Skip to main content

The good, the bad and the ugly of design

Compromises make it important to know what to look for - and what to avoid - when comparing boats.

Image placeholder title

In my travels around the waterfront, I'm always on the lookout for the good, bad and just plain ugly in boat design. During the last few months, I've been to a number of boat shows in the United States and Canada and I'm both tickled with the positive innovations and dismayed at some of the bad ideas on display.

There are some marvelous boats out there, and most builders do a good job delivering the designs consumers want - after all, it's a market-driven business. But in the process of designing boats to suit market trends, a few builders get ahead of themselves, especially when it comes to letting styling drive practicality and safety. And then there are designs and features that simply miss the mark, as you'll see.

Bridge and helm

At the helm - whether an upper or lower station - most boats have a bright white dash that increases eye strain in sunlight and glare at night when you're trying to pick out side lights or buoys three or four miles away. A darker, duller color works much better. The ideal is the material on the dash in your car.

A dash that's a darker, duller color will reduce glare and eye strain at the helm.

The compass should be up high and in clear sight so it's close to the horizon from your vantage point. The lower the compass is mounted, the more you have to shift your eyes away from the water ahead.

A bow thruster or pod-maneuvering joystick should be easy to reach, but preferably away from little fingers and big hips. Rocker switches, including the horn that should be out in the open and readily accessible, should likewise be easy to get to, not buried behind the wheel. Engine controls should be easy to reach while seated or standing and at a comfortable height and angle - about 20 degrees from horizontal is ideal, so the triceps and biceps provide the muscle to precisely control the throttle. Also, if the throttle/shift is too far aft in relation to the seat and steering wheel, it will be uncomfortable to use, especially driving standing up.

Speaking of standing at the helm, make sure there is plenty of room between the seat and the wheel, including when the boat is coming up on plane and you have to lean forward to keep your balance.

Almost all boats these days have single-lever shift and throttle controls for the very good reason that separate throttle and shift controls invite screwups when maneuvering around the dock, especially for the weekend warrior. It's easy to forget which is which when backing into a slip in a crosswind with neighboring boats just a few feet away and spectators gathered for the show. Look for a boat with single-lever controls, and if they're electronic controls, make sure there is enough detent at neutral so you can feel when the engine is going into and out of gear.

Visibility from the helm, of course, is crucial to safety on the water. If you can't see it, you can't avoid it, and the more the horizon is blocked, the less situational awareness you'll have. A big offender at the lower station is wide windshield mullions between windows. They don't have to be more than 2 inches wide from a structural standpoint.

The other prime offender is the styling-driven radar arch, which is often 24 to 30 inches wide at eye level as viewed from the helm. The unfortunate thing is that large blind spots are acceptable under the American Boat and Yacht Council guidelines - the rules U.S. boatbuilders follow when designing boats.

Think of a collision course - defined as two boats being on a constant bearing with decreasing range - and what happens if that bearing is on the other side of this arch. You likely won't see the other boat until it's close aboard. Look for a pipe-frame arch or one that has a window in the middle. The few builders who go to the extra trouble and expense of providing the best of both worlds - styling and visibility - are to be commended.

Up on the flybridge, the height of the coaming or rail is especially important for the simple reason that the boat's rolling motions are accentuated the higher you get. A 32-inch rail is good, and 36 inches is that much better. It certainly shouldn't be any lower than that, in my judgment. Here's what the ABYC says on the matter: H-41.6.2 - "The outside periphery of flying bridges shall be provided with coamings, life rails or an enclosure at least 30 inches (760mm) above the deck, or by seat backs that shall be no less than 24 inches (610mm) above the deck."

Regal takes an interesting approach to brightening things up down below with its 2860 Window Express, which has a window that spans the entire forward part of the cabin and large windows along the sides.

To put this into perspective, the 30-inch height was a compromise to accommodate pleasure-boat builders. On commercial vessels, a 39-inch rail is called for. Unfortunately, the physics of the fulcrum - the height at which the railing contacts your leg - don't differentiate between commercial vessels and yachts. It also helps to have toe-kick space so you're not off balance when leaning against a coaming or rail.

On deck

The height of the coaming or rail inside the boat, what is often called "interior freeboard," also bears directly on safety. A coaming height of 28 inches is pretty common in convertible cockpits, since the angler wants to be close to the water to more easily land fish. Smaller center consoles will be lower still, while cruisers will often have a lot more height.

Builders can take a shortcut by making the cockpit liner and gunwales, or washboards, from a single piece of fiberglass. But most take the trouble to create separate gunwale inserts that allow the cockpit liner to be recessed below the gunwale, which is where the toe kick comes from. Every quality boat I know of - Viking, Hatteras, Tiara, to name a few - and even many budget brands have these separate sections.

