So you've decided to buy a boat for your family. Great!
Now you've got to choose what type of boat you want. But there are so many boats to choose from. Where do you start?
Here are a few things to consider that will help you find the best boat for your family.
First, you need to think about what type of recreation you and your family will be doing most of the time. This will help you narrow down your choices. We'll look at several good options in this article.
Another major consideration when buying a boat is maintenance. Low maintenance boats can help assure you spend more time on the water with your family and less time waiting for repairs. Some people love to work on their boats. But most of us would rather spend as much time as possible on family excursions away from the dock.
What Makes a Low-Maintenance Boat?
As you can imagine, big boats with complex systems and lots of gadgets cost more to maintain than smaller ones. Smaller boats in the 8 to 26 foot range, with simple systems, can give you years of fun on the water with minimal need for repairs.
The type of engine you choose can make a big difference, too.
Outboard engines are the easiest to care for and don't need much maintenance. They're lighter than inboard engines with the same horsepower so they tend to be faster.
Inboard engines and inboard/outboard (I/O) combinations with stern drives have more components. That means they've got more potential for mechanical problems. They've got thru-hull fittings for cooling and exhaust that may leak over time. There's running gear, struts, stern glands, and stuffing boxes. With gasoline inboards, you need a blower system to vent the interior space. If you live in a colder climate, you'll need to winterize your engine if you don't plan to use it during the long winter.
And if you're ever unfortunate enough to run aground or strike a submerged object, it's much cheaper to repair or replace the lower unit of an outboard than it is to fix the devices on the underside of an inboard.
The two most common hull materials are aluminum and fiberglass. Both are low maintenance materials with different qualities. Aluminum is strong, durable, and lightweight. It is forgiving for first-time boat owners because it is more likely to dent in a docking mishap than crack like fiberglass. Aluminum boats last for many years with minimal maintenance needed other than regularly washing them down at the end of the trip
Lighter weight means aluminum boats are easier to put in and out of the water and haul on a trailer. These boats need less power than a heavier boat of the same length. This means lower fuel costs, too. Fiberglass is another low-maintenance boat-building material that lasts for years. Though heavier than aluminum, it may be molded into intricate shapes that can create a more comfortable and attractive boat. Fiberglass boats give a quieter ride in rough water.
Now let's look at the different types of family starter boats.
The Best Low Maintenance Boats
Aluminum fishing boats
Do you like to fish? Many of us have fond memories of family fishing trips where we caught our first fish.
Some of the most affordable family boats are aluminum fishing boats with outboard engines. These range in size from 8 to 24 feet long.
The simplest are bare-bones car top boats with bench seats and a small electric motor or gas outboard engine attached to the stern. This simple configuration can give you years of fishing enjoyment with minimal maintenance.
More elaborate aluminum fishing boats up to 24 feet may have swivel seats, wheel steering, fish finders, depth sounders, fish livewells, rod holders, and an assortment of amenities. These are the kind of boats you see the fishing pros use on TV. Of course, the more gadgets you have on your boat, the more opportunities you have for increased maintenance costs down the line.
If your main goal is to get out on the water and relax with your family, then pontoon boats are a great choice. They run in length from 10 to 30 feet. Most pontoon boats are powered by low maintenance outboard engines. Many of them are made of aluminum so they’re durable and relatively lightweight.
These boats make an excellent starter boat for a family. Pontoon boats are stable and have a large, open seating space that can feel as comfortable as if you were hanging out on the deck at home. Most pontoon boats have simple mechanical systems and few electronic devices that need to be looked after.
Deck boats and bowriders
Deck boats and bowriders are fiberglass boats that combine the open seating of a pontoon boat with better performance on the water. They are powered by inboard, stern drive, or outboard engines. Outboard engines have become more and more popular in these boats as horsepower and performance have improved.
Deck boats have an open layout like a pontoon boat and run about 20 to 35 feet in length. They may have a full windshield or a half windshield in front of the skipper. The wide bow provides ample seating room forward. This makes them heavier than a bowrider.
Bowriders are generally in the 17 to 30 foot range. They have an open seating layout in the bow and stern, and come with a full windshield. Their bow is narrower than a deck boat. Lighter weight makes them faster and more nimble.
