Hi Chris. It's a good thing that you asked here before shopping. It
is very easy to buy a bad used boat, especially an older one. There
are lots of good ones too, but you might not be able to tell them apart
My first advice: give up now and befriend another boat owner for now!
I'm serious. The keywords are "wakeboarding" and "tower". If your
wakeboarding consists of more than piddling around, towing from a
transom mount, you are, um, undercapitalised.
I speak from the experience of someone who, in the last 18 months, gave
up on wakeboarding behind an 1991 Invader (18ft runabout) and upgraded
to a real wakeboarding boat (a Moomba XLV). It's like night and day.
However, it's around 50% more expensive than a runabout (your typical
small pleasure craft) of the same size. I do not think that there are
any that are old enough to be in your price range. A pleasure craft or
ski boat is made to get up on plane and make a minimal wake; a
wakeboarding boat is the opposite.
If you are still reading this, you probably ARE satisfied with
continuing your previous experience. So, the rest of this will assume
that you are determined to be a boat owner.
For wakeboarding, get the biggest boat that you can afford. You want a
good wake -- the bigger the better at any given speed. Plus you'll
have capacity to fill it with friends or aftermarket ballast tanks
("fat sacks"). Aim for the upper end of your target -- 21' long. At
that length and age, an I/O (inboard engine / outboard drive) will
probably be your only choice. That's fine. An full inboard is best,
but I/O will do. They will feature 4-stroke engines. This is heavier
than (usually 2-stroke) outboard, and that's a good thing for
The 4-stroke engines are generally marine conversions from automotive
engines. They may have some anti-corrision measures, but the biggest
issue is spark-arrest. Even a tiny fuel leak can accumulate fumes in
the bilge and be an explosion hazard. This is also why there are
standard bilge blowers, used to vent the bilge before starting the
engine. Among the 4-stroke engines, General Motors rules. Some
conversions have been done using Ford or Chrysler in the past. Avoid
them. Also avoid anything smaller than a 4.3L V6 engine. Anything
smaller will be overworked. Some boats will have a V8, which is also
fine if you can afford the gas. If so, the person being towed will
appreciate the quicker take-off.
The drive (or "leg") is a custom piece of hardware. The main issues
here are wear and possible internal damage from hitting rocks. A
standard test is to drain a few ounces of oil from and see if there are
any metal shavings from wear. Of course, the seller might have just
recently changed the oil to hide this.
You'll probably have to tolerate a worn interior or somewhat oxidised
fireglas hull with an old boat, but it's utterly worthless if the
engine and drive are in anything less than very good condition. It
would be very difficult (and expensive) to replace anything more than
standard maintenance items on the engine or drive. There isn't as big
of an aftermarker of salvaged parts as there is for cars -- the hulls
outlast the mechanicals, so anything that runs is still in service.
Hint: good ones and bad drives usually look the same. D'oh!
The engine and drive are typically a package that will carry a specific
brand/model, like "OMC Cobra" or "Mercury Bravo". Volvo makes them
too. They have all had good and bad models, and even good models have
their issues. I cannot make recommendations on all of them, but I read
that OMC Cobra was to be avoided before 1987. My 1991 OMC Cobra system
was practically flawless during my ownership (1997-2004). Mercury is
the market leader in sales, but avoid their entry-level drives ("Alpha"
The good news is that, in most major centres, you can now hire a marine
surveyor who can inspect your boat for you. This is money well spent.
Seriously, until you really know what you are doing, getting some
personal help is essential to avoiding misery.
The really bad news is regarding your plans for a tower. Most boats of
that vintage were not designed for the stress points that a tower will
impose. I investigated added a tower to my 1991 Invader before
deciding to get a new boat. A commercially-made tower would run around
$3000, plus installation. However, my marine mechanic advised that,
even with a careful installation, the likelyhood of superficial
cracking was very high, and there was a fair chance of a serious
failure (tower rips out its mounts and falls off). Some serious
reinforcement would be needed.
I have seen pictures of boats pre-dating towers, using extended pylons
instead. They typically have large mounts on the floor, and a bracing
strap going all the way around the bow. That'll get the job done!
However, there are straps/cables (and the pylon) in the way of the
In summary, for typical use of a pleasure craft, your plans to spend
$5000 on an older boat are realistic. Frankly, you could get one
that's only 15 years old for that (and many drives got a lot better in
the late 1980's). The desire for a tower is a risk though. You can
only afford to experiment once, so try befriending the right people
first! Bartering services is a good idea, and cheaper than paying
Say, what do you have for a tow vehicle? You'll probably need one. It
has to be big enough to safely tow on the highway, and heavy enough to
launch/load the boat (i.e. not get dragged into the lake). Most people
use a 4-wheel-drive truck or SUV.
I just spent an hour writing this, and can confidently say that you now
know a small fraction of what you need! Hopefully others will be able
to fill in more useful details.
Chris Helmer wrote:
> Hello Everyone,
> Well, I'm pretty new to the boating world. Most of my experience is being
> towed behind someone else's boat, and the occasional stint of driving.
> However, my "ride" is getting married and moving, so I'm considering buying
> my own boat. But although I'm very mechanically inclined (I restore muscle
> cars), I know very little about boats.
> Here's what I'm looking for:
> A boat that I can wakeboard behind (I'll probably bolt a tower onto whatever
> I buy). I was thinking something in the 18-21' range. Don't really care if
> it is a bowrider or cuddy. I really don't have much to spend (see above re:
> restoring muscle cars), so I'm trying to keep it under $5000. On the
> Trader.ca website there seems to be a number of boats that would fit the
> bill. But my concern is what to look for when I'm checking out a boat.
> -What should I look for in the hull? I've heard about "soft" fiberglass....
> -What should I look for in a motor? I don't want an outboard....but for my
> intended purposes (wakeboarding and cruising around with a boatload of
> friends) what size/horsepower engine should I be looking for?
> -How can you tell if the "bottom end" (the propellor drivetrain) is in
> decent shape? Are there trouble signs to look out for?
> -Are there particular features that are good/bad? I'm probably buying a 20
> year old boat....are there older technologies that are particularly prone to
> problems? E.G. steering linkage, lighting systems, etc.etc.
> As you can tell, I probably don't even know what questions to be asking. So
> if you have any suggestions, or if there are any good websites you think I
> should read through, please feel free to pass them on!
> Thanks a lot in advance,