Side decks should be wide enough for safe walking, and bow rails should be 28 to 30 inches high.

There are two schools of thought regarding moving forward from the cockpit. One involves centerline access, usually on molded steps next to the cabin companionway, up to the dash, through an opening center windshield and down the cabin top to the bow. This works fine if 1) the steps are big (so you can use them to safely come back down), 2) there's a hand rail to hold by the windshield, 3) the foredeck is not too steep and is covered with non-skid, and 4) the bow rail is high, strong and far enough inboard to offer some security. Center access is found on most express cruisers these days, since this design allows the builder to push out the windshield "wings" or sides to open up interior volume.

Some boats have side decks for bow access - convertibles, for example - and they should have a few characteristics for safe passage. Look for a width of at least 10 inches so you can walk naturally, swinging one foot past, rather than directly in front of, the other. It also helps if the side of the deckhouse slopes inboard, since this creates more width at shoulder height, which is where you really need it.

The deckhouse should have hand rails positioned at a height of 36 to 60 inches, which allows most adults to reach them comfortably and securely. The deckhouse rail and bow rail should extend past each other by several feet so you have something to hold on to all the way forward.

Bow rails should offer plenty of height - 28 to 30 inches is good - and they should be strong and stiff enough so they don't give way noticeably under load. Also, they should be positioned vertically above the outboard edge of the walking surface. If positioned too far outboard, you're already off balance if you lean against the railing or reach for it. Bow rail stanchions should also follow the 10-inch minimum clearance rule so there's 10 inches or more of clear space between the stanchion and deckhouse or cabin trunk.


Bow, spring and stern cleats that are readily accessible and proportioned to the boat's size should be a given, but don't take this for granted. The larger the cleat, the easier it is to securely tie off more than one line. For instance, you can tie off two half-inch lines to a single 8-inch hollow cleat by using one cleat horn for each line under moderate strain.

Bow cleats should be close to the bow - certainly within 18 inches - so you can get a fair lead when tying to a fixed dock in an area with big tides. Likewise, stern cleats should be as far aft as possible but within safe reach of the cockpit. A design that's easily as ill-conceived as the 30-inch-wide radar arch is the stern cleat back on the swim platform, which means Dad is going to be asking Mom or the kids to go back by the props when maneuvering into a slip to handle lines. It's fine to have a second set of stern cleats on the swim platform - they come in handy when backed into a slip - but they shouldn't be used until the boat is stopped and the engine turned off. If your spouse keeps asking you to do this after you point out the obvious hazards, you might want to dust off the prenup.

One more cleat issue and I'll press on. Stern cleats on commercial fishing boats and large sportfishermen typically are mounted to the side of the hull below the gunwale washboard, with the line feeding through a hawse hole in the gunwale. However, I strongly discourage the use of these cleats on family boats because the line handler has to bend over to reach the cleat and, when doing so, his or her head is pretty much in the line of fire of the line under strain. It doesn't take an overly active imagination to figure out what happens when the cleat pulls out of the dock or the line parts.

This problem is accentuated when you consider that the driver of the family boat might not be a world-class boat handler, so the chances of the inexperienced line handler getting into trouble are increased. Stick with fixed or pop-up stern cleats mounted up on the gunwale, out in the open and within easy reach from the cockpit.


Freeboard is fundamental to a boat's volume, which creates usable space. Less freeboard means less space (your average bass boat), and generous freeboard means Winnebago-like room (your average small express cruiser). Freeboard is also one of the most basic elements of seaworthiness, which stipulates that the hull keeps the ocean (or lake) out of the cockpit. However, that's not easy to do if the hull is designed with too little freeboard. That's especially true in the bow, which is most susceptible to shipping waves on board.

An unfortunate trend these days is bow droop, which is a sign that a boat is fairly young. A little bow droop - typical of ski and wakeboard boats and an increasing number of open-bow runabouts - may look snazzy, but these boats are by no means capable of venturing into even mildly choppy waters safely.

Imagine a 20-foot droop-nose bowrider idling along with 600 pounds of kids and adults in the forward cockpit. The bow is already a foot or so lower than it should be because of the design, the passenger weight pushes the bow down 3 or 4 inches, and along comes a wave or wake. Even in calm water, a steep wake can swamp this type of boat at the right angle of attack.

