Bad Boat Design: Your Living Room on the Water
Last year we did an extremely popular article about bowriders and how bad of a design they are for numerous reasons. This is a follow up that article, and focuses on bad cockpit design, and bad interior design in general. For as long as I can remember, boat companies have always been experimenting with different layouts, seat designs, and interior features. If you look at the best boat builders in the business though, they stick to what works, and keep it simple. In this article we will look at a few glaring design errors that are not only poorly thought out, but are outright dangerous. And, we will look at what works, and why.
Like many industries, the boat industry follows overarching trends. We see certain boat types become hot, then fade out, then another type catches on. Often, boats that have a purpose driven design, like a bass boat, or a wakeboard boat, will stand the test of time because it has a use case, and a reason behind certain design elements. Boat companies that make “family” boats, which are general purpose, get caught trying to chase trends to appease the current buyer, sacrificing value and quality design in the process. Let’s look at some current boats to illustrate what I mean.
The wakeboard tower is a key feature of a wakeboard boat, it has a specific use, and is part of what makes a good wakeboard boat. So when wakeboarding surged in popularity about 15 years ago, boat builders who didn’t make ski or wakeboard boats, watched their customers head over to the other side of the boat show, and write massive checks for what were ski boats, with ballast tanks, towers, and stereos that would drown out anything found at a lowrider meetup in South Central LA. A tower or arch can be a really bad design for a normal boat. Those features, and some vinyl graphics improved the margins of those boats significantly. If you were making “family” boats, the solution was to add all of those “wakeboard” features to your 18 to 22 foot runabout models.
Every small and mid size family boat with an arch or tower I have sat in, you hit your head on it when seated in the side seats.
That solved the problem in small way, but you were left with an inept wakeboard boat, that was now a goofy looking family boat. Many boat companies to this day have “sport” or “wake” versions of their regular lineup, with the aforementioned graphics, tower, and stereo to mimic the trend set by wakeboard boats in the beginning. That market is big enough to boost sales a little though. The problem being, they aren’t great for wakeboarding, and these “features” make them worse for family boats. This creates a dilemma for builders.
If we follow this trend, we see how wakeboarding has evolved and spawned wake surfing, and wake skating, both really fun and popular watersports. Now the “family” builder does the same thing they did with wakeboard boats. Technical difficulties arise, because you really need a direct drive or V-drive type propulsion for holding speed, tracking, and keeping the prop under the boat away from people.
To give an idea of the size of this market, Volvo Penta designed their Forward Drive sterndrive for this market. The Forward Drive is essentially a prop leading gearcase, utilizing Volvo’s DuoProp system, the props lead through the water at the front of the gearcase. This moves the props way further forward, and has many benefits for watersports. I actually like the drive, it’s really cool, and is like a mini IPS drive, making watersports safer. But, it is not better than a traditional sterndrive for sport boats or “family” boats, the Forward Drive is a nice innovation over V-drives and direct drives. If it could be mounted so that it could surface, that is a whole other ball game, and would be interesting to test. As it is though, it creates way too much drag for any performance benefit.
Here is where the interior design problems begin. In an effort to attract more customers, which for boat marketers usually translates into “how do we sell this piece of fiberglass to families?” Their solution is to fit as many people into the boat as possible. Deck boats were literally created with this thinking in mind. For “family” boats, they simply arrange the interior so it looks like you let a seven year old kid arrange the furniture in your living room; it’s all over the place.
Early incarnations of creative interior layouts were back to back seats, then it was U shaped lounges, now it’s just a mess. One glaring issue is the sideways seating, not only is it uncomfortable, but if you have a tower or arch in the boat, chances are someone’s head is going to be lined up with it on either side. Plus, the most obvious thing is that sitting sideways, or backwards sucks; you can’t see where you are going, and you end up sitting awkwardly to compensate.
The trend in recent years seems to be a combination of pontoon and deck boat design, with some wake boat features thrown in. An all in one tool. Pontoons are popular, because originally they were a cheap way to get on the water and putt around, with a bunch of people on board; deck boats were an incarnation of that. Now “family” boats take elements of all of them. One problem is, most pontoon boats, were intended to be driven around the lake, slowly. I know some are faster now. But, 18’ to 28’ foot family boats go faster, where safety and comfort become a priority. On a pontoon you can have 10 people passed out on the 3 lounge seats, and it’s not a problem at 11 MPH, but when you’re going 50 MPH over decent size waves, it’s a different story.
When you look at the best performance boats on the market, they do interiors right, no lounge seats, no fold outs, or kitchen appliances in the way. Smart builders figured out that nobody likes sitting sideways, it’s far safer and ergonomically correct to sit forward. Technically, symmetrical forward facing seats are the most efficient use of space too, especially when you consider the goal of boat design shouldn’t be how many people you can squeeze into the boat, it’s having comfortable, safe, proper seats in a simple layout. And at a time when boat sales are through the roof, some manufacturers are struggling, and can’t figure out why.