The boating lifestyle in its many forms is richly rewarding, but it can also be a major bummer if you make the wrong choices.
Buying a boat is a totally different trip than anything else that you have ever experienced, and this is especially true for first-timers. There are a lot of things to consider before taking the plunge. The key to success and happiness is to develop an intelligent plan for finding and buying that first boat, so let’s get it started.
Choosing A Dealer: You want to be comfortable with the people you’re buying from, and there are benefits to buying from both small and large dealerships. Some folks might feel they get more personalized attention from a small dealer, while large dealers generally have a greater selection of new and used models in their inventory. A few even have “clubs” for those who purchase boats from them and hold rendezvous days during the summer months. It’s something you might consider if you are interested in the social aspects of boating. Most boat dealers have been boaters for much of their lives and can help advise customers on how to ensure that their venture into boat ownership is a positive experience. Dealers can also explain why some models are more expensive than others since the difference often lies in the construction process, something that you can not see. They can also help steer your decision on size and cost based on your needs and your budget.
The basic building blocks to develop a solid plan for finding and buying your first boat (and your second and your third) is to honestly answer some key questions and leave your emotions out of it, if that’s possible. Remember, every boat is a compromise. Adding too much of one thing (like fishing room) typically takes away from something else (like seats for the wife, kids or crew). Add a few feet of length and an extra engine, and you can literally increase your budget by 50 percent or more. It’s scary once you let your mind wander through the options list of the top boat builders. The sky really is the limit. The following are some of the most critical considerations for getting the project moving forward.
Establish a Personality: Will your first boat be a fishing machine, utility skiff, sport boat or cruiser? Or a little bit of both? Here we are, dealing with compromises right out of the gate! There are numerous cockpit and deck layouts and you need to understand the positives, negatives and limitations for each type. Open utility skiffs like Carolina Skiffs, Whaler-types, Jon Dories, Pangas, aluminum boats, etc. are meant for the back bays and are (relatively) affordable, inexpensive to operate and maintain, but with Spartan accommodations and a minimum of weather/sun protection. Center consoles are a step up in comfort, focusing on fishing room, tackle and rod storage, but might not have the requisite accommodations when it’s time for family diversions. Walkarounds and cabin layouts provide welcome relief from the weather and a place to pottie or change out of a wet bathing suit, but typically sacrifice cockpit and helm space in the trade-off. A sport boat might be great for sitting six in comfort and offers internal storage for water skis and wakeboards, but when it’s time to fish, where are the rodholders, livewell and insulated fishbox? You get the idea; you must choose your preferred starting point and go from there.
Stick to a Budget (With a Reserve Fund) : Unless you have just hit the lottery, you probably have a limited operating budget. While we all love boating and fishing from boats, it is still a recreational diversion for 95 percent of the population, and family financial needs in their many forms usually take precedence. So establish a budget and stay within your means. This can be done as an all-cash project; half cash and half finance; or with a minimal cash down-payment and max finance. If you choose the latter, consider that you will be making large monthly payments in the middle of the winter with the boat high-and-dry. And if you have a hiccup with your family or job, there goes the boat and you’re upside down financially. When budgeting for your first boat, be sure to keep at least 10 to 15 percent of your budget in reserve to get the usual necessities like safety gear, fishing equipment, upgraded Type-1 PFDs, accessories like skis and wakeboards, basic marine electronics, a deposit on your marina slip and that first insurance payment.
New or Used: This is one of the most important questions that you will ask yourself. Do you want to start fresh from day-one or buy used and get someone else’s headaches? If you buy a new boat, depending on the brand, it can lose 30 to 40 percent of its initial value or more in just three to four years, and there’s no guarantee that new boats are immune from mechanical problems. On the other hand, getting a gently used boat that is 3 to 5 years old has probably had all of the kinks taken out of it already, looks like it is “almost new” and you are buying it at a deep discount, with the possibility of transferrable warranties still being intact. Market economics and consumer confidence also affect both new and used boat prices. There is no right or wrong answer here, but there’s no doubt in my mind that a gently used late-model boat offers your best value purchase. If you’re a hands-on person, have some basic tool skills and enjoy performing routine maintenance tasks, a gently used boat could be in your future. If all of this manual labor is foreign to your nature, stick with new and be prepared to pay your dealer $125/hour or more to perform these same tasks.
