New boaters may feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of different types of boats and all of their intended uses. There are a multitude of categories, segments and sub-segments with literally thousands of boat builders, brands, hull types and models to choose from. That’s why we’ve put together this guide – to help you understand all of the distinct types of vessels available – so that you can make the right decision when shopping for new or used boats for sale, for you or your family.
First, in order to understand some of the differences and similarities of various watercraft, it’s best to learn some basic boat terminology. Let’s start by looking at the most fundamental part of a boat’s design – the hull.
Boat Hull Types
A hull is the watertight frame or body of a ship or boat, exclusive of its deck, propulsion system, fittings and rigging. Boat hulls vary significantly in shape, size and design, which often determines their best application. They can be made out of various materials including fiberglass, aluminum, wood or steel. Although there are many variants, below are the major categories of hull types:
Flat bottom hulls
A hull that has almost no deadrise (angle between the horizontal plane at the keel and the surface of the hull) is called flat bottom. Flat hulls are stable (in calm water) and usually have a very shallow draft (i.e. depth or distance between the waterline and the bottom of the hull.
A wedge-shaped hull, V-hulls part the water easily and reduce pounding when running at speed. The sharpness of the V is measured as degrees of deadrise and most people consider hulls with 21 or more degrees of deadrise at the transom to be a deep-V boat.
A combination of deep forward and flatter aft sections, hulls with a bit of V-shape but not enough to quality as deep-V have attributes of both of the above to varying degrees. Boats with a transom deadrise of just a few degrees up to 21 degrees are usually considered to be modified-Vs, and are also called semi-V.
Boats with multiple hulls connected by a deck are multihulls. They may have two or sometimes even three hulls. Catamarans are a popular form of multihull boats and may plane (or not) depending on their design. See our Catamarans Guide: The ABCs of Multihull Boats, to get the full scoop on both power and sail catamarans and multihulls.
Boat Hull Designs
How a boat performs when under power or sail depends on what the hull is designed to do. Some get up out of the water as they move fast, called planing, and some other do not. All boat hull types will fit into one of these three design categories.
A hull bottom that remains in the water at all speeds. Displacement hulls are usually on slower boats like sailboats and trawlers.
A hull that mostly stays in the water but benefits from a moderate amount of lift at higher speeds.
A hull that rises up and glides on top of the water at high speed. Planing hulls are designed to move fast when enough power is supplied.
Now that we’ve covered the most common types and designs of hulls, let’s take a look at the numerous categories of boats in which these hull designs can be found. Although there are a diverse range of different boat types with many particular variants, for our purposes, we’ll group them into the following three main categories, based on their means of propulsion:
- Human-powered boats
Powerboats are propelled by one or more motors, which are usually combustion engines, although more electric motors are in use today. Inboard engines are inside the boat with an appendage protruding from the bottom of the hull that is attached to a propeller. These appendages are usually fixed shafts or they can be pod drives with directional thrust. Outboard motors are self-contained engines that have an attached propeller. Outboards are mounted on the transom (aft end) of the boat.
There’s a vast difference in powerboats based not only on size and shape but also on intended use. Although you can enjoy most activities on most boats, we have grouped designs by typical use.
Fishing boats can be designed for either fresh or saltwater use and run the gamut in terms of size and equipment, which is usually dictated by the species of fish they will hunt. Some fishing boats are flat bottom hulls designed to carry one to three anglers primarily in protected waters, while larger sport fishing boats (or sportfishers) may be deep-v hulls that can run hundreds of miles offshore and accommodate multiple people onboard for overnight ventures.
See Fishing Boats, the Ultimate Guide, for a more detailed breakdown of each different type of freshwater and saltwater fishing boat you’re likely to see on the market.
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As stated above, these boats are designed to go far and get there fast, and they range from 30 feet and up. Large open cockpits are used to fight fish and some purpose-built sportfishers are called “battle wagons.” Most have a V-hull forward with flatter aft sections so they can get on plane quickly and remain somewhat stable during fishing.
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Center console boats
With a helm station or console at the center of the boat, these designs are open boats with 360-degree fishability. Their layout helps anglers move about easily, walking from bow to stern, especially when they have a fish on. Center consoles are most often powered by outboard engines (one to six) and can be 15 to 45 feet or longer. They’re usually used for saltwater fishing and some have a long range so they can fish well offshore. They’re built on planing hulls.
