Getting your family out on the water can be one of the best experiences you will ever share, but it starts with selecting the right boat. What makes for the perfect family boat? This is a question each first-time buyer will need to figure out.
Unfortunately, far too many families make the wrong choice and, rather than learning to look at their boat as a means of enjoyment, learn to regret the day it was purchased.
So what’s the best starter boat? Ultimately, the best starter boat for your family depends on your lifestyle, interests, and budget, but if we generalize and average our research results, we’ve found that a pontoon boat or a fish & ski boat are your best bets – especially if you can get a pre-owned option for a great deal!
Let us help you select the right boat the first time, and we’ll also tell you why we believe a pontoon or fish and ski tops our list of the best options! We will provide a few tips and some features you need to consider before finalizing your decision.
A Bit of Background
As a nation, our ancestors depended on the water for their very lives – commerce, transportation and even procurement of food was all centered around being able to get on the water. Boats even brought early Americans to their new home.
Today our nation still enjoys a strong connection to the water, although it now includes many activities that center around recreation.
Fishing, waterskiing, overnight adventures, and even simple day cruising are all popular pastimes, and each is made better when it can be done as a family.
A growing number of families have taken to the water as a means of enjoying not only the outdoors but also time together. The plan is usually simple – buy a boat, spend time together and make memories.
But with so many boats available, different sizes and designs ranging from fully outfitted fishing boats to high-speed ski boats, the task of picking the right one can be daunting.
So, it is important to learn is available and determine what is important to you. Let’s get started!
Different Types of Family Boats
As stated earlier, there are so many different types of boats on the market, that the first-time buyer can be easily overwhelmed.
Before we get started determining what boat is right for your family, let’s look at some of the more popular types of family-oriented boats.
This is a type of watercraft that includes accommodations for the crew & passengers, as well as amenities often associated with larger yachts.
Ranging from 22-45ft the cabin cruiser includes below deck bunks, a toilet and cooking area- although the size of each will differ depending on the overall size of the boat.
Many also include air conditioning, heaters, onboard water supply, generator suited for operating electronics such as a t.v. and the ability to connect to shore power.
Their main purpose is overnight trips, but they are also well suited for day cruising and fishing. Due to their size, they are limited to larger bodies of water and are not readily trailered.
The cuddy cabin is a design that falls between the bowrider and cabin cruiser in terms of amenities and considered one of the more versatile family boats on the market.
Ranging in size from 18-30 ft they offer a large deck area, plenty of seating and a small berthing/storage area under the bow area.
Although this cuddy is suitable for sleeping it is generally not large enough to allow standing up, nor does it include a cooking area or space needed for overnight stays.
The cuddy cabin is an excellent choice for the family looking to make day trips, cruise, waterski or fish while also enjoying a larger platform with a place to store gear or laydown for short periods.
Due to increased weight, even a smaller cuddy cabin may limit use to larger waterways and be difficult to tow without a large truck.
This type of boat is readily identified by the forward seating area, which allows even a smaller design to accommodate a large number of passengers.
With a capacity of up to 9 people, the bowrider is a common choice for boaters looking to spend time with friends and family. Aside from their capacity, the other feature that makes a bowrider so popular is their versatility.
Available is a wide range of sizes (18-29ft) and power options (outboard, inboard, I/O) it is perfect for cruising, skiing, fishing and simply spending time afloat together.
Their smaller size makes the bowrider suitable for most boating waters and allows them to be towed by a wide range of vehicles – allowing home storage or transportation to different destinations.
Once thought of as “party barges” the pontoon boat has taken on a new life as a popular choice for those looking for a family boat.
Thanks to new designs and innovations in engine technology, hull design and construction materials there is now a wide range of pontoons that offer almost everything a family is looking for. Pontoon boats are increasing in popularity each year!
While still one of the best options for slow, lazy days enjoying the sun there are also models well suited for towing skiers, fishing and entertaining on the water.
Although not generally suited for overnight stays today’s pontoons do offer a wide range of luxury amenities including cooking/grilling area, plenty of seating, coolers, and storage for all your gear.