When all the water comes aboard, it drains aft and the only place it has to go is to the bilge, where a 1,200-gph bilge pump is meant to collect drips and drops. The pump loses half its capacity with all the plumbing upstream, so the water is pumped overboard at maybe 10 gallons a minute. (Keep a bucket handy.) Meanwhile, all that water sloshing around on deck and in the bilge creates stability-robbing free-surface effect, making the boat susceptible to capsizing.

If you're caught out in rough conditions in this type of boat, put your life jackets on, shift weight (passengers) aft to raise the bow and run at semidisplacement speed to keep the bow up. This is not to scare you into selling your boat or staying home and playing video games; it's just to say that every boat has capabilities and limitations, and the limitations of a droop-nose, open-bow boat are substantial when it comes to seaworthiness. Stay in the small lakes and rivers for which they're designed, and keep an eye out for wakes and freak waves.

With open-bow boats, bigger is usually better as far as seaworthiness is concerned because the bow has more freeboard. If you want a smaller boat, but also want the capability to head offshore on a good day or go out safely on a big lake, consider a saltwater-bred dual console that's based on the same hull as the builder's center console. These boats often have more freeboard, are pumped full of foam for flotation and have self-bailing cockpits.


The depth of the forward cockpit certainly influences safety for passengers riding in the bow. But there's another element that most people don't give enough thought to. A hull with flat sections forward will make the ride rougher and a hard-riding boat is more likely to toss someone sitting forward up in the air than a deeper-vee hull with a finer entry. A smooth-riding boat with a fine entry and deep deadrise forward is safer as well as more comfortable. We've talked before about how to judge the ride and seakeeping of a hull by looking at it, so now's the time to put that knowledge to work.

A cutout in the radar arch will help increase visibility from the helm.

Along with the height of the cockpit in the bow, look for hand-holds that are situated properly for a good grip. If the only hand-hold is in the forward end of the cockpit, that will do little for good leverage.

Why the Coast Guard approves these droop-bow designs for passenger occupancy forward at speed escapes me, and I used to be in the Coast Guard.

Another safety tip - look around for trip hazards like folding platforms at the helm or small steps forward in a center console. Boats should also be free of head knockers like T-top bracing and overhead electronics boxes at the helm. This is especially a problem when zipping along at high speed in rough water for pretty obvious reasons.

Hull design

A boat's ride is a simple matter of physics - whether the energy from hull-to-wave impact dissipates gradually or nearly instantaneously. A fine entry and deep deadrise forward results in the former, which is felt as a smooth ride. A blunt entry and flat sections in the bow produces the latter, with a kidney-jarring ride in rough water.

Two boats I saw recently at a boat show - a Sabre 40 that measures 40 feet, 10 inches by 14 feet and an express sportfisherman that's 36 feet, 10 inches by 14 feet, 10 inches - make a good comparison. Which do you think will ride more comfortably and efficiently offshore? The Sabre has a much finer, sharper entry, which bodes well for a comfortable head-sea ride because it has a foot less beam to stretch out over a hull that's 4 feet longer. The other boat will give you more volume for the boat's length. Take your pick - ride or room. All the marketing in the world won't change the physics behind the ride.

Sponson bows are becoming popular with the crossover bowrider/wakeboard/deckboat crowd. While this opens up lots of room forward, the boat with the flatter and fuller bow below the waterline is going to have a harder ride than a well-designed vee-bottom runabout or offshore dual console. A sponson hull is prone to riding rough - not only because of low deadrise forward, but also because all of that water gets trapped by the sponsons inside the outer hulls, especially when the chines are wide, flat and down-angled. This is the perfect recipe for a jarring and, therefore, less safe ride.

Some sponson boats I've seen will ride much better than others, since they have more deadrise and a finer entry, so make sure to look it over closely and insist on a prepurchase test ride in rough conditions. These boats open up a lot of room forward and they work great in calm waters. Just don't plan to be a regular out on the 50-fathom curve.

Clever cabin designs

Many express cruisers have ski-slope foredecks, which results in an unsafe walking surface forward. The reason is that builders are producing 26-foot express cruisers with 75 inches of headroom at the companionway and that headroom rapidly decreases moving forward in the cabin.

Another unfortunate trend in cruisers of all kinds is the windowless cabin. You feel like you're in a cave. Just a few decades ago, having a cabin without lots of windows was the exception, rather than the rule. Then boatbuilders discovered they could glass over the windows, which kept out the leaks - and the daylight - the easy way.

Regal has stepped front and center and delivered an old design in new clothing. Its Window Express series has frameless glass bonded to the deck structure across the front and along the sides. The adhesive used to bond the glass replaces the old aluminum frames, so there's no corrosion and the adhesive also prevents leaks, the bugaboo of old windows. The result is a design that wondrously improves on the original.

