How to Find a Good Handling Boat

What is a “good handling” boat?

You hear it so often you probably don't even think about it: "That Ronco 290 BelchFire, now there's a good handling boat." You nod your head sagely and then, if you're honest, ask yourself, Just what does good handling mean? You see it all the time in magazines and hear it bantered about as if you should instinctively know what it is. But good handling is any elusive quality that's hard to put your finger on. When pressed for a short answer, we usually say it refers to a boat that's predictable. One that does what you expect it to do. But that's a pretty broad statement. To get more specific, here's a list of some traits we look for before giving a boat our "Good Handling Seal of Approval." Let's see how that new or used boat you're planning to test drive measures up.

HOLDS ITS COURSE AT NO-WAKE SPEEDS. It doesn't wander back and forth, requiring constant steering corrections. Such boats may have too much hull in the water forward, rudders that are too small, or sloppy steering linkages.

GETS ON PLANE QUICKLY. Poor acceleration is an indication of insufficient power or the wrong propeller. Most sportboats will be on plane within 4 seconds; 6 seconds is slow. Cruisers to 32' will take about 8 seconds; if it takes longer than 10 seconds, it's a wuss.

LOW BOWRISE WHILE GETTING ON PLANE. This is critical so you can see what's ahead. It's also indicative of an efficient hull. In general, bowrise over 5 degrees, or losing sight of the horizon while seated, is too high.

STAYS ON PLANE AT LOW SPEEDS. A must so you can slow down for rough water and still maintain control. Speeds of 16 to 18 mph are good, and we've seen boats go as low as 12. The bow should only be slightly higher than when on a full plane, with no problems holding a course.

DOES NOT PORPOISE. When the drives and tabs are trimmed for efficient running at cruising speeds or above, there should be no rhythmic up and down slapping of the bow. If you have to adjust the drives, tabs, or crew placement to stop this, you'll lose speed and increase fuel consumption. Porpoising is often a result of poorly placed, or too much, keel rocker (longitudinal curvature).

MINIMAL NEED FOR TRIM TABS. You should only need tabs to achieve a level ride from side to side and fore to aft if there is a strong beam wind or there's too much weight in one part of the boat. Long, narrow offshore speedboats, or skinny boats with beam-to-length ratios of more than 1:3, often need tabs for stability and to get on plane faster.

STABLE IN TURNS. At 30 mph, trim the drives for cruising speed with no tabs, then rapidly turn the wheel 180 degrees and hold it until the boat changes course by 90 degrees. According to the American Boat and Yacht Council, this should happen "without the driver's loss of confidence in maintaining control." Try it at increasingly faster speeds. The best boats can do this at wide open throttle, but three-quarter speed is acceptable.

LOWERS GENTLY OFF PLANE. You don't want a boat to immediately lose lift and fall off plane, causing the crew to plunge forward and the bow to dig in and slew around to a new heading.

TRACKS STRAIGHT WHEN GOING DOWN WAVES. If the bow digs into the back of a wave or wake, you shouldn't have to fight the helm to maintain your course. This is a function of buoyancy and hullform forward, as well as rudder size and placement.

SUFFICIENT MIDRANGE ACCELERATION. You'll need this for emergency maneuvers and to maintain control in rough seas. When you hit the throttles at cruising speed (around 3200 rpm for gas inboards or stern drives, 4000 rpm for outboards, 1800 rpm for most diesels), you should feel a noticeable surge.