportive bucket seat with a bolster that folds up so the boat can be driven from a seated or leaning position.
Children. When underway, we recommend small children always be seated behind the driver. There can be considerable bow motion depending on conditions and speed and lightweight children may have trouble sticking to the seats.
Even newer bowriders with outboards are being designed with large swim platforms that lend themselves to watersports. On a stern-drive-powered boat, especially one with a twin-prop drive, an extended swim platform is an important consideration. Even though the engine should be turned off whenever people are in the water close to the boat, props can be sharp. The farther we can keep swimmers and watersports enthusiasts from propellers, the better.
We recommend that all swim platforms extend beyond the props of a sterndrive when the lower unit is in the down position. Some builders offer extensions to the swim platform so that it will extend beyond the props. That way, someone slipping into the water will not touch the prop.
Many manufacturers are also offering synthetic soft foam mat covers for swim platforms. It feels good underfoot and keeps boards from getting scratched.
It doesn’t seem like much, but a four-step boarding ladder makes it much easier to get back on the boat than a three-step model. The best installations have the ladder in its own locker so that when it’s not in use it doesn’t create a tripping hazard or the possibility of scratching boards or skis.
The ABYC wrote a building standard several years ago requiring that the swim ladder extend at least 22” below the waterline. The organization says that by lowering the ladder, not only does it make it easier for people to reboard, but it also reduces the chance that they might touch the prop by 75%.
Most people go boating on hot summer days and that means some serious sun exposure. No matter how much sun block we smear all over ourselves and how big of a floppy hat we put on, sometimes everyone just needs a break from the sun. That’s where a Bimini top or shade built into a tower or arch comes into play. Some boat manufacturers include a Bimini in the standard equipment list while others offer them as an option. Get one with a stainless-steel frame and take note of the speeds the top is rated for.
Most boats have a tachometer, speedometer and fuel gauge. For gauges, we also like to see a depthfinder. This is especially handy for a boater who likes to explore different bodies of water.
A darker finish on the dash panel will help reduce glare on the windshield. It’s overlooked, but there should always be a cupholder for the driver so he can stay hydrated during a long day on the water.
Windshield headers should be high enough that they are above eye level when the boat is on plane in a proper cruise attitude. Most boats cruise with a 3- to 5-degree high trim. When at idle the header should also be above the “height of eye.” If builders follow ABYC standards this will naturally occur, but many do not. If the header is not at the proper height, the operator is constantly looking under it or over it to get a good view forward.
We recommend sitting in the driver’s seat at boat shows, to see if the windshield header is properly positioned. If it is at the “height of eye” it will probably be higher when planing, but may not be when at idle.
The ABYC has stringent standards for the construction of seats, but their pedestal bases can be annoying if they wobble. This wobble usually comes with age, but sometimes can be detected when new. Potential buyers should sit in the helm seat and make sure that the pedestal does not wobble and that the helm is ergonomically comfortable.
A growing trend among some sportboat builders is to eliminate a dedicated bow anchor locker and cleat for the anchor order on or near the centerline. Generally, this is done on the smaller boats in order to create more sitting room. The trouble is that all boats should have an anchor, a place for it, and a cleat position on the bow for it. Boats without a dedicated anchor locker must have an alternative locker in the bow that can be used exclusively for housing the anchor and rode. A cleat should then be affixed to the bow in the aftermarket.
Often a boater doesn’t realize he wants a certain accessory on a boat until he buys one without it. If lunch on the water is going to be a regular thing, get a cockpit table. For families with teenage daughters who want to sunbath, bow filler cushions are a popular item. A means to close off the cockpit from the bow comes in handy when temperatures dip in the fall.
Many bowriders longer than 20’ (6.1 m) can have a head in the port console. If watersports are a regular part of a day on the water, consider a tower or tow pylon. Planning on fishing? Purchase a fish and ski model or at least get a removable snap-in carpet so it won’t get all bloody and slimy.
Most bowriders will have an under-deck ski/board locker between the helm and companion seats and stowage under the cushions of the cockpit and bow seats. We like to see either a built-in insulated cooler or a dedicated spot for a carry-on model because these can eat up serious cockpit space. Additionally, it’s sometimes overlooked, but a locking glove box is a great place to stash the registration and other papers as well as personal valuables, etc. Most current gloveboxes have at least one 12-volt power plug as well.