If you’re just dipping your toe into boat buying waters, the terminology may have your head swimming. Sedans, motor yachts, express cruisers and convertibles—what does it all mean and which one is right for you? Let’s take a look at five general styles of powerboats and their uses to clear up some of this vernacular.
A motor yacht (also sometimes called a pilothouse or sky lounge motoryacht) is typically a larger vessel with several staterooms, heads and a galley. It may have a flybridge or be what’s called a sport version with nothing on the hardtop but maybe a large sunroof. Motoryacht is a somewhat of a generic term but when applied to vessel styling, you can generally expect two levels of accommodations including a large saloon and dining area. Much of the space on motoryachts is dedicated to comfortable interior living.
Motoryachts may be operated by the owner or have professional crew and generally are powered by twin diesel engines that have a reasonable range at speeds around 15-20 knots. Motoryachts over 100-feet in length are generally referred to as superyachts although that length has been reaching ever higher. Some examples of motoryachts are the Monte Carlo 6, Outer Reef 700 and Sunreef 70. That last one is a catamaran so a motoryacht can also be multihulls.
An express cruiser looks different from a true motoryacht although it may serve roughly the same purpose. Express boats tend to look sleeker, lower and longer with large open cockpits that mix indoor and outdoor living and entertaining. The helm is tucked up by the windshield and is usually (although not always) slightly elevated from the rest of the cockpit amenities. Some people also call these sport boats. They are typically powered by twin diesels and today you’ll find pod drives on many models. Pods and joystick drives are excellent for controlling the vessel in tight quarters and many newbie boaters prefer them to straight shaft drive vessels.
By design, express cruisers tend to have more outdoor space but they often come with multiple cabins below. Some express boats keep the majority of galley accoutrements outside including refrigerators, grills and sinks. Some express cruisers can be quite large and most of them are also speedy, cruising around 25-30 knots or more. Examples include the Beneteau GT 50, Riviera 600 Sport Yacht, the Sunseeker Predator range, Cruisers Express Coupe 390 and Jeanneau Leader 36.
Trawlers have been around for a very long time and they originated as workboats used mainly for fishing. Their displacement hulls mean they’re generally slower but can have excellent cruising range so the style was adopted and spiffed up to yacht status for those who want to go distance cruising. Trawlers are often used as ocean explorers and may be powered by single or twin diesels.
Accommodations range but trawler yachts can be quite posh and comfortable for long-term liveaboards. Coastal or bluewater cruising is their sweet spot. Size and price vary dramatically as evidenced by the kind of vessels that fall into this segment. The Beneteau Swift 30 is a perfect couple’s trawler built for great coastal cruising for two people and occasional guests. On the other end of the spectrum is the Nordhavn 96 that is usually a crewed yacht with superyacht aspirations. Other brands include Kadey Krogen and Selene or you can shop what’s called “pocket trawlers” for diminutive versions by builders such as Ranger and Nordic Tugs.
Usually mid-sized boats with lots of outdoor area, sedan cruisers are designed for serious coastal voyaging. The latest most popular styling has been Downeast or lobster boats. Just look at the number of brands that have copied the aesthetic—Back Cove, MJM, San Juan and even Grand Banks have all gotten into the game. Sedans often have large main decks with the helm on the same level. Below, there may be one or more cabins and heads. Look for these stylish boats for entertaining on a Sunday afternoon happy hour cruise but know that they can be weekended very comfortably and will turn heads in any anchorage.
Convertibles and Convertible Sportfishers
Large sportfishing boats, or battlewagons as some call them, have been doing the heavy lifting for offshore fishing for years. Their profile usually shows a long bow and truncated cockpit where the action happens. Some sportfishers have multi-level cockpits to separate those fishing from those observing. They’re usually tall boats with multiple levels accessed by ladders. The higher you go, the better you can see where the fish are.
Over the past decade or more, fishing boats have evolved and they’re no longer the bastions of buddy boating where fish guts fly. Convertibles are “converted” from fishing to cruising for the whole family and they often include expansive and stylish accommodations. Popular sportfishers and their convertible cousins are built by Hatteras, Viking Yachts, Bertram and Cabo Yachts.
Which type of powerboat is right for you?
Today, a boat must fit many needs so the hard boundaries of the older terms are less clearly defined. For example, some people refer to SUV yachts. Like their SUV auto counterparts, these yachts have evolved into being more things to more people. They must be able to cruise, fish, entertain, weekend, go fast, go far and carry all the toys for the kids.
If you’re still thoroughly confused and want to try out specialty boats first to see if the water lifestyle is for you, consider checking out center console fishing boats (usually under 40 feet). Some may have a cabin or head below and some include outdoor galley modules while others are hardcore fishing boats with large casting platforms. Brands include Yellowfin, Boston Whaler, Carolina Skiff and Everglades. There are in excess of 50 builders of center consoles so there are many from which to choose.
For the sporting family, a towboat may be more in order. These boats are used to tow skiers, boarders and in some cases wake surfers. When the toys go away, you can still enjoy a lovely happy hour for the adults.
Remember, today’s boats are blended machines where the lines have blurred. However now at least you’ll have enough vocabulary to go explore and know just enough to be dangerous.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in May 2013 and updated in July 2018.