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Usually 14 to 22 feet, bass boats are primarily used for freshwater fishing. With a low freeboard (hull sides) they are used on lakes and rivers and powered by outboard motors that get their hulls up on plane and running fast.
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Most often used in salt or brackish waters, bay boats are designed to provide access to shallow water fishing spots while still being able to handle relatively choppy seas. Most are 18 to 26 feet long.
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With very shallow drafts, flats boats run 14 to 18 feet and are generally powered by an outboard motor. However, in extremely shallow water, they can also be propelled by a push pole.
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Family day boats
Family fun boats for lakes, rivers or the coast are used for numerous activities from fishing to watersports and weekending to entertaining. These boats tend to differ by deck design and often have planing hulls so they’re usually quite fast.
With seating area in an open bow just ahead of the helm, bowriders can be 16 to 30 feet or more. They’re powered by outboard engines or sterndrives, which have an inboard motor but an outboard-like drive unit that protrudes from the transom.
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Dual console boats
With two dashboards and two sections of windshield, dual console boats are designed so you can walk through the middle to the open bow where there’s usually a sunpad or seating area. Most run 15 to 35 feet but can be longer.
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Cuddy cabin boats
Distinguished by a small cabin forward, cuddy cabin boats can accommodate a berth or a marine head. They’re usually 20 to 30 feet and can be used for all sorts of boating including limited overnighting.
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With a wide and flat deck, deck boats carry their full beam all the way forward to provide plenty of seating space. They’re ideal for swimming, entertaining and family fun. They can be aluminum or fiberglass and have outboard or sterndrive propulsion. They’re usually 18 to 25 feet long.
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Similar to deck boats in their intended design to maximize seating space aboard, pontoon boats have two or three hulls called “logs” usually made of aluminum, although a few have been built of fiberglass. Very stable and beamy (wide), pontoon boats are powered by one or two outboards and are designed for entertaining on lakes and rivers. They have become very popular due to their space and newly acquired speed with some being able to run in excess of 60 mph.
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With no single purpose, runabouts can be used for fishing, cruising, water sports and as tenders to larger yachts. They’re outboard-powered and 15 to 25 feet on average.
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powered by jet drives rather than propellers, jet boats are usually under 25 feet and are very maneuverable. They can get into shallow water and are usually used for water sports. Jet boats can be bow riders or even center consoles.
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A generic term, towboats refer to wakeboarding, skiing, and wake surfing boats. Designed specifically for water sports, towboats are trailerable and have powerful inboard engines. Some towboats can be ballasted differently to create different size and shape of wakes for wake surfing, trick skiing, or wakeboarding. Some towboats are tournament-rated, which means they’re used in competition.
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Power cruisers and motor yachts
Motor yachts are powerboats with one to three engines and often luxurious accommodations for extended overnighting. They differ by size but also by whether they’re coastal cruisers or true yachts. Most of these larger vessels are built on semi-displacement hulls.
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Coastal power cruisers
With at least one cabin and head, coastal cruisers have full accommodations including a substantial galley and stowage space. Lengths vary but most coastal cruisers are 30-plus feet.
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With enclosed helms ahead of the living space, pilothouse boats are designed to run in rough seas or inclement weather. They’re mostly powered by inboard engines and have cabins on the lower deck. They can have an open flybridge with a second helm station above and start around 30 feet.
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More of a design statement than a use issue, Downeast boats were developed in New England and are also called lobster boats. They can be used for day boating, entertaining, or cruising and usually have accommodations for overnighting. The design has become popular with numerous brands building to the Downeast aesthetic. They can have semi-displacement or planing hulls.
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Trawlers take their name from the old commercial fishing boats and traditionally are slow, fuel-efficient, displacement boats with comfortable accommodations that are used for distance cruising under power. They can be as small as 25 feet but often range much larger, and many modern versions are semi-planing boats.
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With two hulls, powercats can be used for a variety of adventures. They’re stable and roomy and also usually more fuel-efficient than monohull powerboats of comparable length. Most cruising powercats have twin inboards, exceptional accommodations and run 30 to 65 feet. However, smaller powercats can come with two outboard engines and are often used for fishing providing a more stable platform for anglers.
