Learning to water-ski, getting bounced around on a tube or carving turns on a kneeboard is part of the rites of passage of growing up in a boating family. But the “entry-level” specialty boats required for hard-core tow sports start at around $40,000, and the pro-level boats can have six-figure sticker prices. What if you just want to get out and have a good time with your family and friends? Here are five boats that can help you start shredding, each with a sticker price under $25,000.
PWC: Sea-Doo Wake Pro 215
Pros: Tons of standard tow features, can be towed behind almost any car, no prop worries
Cons: Three-person maximum crew capacity, smaller wakes
Sport it up: Add a second wakeboard rack.
Bottom line: $13,999; sea-doo.com
Here’s a personal watercraft specifically designed for tow sports, with a ton of standard features that enhance its capabilities. Maybe the most important is its electronic throttle control system that Sea-Doo calls iControl. It features a speed-based “Ski Mode” that lets you choose from five acceleration profiles that keep a steady speed and allow the driver to focus on handling rather than the throttle.
The driver can keep an eye on the action with twin rear-view mirrors, but the wake package provides security for a rear-facing spotter in the form of grab handles on a retractable, three-position tow pylon. There’s also a removable gunwale-mounted board rack with the option to add a second. The swim platform has a fold-down boarding step, making it easier for boarders to sit and strap on the bindings. Of course, with jet propulsion, there’s no concern about the prop.
With the 215 hp Rotax engine, the 215 tops 63 mph. The S3 hull makes it one of the best-cornering PWCs on the market, and the iBR (intelligent brake and reverse) system gives it superior slow-speed handling around the launch ramp.
Displacement: 834 lb.
Fuel Capacity: 15.9 gal.
Max Horsepower: 215
Runabout: Bayliner Element
Pros: Predictable handling, excellent fuel economy, room for crowd
Cons: Small 12-gallon fuel tank, 60 hp engine max
Sport it up: Choose the optional sporting package — tow arch, board rack, sporty graphics, cooler and bow filler cushion.
Bottom line: $11,999; bayliner.com
Bayliner set out to build a new type of runabout to get families on the water for, ostensibly, about the cost of your monthly cable or cell-phone bill. But in keeping the price down, Bayliner did not neglect the fact that people like to play behind their boats.
Adding the $1,421 “Sport” package gets you an aluminum tow tower with a board rack on the port side. The tower raises the tow point above the outboard, giving boarders a far better rope angle for performing tricks.
The Element has a unique M-hull design, which consists of a V running down the centerline and two V-shaped sponsons outboard with hard chines. The result is a stable, efficient hull that doesn’t lean excessively in turns or suffer extreme dips when boarding or jumping into the water. With a 60 hp Mercury Bigfoot outboard, the only power available, the Element tops 30 mph and can handle the slower speeds required for tubing and boarding.
Aft, the boat has swim platforms to either side of the motorwell, with the starboard-side retractable swim ladder mounted at an angle to keep swimmers’ hands and feet away from the outboard’s prop.
Displacement: 1,750 lb.
Fuel Capacity: 12 gal.
Max Horsepower: 60
RIB: Zodiac Bayrunner 500
Pros: Great rough-water handling, lightweight for towing
Cons: No swim platform or boarding ladder, cramped seating for passengers and spotter
Sport it up: Get a tow post for $500 or a TurboSwing for $700.
Bottom line: $24,700 with 70 hp Yamaha; zodiacmarineusa.com
Most people associate RIBs with yacht tenders, but the Zodiac Bayrunner 500 can serve as your primary vessel, and it makes a decent tow boat. This 15-foot-5-inch (length overall) model has a fiberglass V-hull with 22 degrees of transom deadrise, the steepest of any other boat in this group. Combine that with the 20-inch PVC inflatable tubes that act as shock absorbers and provide stability, and the Bayrunner 500 has some fantastic rough-water ability for its size. You’re not going to run it out in the blue water, but it will do fine in a bay chop and will display the necessary agility to carve turns for tubers and boarders.
With a Yamaha F70 this boat hits 37 mph and can handle most towing duties, particularly when you add the optional tow bar or TurboSwing. The TurboSwing, a bar with pulleys for the tow rope that mounts on the transom and wraps around the cowling, is better suited for towing with this setup, because it keeps the line clear of the inflatable tubes.
The boat can hold four people with two on the helm bench, one on the seat to port of the console, and one in the bow. It’s best for the spotter to sit in the bow facing aft.
Displacement: 507 lb.
Fuel Capacity: 12 gal.
Max Horsepower: 70
Aluminum: Tracker Pro Guide V-175 Combo
Pros: Standard ski pylon raises the tow rope clear of the outboard.
Cons: Tiny swim platform is not great for board prep; it’s not the best boat for saltwater duty.
Sport it up: Fill up the livewells and stuff lockers for wake ballast.
Bottom line: $21,395; trackerboats.com
Small, multispecies aluminum fish boats are some of the most popular in the country due to their light tow weight, low maintenance, versatility and durability. But most of them lack the basic necessities to serve as the family boat. The Tracker Pro Guide V-175 Combo is a notable exception. It has several family runabout features, including fold-down jump seats along the transom, cockpit pedestal seats that rotate aft to watch the action in the wake, a walk-through windshield and a portside console with a glove box and stereo controls.
Of course, the most important features from a tow boat standpoint are the removable ski pylon and the swim platform on the starboard side. The swim platform includes a three-step telescoping ladder.
This boat lists for a nationally set price of $21,395 with a 115 hp Mercury OptiMax and a trailer. We tested the boat with a 90 hp Merc and nearly broke 40 mph. The hull features 20 degrees of transom deadrise and reverse chines that help it achieve a dry ride in the chop. Since this boat’s primary mission is fishing, the bow space is lost to fishing duty and many of the standard perks are fish-related, but it’s plenty family-friendly.
Displacement: 1,485 lb.
Fuel Capacity: 21 gal.
Max Horsepower: 135
Pontoon: Sweetwater 2286 TT
Pros: There’s lots of space for a crowd and creature comforts.
Cons: Handling is still not as sporty as it is in smaller, nimbler boats with V-hulls.
Sport it up: Add the ski tow bar for $445.
Bottom line: $24,618; sweetwaterboats.com
If you still think pontoons are mere floating living rooms, you haven’t yet experienced the triple-tube phenomenon, where builders offer an optional third tube to improve performance and handling. That’s the case with the Sweetwater 2286 TT. Add what Sweetwater calls the TOTAL package to get the third center tube and lifting strakes, in addition to a 27-gallon fuel tank that allows for longer tow sessions than the standard 21-gallon tank’s.
The center tube features a “launch pad,” a flat section on the aft two feet that gives the 2286 immediate lift as you accelerate. Sweetwater installs the lifting strakes forward on the 2286’s outer tubes so as not to create resistance in hard turns. The setup is specifically designed to help quickly get skiers and boarders out of the water, and to allow the boat to make the sharp cuts needed for whipping tubers.
Most pontoons plane instantly with no bow rise, and the 2286 is no exception. It also holds plane at 13 mph, allowing the driver to keep it slow. We tested the boat with a 115 hp Evinrude E-TEC, which gave the boat a top speed of 30.4 mph, but dropping down to a 60 hp drops the price under $25,000.
Displacement: 2,585 lb.
Fuel Capacity: 27 gal.
Max Horsepower: 150
Looking for something to tow? Check out Six Top Tow Tubes.