By Mike Carey
You've gone fishing with friends and guides and have thought to yourself "I need to have a boat of my own." Such thoughts can be dangerous to your health - physical, mental, and financial. The path to boat ownership is treacherous and full of traps and missteps that will give you a greater appreciation of the old adage that boat stands for Break Out Another Thousand.
Having been a boat owner for over forty years, I've certainly had my share of thousand dollar expenses and mis-steps. I've also had the fortune of benefiting from the joys of boat ownership which in my ledger do out-weigh the downsides of having a boat. One could write a book on the subject of boat ownership and I certainly don't pretend to be an expert, nor to be able to cover every aspect of what to consider when buying a boat for the first time. That said, I am happy to try to make sense of some of the questions that will come up when you decide that you need a boat in your life.
First and foremost when you decide to buy a boat, is to know what you want to use the boat for. Since NWF is about fishing, I'm going to fast forward a couple steps and assume that your intention is to use your new boat to go fishing. That eliminates sailboats, ski boats, large cabin cruisers, and other various ways of floating on the water. While you can fish out of them, their primary design isn't for fishing activities. So let's get down to the business of finding the fishing boat that is right for you.
Before we determine the boat of your dreams, there are Other Considerations (there are so many!) such as your budget, the size of the boat you want, your towing vehicle, and just what type of fishing you enjoy the most and envision using your boat for. These considerations are the critical first step in the right boat and not a money pit that will rob you of any enjoyment you thought you would get from a boat. I've seen friends make horrible choices.
One of my friends decided he had to have a 24 foot cabin cruiser which he would be able to sleep in and fish out of. It was a used boat and he decided, even though it was his first boat he ever bought, that having the boat inspected or even the motor checked by a mechanic was not necessary. "It looks good to me" I remember him saying. He didn't have a vehicle to tow the boat, deciding instead that every time he wanted to use it he would rent a truck to tow it. Sad to say, two years later and multiple frustrating repairs saw him selling his boat for a fraction of what he paid for it. It was a classic case of love at first sight followed by years of regret.
Another friend had a family of four and settled on a 15 foot open bow ski/pleasure boat with a 50 horse power motor. The previous owner had installed a downrigger and my friend figured the boat would be great for taking his family out to fish and pull an inner tube. Sad to say, he soon learned that with four people in the boat it was woefully under-powered for his family. Sluggish to get on plane, the boat soon was soon sold as he upgraded to a bigger vessel with more power.
The moral of these two stories is don't fall in love with the first boat you see and be very clear in your mind that it will do the job you want it to do. A boat is a tool that can lead to many amazing adventures, but you have to have the right tool for the job.
Fishing boats come in all shapes and sizes and can be used for any number of types of fishing. Lakes, saltwater, and rivers are the three main categories to consider. While there are some boats that can overlap into a couple of these categories, there are less that will handle all three. The first thing to consider, then, is what type of fishing you envision doing most of the time. If you're a river guy, you will more than likely want an open boat that is made for rivers and has a jet motor (i.e. no external prop). While such boats can be used for lakes and protected saltwater areas, it's not their intended design. On the other hand, if fishing lakes or saltwater is your primary goal, there is a good amount of overlap for a boat that will handle each task well.
In my opinion, the most important consideration between lake fishing boats and saltwater boats is safety. A lake boat that is made for fishing 100-300 acre lakes can generally be open and still safe, but take that same boat out on a saltwater fishery and you're putting your life and those with you at risk. Boating should always be considered a dangerous endeavor and approached with safety as your first consideration. Don't try to get more out of your boat than it can safely deliver. Remember, you need the right tool for the job at hand. There is nothing worse than finding yourself out on Puget Sound and the wind suddenly comes up and now you have 3-4 foot swells in an open boat with a low gunnel. One wrong turn or rogue wave can turn your day from a relaxing trip to sheer terror. Don't be that person that others look at and shake their heads wondering what the heck they are doing out on the water.
When I say "open" boat, I'm referring to a boat that has a covering over the bow of the boat, and likely a windshield, versus a boat that is just what it sounds like - open front, sides, and back. These boats are great to fish out of, offering lots of room to cast in all directions. Covered boats have less space, but the bow, being covered, can handle waves and chop with less water getting into the boat on a rough day. They are also more comfortable on a rough, windy day. Who likes getting spray in your face or waves drenching you as you head back to the boat launch? Again, it all comes down to your vision - are you someone that doesn't mind going out on wet, windy days or are you someone that is a fair weather angler? Being self aware as to what you enjoy and want to do with your boat is the most important part about boat selection.
The next consideration is new versus used. New is always nice and if you can afford it there are some nice advantages such as a warranty and getting to pick the options you want rather than settling with what a boat comes with. Just like cars, new boats depreciate so it's even more important to do your homework and get the right boat the first time. Remember too, your towing vehicle needs to be able to safely handle the boat of your dreams, otherwise you may find yourself getting the truck of your dreams as well! When shopping for a new boat, be sure to go to several dealerships and don't be afraid to haggle or get some freebees added in. When I bought my twenty foot Thunderjet, for example, I got the dealer to add a fishfinder/gps unit to the boat. Boat dealers, like car dealers, want to sell volume and will usually be willing to work with you to get the sale.
Used boats can be an opportunity to get a killer deal, or get saddled with a lemon you'll curse you ever bought. You'll need to look at the boat from stem to stern, and and the motor, and the trailer. At the least bring a friend that has experience with boats. A friend that is a mechanic is even better! Pay close attention to how the boat was stored. Did the owner have it in a garage, or was it left outside in the elements? Fiberglass boats left in the rain, even with a cover, are prime candidates for becoming waterlogged. Foam flotation can become soaked adding hundreds of pounds to the boat and causing the fiberglass in the bilge to become soft and rotted. Transoms on fiberglass boats are another area to pay close attention to. The fiberglass usually covers a wood transom and this wood over time can become soft and rot. I remember one 18 foot boat I looked at that looked good, up until I press my thumb into the transom and found it to be soft and literally saw water oozing around the edges.
Buying a used motor really requires having a mechanic give the motor a once over. There are a lot of very expensive parts that can go wrong. Having an experienced mechanic checking the motor, running compression checks, looking at the inner workings can save you a lot of grief and expense down the road, not to mention the potential for motor malfunction putting you and your family in very dangerous situations.
If you think I'm becoming too negative, it's not my intention. I have had 30 plus years of fun boat ownership. My boats have taken myself, my family, and friends on many wonderful adventures. They've enriched my life with experiences I would never have had otherwise. I guess what I'm saying is when that thought creeps into your mind that you want to get a boat, be sure to sleep on it, and sleep on it again. Seek out advice and expert assistance. Even more than a car, a boat has the potential for unlimited fun, but also for frustrations and worse, dangers that can be lethal.
I hope this article helps in your walk down the path of boat ownership, I wish you good luck and happy boating!