Due to their shallow draft, they can be used on a wide range of waters, but their large size does make towing difficult, so they are best suited on waters with docking available.
This is a unique design that combines features of both the bowrider/runabout and pontoon. Although designs do vary, most include a fiberglass v-hull with a larger deck area which is often supplemented by additional passenger seating.
The end result is a boat that provides a large passenger capacity, comfortable seating, a moderate entertainment area and higher operating speeds that are easier to trailer and able to be transported with the average vehicle.
The deck boat is suitable for larger families that wish to spend their time cruising, sunning, taking day trips with occasional fishing and skiing thrown in for good measure.
For many years “ski boat” referred to a bowrider that was powered adequately enough to allow high-speed operation with a skier in tow. As skiing, and later wakeboarding gained a renewed popularity manufacturers realized owners wanted more.
While this makes these boats perfect for skiing or wakeboarding it does limit their ability to perform in other areas.
When the ballast is empty, they are well suited for cruising, but offer little room for fishing and none of the accommodations needed for overnight trips.
Many ski boats utilize an inboard engine and drive that includes a short shaft that sits under the hull for increased safety as skiers access the swim platform. Most can still be towed by the family automobile and stored at home or moved to different waters.
Most jet boats would fall into the bowrider category, although jet motors are also popular on smaller Jon boats. While they offer most of the benefits of the traditional bowrider the jet drive does allow for use in shallower areas and are safer when towing a skier.
Perfect for the adventuring family that wants to pull ashore on strange beaches to explore and have a picnic lunch. Plus, the jet drive offers superior performance, maneuverability and the ability to reach plane in short order.
They also offer plenty of room for their size and are easily transported by trailer.
While ideal for those who wish to ski, cruise or race from beach to beach exploring areas others can only look on from afar they tend to be less than ideal for fishing, although this is changing with the introduction of some specialized jet drive center consoles – one of which is highlighted below.
Fish & Ski
This is another subcategory of the larger bowrider design. Although they resemble a typical bowrider or deck boat they focus on providing additional fishing & skiing features.
With a removable tow post, nimble maneuverability, plenty of seating that can be removed for more deck room and lots of below-deck storage this is a nearly perfect family boat. You can fish at first light, tow skiers or tubers in the mid-day before picnicking at a local sandbar or cruising to a nearby hotspot for dinner.
Readily trailer-able and small enough to be stored in the driveway or carport this is an excellent choice for the family on the go looking to explore new waters every weekend.
Others you may want to avoid
Not all boats are well suited for family activities and it is important you understand this before you start shopping.
Keep in mind, we are not saying these boats are defective in any way just that they are not the best for families or the types of activities you as a family may care to engage in. The specific reason(s) are listed as part of each watercraft’s description.
Personal Watercraft (PWC)
– more commonly known as a Jet Ski, the PWC is a very popular first-time option and many families enjoy them. However, due to their size and limited application, they are not a preferred family boat.
While they can be excellent options for cruising or even skiing they have a limited capacity and it often requires a family to purchase more than one to achieve full family use. Even then the use of a PWC is more of a single user experience.
Although Jon boats are one of the more commonly sold first-time boats they offer limited capacity and often lack the size or power needed to enjoy activities such as skiing or cruising.
They are best suited for 1-3 persons who are focused on fishing or hunting and are primarily doing so in shallow water areas.
Although larger, more powerful Jon boats are available the cost involved does not represent a great enough savings to warrant their selection over a better-suited boat of the designs listed previously.
Every bass angler dreams of cruising the lake at top speed in a new bass boat, but that doesn’t mean their family wants to do the same.
While these boats are a must for those on the tournament circuit, they lack the room and versatility needed for a full family experience.
The money spent on a bass boat, designed primarily for 1-2 anglers, would be better spend on any number of other designs that would provide larger capacity and more comfort.
Shopping for a family boat is no different than when you are searching for your family’s home or your next automobile. You need to determine what features you need, those you would like and even some you do not care about.