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Tenders are boats that are used to go from the mothership to shore and back. They’re often referred to as dinghies and are used by cruisers as a “car” to get groceries, go to dinner, carry the dog for a shore run, etc. Typically, tenders are powered by outboard engines, which are gas, propane or electric. Some tenders are rowed.
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Most dinghies are inflatable, which means they’re lighter, more stowable, and won’t ding up the yacht. Typically eight to 15 feet, dinghies may have removable inflatable, wooden or aluminum floors and inflatable tube sides you can sit on.
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Rigid inflatable boat
RIBs have inflatable tube sides and aluminum or fiberglass hulls and floors that are permanently attached to the tubes. They’re usually faster and can carry larger payloads and outboard engines. They can be 10 to 30 feet or more.
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Made of wood, aluminum or fiberglass, rigid dinghies can be rowed or sailed thereby combining tender and toy functionality.
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Utility boats are tough workboats made of aluminum with outboard engines and generally planing hulls. Recreationally, they may be used for fishing or other activities.
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Small flat-bottomed utility boats designed for shallow waters, jon boats are 10 to 20 feet long and can be made of aluminum or fiberglass. They’re inexpensive and good for beginners.
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Similar to jon boats, skiffs are good for shallow water and may be driven by an outboard with a tiller or via a steering console. They can also be rowed.
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There are so many kinds of powerboats that this last category is meant to capture unique designs that don’t fit anywhere else. This is a mix of boats with varying uses.
High performance boats
Basically a speed boat, high-performance boats are built for maximum speed. They have little to no accommodations to keep them light and can be 25 to 60 feet. Powerplants (engine choices) vary and can be inboard or outboard.
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Floating houses, houseboats are typically powered by inboard engines and can be 25 to 60-plus feet in length. They have full, home-style accommodations and out on the water function more or less like barges. On some lakes and rivers, they can be rented for a week of pseudo-camping. Some houseboats aren’t motorized and are moored permanently, basically offering waterfront living.
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Personal watercraft (PWC)
PWCs are technically boats and as they’ve become larger and heavier, more people are recognizing them as such. They can carry one to four people and can go in excess of 60 mph. They’re powered by a jet drive and can be of the standup or sit down variety.
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Sailboats are designed to be moved by the wind and may have one sail up to many sails. Smaller sailboats are usually propelled strictly by sails while larger ones may have an inboard or outboard engine (called an auxiliary) to move them if there is no wind or when maneuvering in close quarters. Generally speaking sailboats have displacement hulls so they don’t plane although some ultra-light sailboats can “surf” downwind well above their theoretical maximum hull speed. Sailboats have deep fixed keels or centerboards that can be moved up and down depending on the point of sail. Sailboats with centerboards can be trailered more easily than those with fixed keels.
There are many kinds of sailboats and they carry different rigs (masts, supporting shrouds and stay, and sail combinations). Sloops have one mast and generally two sails – a mainsail and a headsail called a jib or genoa. If there are two headsails, the boat is usually called a cutter rig. Ketches have two masts with the aft mast shorter than the main mast. Yawls also have a shorter aft mast but it’s farther back on deck than a ketch. A schooner can have two or three masts with the forward-most one being shorter.
Sailboats differ by size, use and strength of build – so it’s important to consider which type of sailboat is best for your intended use. Once you understand the different options available, you can make an educated choice when shopping for new or used sailboats for sale from a private seller or boat dealer.
Small dinghies (usually under 12 feet) can be very basic and have only one sail. They’re perfect for beginners and kids. Some sailing dinghies, however, can be quite technologically advanced, have a mainsail and headsail, and can carry a large sail called a spinnaker. These types of sailing dinghies are often used for racing. Sailing dinghies can be sailed singlehanded or carry multiple crew for fun or racing.
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Larger sailboats that are usually used for a day of sailing or racing are called daysailers. These tend to be 15 to 25 feet although some can be quite long and complex.
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Racing sailboats can be just about any length from 10 to 100 feet and beyond. Race boats are usually built light so they can move with little wind. They can be designated for protected waters like lakes and rivers or for offshore use on the ocean. Race boats can be sailed singlehanded or carry large crews.
