Choosing the Right Boat for You: A first-time boat buyer’s guide

By February 17, 2023Captain's Tips
If spending sunny days on the water has you thinking about buying a boat, you’re not alone. Many first-time boat buyers were birthed by the pandemic and the marine industry has taken off with all kinds of watercraft in high demand. The key to successful long-term boat ownership is understanding your boating needs and being honest about your resources.
It’s important to determine exactly what you expect from your on-the-water experience. Because there are many kinds of boats to choose from, you’ll need to answer (with the utmost honesty) a few questions before you can hone in on the perfect boat.

What do you want to do with the boat?

No boat will be right if you don’t know what you’ll do with it. Are you looking for a watersports boat that you can ski, wakeboard or wake surf behind? Are you an avid angler who will be happiest on a center console fishing boat complete with rod holders, bait wells and fish boxes? Do you want to raise sails and use the wind to propel you to the horizon? Do you want a fun day boat or a party platform like a pontoon? Or are you dreaming of living aboard a yacht and cruising to distant shores? Everything starts with what you’ll do and also where you’ll go boating which will dictate the best design for your needs.


What resources do you have?

Boating takes resources – specifically time and money. Determine how much time you’ll have to spend boating. Then, subtract the time you’ll need to clean, repair and care for the boat because that’s how much time you’ll have to enjoy it. Many boats spend 80% of their time in a slip or on a trailer which makes ownership an expensive proposition. Also, who will you boat with? Are your kids, friends and significant other free to enjoy boating with you or will you be going it alone? 

You’ll need to create a budget well beyond the purchase price. Will you need a slip for a large boat or dry storage for a boat on a trailer? How much will it cost to register and insure it? Maintenance, upgrades, winterizing and repairs can take a chunk of disposable income too. The answers to these budget questions will also dictate whether you should purchase a new or pre-owned vessel.

How much boat can you handle?

The final piece of the puzzle is to be realistic about how much boat you can handle. Boating aspirations are one thing, but your current level of experience will limit you somewhat. If you don’t want to depend on the schedule and enthusiasm of others, you’ll need to choose a boat you can manage (and enjoy) on your own. The best approach is to buy a boat that’s just a little beyond your capabilities and grow into it rather than overbuying, scaring yourself, and then avoiding the water altogether.

Boat types for consideration

Since 85% of boats on the water are powerboats, lets focus here and examine some options. 

Center console fishing boats – designed with a “walk around” helm, these angling masters typically run with outboard engines (one to six) and can be 15-45 feet or longer. 

Bass boats – usually 14-22 feet, bass boats are primarily used for freshwater fishing. 

Sportfishers – designed with large cockpits to fight fish, these boats can vary greatly in size and can go the distance to far flung fishing grounds.

Day boats – designed as family boats, day boats can be bow riders, dual consoles, or cuddy cabin cruisers. 

Pontoon boats – with two to three “hulls”, pontoon boats rely heavily on aluminum construction and are popular on lakes and rivers.

Towboats – typically trailerable watersports boats, these are designed for all kinds of sporting fun. 

Motor yachts and cruisers – with at least one cabin, one head and a galley, these vessels are designed for cruising, overnighting and weekending. They can vary in size and can be quite posh and comfortable.

Trawlers – these motor yachts are designed with fuel-efficient hulls and one (or two) engines to go more slowly but have greater range for anyone wishing to explore far afield. As you grow more comfortable, you may even choose to cruise dock-to-dock. This can be a fun way to explore so check out Snag-a-Slip to book reservations in neighboring marinas.

Catamarans – these multihulls are designed with two hulls and they can be either sail or power boats. They offer lots of space, redundant systems and shallow drafts so they can venture into skinny waters. 

Rigid inflatables – RIBs have inflatable tubes and aluminum or fiberglass floors. They’re often used as tenders to motor yachts but are great standalone boats too.

PWCs – personal watercraft have grown in size and sophistication and there are some that you can even take weekending although most are used for short day excursions. 

These are some of the major types of boats but there are many more. Divisions between designs are blurring. Today, boats are being asked to serve multiple masters and do double duty. Fishing boats have more seating and outdoor galleys for entertaining while day boats may be able to tow, entertain and go fishing all in one day. The good news is that boat design has grown versatile so your whole family can find something to love on any boat you choose.

The perfect boat is a fallacy

Once you’ve answered how you will use a boat, err on the size of small versus big. Smaller boats are less intimidating, easier to maneuver, cheaper to maintain and they make a great learning platform to build skills. 

A first-time boat can make or break your boating future, but it doesn’t have to be your forever boat. Soon, you may find your time, budget and experience growing and you can move on to the next “perfect boat”. In the meantime, have fun boat shopping.

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Author Zuzana Prochazka

Zuzana is a freelance writer and photographer with regular contributions to over a dozen sailing and power boating publications. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana is the founder of a flotilla charter company called Zescapes that takes guests adventure sailing at destinations around the world. Zuzana serves as an international presenter on charter destinations, safety issues and technical topics. She’s also the Chair of the NMMA Innovation Awards, a member of the American Society of Authors and Journalists, and the Executive Director of the Board of Boating Writers International.

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