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The Pros and Cons of Deck Boats & Bowriders

By: Captain Bill Jennings

Starcraft SVX 171 deck boat

With the many different 'types' of boats on the market, it is hard to know which type is best for you. Most information that you see is advertising driven, so while benefits are easy to find, the downsides are not. To help boaters navigate through the realities of boat types, I present this series of articles that reveal some of the not frequently advertised characteristics of different boat types, in order to help you, the boat buyer, select the boat type most suitable. In this article, we discuss deck boats and bowriders.

Wherever you boat in North America, you are bound to see runabouts. This broad classification is comprised of practical family boats in which we find deck boats and bowriders. While these boats are considered two different boat types, their practical applications are the same as runabouts, so they can be evaluated together under the same general category.

Boats of this type are usually powered by either a single outboard or sterndrive engine and between 14 and 28 feet in length. Considered an entry level powerboat, they are a multipurpose design used for a wide variety of applications. Their popularity also resulted in the evolution of different boat types within the runabout class. Here's how they evolved:

Back in the 60's, runabout designs became very popular with the expanding use of fiberglass as a boatbuilding material. Nearly ever design followed a similar layout, having a narrow bow, a short foredeck, full plexiglass windshield, and seating for about five persons. As seating was limited, designers asked: "Why not use that foredeck space for passenger seats?" The bowrider, as a new type of runabout, was born. The open bow, however, did not provide comfortable seating for adults. The pointed bow space in early bowriders was more suitable for children than adults, so designers asked: " Why not make the bow wider to increase the bow seating area?" This plan worked, and boats with this new wider bow area were called deck boats.

Now, let's discuss how they stack up.


Deck boats and bowriders follow a multi-purpose design, allowing them to participate in a wide range of activities. Their lighter weight makes them ideal for beaching, family fishing, and even basic watersports. The open floor plan of a deck boat makes them perfect for social day cruising. Visiting different water locations is easy to do with either a deck boat or bow rider because they are relatively light and easy to tow and launch. They offer a variety of trim levels and many of their features are sold as options. This pricing structure makes for a wider range of prices, so buyers can choose a boat to match their budget, even for boats of the same length.


Neither bow riders nor deck boats are built for big water or heavy seas. Of the two, I would rather be in a bow rider when the water gets lumpy. The average fuel tank capacity on runabout boats is not sized for lengthy trips. Adding to trip concerns is the absence of a cabin in both categories, a definite handicap if the weather closes in when you are a long way from home. If you want a well-equipped boat, your cost of options, such as port-a potti, bimini, GPS, stereo, and lighting, could turn an entry cost boat into a more serious investment.

There are some specific disadvantages to each type. Bow riders are usually more difficult to board than a deck boat, which can be a real concern for passengers with limited mobility. Decks have lower gunnels and more places to board, but they offer less weather protection for the passengers.

There is one major design flaw to watch for in some brands of deck boats. With the wider bow seating built over the pointed bow, stability at rest can be a concern. To correct this, designers added deep chines on either side of the hull's deep V entry, giving some bow riders what looks like a cathedral hull. They believed that the air trapped between the hull and the outer chines would also add lift. Unfortunately, while cruising, water enters this dead end trap in the hull which results in some nasty pounding when running in water that is not dead flat. These very deep chine deck boats ride like you are in a 'storm.' The benefits of slightly more stability and flotation do not outweigh the very rough ride that some deep chine deck boats deliver. This underlines the importance of buyers taking a test ride.

Having test driven over 100 bowriders and deck boats myself, here is how I would rate them:

Life Expectancy: Excellent. Fiberglass decks and bow riders have an average life span of up to about 25 years.

Storage Space: Sufficient. Storage is adequate for the usual applications of these boats. Look for ones with large in-floor storage lockers added.

Ride Comfort: Varies with length. The greater the length the smoother the ride and the chances you will love it. Avoid cathedral hulls with oversized chines and be sure to take a test drive.

Handling: Excellent. Easy and straightforward to drive. By learning the handling characteristics of a runabaout first, it is easier for a boater to move up to more complicated boat types.

Ride Safety: Excellent. On the assumption that these boats are used as intended and on water that does not exceed a medium chop.

Capacity: Good. Most carry at least 6 persons comfortably, even the smaller ones. Larger models can easily carry 10 or more.

Weight: If you would like to tow your runabout, consider these average weights: 16'= 2,000lbs. 18'= 2,500lbs. 20'= 3,400lbs.

Cost: Good. But, there are plenty of runabouts to choose from under 21 feet. The cost for boats of this length represents good value for on-water family fun, and they run great with a 150 HP outboard. Over 20 feet, as boaters begin to look for larger runabouts, prices rise dramatically because of the additional materials required and the additional features that are often included in the price.

Maintenance Required: Average. Simply equipped and built for casual family boating equals minimal maintenance.

The Bottom Line: If you are considering taking up boating, or you are looking for an economical boat for the family, a deck boat or bow rider under 21 feet is a good entry level boat type to consider. Their popularity and versatility makes them easy to sell when you are ready to move up to a different type, or a different size. Between the two types, I would suggest a bow rider for young families. It should provide a protected adult seating capacity of six persons and you can keep the bow seats for the kids. If your boating activities are more of a social event and you would sometimes carry up to ten or twelve people, deck boats would be a better option. For both deck and bow rider boats, you can order options to customize them to your personal taste. I would be sure to add a folding bimini top.

One final note: Keep in mind that pontoon boats have recently cut into the deck boat market, so you may want to check my article, The Pros and Cons of Pontoon Boats.

You can check out the rest of our 'Pros and Cons' series below:

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