The ubiquitous bowrider is one of the most popular types of pleasureboats on Earth — and for good reason.
Many of you reading this right now grew up with a bowrider in the family, or maybe you own one right now. Through the years, many folks have fallen in love with bowriders. But there are still a lot of folks out there who are wondering just what defines a bowrider. Is the design really as versatile as it seems? What changes have taken place in the world of bowriders? What, perhaps most importantly, should one look for in a new bowrider?
WHAT THEY ARE
Just as the name Portends, a bowrider can be defined fairly simply as a boat with an open bow that features seating forward. But truth be told, there’s more than meets the eye. Bowriders as a rule also have comfortable seating aft, enough power for some degree of watersports, tow points to accommodate tubers and boarders, and a split windshield design that provides protection for the driver and the passengers.
Sizewise, bowriders usually start at about 16 feet and range up to 35 feet, give or take a couple of feet. True, a handful of larger boats have forward bow cockpits, but these models often have cabins in the side consoles and betray many of the other defining features that truly make a boat a bowrider. Intended for short jaunts on the water, bowriders are dayboats, not really meant for overnight cruising. They tend to be one of the more affordable varieties of pleasurecraft, and many models can be purchased for the price of a new car. And they’re usually easy for an average boater to handle, without extended training or deep mechanical knowledge. In short, they’re an everyman’s boat — the ideal runabout for an average middle-class American family that loves the water.
WHAT THEY’RE NOT
As with any genre of boat, there are naturally some downsides to the bowrider design. Perhaps foremost, as mentioned, they aren’t ideal for overnight trips, much less extended cruising. That’s not to say that plenty of boaters won’t stow sleeping bags and a portable stove aboard and enjoy some waterborne camping now and again. But anyone who wants a boat with comfortable sleeping accommodations is best served by looking at other boat designs. Another area in which bowriders are commonly a bit lacking is weather protection. True, many come with a Bimini top than can be erected in a downpour, and their windshields do provide some cover when the spray starts flying, but they are essentially fair-weather boats, intended for use mostly in pleasant conditions.
WHAT THEY’RE BECOMING
Bowriders have been around for about as long as there have been recreational powerboats, but we have seen some major design changes and new trends in recent years. Most apparent is a shift away from sterndrive power and toward outboard engines. Yes, there are certainly still countless sterndrive options on the market, but sterndrives used to rule the bowrider market almost exclusively. In the past five years, however, many manufacturers have begun to offer outboard versions of their bowriders along with the sterndrive models.
The reason for the growing popularity of outboards on bowriders is twofold. First, modern outboards are far more reliable, quieter and cleaner-burning than old-tech outboards. Second, a pricing advantage that sterndrives used to enjoy was eliminated by EPA mandates that require a catalytic converter and onboard diagnostic systems in sterndrive boats.
Many people still prefer sterndrives thanks to their automotive-like familiarity, and some would argue that the weight distribution they provide in a boat enhances its seakeeping abilities, but the near-complete sterndrive dominance in the bowrider market has passed.
Another major change in recent years is the addition of an enclosed head compartment. Such an amenity used to be reserved for large models only or for different designs, such as cuddy cabins or center consoles, whose layout could easily accommodate a portable head in an already-present enclosure. Today, however, boats as small as 20-footers have a head compartment, and few bowriders larger than 23 feet fail to offer one. The secret? Designers have increased the size of the passenger-side console and integrated swing-open doors that include a significant portion of the console itself, allowing for easier entry into relatively tight compartments. While it’s true the head compartment on smaller boats can be a bit cramped, simply having one is a make-or-break feature for many families.
Finally, today’s bowriders have adapted to become much more competent towing platforms for a number of different watersports. Volvo Penta’s development of Forward Drive, which shifts the propeller on a sterndrive from behind the transom to under the boat’s hull, makes it possible to safely enjoy wakesurfing behind a bowrider. Meanwhile, popup tow bits and arches with elevated tow points have become common, allowing for better wakeboarding and waterskiing.
Ok, so what should a buyer look for in a new bowrider? Naturally, solid construction, performance that meets one’s tastes, sufficient size and a good warranty are basic concerns that need to be met. Beyond that, however, we’ve seen some knock-our-socks-off features in the past few years that can provide a serious boost to a family’s boating fun-factor. These five stand out.
1. Bow boarding ladders.
Historically bowriders were entered from the stern swim platform only, and during a beaching, usually passengers had to wade through hip-deep water to get on and off the boat. Many of today’s models, however, have bow boarding ladders hidden under a hatch. Some savvy designs even incorporate a bow boarding ladder into an anchor locker. Everyone can get to and from the beach without taking a dip.
2. Convertible aft-facing lounges.
Old bowrider models generally had forward-facing aft seating affixed to the transom. It’s a feature we still see a lot on modern models, especially smaller ones, but some inventive designers have developed seating arrangements in the rear that can be converted to face out the back of the boat. (Note: Most such arrangements are for use while the boat is at rest; they are generally not for use while underway.) This is a perk popular with parents, since it allows mom and dad to kick back, relax and keep an eye on kids playing in the water, when the boat is beached or at anchor.
3. Swim platforms that extend back beyond the outboard.
Once upon a time sterndrives enjoyed a major advantage in that they allowed swim platforms to be broad and stretch across the beam. Truth be told, sterndrive swim platforms are still roomier than those on outboard models. Today, however, designers have pushed the platforms back to extend along either side of the outboard. And in a nod to ingenuity, they often mount boarding ladders on the corner of the platform instead of on the back, which keeps swimmers’ feet and legs away from the outdrive as they climb in and out of the boat.
4. Foam padding — everywhere.
A few years ago some manufacturers began putting foam padding on the swim platform. More recently, some of them have covered the deck with it, from stem to stern. Foam padding is much more comfortable to walk or kneel on than nonskid fiberglass, and it compares favorably to marine carpet for comfort. Its longevity is also comparable to carpet, and cleaning up spills and messes is easier. Multiple colors and textures allow it to mimic the look of teak, and manufacturers can create other customized patterns that are attractive to the eye.
5. Electronic integration.
The boat’s systems and the helm station can communicate, much like on larger vessels. This can be more or less advanced in nature and can drive up the cost of a boat, but the more integrated and advanced a bowrider is, the more likely owners are to love it. Digital switching systems, for example, allow the captain to turn on the running lights, the freshwater shower, the stereo system, or just about anything aboard with a swipe of a finger on an LCD display at the dash. And when the MFD and the engine can talk to each other, all kinds of possibilities become available. Operators can pre-set acceleration curves for watersports, employ features such as cruise control and fine-tune performance to make the ideal wake for each individual in the family.