When it comes to choosing a boat to buy, then perhaps the first key question is do you want a sailing boat or a powerboat? You may already be firmly in one camp or another, but if not there are definitely advantages for each branch of boating. Before you go ahead with buying what you think is your dream craft, it might be worth reading on...
The advantages of a sailing boat
Cost: Sail power is free... pretty much. Okay you have the cost of sails, but with fuel prices always under threat of moving upwards, running costs are generally cheaper when your fuel is free.
Silence: If you are looking to get away, there is nothing like the silence and natural power of sail, and I truly feel you are closer to nature when gliding through the water without the assistance of an engine.
Activity: Most boats have sails you will need to put up and down and change (although some are set up to be as easy to handle as possible). That means you can involve all your crew in a way you can't on a power boat.
Of course most yachts will have an engine as well, so when you run out of breeze or have a difficult harbour to negotiate, you can always turn to it, while enjoying the delights of sail the rest of the time.
The advantages of a power boat
Ease of use: I might be a sailor, but I do understand that power boats can seem more accessible as most people drive a car, and operating an engine-powered craft seems a lot more familiar than engaging with a foreign world of sails. Of course some people will enjoy learning a new skill, but there's no doubt that it's much easier to lean the basics of powerboating than sail if you are starting from scratch.
Speed: There's not much to add here! Although some sailing craft can be very fast, they are the ones that generally command a high skill level to operate. If you want to go really fast, power has to be the winner. If you want a boat to wakeboard or waterski behind, power it is.
Accommodation: Generally power boats are more spacious on the accommodation front. You don't need to worry about sailing performance upwind (which generally means sailing yachts are narrower and sit lower in the water), or storing your sails.
Of course with larger power boats you might take sail-based toys with you - a windsurfer or small dinghy, or, if you're a superyacht owner you may have a whole array of toys (see Top 10 coolest superyacht toys).
If you decide that power is your thing, read Alex Smith's guide to choosing the right powerboat. Alternatively, read on for more on the main sailing options open to you.
Types of sailing boats
There are a wide variety of sailing boats, ranging from small dinghies up to ocean going cruising yachts, but how to you figure out which one is right for you? The answer in reality is that your first boat is unlikely to be your last. Your needs and interests are likely to change over time. The good news is that boats don't tend to lose value to the same extent that cars do, especially if you look after them (see How to maintain your boat).
One of the first questions you need to ask yourself is about the type of sailing you want to do.
Do you want to sail long distances?
Do you want to race?
How many people are you going to sail with (maximum and minimum)?
Do you want to sleep onboard?
Where are you going to keep your yacht?
What is your budget?
What is your fitness level?
What is your skill level?
how important is speed?
These questions will help to focus your mind on the direction your boat-buying journey should take you.
Choosing a cruising yacht
Cruising yachts come in all shapes and sizes and all shades of the budget spectrum. A small 20-footer, for example, that you might use for cruising in a river or estuary and short coastal passages, will be available for a surprisingly small budget.
If you are interested in cruising in shallow waters - rivers and estuaries, for example (see 8 of the best UK estuaries for cruising) - then a bilge keel yacht might be your best option (see Choosing the right boat: bilge keels vs fin keels).
If you want to cruise further afield you will most likely be looking for something you can live aboard for extended periods, and something larger.
Some cruising boats are more suited to handling single or doublehanded, although there are also things you can do to optimise a yacht for handling with a small crew. You also might consider that handling under sail is less important and you are happy to sacrifice sailing performance in return for more accommodation, or opt for more of a compromise between sail and power. Read How to choose the right motor sailer.
Multihulls are a popular cruising option both for sail and power as they have the advantage of speed and also space. However, they are much wider than monohulled craft so storage can be more expensive. Read 6 of the best comfy catamarans.
Choosing a racing yacht or cruiser-racer
Production cruiser-racers are a good compromise if you want to race, but also cruise in comfort with the family at other times. They will generally be less spacious than cruising boats, but perform better so you'll get to your destination faster. Some will also be designed so interior fittings can be a removed for racing.
If racing is your thing this is unlikely to be your first boat, you might be moving up from a smaller boat - keelboat, sportsboat or dinghy - or on from a cruising boat. A full-on racing yacht will be much less comfortable below decks, as it's all about being competitive.
The number of crew you plan to race with is an important factor in your planning, many owners end up changing boats due to lack of crew so do bear in mind that enthusiastic friends may be less reliable than you think. It also makes sense to start off with a smaller crew to begin with, although if money is no object you may wish to hire a professional or two to help you.
Choosing a dinghy
Sailing dinghies are a great place to start sailing (see How to start your kids dinghy sailing) whatever your age, as they are very useful to teach the basics of wind awareness and boat handling as well as racing. They are also very flexible in that you can sail them on inland waters and singlehanded - so no need for crew. You can keep them on a driveway and tow them easily even with a small car.
There is a huge range of dinghies, from large boats designed to take a number of people, which are ideal for a whole family, to high performance singlehanded dinghies. Once you've decided whether you want a one-man, two-man dinghy or one to take more people, your fitness level is an important consideration in your choice as well as your skill level and that of your crew.
Choosing a keelboat or sportsboat
A keelboat or sportsboat will generally be kept on a mooring or ashore where you will crane the boat out after going sailing. You might choose a keelboat for its carrying capacity as a family 'picnic boat', or for racing. Again there is a huge range from those that can be sailed by two to high performance sportsboats designed to carry a large crew.
For more information on buying a sailing boat, read How to choose your first yacht.
Choosing a boat might not be simple, but it is a lot of fun. After you've decided on the type of boat you're after, it's time to research in more detail and then get on with finding and buying your dream craft. Read our guides Buying a boat: first-time buyers’ guide and How to inspect a second-hand boat before buying.
Do remember that while you might do all your research, when it comes to choosing a boat your needs may change in the future. Don't worry, you may well want to change your craft as you progress in your boat-owning career and, as we mentioned previously, if you care for your craft you can lose little if any money when you change. We've also got plenty of articles to help with the process of selling, for example How to sell a boat and Boat survey advice before selling a boat.
In the meantime, good luck with your purchase and may you enjoy many happy hours on the water.