The first time I ran a boat with a step hull, I was a bundle of nerves, my mind abuzz with stories of stepped racing hulls, throttles pinned, the driver hanging onto the ragged edge of control, each high-speed run fraught with the potential for disastrous spinouts or a stuffing of the bow.
My test boat, however, was no racing machine. Rather it was a Contender 35ST center-console saltwater fishing boat powered by triple 300 hp outboards. The ride was indeed exhilarating, but the boat also proved delightfully easy to drive, eventually quelling my case of nerves.
Even at wide-open throttle across 3-foot seas, the step hull never exhibited a hint of instability. High-speed turns were smooth and predictable. On down-sea runs, the bow refused to dip or stuff into the backside of a wave.
Yet, what impressed me most was the amount of lift and the remarkably level and consistent trim angle, not only during hole shot, when many V-hulls tend to ride bow high, but also as the hull traversed the seas.
Today, a wide range of boat companies offers step-hull models. Some, like Intrepid and Invincible Boats, build only step hulls. Other companies such as Grady-White have refrained from entering the step-hull market.
And then there are companies that offer both, including Contender, Formula and SeaVee. These are the three companies we tapped in the hope of gaining the most unbiased insight possible about the benefits — and disadvantages — of step hulls.
Accounts of step-hull boats date back to the early 1900s. Yet the modern step hull did not take shape until go-fast boatbuilders like Fountain and recreational brands such as Larson popularized them in the 1990s.
Boatbuilders discovered that step hulls improve efficiency and boost speed by ushering a cushion of aerated water under the running surface (see “Step-Hull Dynamics”). But there were also problems. Some early high-performance designs proved unpredictable or required a high degree of driving skill to avoid catching an edge or dipping the bow and swapping ends, or submarining into a wave.
Most high-performance step hulls are safer today, thanks to refinements that have squelched much of the quirkiness while maintaining the penchant for speed.
Unfortunately, with the Great Recession, sales of offshore go-fast boats took a serious hit, with the recovery of this segment still underway. Yet step-hull designs have also emerged in a growing number of less-exotic models, from bay boats and center-consoles to cruisers and runabouts.
“We originally developed our step-hull designs for the Formula FasTech high-performance offshore series around 1995,” says John Adams, exclusive designer for Formula Boats.
“It started out as a speed enhancement,” he adds, “but increased stability at speed (known as “dynamic stability”) was an unexpected benefit. Our step hulls turned out to be even more stable than conventional V-hulls.”
The new step hulls were so efficient and easy to handle that Formula eventually incorporated the same design features into the Super Sport express cruisers series.
The company is witnessing strong growth in the popularity of step hulls; its best-selling models are the 400 and 370 Super Sport (both step hulls), though Adams points out that the company still builds more conventional V-hulls than step hulls.
At Contender and SeaVee, demand for step hulls is skyrocketing. Both report that step hulls (ST and Z-series, respectively) now represent 90 percent of sales.
Does that mean that you will own a step hull in the future, if not already? Not necessarily. Your choice hinges on boat size, power selection, speed and other factors. Even in applications where step hulls excel, there are downsides to consider.