“What kind of boat is that?” is one of the most common questions our guests ask when we’re out for a cruise. Checking out other vessels as they sail, row, or motor by is part of the fun! There’s a seemingly endless variety of boats on the high seas these days, so it would be difficult to capture them all in a single blog post. But, if you’re curious about what distinguishes a catamaran from a ketch or a pontoon from a fishing boat, read on for a high-level overview of the wide array of vessels you’re likely to come across when you’re out on the water.
Sailboats are easy to spot because they have soaring masts and, well, sails. On a good day, sailboats rely on the wind to move them through the water, but most also have a small motor onboard to help them navigate harbors or to escape a lull.
Most of the sailboats you’ll spot on the water are mono-hulls, meaning that the body of the boat is comprised of a single hull. Pretty easy to remember, right? Within this category, you’ll find daysailers (typically smaller sailboats without a cabin), ketches (sailboats that have a second, shorter mast onboard), and cruisers (generally larger, with cabins to accommodate overnight stays).
Catamarans are sailboats that have two hulls connected by a central deck. They’re wider than their single-hulled cousins, and typically feature more deck space and roomier living accommodations. My favorite catamarans have trampolines on the forward deck (they’re the perfect spot for getting a suntan and catching some sea spray).
You can probably guess what a trimaran is based on the name. With not one, not two, but three hulls, trimarans have a very distinct aesthetic. Known for being more stable than a catamaran, thanks to the steadying center hull, trimarans boast similar advantages to their two-hulled cousins. Namely more deck space and private cabins.
Many of the sailboats you’ll see on the water will be capable of racing, but how do you know if a boat is a true racer? It may be challenging to tell if a boat is exclusively a “racer” just from looking at it, but they’re typically lighter weight with sparse (if any) interior accommodations, a sleek, low-profile design, and specialized sails made out of stronger, lighter material like Kevlar.
Power boats rely on—you guessed it: motor power!—to navigate the water. They come in all shapes and sizes and serve a variety of aquatic activities, including day cruising, fishing, and water sports.
Day cruiser boats
There are all kinds of boats that are perfect for day cruises, but I’ll highlight a few of the most popular here. To start, day cruising is exactly what it sounds like—it’s spending a day out on the water, with no need for overnight accommodations. This could include cuddy cabins (typically a bit larger, with a central cabin and enclosed deck), bow riders/deck/runabout boats (open-air vessels, usually with seating in the bow and wide, flat bottoms, often used for watersports in addition to day cruising), express cruisers (a hybrid between a cuddy cabin and a motor yacht, these boats are known for balancing speed with comfort, and typically feature basic interior accommodations, like a seating area or galley), and downeast boats (also known as lobster boats, these vessels feature enclosed, hard-top cabins, pointy bows, and exterior railing for adventurous guests).
Tow boats for water sports
If you spot a power boat towing a person in the water, you’ve likely spotted a ski or wakeboard vessel! While many day cruisers (particularly bow riders, deck boats, and runabouts) can be used for water skiing or wakeboarding, tow boats are designed specifically for these watersports. They’re typically sleek, with ample seating, a designated swim deck, and—most importantly—they’re designed to create a nice, big wake.
Visit just about any lake in the Midwest, and you’ll spot a pontoon boat in no time! These vessels are perfect for hosting large gatherings or towing kids in innertubes off the aft deck. Pontoons have spacious, flat decks mounted atop pontoons (stabilizing metal tubes). They aren’t known for speed, but they’re ideal for a fun afternoon on the water with friends.
While you can technically cast a line off any boat, there are, of course, vessels designed exclusively for fishing. Center consoles (day cruisers with a steering console in the center, making it easy to walk around the entire vessel) and walkaround boats (motor yachts with interior accommodations and side decks encased in railing, enabling easy access to the bow) are considered fishing boats, but the most distinguishable fishing vessel is a sport fishing boat. These boats typically feature a raised steering console and mounted rods. You may also see chairs affixed to the deck.
An easy way to identify a motor yacht is by determining its size. A boat isn’t considered a yacht unless it’s more than 40 feet long, from bow to stern. These vessels will also include cabins with sleeping accommodations, enclosed helms, interior living areas (known as salons), and ample deck space.
Trawlers can look a lot like motor yachts and include similar features, but the primary difference is the way they move through the water. Rather than cutting through wake like a traditional motor yacht, trawlers displace water, pushing seas away as they cruise. While they aren’t quite as fast as a motor yacht, they can be a stable, comfortable, and spacious ride!
Dinghies, skiffs, and tenders
These little boats come in lots of different shapes and styles (inflatable, aluminum, fiberglass) and often accompany larger vessels. While the names may be used interchangeably, there are some subtle differences. Tenders, for example, are typically used to transport guests from ship to shore and may feature some proper seating, Dinghies are hard-bottomed inflatables with simple bench seating, and skiffs are simple, low-profile, and lightweight vessels that may double as recreational fishing boats.
Unpowered boats are usually “powered” by people, often with an oar or paddle (although you may spot the occasional pedal boat). They’re typically pretty small.
Kayaks and canoes
This is a big category, but you’ll know them when you see them. They rely solely on the person or people paddling and depending on the design and expertise of the operator, can navigate lakes, rivers, and waves. There are two easy-to-spot differences between a kayak and a canoe. First, kayakers sit with their legs outstretched while canoers sit on a raised seat or kneel inside the boat. Second, kayakers use a paddle with blades on either end. Canoers use a single-bladed paddle.
Unlike kayaks and canoes, rowboats are usually wider and include extra seating for a guest or two. They’re powered using oars that are often affixed to either side of the boat.
Now the next time you’re invited aboard a friend’s boat for a cruise, you’ll be able to impress her with your extensive boat knowledge! “Check out that beautiful catamaran,” you might say, “do you ever spot any trimarans?”
Have fun out there!