If you are a first-time buyer this can be difficult, as you have no reference. Below are some of the issues that you need to discuss before starting your search.
What size boat will you need? – the size boat you need will be determined by how you will use the boat. Sure, most families will want some versatility but usually, have 1 or 2 primary activities they enjoy. This is where your focus should be when determining size.
- General Use – 17 to 25 ft. with enough power to pull skiers
- Fishing – 15- 22 ft
- Offshore – 20-30 ft (larger will be difficult to move without special vehicle)
- Cruisers – 30ft +
What are your family’s priorities? – we keep talking about priorities and it is something you and your family need to discuss BEFORE shopping for your first boat. You need to decide what it is your family enjoys most and make that the focus of your search.
If there are secondary activities, you enjoy, those can be used to further narrow your search and allow one design to outshine other options.
For example, if your family enjoys skiing you may want to focus on ski/wake boats while your neighbor who spends the summer at the shore and enjoys overnight trips to neighboring ports will want to focus on cabin cruisers.
Do not let the salesman talk you into something that looks great but does not offer the ability to do what your family enjoys most.
Where will you be using the boat? – will you be trailering the boat to various local waters or looking to rent a slip and leave it near a summer home?
Are you ok being limited to larger, deeper waters or will you need the ability to take it anywhere the fish might be biting?
Finally, will you be on salt or freshwater? Each is something that needs to be considered prior to making a final decision.
If you are not sure whether or not a specific boat is suitable for the intended use, you can always ask the salesperson or you can check with the manufacturer.
Neither will recommend a boat for unintended use and face the possibility that you will return in a few short weeks to complain about your new purchase.
What is your budget? – money always becomes a consideration and buying a boat is no different.
If you are lucky enough to say that price does not matter then the sky is the limit, you can pick out any boat you want and include all the amenities the dealer has to offer.
If, on the other hand, you are like most new boat owners (i.e. you have a budget) then you probably want to focus on bowriders or pontoons as each is available in a wide range of prices with a variety of options available.
Of course, you can also stretch your dollars a little further by considering a used boat, which will allow you to get a larger or more luxury filled boat at a fraction of the price.
- Shop around – make sure you shop around, not only to find the best price but also to make sure you see the widest range of what is available. Local dealers are a good start, but a boat show is even better – it lets you see a lot of boats from many different manufacturers and dealers all in one location.
- Take a test drive– take the boat out and see how it feels both in terms of handling and room for your family.
- Take a boating course – picking the best boat is important but being able to fully enjoy it means doing so safely. By having everyone who may operate the boat take a boating course, you will decrease your chances of having an avoidable accident and increase your ability to enjoy your new boat.
Our #1 Pick
Now that you have been provided with some tips, and even a few examples of some of the more popular options, here is our pick for the Best Starter Boat for a Family.
The pontoon boat has overcome a long-held reputation as a “party barge”, best suited for teenagers looking to float and have fun rather than families who want to enjoy a variety of aquatic activities.
That has all changed and the pontoon is now a design worthy of a serious look by any family interested in adding a boat to the recreational inventory.
New technology allows pontoons to be powered far beyond what was ever considered possible. At one time they were outfitted by small outboards, 26-75 hp, and were capable of moving from Point A to Point B but not with any urgency.
Now, it is possible to purchase a high-end model with twin 300 hp outboards, more than enough to not only get where you are going but do it quickly.
Plus, you can also use your pontoon for towing skiers or tubers without feeling like they are on a broken amusement ride.
New designs and advances in materials also allow pontoon to be outfitted with some of the finest in seating, console controls, and amenities.
Instead of bumping along on old deck chairs or milk crates, your family will enjoy soft, comfortable seating equal to that found in the finest of boats.
But the real reason the pontoon tops our pick for Best Starter Boat for a Family is its versatility. The large, open passenger compartment allows your entire family (and then some) to enjoy their time on the water without bumping elbows.
The fore and aft decks make tying up and launching a breeze; when doing so at night dock lights will provide all the visibility needed.