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Cruising sailboats typically have a cabin below with a berth (bed), a head (toilet) and a galley (kitchen). They can be used on lakes and rivers but also on shorter ocean hops near the coast. They’re primarily used for weekending like on-the-water RVs and generally start around 30 feet. Coastal cruisers tend to be smaller and simpler than their more heavily constructed cousins, bluewater cruisers, which are intended to go offshore and potentially cross oceans or sail around the world. Most modern bluewater boats are sailed shorthanded (usually by a couple or family) and run 35-plus feet although they can be longer or shorter. Due to their construction and outfitting, they’re usually more complex and expensive than coastal cruisers.
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Sailboats with multiple hulls are called either catamarans (two hulls) or trimarans (three hulls). Multihulls can be small or large, daysailers or cruisers, and some are built to cross oceans. Cruising catamarans have two engines, multiple cabins and a bridge deck that is usually used as the main social space. Trimarans have a larger main hull with two narrower “amas,” or side hulls. They’re usually powered by one engine if they’re motorized. Theoretically, multihulls should sail faster than monohulls (one hulled boats) and some do. Catamarans have enjoyed a rising popularity (especially in charter) due to their space and stability. Depending on their design and build, some multihulls can also be bluewater boats.
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A term that has fallen out of favor, a motorsailer used to refer to a heavily built sailboat that took a lot of wind to move. To compensate, they usually had large engines and sometimes cruised under both sail and power at the same time.
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Boats powered by paddles, oars, poles, or pedals fall into this category. In terms of rules of the road, human-powered boats are at the top of the pyramid with right-of-way over just about every other vessel – although it wouldn’t be advisable to test that out.
Small watercraft propelled by either paddles or pedals in modern times, historically, kayaks were among the first boats ever built. Today they can be made of wood, roto-molded plastic or impregnated canvas and some can be folded for easier transport. Certain kayaks are used in open water, while others are designed to run rapids on rivers or race in competitions. Kayaks can be adapted for cruising, fishing, or even sailing.
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Usually lightweight and pointed at both ends, canoes are generally made of aluminum or wood, and are propelled by one or more boaters who are seated or kneeling and traveling in the direction they’re facing. Canoes are great lake and river boats but can be used in protected coastal waters as well.
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There are many kinds of rowboats, which are powered by oars, usually by someone facing aft and rowing forward. Rowing shells are ultra lightweight rowing race boats used in team competitions.
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Blurring the design lines
These are just some of the major types of boats on the water today. Although we’ve categorized them neatly, today there’s a convergence in boat uses and designs as many are asked to do double and triple duty. Fishing boats now have more seating and outdoor galleys for entertaining, while pontoon boats have rod holders to go fishing. Dinghies must be tenders but also entertain kids in an anchorage. And sailboats have to be light enough to race but comfortable enough to cruise.
Boats have multiple demands on them from various family members and since few families can afford more than one boat, designs are sometimes morphed into one another and blurring the lines in between.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I choose a boat?
The best boat for anyone depends on how they will use it. Sailors won’t have much use for a center console fishing boat and a trawler won’t be any good for towing sports. The best way to choose a boat is to honestly assess your needs and budget. Also, do you have a place to keep the boat? Can you afford its insurance and maintenance? Will you have enough time to use it? For more in-depth information, be sure to read How to Buy a Boat: The Complete Buying Guide.
What is the best boat for a beginner?
Once you’ve answered how you will use a boat, start small. Size is everything to a novice. Smaller boats are less intimidating, easier to maneuver and cheaper to maintain. Mostly, they make a great learning platform because every action will have a near immediate reaction and cause-and-effect is a great teaching tool. On a small boat, you’ll learn to steer with a tiller, balance weight, maneuver quickly back to a skier, adjust sails, and manage other boat traffic.
Are outboard or inboard engines better?
Engine choice depends entirely on boat design and boating application. Larger yachts and trawlers have inboard engines with a choice of straight shaft or pod drive running gear. Small runabouts don’t have room inside the hull for an inboard engine so they have outboards.
That said, outboard propulsion is growing in popularity for a number of reasons: Outboards have gotten larger with up to 600 hp each. These engines have also become lighter, more fuel-efficient, cleaner-running, quieter, faster and aesthetically more pleasing. Finally, it’s easier to repower a boat that has outboards instead of having to cut out an inboard engine from the depths of the hull. For a more in-depth discussion on power choices see Inboard or Outboard? The Boat You’ll Buy Next.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in March 2019 and was last updated in May of 2022.