What are the three main types of boats?

If you're considering buying a boat, you can choose from human-powered boats, sailboats, and motorboats. Once you've settled on a type of boat, pick a style or model suited to what you want to do and where you live. Some boats are better for lakes, for example, while others are good for the ocean.

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Types of boats

The following are some examples of different types of boats powered by wind, a motor, or human effort.


Sailboats use sails to catch the wind and propel them through the water. There are many types of sailboats and larger yachts, which people use for recreation, sports, and transportation over long distances. There are several different sailboat styles, and they're often classified by the design of the hull.

  • Monohull: The most straightforward and most familiar design, monohull ships have a single, large body that sits low in the water and floats by displacing water
  • Catamaran: This style has a wide construction of two small hulls joined by a deck, which gives more deck and cabin space and rides higher in the water
  • Trimaran: Like a catamaran but with three hulls (hence the name). They’re like catamarans but more stable, thanks to the third hull. Within these hull types, sailboats can be further divided into day sailers, ketches, and cruisers.

Learn about protecting your investment with sailboat insurance.


Boats that use a motor for power are often classified by the activity they're best for as well as the way they're constructed. Powerboats come in various sizes and styles, and people often use them as tenders or accessory boats for larger vessels. Common types of powerboats include:

  • Day cruisers: This category doesn't often include cabins.
  • Cuddy cabins: Larger boats with a central cabin and enclosed deck.
  • Bowrider: Open vessels with seating in the bow and wide, flat bottoms.
  • Cabin cruisers: A medium-sized design that often includes an aft cabin with basic dining.
  • Center consoles: A great choice for fishing boats because they have ample space for you to move around when wrangling a big fish. Center consoles are also seaworthy.
  • Express cruisers: Similar to a cabin cruiser but include a seating area, galley, bathroom and sleeping space.
  • Downeast boats: Boats with enclosed hard-top cabins, pointed bows, and exterior railings.
  • Tow boats or ski/wakeboard boats: Boats used to pull water sports gear like water skis are called tow boats.
  • Motor yachts: These powerboats are more than 40 feet long with accommodations for long-distance cruising rather than day cruising.
  • Fishing boats: These are suited for casting a line, but some powerboats are better suited to fishing than others.
  • Bass boats: Designed to make fishing easy with fish finders, swiveling seats, and more.
  • Trawlers: Similar to motor yachts, but with a different hull design that trades speed for greater stability and comfort.
  • Pontoon boats: Consists of a platform fixed to two or more buoyant metal tubes. Learn how pontoon boats work.

Learn about the differences between sailboats and powerboats and what kinds of recreational and sports activities each is best suited for.

Human powered boats

Common types of small boats include skiffs (simple, lightweight boats often used for recreational fishing) and dinghies (small, flat-bottomed, often inflatable boats). Small boats can be made of various materials, including wood, aluminum, and fiberglass, and some are even inflatable. The following are examples of small boats powered by wind, human effort, or a small outboard motor:

  • Dinghy: A small boat often used as a tender for larger vessels. A dinghy can be propelled by a sail, small motor, or oars.
  • Kayak: A narrow, human-powered boat propelled by a double-bladed paddle. You can paddle a kayak on lakes, rivers, or in the ocean
  • Canoe: Another small, human-powered boat that is slightly wider than a kayak and uses a single-bladed paddle
  • Jon boat: This is a flat-bottomed, shallow water boat with bench seats. It's a popular fishing boat for calm lakes and ponds.
  • Skiff: This is another flat-bottomed small boat powered by oars, a sail, or outboard motor, often used as a tender or for fishing
  • Inflatable boat: These small boats are lightweight and easy to store when deflated. Some have rigid floors to support an outboard motor.

Protect your boat and your assets

Although it's only required in a few states, a boat insurance policy can protect your investment. If you're buying a boat for the first time and financing it, your lender will typically require you to insure your boat. And if you dock at a marina, they may also require proof of insurance. Learn more about what boat insurance covers and how boat insurance works.

What are the best types of boats for lakes?

The size of the lake and your choice of recreational activities will determine the size and type of boat that will suit your needs. If you're spending time on big lakes with deep water, you might choose a boat that you could also use in the ocean like a cabin cruiser. If you spend most of your recreational time at smaller, shallow lakes, you may do better with a pontoon boat. Options for the best boats for lakes typically include:

  • Sailboats
  • Towboats
  • Day cruisers
  • Pontoon boats

Some of these boats are best for families, and if you have a family, or if you entertain groups of friends, you might consider a boat with overnight accommodations on larger lakes, like an express cruiser.

What are common types of boats for the ocean?

You have many options regarding types of boats suitable for the ocean. In general, ocean-going vessels may need to be bigger than lake boats for more stability in handling waves and deeper or choppier waters. Good options for saltwater boats include:

  • Sailboats
  • Cabin cruisers
  • Express cruisers
  • Motor yachts
  • Trawlers
  • Center consoles

If you're buying a boat for the first time, learn more about the best first boats to buy and the best time of year to buy a boat.

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