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The smart buyer: Picking the open boat that’s right for you

Feel the wind in your face and let the salt air fill your lungs. Hear the water sliding along the hull side. Watch the gulls dive for dinner. These simple experiences of the senses draw us to boats, especially open powerboats. Compared to vessels with enclosed bridge decks or pilothouses, open boats have fewer barriers keeping us from the sights, sounds and smells of being on the water.

Scout's new 275 Dorado is a good example of today's multi-use open boat.

Today’s time-strapped boaters want to be with their friends and family when they go boating, and open boats allow them to more easily socialize. Builders are packing more seating into their boats — comfortable seating that sometimes doubles as storage space.

“Buyers are much more interested in multi-utility functions and [boats] they can do a lot of stuff with,” says Scott Deal, president and CEO of Maverick Boat Co., which builds the Maverick, Pathfinder, Cobia and Hewes brands. “They want to be able to use their boat every day, regardless of the mission. They may want to have a family mission one day and a fishing mission the next time. Multiple use — that’s what it’s all about.”

Selecting an open boat can be an overwhelming endeavor because there are so many types, sizes and styles. Understanding your options can help. The center console, the dual console and the bowrider are among the more popular open boats, and each has a subcategory. For instance, under the umbrella of center console you have the fish-and-cruise boat, the flats boat, the inshore/offshore hybrid and the bay boat. They range from about 15 feet to 45 feet.

Dual consoles can have a closed bow and a full windshield like a runabout, or a split windshield with a walkway to a bow area with seating. Dual consoles are now approaching 40 feet — case in point: Grady White’s Freedom 375.

Jeff Vaughn, vice president of sales, marketing and customer service for Boston Whaler, explains the difference between his company’s center and dual consoles. “Many of the people buying dual-console boats are looking for a multitasking boat,” he says. “Our center console boats are fishing boats that are very comfortable for recreational boaters, while our Vantage [dual console] boats are recreational boats that are very fishable.”

Bowriders often are designed with speed in mind, with many reaching 60 mph at wide-open throttle. They take on a sportier look than other open boats and are often intended for lake boating, although a few are built for coastal use. Some of the water sports boats fall under this category. The big bowriders are now about 35 feet. In fact, Sea Ray splashed its new 350 SLX, which can seat 18 passengers, at this fall’s Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.

So with all these choices, how do you make an intelligent decision that will satisfy you and your family? Define how the boat will be used, where, how frequently and by how many people. If you want to go fishing one weekend in skinny water and head offshore the next week, you’ll want to check out hybrid center consoles. If you envision the boat being used to take the kids tubing and wakeboarding, a bowrider will do the job. If you think the majority of your time will be spent cruising the harbor for cocktails, take a look at deckboats and pontoons. I should add that pontoons have evolved in the past few years, with hull shapes that offer a good turn of speed and the ability to tow a skier.

Another appeal of the open boat is that it’s lighter than vessels with superstructures, so it’s more economical to operate. And, of course, you have choices when it comes to propulsion. The popularity of 4-stroke outboards has skyrocketed.

Even sportboats, which have been sterndrive powered for decades, are being rigged with outboards. Baja, for instance, recently debuted a 26 Outlaw with twin 300-hp outboards. And with production outboards of as much as 350 hp, offshore center consoles are now being built as large as 45 feet. Sterndrives are more powerful, too, allowing big bowriders to blast around at 55 mph. Keep in mind that outboards are typically less expensive and easier to maintain and service than sterndrives, so that should be part of your decision making.

You can more easily narrow these choices when you identify how the boat will be used. “Too many people rush into their decision, and when they start using their new boat they find out it’s really not what they wanted,” Vaughn says. “You have to put some thought into it.”

Don’t be carried away by impulse. Do your homework, and you’re more likely to have years of happy boating ahead.

January 2014 issue