The pontoons, on which everything else sits, allow easy maneuvering in even the shallowest of water so that beach you have been spying is not off-limits to exploring. Want to fish? No problem.
There is plenty of room for casting, and rod holders can be installed in minutes anywhere along the rail system that surrounds the passenger compartment. Plus, the open deck design allows plenty of room when it comes time to fight and land your next trophy.
Of course, picking a single pontoon is difficult. There are so many on the market that it can be almost as daunting as settling on a type of boat to buy.
But, despite the competition, after careful research and consideration, there is a clear front runner – Harris Boats and their latest offering the V270.
Harris has been producing pontoons in Northern Indiana for decades, long before they gained their current level of popularity. Over the years Harris has learned two things;
(1) how to build the best pontoons and,
(2) what customers want. The V270 is a product of both lessons. This is not your grandfather’s pontoon, the V270 is a luxury boat and offers all the bells and whistles and then some.
Power – the V270 is powered by a giant Mercury Verando 400 HP and provides a top speed of 45 MPH. Not only will it provide plenty of get up and go it will pull skiers and tubers as well as anything short of a specialized ski boat.
Thanks to an improved steering system and setback transom the V270 is able to handle like a v-hull and corner better than expected from a pontoon.
For those looking for even greater maneuverability, there is the optional Performance III Package, which includes a third 27-inch center tube that provides better handling at high-speed or in rougher water.
As with most pontoons, the V270 enjoys a large, open cockpit surrounded by 24.5-inch fiberglass panels. Customers can choose from 5 different panel color combinations including blue metallic / grey, blue metallic, ebony/grey, ebony or grey.
A double-wise port side access door allows for easy access and includes a retractable twin swim ladder. A similar single access door and a retractable ladder is also available on the starboard side.
A built-in galley area in the forward passenger area allows for easy preparation of small meals and drinks, a feature rarely seen on a pontoon. A full sink, freezer drawer and optional mini freezer only add to the ease when entertaining or preparing a family snack.
Speaking of rarely seen, wait until you get a look at the center console helm. Most pontoons utilize a side helm, which limits visibility and makes docking a difficult task.
With the V270 you will enjoy unsurpassed visibility and the latest in electronics including two Raymarine displays.
Adjustable electric helm chairs allow for even better visibility when adjusted to the specific operator. The forward helm compartment, usually used for small storage, now includes a full marine head equipped with a pump-out toilet.
Additional options include an articulating bimini top painted to match the hull, stainless steel refrigerator with charger & battery, powered swim ladder, rear platform swim seat, teak highlights, rearview mirror for towing, a saltwater package that includes a solid keel & 4 anodes, stainless steel tow bar, polished tubes and JL Diamond sound system.
Speaking of Sound Systems!
Often, a better deal on a Sound system can be found on Amazon. Kenwood makes some of the best in the industry, and this one should last the lifetime of the boat!
- Pontoon Length – 26 ft.
- Overall Length – 29 ft.
- Width – 8ft 6 inches
- Pontoon Diameter – 27 inches
- Weight – 5590 pounds (without engine, fuel or batteries)
- Maximum Capacity – 14 people/ 2964 pounds
- Maximum Horsepower – 400 HP
- Draft – 13 inches
- Bridge clearance – 22 inches (with bimini or tower lowered)
One last thing
Even though we love the Harris V270, we do have a Second Place option. If the V270 is a bit too much of a strain on your budget, we’re happy to say that our second place choice is a VERY affordable option that suits my own family just perfectly.
It is (drum roll please!), an 18-foot fish and ski from a company that makes bass boats (so it looks cool) like Ranger, Nitro or Skeeter. These boats have the cool factor that comes with a sleek bass boat, but they can fit at least 5 people (more if the boat is longer than 18 feet) and it has all the amenities of a bass boat and a ski boat!
It’s a win/win option with nearly no downside.
