Bad Boat Design: Why Family Boats are Horrible
After returning from the recent Miami Boat Show and sobering up, finding my pants and gathering my thoughts, I wanted to write about bad boat design. There are several serious design flaws that I see that are prevalent in family type boats from major manufacturers. Some of these bad design features have been around for years, and some are part of new trends. Boat design for general family boats is at a low point in history. Major builders could learn a great deal from performance builders when it comes to design, comfort and efficiency.
Boat builders fall into two different camps in general; one camp is purpose built designs for a focused user. Think bass boats, flats boats, performance offshore, competition ski boats. Those builders are in a specific category that is competitive, this drives design and quality where the consumer gets good value. To be competitive in one of those categories, you have to build something that is designed better, built better, performs better and is priced to sell. The other camp is the mass produced family boat segment, which varies greatly in the design and quality criteria. The reason is that these boats try to be a multi-purpose tool, jack of all trades, with no specific market in mind. Boats in this category tend to be monotonous; as the incentive to differentiate is low. This category comprises small runabouts, some family cruisers and deck boats; in the 19 to 27 foot range roughly. The minivans of boats basically.
What is interesting is if you look at this segment, you can see how desperate the builders are to incorporate the latest trend into their designs. The family boat market design theme is a mashup of the wakeboard boat craze, pontoon boat trend and now the outboard phenomenon. For example, a 20 to 25 foot family boat now has wakeboard boat features like the tower, the extended swim platform and some have a specialty drive, like the Volvo Penta forward drive, to make is safer for water sports. In addition, like pontoon boats, they have lounge seats, on board kitchen appliances and stereo speakers that would challenge what Pink Floyd was using in the seventies.
As anyone knows, these mainstream family boats are not great at tow sports, are not efficient performers and end up being lousy for passengers as well. A 25 foot bowrider with an outboard or a sterndrive will never be a good towboat like a real tow boat, nor will it be a performance boat because they are heavy, with bad hull designs that have trouble going 50 MPH, while burning tons of fuel; but that doesn't mean it has to be bad at everything. All of the efficiency built into new marine engines is wasted on poor design for the most part.
When you go to a show and see all the big manufacturers together, it is extremely difficult to tell them apart They are all borrowing the same styling, going after an ill defined market and trying to win on price or features. What ends up is a bad market for consumers. Boat sales in general seem really good right now, especially the fishing market, all fishing boats seem to be selling really well and the center console market is brisk as it has been for a while. Performance boats seem to be selling much better in the last few years, from top of the line offshore boats to smaller sport boat builders, the ones I’ve talked to are moving more boats than they were a decade ago.
In the family market, I don’t know the sales numbers, but when I look at a popular offering like the Yamaha line of boats, I can see a few things. First, Yamaha does a really good job of having turnkey family boats at incredibly low prices. You can pull up to a dealer, they have inventory, pick a model and drive away for $28K. They look reasonably attractive, have all the features mentioned, basically mimicking a tow boat, tons of seats and a stereo, splashy graphics. But, even though it is a decent model for selling to beginner boaters, you lose the market going forward. First, they are jet drives, which are horribly inefficient. Since they use low power engines from their PWC line, they have to use twins on most models, so you double down on inefficient power. Besides being horribly inefficient, jets handle poorly overall compared to prop boats, especially for beginner boaters. Plus, they are extremely loud and high revving engines, they are painful to ride in.
The seating in almost all mainstream family boat builders is abysmal. One trend in this segment is reverse seating, where passengers sit facing backwards at the stern, with their feet on the back of the boat. This is meant for when the boat is stationary but you seem people sitting there all the time. Why is this dumb? Well for starters, you could easily get thrown off the back if the boat were to accelerate, but another dumb thing is the exhaust fumes flow in that direction at idle and low speed. Drowning is the primary reason people die in boating incidents, so keeping people in the boat is a first step in designing the interior. Not gassing them with exhaust fumes is another way of enjoying a day on the water.
Once you’re done getting carbon monoxide poisoning on the back of the boat, you can make your way inside the boat. In an effort to fit as many people as possible into these floating living rooms, designers have come up with L shaped lounge seats at every corner. Often, the whole passenger side is just a bench seat running lengthwise. Sitting sideways in a boat underway is horrible, your body is in a bad position to see where you are going and a bad position to absorb the waves you can’t see coming. Even worse, your head is set to hit the windshield frame behind your head when you sit sideways. Also, every corner creates a bad seat because there is no space for legs at a corner, so in fact a nice bench seat facing forward is more comfortable and holds more people securely. That’s why 90% of performance boats have two forward facing seats and a bench. Everyone faces forward, is secure and it actually maximizes space.
Hardware is another telltale sign a builder is not thinking of design. Cleats, vents, clips and other protrusions that are on the deck surface where if someone fell on the boat would catch themselves on are a bad design. Competition ski boat builders were the first to think about this, but it makes sense for all boats. If it’s on the topside of the deck where people will catch themselves on it, it is dangerous. In really badly built boats, some hardware, functional and cosmetic, is bolted on with not much backing to support it or simply screwed in. Problems include the hardware pulling out eventually, like railings and cleats or screws back out and cut things or just fall off. Poorly built boats always have lots of useless hardware poorly bolted or screwed on, and always have poor placement of the hardware.
Ergonomics, which is loosely defined by how people function in an environment, is another issue. What is astonishing is when you get behind the wheel of a generic boat and realize that the steering wheel is in a horrible position, so bad that you have to sit on the front of the seat to reach the wheel. I am 5’10” and should be within the range of average size, so if it doesn’t fit someone my size, I am not sure who some of these boats are designed for.
Another ergonomics faux pas is where the controls are mounted, if the controls have nowhere for your arm to rest while operating the lever, it’s very difficult to properly use the controller, shifting and adjusting the throttle is much more difficult. Again, most performance boat builders have thought of this and have a secure seat, properly positioned, with good sight lines and where you can reach the controls easily, with somewhere for your arm to rest. This is commonly overlooked in major manufacturers, I would list some builders but the list would be too long. If you’re new to boating, sit in the seat comfortably, then see where the wheel and controls are in relation to that position. If you can’t adjust the seat to reach the wheel and operate the controls comfortably, it’s a bad design. Design 101, but clearly not in mainstream boat manufacturing.
One really annoying thing about helm design is when gauges have bright chrome bezels, during a sunny day, this is blinding and sometimes if they are lit at night, they also reflect light into your eyes. Any backlit gauges and instruments that are angled towards the windshield have this same problem at night where the lights reflect right into your eyes at night, which is horrible for keeping a lookout at night, when visibility is critical.
There is a simple formula for good boat design, and it constitutes real world use of the boat. Purpose built boats tend to be focused on doing a few things really well and are designed around the driver and passengers; you get good design from this approach. Generic family boats are trying to hold as many people and home appliances as possible while not caring about safety or performance, and as a result you get bad design.