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The Smart Buyer: Is a stepped boat right for you?

Does the new season have you thinking about a new boat? Many of today’s center consoles are great multitasking boats that can serve you well for day cruising, fishing or as a platform for swimming, diving and water sports.

Stepped hulls (like the one on this Contender 30 ST) deliver improved performance and efficiency, but they're not the best choice for everyone.

During your research, you’re sure to find center consoles that ride stepped hulls. Speed, fuel efficiency and a smooth ride have helped fuel the stepped hull’s popularity. But is a stepped boat right for you?

“Stepped hulls have become a buzz word. It shows you are high-technology, leading-edge,” says Michael Peters, an early pioneer of the stepped hull and owner of Michael Peters Yacht Design in Sarasota, Florida. “A stepped design can produce a faster boat and better seakeeping characteristics — if it is done properly and done for the proper speed range.”

At high speeds, transverse steps reduce the bottom’s wetted surface through air induction. This gives the stepped hull increased speed and fuel efficiency, as well as a flatter running angle for a smooth ride in rough water.

But stepped hulls have had some rough times. Some poorly designed boats in the 1970s and ’80s were prone to bow steering and violent hooking and spinouts at high speeds, Peters and other designers say. “Guys were going out for demo rides and getting thrown out of boats,” says Peters, who has designed more than 50 stepped hulls from 19 to 61 feet (recreational, commercial and military). The boats suffered from a high level of directional instability, he says.

Peters about a dozen years ago added a shallow tunnel abaft the last step in his designs to reduce directional instability and help the hull hold its course in turns. “When it leans over and wants to slide, [the tunnel] presents enough lateral area to catch the hull but not so abruptly that it will trip it,” says Peters, whose patented design is called the SVVT hull (Stepped V Ventilated Tunnel). It’s used on Invincible center consoles.

Peters and others, through naval architecture, research and on-water testing, have fine-tuned the stepped hull, helping improve its image. “As far as the downsides that customers had been experiencing, particularly in the area of handling, we have fixed those problems,” says Rob Kaidy, chief naval architect of Sea Vee Boats, which builds both stepped and traditional deep-vee center consoles. “We have a boat that handles like a sports car, is very predictable and requires no special training to drive.”

The stepped hull, of course, is not the right choice for all boaters. Designers agree that stepped hulls need to run fast — at least 35 knots — to take advantage of the increased efficiency and performance. For boaters who prefer a lower cruising speed and top end, the traditional vee-bottom hull remains a popular option.

The traditional deep-vee delivers a smooth, fast, dry and safe ride in rough water with predictable control and handling in every direction to the sea, says Winn Willard, president of C. Raymond Hunt Associates, which has designed deep-vee hulls for such builders as Southport, Grady-White and Hunt Yachts. The shallow forefoot prevents bow steering, and high forward chines deflect spray and add lift, he says. The vee-hull “gains stability at speed from lifting forces acting upon it,” says Willard.

Be aware that some builders might say their hulls have steps, even though the steps do nothing to improve performance. “They might just be notches in the chine that don’t help the boat gain speed,” says Willard. “But they’ll come up with some fancy name that sounds really high-tech and important.”

Whether you’re considering a stepped or traditional vee hull, look at boats from well-established builders and be sure to take them out for a sea trial to verify that they deliver on performance claims, says Kaidy.

Also, consider the differences in price. You’ll pay more for a stepped hull. The stepped Contender 30 ST with twin Yamaha F200s goes for $159,943; the vee-hull Contender 30 T comes in at $151,671 with the same power. The Sea Vee 320-Z (stepped) prices out at $161,300, and its vee-hull sister is $148,200, both powered with twin 250-hp Mercury Verados.

Despite the cost, sales of Contender and Sea Vee stepped hulls now outpace their traditional deep-vee counterparts. “It has been that way for several years now,” says Contender marketing director Les Stewart Jr. “If we offer the model in a stepped hull, it’s rare that we get an order for its deep-vee sister ship.”

May 2015 issue