If we had to state a “negative”, it would only be that because of the versatility and extra seating over a bass boat, a fish and ski will have a slightly smaller casting deck on the bow and it’s only suitable for one person to stand and cast, while a bass boat could accommodate up to three anglers on the front deck if it’s longer than 19 feet and everyone knows what they are doing.
Overall, we paid less than $10,000 for our used 18-foot Stratos (now owned by Ranger) fish and ski with a 175 HP outboard which offers speeds up to 60 mph with the right propeller and tilt (though I try to keep it closer to 45 mph to make me feel safer).
My wife and I have 3 children and the boat works well with all of us on board!
Our Best to You in Your Search
There you have it, some valuable tips to help you select your family’s first boat and even our opinion of what that might be.
Regardless of what type of boat may be right for you and your family, we hope these tips will help you make a wise decision, one that will allow you and your family to take full advantage of what spending time on the water together has to offer.
Resources for your Family Boat!
When I bought my Fish & Ski a few years ago, I didn’t know what I needed other than what was already in the boat.
That was a good start, but it took me over a year of trips onto the water before I understood a few important things like getting dock ropes that expand slightly to ease stress on both dock and boat when waves move your boat around while tied to a dock!
You wouldn’t even think of problems (or solutions to it) like that until you experience them.
That’s why I’ve included this section which is a brief outline of some very basic items you’ll want to stock up on regardless of what kind of (or what size of) boat you end up purchasing.
1 – Boat Dock Ties
Stretchy ropes/lines are best since they don’t stretch so much that they’re almost useless, yet they allow some movement when your boat rides up and down on waves while tied to a dock.
It’s not a pretty sight when your precious investment is dashed against a steel post or piling without the option to float away a few inches and gently return with a soft bump against the rubber dock edging or fenders.
It’s always a smart idea to have 2-4 of these onboard as you approach a new dock.
You’re never sure what type of protection the dock will have (if any) and exactly what part of your boat will touch the dock first (that will depend on the height of the dock itself and how far it sticks out of the water).
I’ve floated up to docks that did not connect nicely with my rubber bumpers on the side of my boat, and I would have liked to have a set of these to allow for some margin of error while docking to avoid scratches on my gel coat …. or worse!
Most boats come with a built-in powered bilge pump which kicks in automatically if water starts to seep into the boat. The bilge is that area under the floor of your boat where water would gather first. The problem is that sometimes your bilge pump won’t work as expected because of a malfunction or loss of battery power. Can you imagine the disaster that could result from water coming into your boat and you have no way of pumping it out fast enough to avoid the inevitable siN&$*Ing ? … ah, I can’t even say it!
Please don’t let your boat be a statistic of poor planning and bad luck! For the price of a trip to McDonald’s, you can have a manual pump (I have one!) that can literally save your boat like a fire extinguisher can save your house!
Hey, we’re all about avoiding problems in an emergency, and believe me, going pee is one heck of an emergency if you have a 5, 6 and 8-year old on board!
It can quite literally ruin an afternoon if you find yourself 20 minutes out from the campground and you’re into a great bass-infested weedy bay just around sunset and 2 kids are crying about needing a potty.
It’s a little weird to go over the edge since there’s no good place to hold on and they’ll probably fall in unless you stop fishing and grab onto them.
BUT, the other problem is that there are 3 other fishing boats very close by and you’ve even been talking with one of their occupants.
Do you just stand there and let you kids pee all over the side of your boat (especially your little girl) while a bunch of strange men watch?? I think not. That’s why we STRONGLY suggest one of these!
It should go without saying that one of these (or more) should always be on board. It should be Coast Guard Approved and rated for A, B, and C fires.
Instructions for use should be clearly displayed on the label and it’s best if you can train at least the adults that will be on your boat, how to use it so they’re not in a panic when they grab it and realize they have no idea how to get it to work!
That’s not a great time for reading the “operating instructions” if you know what I mean!
Post Script: If you’re looking for resources, we have them:
1 – Boating Course – BoatUS Foundation – https://www.boatus.org/
2 – Harris V270 – https://www.harrisboats.com/v-series/v270/