Size Matters: It is probably bad advice to suggest that your first boat be a 30-footer. My initial ride was a 19-foot center console, then I had a 22-foot walkaround, then a 24-foot walkaround, then a 25-foot combi–you get the picture, start off small to make sure that you like it and then slowly evolve as your skills, opportunities, family adventures and fishing passions support getting a larger craft down the road. If you buy it right the first time, you should get fair trade-in value when moving up. And if buying a boat was a disaster for whatever reasons, your initial investment cost was modest and you should be able to get out of the game fairly quickly. The size of your first boat will depend on your budget, mission(s) and average crew size–and don’t forget to leave room for one or two more. As soon as you get a boat, everyone will want to be your friend!
Outboard or Inboard/Stern-Drive Power: Most fishing and utility boats under 25 feet used in saltwater are outboard powered. And over 90 percent of all new outboards sold are four-stroke outboards. Sure, there are some 21-, 23- and 25-foot sport boats that still employ stern drive power set-ups, but even this category of water craft has been making a slow migration over to outboard power. Outboards are easy to take on and off the boat in case of a mechanical hiccup, are relatively light weight (compared to an inboard) and faster for their size, plus you don’t have a large hole in the transom that could spring a leak and send her unceremoniously to the bottom. Next-gen, four-stroke outboards are reliable, have excellent power-to-weight ratios, are fuel-efficient, and backed by five- to six-year service warranties.
Speed and Performance: One of my pet peeves with new boats is that some second tier boat dealers will offer “specials” that are priced low to get you in the door, but they are not doing you any favors. An example of this might be brand X’s 20-foot center console equipped with a brand new 115-horsepower four-stroke. This package price may be $10,000 less than a similar boat with a 150- or 200-horsepower motor, and anyone who has had a modicum of boating experience will likely steer you away from this deal, knowing that a 115 outboard will probably have some top speed and performance issues on a hull of this size, so “caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware. Better to pay a little bit more and upgrade it to something that will work up to expectations when putting four crew onboard and trying to power through an inlet with the tide working against you. Bottom line, don’t look to save money by under-powering your first boat; get enough ponies on the transom to make it work, while getting predictable fuel economy.
Operating Costs and Maintenance: Buying that first boat is one thing, congrats! But now it’s time to use it, and nothing is free. Experienced boat buyers know this: first-timers are typically oblivious to this fact of life until they fill up the fuel tank for the first time and buy three cans of chum, two flats of bait and 100 pounds of ice for the season’s initial shark trip. New or used, boats require a lot of TLC and periodic maintenance, which definitely adds to the cost of ownership. These include oil changes every 100 hours, winterizing at year’s end, bottom painting in the spring, etc., so be advised. Some boats are cheaper to run than others. A trailered boat doesn’t require annual dockage or bottom-painting. A 17-foot utility skiff will run all day long on 12 gallons of fuel. There is a smart way to buy your first boat and not have it break the bank, so be advised.
Marina or Trailer: Keeping your boat at a marina is a great convenience, but can cost you $100 to $125 a foot or more every season. Some larger marinas provide other benefits like a swimming pool, fishing tournaments and social events. Trailering your boat eliminates this cost, but adds an extra half-hour to your day at the beginning and the end of your trip to deal with the nuances of the (crowded) launching ramp. Plus it requires the use of a heavy duty towing vehicle that might add a significant cost to the equation if you don’t have one already. There is no right or wrong answer here, I am just putting it on your radar screen as a legit concern of the boat buying process.
Electronics Package: New or used, does your first boat have adequate electronics to do the task? Even on a modest 18-footer, I would suggest a minimum of a 7-inch color multi-function GPS/navigator/echo sounder. You need to be able to find your way and to see what’s under your boat. You will also need a VHF radio, antenna and a first class compass. The cost to acquire and install these electronic accessories can be $1,500 or more, so be sure to factor this into the financial equation.
Back to School: Most coastal states now require some sort of boating certification to get a boat operator’s certificate, so check your local regs and be advised. What good is that new boat if you are not allowed to drive it?
Your local Coast Guard Auxiliary and Power Squadron offer safe boating courses that can prove very helpful, and some boat dealers will even train you on the basics of running your new boat.