Buying a good sports cruiser is quite an involved task - not least because they tend to be relatively large, heavy platforms with lots of choice in terms of layout, size and spec. But any proper boat of this type is required to satisfy two basic requirements. Firstly, it needs to be a sporting vessel, designed to cruise at pace on the plane. And secondly, it needs to feature a dedicated cabin capable of accommodating at least two people in relative harmony for a long weekend.
These might not seem like the most stringent requirements but already, one of the key compromises is becoming evident. If you want a sports cruiser, you need to decide whether the ‘sports’ bit or the ‘cruiser’ bit is of greater importance to you and your family, because while they are not mutually exclusive, there is an inevitable balance to be struck between internal accommodation and dynamic performance.
The big things
Whether you want a sports cruiser with broad, bulbous topsides to maximise internal space or a narrow-beamed missile with raked hull angles to maximise sporting ability, you need your boat to be warm, dry, safe and comfortable, so look out for proper access to all parts of the boat. You need side decks of a sensible width with a grippy surface, plus proper handholds and an effective guardrail. You also need decent access to the engine bay, not just for routine checks but for more substantial maintenance.
Pay careful attention to the use of space in the two most important areas (the main cabin and the external cockpit) but don’t forget the helm position. If you intend to use your boat as a proper cruiser, it needs to feel right, with supportive, adjustable seats and flip-up bolsters. You should have a good view of the seascape and an uninterrupted line of sight to your important dials. And you should also feel that all controls (including the rocker switch for the trim) fall easily to hand, without the need to take your eyes off the water and hunt them down.
Once upon a time, marine diesels were heavy and slow, but those days are now long gone. Modern diesels are small and light, with rapid throttle response and radically minimised noise and vibration. They also tend to be very frugal underway and, if looked after well, they have a reputation for lasting a very long time and providing steadfast reliability. On the downside, they cost a bit more to buy and, because the heartless Eurocrats have deprived UK leisure boaters of cheap diesel, they no longer have any price benefits at the pump.
Nonetheless, for serious cruising on a 30-foot plus cruiser, a pair of diesels is often seen as the best choice. A petrol engine is of course not a problem - and with the advent of immensely powerful outboards (up to 350hp), they are increasingly being used on substantial cruisers to great effect. But whether you choose petrol or diesel, the presence of two engines is preferable, both for safety at sea and for ease of handling.
What about windage?
On a sports cruiser, substantial GRP topsides give the wind a very big target - and if it hits your beam in a tight marina, mayhem can ensue. So consider getting some thrusters. These are small propellers built into tunnels in the bow (or the stern) of your boat. With the touch of a button, they enable you to shunt the boat left or right, and in tough conditions, that can prove very useful.
For those with fatter wallets, systems like Volvo Penta IPS and MerCruiser Axius can deliver even finer handling adjustments with brilliantly intuitive joystick control. And don’t listen to the Luddites who insist that such devices are an enemy to proper seamanship. They are nothing of the sort. They are outstanding tools for the responsible skipper - particularly where large cruisers are concerned.
Finally, remember that the wind can also affect your boat on the plane, causing it to heel into a breeze, with unpleasant results for both the softness and the dryness of the ride. Trim tabs (even on quite small craft) are a simple and well-proven solution.
Five key questions when buying a sports cruiser
1. How far do you want to cruise?
If a huge range is your key requirement, you need to consider the economy of your engine choice. You also need a large fuel tank, an efficient hull and a relatively sparing (light weight) fit out.
2. Where are you likely to go?
It is all very well specifying a range of 600 nautical miles but in order to cope with offshore passages, you either need a favourable weather window and lots of seafaring experience or a boat capable of tackling a more challenging trip.
3. How big should your boat be?
Do you really need sleeping facilities for six, plus a dedicated heads compartment and a proper galley with full kitchen facilities and standing headroom? If so, you should visit a boat show (with your family) and inspect a range of craft. The minimum size required to provide the features you need will quickly make itself plain.
4. Are you likely to be plugged into shore power?
If not, some of the energy-hungry devices you take fore-granted in your house may have to be sacrificed. Batteries have come a long way in recent years, but attempting to operate a toaster and a kettle, while your wife blow-dries her hair, your kids play the X-Box and your Gran spanks the air conditioning, is not realistic, however intelligently charged your battery bank might be.
5. Do you have the finance and experience?
While you may have lofty aspirations, do you have the money and the experience to commit to (and properly enjoy) a 50-footer that weighs 18 tonnes and burns the GDP of a medium-sized nation just hauling her backside onto the plane? If not, be careful, because it’s not just the purchase price you have to consider. Maintenance, storage and running costs increase exponentially as you creep up the size chart.
Sports cruisers: a summary
If you are not especially experienced, it may be best to start with a small sports cruiser before tackling something larger. Not only does this minimise the financial commitment, but it also enables you to decide which of the key elements of the sports cruiser compromise is most important to you before applying that vital knowledge in the acquisition of something grander.
Considering alternatives to a Sports Cruiser? See our features on buying other types of powerboats, check out our guide on How to pick the perfect boat for fishing and A guide to bow riders.
Alex Smith is an ex-Naval officer, with extensive experience as a marine journalist, boat tester and magazine editor. Having raced as a Pilot in the National Thundercat Series and as a Navigator in the inaugural Red Sea RIB Rally, he has now settled in the West Country, where he lives and works as a specialist marine writer and photographer from his narrowboat in Bath.