The term ‘family runabout’ always feels slightly condescending - rather like a sympathetic ruffle of the hair from a more serious mariner with a proper, grown-up vessel. But unless you are a committed racer, a serious fisherman or an incurable poser, a runabout (or a small, open family day boat) is likely to be one of the most enjoyable and cost-effective boat buying options available.
The job of the family runabout
While a family runabout could conceivably encompass everything from a large tender to a small cruiser, it is in essence a boat that nails the most important criteria of the powerboating family. That means it needs to be affordable to buy and to use, easy to operate, spacious enough for five people and reassuringly secure, so you’re not constantly fretting about the safety of your kids. It also needs to ensure that its internal proportions are well used - not taken up with immovable playboy fixtures like luxuriant sunbathing platforms but open enough to enable easy movement from bow to stern, and versatile enough to encompass a variety of uses. And finally, it should enable you to get on and off without difficulty from just about any part of the boat, and it should be easy to live with, enabling you to use it on a very regular basis, without awkwardness or complaint and without destroying your bank balance.
So what should you look for?
While the above criteria might seem very stringent, they all point towards a small outboard-powered open boat of between 14 and 19 feet in length. Craft of this type make the most of their proportions, partly by positioning the engine over the transom and partly by dispensing with complex internal mouldings in favour of open space. And happily, open boats of this kind also tend to be much more affordable (even than style-conscious, GRP-intensive bowriders) because their design simplicity enables a much less costly build process.
The use of an outboard engine also translates into some fairly generous storage, particularly beneath the aft bench - and because a small open boat does away with internal complications like a cuddy cabin, everyone on board tends to get an uninhibited view of the water, wherever they happen to sit.
At its best, the hull of a good family runabout is relatively broad and shallow, not just generating extra internal space but also bringing about an easier low-speed plane, plus better running efficiency and more pace from a given amount of horsepower. True, flatter hull angles tend to make a boat more buoyant (and in adverse conditions, more flighty and harder riding) but a family boat is rarely used in challenging seas. It is better considered as a fair-weather boat, and if you treat it as such, the many benefits of a fat little ‘soap dish’ hull will far outweigh its dynamic limitations.
As regards internal configuration, a small, relatively lightweight boat does tend to be quite sensitive to the distribution of load, so the helm station should be as central as possible, enabling the occupants free reign to circumnavigate it as they make their way around the boat. There are likely to be a couple of seats here, supplemented by a full-beam three-man bench aft, but look out for rotating and adjustable helm seats, plus a removable cockpit table so you can generate a five-man socialising area. And as regards the options list, a stereo, a ski pole, a boarding ladder, a cool box, a keel band for beaching and a canvas cover to help shelter from the sun are all very worthwhile considerations.
Keep it trailerable
There is always a temptation for the boat buyer to upsize, particularly if the budget allows, but there is no doubt in my mind that a good family runabout needs to be trailerable - and not just by a vast 4x4 but by the same little family hatchback that takes your kids to school. Not only will this help keep your costs down by enabling you to store the boat in your garage and tow it with your existing car, but it will also radically expand your cruising grounds, offering you and the family the chance to keep your recreation fresh by exploring different parts of the UK and even the Continent. And even if you have the budget to keep your boat in one of the many excellent dry stack facilities now available (which take a great deal of effort out of the equation), investing in a boat that is small enough, light enough and manageable enough to be trailered with ease will make the most of your money by enabling you to head off by road in search of exciting new cruising grounds.
Top runabout tips
(1) Ask the rest of your family what they want out of a boat and listen to what they tell you
(2) Consider some of the less common (but very robust and low-maintenance) boat building materials like aluminium and polyethylene
(3) A relatively broad beam with lots of internal space, good lateral stability and easy-planing dynamics is often the best starting point
(4) Look for adjustability and versatility in your on-board space
(5) Look for lots of secure internal grabbing points and easy access on and off from the bow, the stern and the beam
(6) Deep freeboards are a major (and very confidence-inspiring) bonus for those with young kids
(7) Look for a modern, refined and efficient engine with enough power to encompass all your desired pursuits
(8) A boat that is small enough to be trailerable will mean lower costs and more varied cruising grounds
(9) A small catamaran is more costly than the equivalent monohull, but a good one takes the key open boat qualities to the max, with greater internal space, extra stability, easier maneuverability and excellent fuel economy - so don’t discount them
(10) Do your sums and make sure the boat you plan to buy is one you can afford to enjoy on a regular basis
While the idea of a family runabout might seem rather pedestrian and uninspiring, the fact of the matter is that a boat of this type offers a degree of sensory interaction that more complex and substantial craft can rarely match. And dynamically speaking, the central helm, low weight, minimal wind resistance and easy-planing hull angles can often generate a very enjoyable and responsive driving experience. Of course the particular model you choose will depend upon the kind of marine pursuits you and your family most enjoy, but if you take on board our top tips, you will discover that family fun on a powerboat is not just one of the most engaging activities you can enjoy but also one of the most affordable.
See our other features on runabouts: 5 of the most rewarding runabouts and Five fabulous superyacht runabouts.