In the marine world, there are few boat classifications that appear to carry less genuine meaning than the term ‘runabout’. After all, any boat could feasibly be used to ‘run you about’, from the smallest tiller-steered portable tender to the world’s most grotesquely expensive megayacht. So what do we really mean by it?
Well the term actually emerged toward the start of the 20th century when relatively efficient, lightweight craft were developed to help make the most of small outboard engines – and today, that same term is still generally used to describe a small motorboat designed for modest numbers of people on relatively short journeys. It is a certainty therefore that the various types of boat that are defined by their layout (bow rider, centre console, deck boat, walkaround) or by their purpose (dive boat, race boat, work boat, fishing boat) might all still qualify as runabouts in their own right. So before this definition begins to feel more like a headache than a help, I will simply clarify the fact that in selecting five particularly noteworthy runabouts, I have done my best to honour the historic purpose of the type by confining myself to relatively light, efficient, open boats of modest scale, minimal complication and non-specific purpose.
(1) Buster X
Yes, I know, I’ve talked about this boat before (see my Buster XXL review or Buster L Pro review) but the reason I keep doing so is that it’s so good – and not in a glitzy, aspirational, showroom kind of way but in a very real, very user-friendly, very affordable way.
Built from quality aluminium (which means it is lightweight, strong, low-maintenance, impact-resistant and likely to hold its value), it uses a proven modular system of deck furniture, which means you can add, remove and rearrange your seat boxes and storage units to free up as much deck space as you like. It’s also great to drive, with solid, predictable responses, good protection, minimal noise and (with an engine like the Suzuki DF60 on the transom) the kind of fuel efficiency that will enable you to go boating every day of your life. There are plenty of capable Busters about, but with good space, seating for seven and very modest power requirements, the X remains the most perfectly resolved boat in the range.
(2) Salcombe Flyer 530 Sport
Designed as both a dynamic sports boat and a capable fast fisher, the 530 is the standout craft in the modern Flyer fleet. (See my full Salcombe Flyer 530 Sport review).
The hull is the work of Gary Appleyard, a former British Offshore Powerboat Champion, who took the excellent Peter Birkett designed 440 and generated a larger, more versatile sister boat. On the water, that generates not just some useful extra carrying capacity, but also a great turn of speed, an efficient cruise and some very worthwhile extra space and grunt for watersports fans. A big beam allied to a moderate V means very quick, agile handling and an easy low-speed plane - and while the styling of the new 530 remains classic to the point of old-hat, the simple, unadulterated pleasures on offer from this boat more than make up for that. See Pembrokeshire Sportsboats for details.
(3) Finnmaster 59 SC
The excellent 59 SC from Finnmaster’s impressive ‘Open’ line does precisely what a small powerboat should. It planes at low speed, runs with efficiency, handles with agility and composure and (with elevated guardrails and several million embarkation points) it also gives you and your passengers lots of space to move around with confidence and security. (See my Finnmaster 59 SC review).
The extremely well conceived standard features list (cockpit cushions, adjustable seats, canvas covers, hydraulic steering, anchor boxes, ski pole and fender baskets) takes good care of the everyday necessities without cluttering up your valuable deck space with luxury peripherals. And with some attractively updated colourways and graphics, it even looks good enough to please you and your family without threatening to become dated and obsolete like a neon shellsuit in a couple of seasons. In fact, this boat is so competent and useable, you might easily imagine it was designed by the Germans and built by the Japanese. But it’s Finnish through and through – and ample testament to the calibre of their marine expertise.
(4) Draco 27RS
Okay, so at 27 feet, with a dry weight of 1,850 kg, a 300hp outboard and a high-end price tag, it might be pushing things a bit to describe this boat as a runabout – but with a simple, deck-intensive, open-boat layout and a 50-year heritage centred squarely around compact leisure craft, the first of these new Windy-built Dracos shares precisely the same ethos as the rest of the runabouts here. (I featured the Draco 26 Sport in a previous article: 7 of the hottest powerboats at Southampton.)
Designed by British Naval Architects, Dubois, it is laid out in the form of a bow rider, but with some much more credible seamanship flavours – such as in the elevated bow, the deep forefoot, the high-class sports seating and the provision of a step-through bow and a stern anchor. In addition to lovely looks and a quality build, you can expect 45-knot performance, a convertible, user-friendly cockpit and plenty of approving nods from your fellow boaters. See Draco Boats for details.
(5) Dale Nelson 23
Finally, we have Dale Nelson’s delectable entry to the world of small, planing powerboats.
While the company is much better renowned as a high-end builder of the kinds of custom-made, luxury, long-distance cruisers that appeal to retired Admirals, its first foray into the world of rapid little sports boats earned rave reviews. (I also selected this boat in my 5 of the best winter boats feature). With a lightweight V6 265hp turbo-diesel engine giving a 45 knot top-end,plus a grippy, sharp-handling hull and the kind of ‘no-expenses-spared’ finish that has earned the builder such a powerful reputation, this is a difficult boat to fault. And behind the scenes, things look just as impressive, with the use of carbon fibre and vacuum infusion to ramp up strength and rigidity without increasing weight or bulk. Now plainly, the Nelson 23 could excel as a standalone multi-purpose day cruiser or as a tender to a posh yacht – but before I get us bogged down once again in the quicksand of marine definitions, let’s simply acknowledge that, as runabouts go, this is something quite special. See Dale Nelson for details. See our other features on runabouts: Family runabouts: a boat for everyone and Five fabulous superyacht runabouts.