You could load these boats with all sorts of comforts and accessories, too. But keeping the list of extras to a minimum can help keep your future maintenance costs low.
Cabin cruisers are boats with enclosed cabins that provide living quarters for overnight or longer stays. They vary in size from small boats around 20 feet long with sparse interiors, to posh, ocean-going vessels up to 60 feet with all the amenities you have at home. You can find them with inboard engines, stern drives, and outboard engines.
For a family interested in spending the night on their boat, cruisers are a great option. To keep maintenance costs low, smaller cruisers with outboards and just the basic equipment are a good choice.
Any of these family boats can provide you with years of affordable fun and great memories with your family.
Other types of powerboats
Smaller, low-maintenance powerboats for the family are called runabouts. They may have inboard, stern drive, or outboard engines. These are multipurpose boats in the 14 to 24-foot range.
Runabouts can be used for fishing, family outings, waterskiing, and just spending time on the water. They have less seating than some of the above boats, but many have a covered bow that provides dry storage. Runabouts can be made of aluminum or fiberglass. Many have basic mechanical systems and few accessories, so they require little maintenance.
The Best Low Maintenance Tips
No matter what type of boat you choose, preventative ongoing maintenance is the best way to keep your boat maintenance costs low. The best way to do that is to develop the habit of regularly inspecting your boat and keeping up on your scheduled maintenance.
Before you leave the dock each time
Be sure to check your boat’s main systems on a regular basis.
Check battery charge and acid levels. Inspect cables and connections for wear and corrosion.
Check the oil level and watch your oil temperature and pressure gauges. Visually inspect fuel lines and connections for leaks. Check engine vents for blockages. Inspect engine mounting bolts.Check your fuel level and consider taking extra fuel in a spare tank.
On outboard and sterndrive boats, look for dents or dings on the propeller. Check that the propeller nut is tight. It’s a good idea to remove the propeller a few times a year to make sure there’s no fishing line wrapped around the propeller shaft.
Steer the wheel in both directions and make sure you have the right tension, and if possible, confirm visually that your motors are actually moving as expected.
Electrical wiring and navigation lights
Look for damaged insulation and corroded connections. Check navigation light bulbs.
Inspect PFDs and safety equipment for wear and be sure to have the proper amount for the number of passengers on board. Be sure fire extinguishers, distress signals, and sound signaling devices are not expired, working properly and meeting safety requirements.
Hull and deck
Check for dents, cracks, and leaks. Check the bilge for water and the bilge pump wiring and housing for damage.
If you haul your boat on a trailer, be sure to inspect the tires for wear and proper inflation. Inspect wheel bearings, rollers, winch, cables, wiring, and lights. Additionally, make sure the brake lights are working.
After you return
When you get back to the dock or boat ramp, wash down your boat and your outboard motor with fresh water. This is especially important if you run it in salt water.
Washing your boat with fresh water slows down rust and corrosion. Even though aluminum doesn’t rust, it does corrode over time. Keeping it clean will keep it looking bright and will contribute to your boat’s longevity.
An added environmental benefit of washing your boat after each trip is that it limits the spread of invasive plant and animal species if you use your boat in different waterways. This is legally required in some inland waterways.
Mark your calendar for routine scheduled maintenance. Make sure that you change oil, filters, and spark plugs when needed.
It’s good practice to have your boat inspected and tuned by a certified ABYC marine technician or service yard at least once each season.
As your boat ages, it’s recommended that every 4 years you get a condition and valuation (C&V) survey. This gives you maintenance recommendations that fit ABYC and USCG standards. By following all recommendations for essential and “A” list repairs, you can ensure that your boat is safe and sound.
The survey also provides you with the fair market value of your boat. Knowing your boat's current value may save you money on insurance costs.
The bottom line
For most boat owners, it’s not just the cost of repairs that hurts. It’s also the lost time on the water. And no one likes to be towed back to the dock.
If you repair any worn or damaged equipment as soon as you find it, you can save a bundle on expensive repairs in the future. A well-cared-for boat will bring you years of family boating fun without breaking your budget with costly repairs.
Speaking of family - you can make performing those basic maintenance activities part of the family fun!