And here's the other advantage of Regal's clever design: It's much safer on the foredeck than a typical express cruiser, with two reasonably flat deck surfaces to walk on as you work your way forward from the centerline opening window. The forward trunk cabin window is effectively the riser in the stairs leading down to the bow, moderating the slope. All the way forward is another flat deck section that creates a comfortable, secure working surface when handling bow lines or anchoring. Plus, all that glass really brightens up things down below, just like on Grandpa's old Egg Harbor or Hatteras.

This point is often overlooked, but cabin hatches not only let sunlight and fresh air into the cabin, they provide an escape route in an emergency. The bigger a cabin hatch is, the better. In my experience, a 19-inch hatch is plenty large for most people to climb through. Also, make sure there's something to help you climb through it - like a forward berth situated directly below the hatch.

In terms of hatch size, here's what the ABYC has to say: H-3.4.2 - "Enclosed accommodation spaces shall have a second readily accessible means of exit if one exit can be blocked by a fire in a galley or machinery area ... [with] minimum clear opening dimensions of 14.5 by 18.5 inches (rectangular), or 270 square inches, with a minimum dimension of 14.5 inches (oval) or 18.5 inches in diameter (circular)."

There are plenty of Americans walking around boat shows who'd find it challenging to fit through a 14.5-inch-wide hatch - as I would, for sure.

As was reaffirmed at the New York boat show, Bayliner has long been a master at creating family-friendly, practical cabin layouts, and its boats let in lots of sunlight through oversized windows. I'm even more cheery than usual - and less critical of boats and Democrats, maybe - when sitting in a Bayliner cabin. I think we humans just do better in sunlight than we do in caves.

These Bayliner cruisers are not the ticket if you want to rocket offshore in 3- to 5-footers, but they are terrific little calm-water cruisers. Keep in mind that if you want a Winnebago on the water in a 26-foot package, the builder has to carry the chine beam forward for stability, due to the high center of gravity and the inertia of the high freeboard, and this accentuates rolling and pitching motions. The wider, fuller bow needed for buoyancy and stability makes for a harder ride, but you get the cabin of an offshore-capable 32-footer. And that's just what many people are looking for - and that explains Bayliner's success over the years.

At the risk of repeating myself, you decide which it is you prefer - ride or room.

Topside novelties

Cobalt has always been in the forefront of runabout design and it can afford to be innovative, considering what the boats go for. (By the way, that

didn't happen out of thin air. These are good boats and have been since hull No. 1). One example is a new powered swim platform that raises and lowers at the touch of a switch. Talk about decadent. You can sit with your thighs submerged or use it as a step to get back aboard. It also projects abaft the raised sterndrive, an important safety consideration so you're not painfully reminded there's a prop down there when jumping in the water.

Another noteworthy feature is found on the some of the jetboats. Waterjet power opens up a number of possibilities, one of which is found on the twin waterjet Yamaha 242. Thanks to the low engine profile opening things up back aft, it has a nifty seating arrangement at the stern. The waterjets are not a hazard to swimmers (or people falling over the bow) like props are, so the boat is inherently safer in that respect.

The boat's 16-inch draft is another great advantage. It's a blast to drive and it has one of the best hull designs in its class for a smooth, safe ride.

What I'd like to see to improve this design from a safety standpoint is hand-holds on both sides of each aft seat. The grab bar on centerline is pretty much useless. The problem is people will sit back here when the boat is running 50 mph, even though it's a foolish thing to do.

Lacking the inherent directional stability of a sterndrive, these boats tend to wander (yaw) around their heading at slow speeds, and they don't run very well at intermediate speeds, which is the nature of the jetdrive. You either go very fast or very slow.

I don't know about this particular model, but jetboats I've run in the past also have been very loud because they have high-rpm engines that are harder to insulate acoustically. You can get a decibel meter at Radio Shack for $60 and test the sound levels yourself. If it's above 90 dBA, you're on a loud boat.


There you have it - a vicarious tour of a few of this year's early boat shows. You can't count on every builder to present you with a product that is driven by function rather than styling, rides well in rough water, stays afloat with minor hull damage, has berths that are long enough to actually sleep in and so on, so it's important to know what to look for - and what to avoid - when shopping for a boat.

We've seen a few design features to avoid, as well as a few innovations, like Regal's pleasant cabin and foredeck design and Cobalt's powered swim platform. I hope this sheds some light on the subject the next time you're shopping for a boat.

Eric Sorensen was founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice and is the author of "Sorensen's Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance." A longtime licensed captain, he can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.