Our resident used boat expert Nick Burnham picks out four of the best boats for beginners from the likes of Fletcher, Regal, Axopar and Marex…
This morning was spent watching an old video of Smuggler’s Blues 2 (my boat) while finding reasons not to get on with my proper work. I’d filmed it over a weekend aboard with my partner Marianne after an exceptionally busy couple of weeks.
It was a Sunday morning, we’d only just got up, and over breakfast I was opining that boating can be whatever you want it to be: thrilling, adventurous, exciting, sociable, fun, restorative – you choose.
However, you do actually need to buy yourself a boat first. So for those still considering a first step afloat, here are four great examples, from an affordable 22ft cuddy to a fast 37ft weekender with a 31ft Scandi cruiser in between.
The one thing they all have in common is that they are simple, user-friendly beginners boats for first-time buyers to own, drive and maintain.
4 of the best boats for beginners
Fletcher 22 GTS
There’s a lot to be said for starting small and working your way up. Not only does it keep the budget manageable, it keeps the boat manageable too.
At just 22ft, even a novice could soon be managing this little craft single-handed with a modicum of training – helpful if guests (or spouses) are not so enthusiastic about getting hands on.
However, it’s also big enough to extend the horizons beyond merely day boating, and the diesel engine keeps the running costs under control too.
Of course smaller boats come with smaller, well, everything – and it’s in the cabin that you feel the pinch most keenly on the Fletcher 22 GTS. It is basically a cuddy, so there’s not enough height to stand up and there’s not enough space for a separate toilet compartment.
But accept those limitations and it’s a perfectly useable cabin. There’s a nice little dinette where you can tuck yourself out of the weather, and if you drop the table and slot in the infill cushions, you’ve got a very decent double bed.
There is a chemical loo under one of the seats too, so compact though it is, all the important bases are pretty well covered.
Outside is where the priority clearly lies in the layout of this boat. Again, it’s compact, but it’s easy for a family to enjoy. There’s a little swim platform with a ladder and the seating wraps sociably around the aft section of the cockpit, with a fridge and a sink to starboard.
It’s also quite high-sided, adding a sense of security that’s vital for those taking their first steps afloat. At the business end, there are two seats for helm and navigator and a walk-through windscreen to access the foredeck.
Lift the back seat and you’ll discover a Yamaha 370 STI engine. The big news about this is that it’s a diesel. That means it offers lower consumption and running costs, as well as much easier availability of fuel at the dockside.
Churning out about 160hp, it ought to be good to take this affordable family cuddy to a top end of around 30 knots.
Norman Fletcher, founder of Fletcher International Sports Boats, was a powerboat racer who understood a good hull. That’s why all Fletcher boats punch well above their weight when out at sea.
LOA: 21ft 7in (6.6m)
Beam: 8ft 6in (2.6m)
Draft: 1ft 8in (0.5m)
Displacement: 2 tonnes
Fuel capacity: 280 litres
Engine: Yamaha 370 STI 164hp diesel
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Regal 28 Express
If you need something that feels a little more like motor cruising and a little less like camping, then the 25ft mark is where it all starts.
Often referred to as ‘pocket cruisers’, this is the size where increased volume creates the space for the basic essentials of comfortable onboard living.
Features like standing headroom, a separate toilet and a dedicated (rather than convertible) bed make all the difference.
The layout on this type of boat is inevitably pretty ubiquitous, simply because it’s what works best. There’s a U-shaped forward seating section that converts to a double berth or creates a dinette for meals.
Further aft, where a rising roofline generates adequate headroom, there is a small galley opposite the toilet compartment. It features a single burner hob, a sink with pressurised hot and cold water and a fridge and microwave.
Move aft again and, beneath the forward end of the cockpit, there is sufficient space for a permanent double berth. That takes the sleeping capacity to four but, more importantly, it means that if you choose to cruise as a couple, you are not continually having to convert the seating before bedding down for the night.
A canopy turns the cockpit into quite a versatile living area. Removable sides mean you can use it as a bimini top for shade too. Another neat feature is the twin aft benches, which face each other across the table. The backrest of the aft seat pivots forward, creating an aft sunpad and locking into various positions.
You can lock it up for dining, leave it half way for chaise-longue-style lounging or lie it flat and use it for sunbathing.
A Mercruiser 350MPI V8 petrol engine sits snugly beneath the aft deck. That 350 figure refers to the capacity in cubic inches (5.7 in litres). It puts out a smooth and potent 300hp, which is enough for 30 knots plus and a reasonably economical 25-knot cruise.
The high, narrow hull requires a little tab work to keep it on an even keel in a crosswind, but this is a decent performer for its size.
LOA: 28ft 8in (8.7m)
Beam: 8ft 6in (2.6m)
Draft: 3ft 3in (1.0m)
Displacement: 3.5 tonnes
Fuel capacity: 276 litres
Engine: Mercruiser 350 Magnum 300hp petrol engine
Contact: One Marine
Axopar 37 Sun Top
The joy of this (and indeed any) Axopar is its innate practicality. Low-sided and heavily fendered by a chunky grey rubbing strake, it’s surprisingly confidence-inspiring.
The aft end of the Axopar 37 is entirely customisable when ordered new. A raised sunpad is one option, bringing enough height for a small two-berth cabin beneath.
An alternative is the flat aft deck behind the rear cockpit seating, creating a wonderful watersports arena. Whichever option the buyer chooses, you get a forward cabin ahead of the helm.
Duck into here and you’ll discover a wide open-plan environment with a double berth in the bow, a single seat and a galley area. There’s also a proper plumbed-in sea toilet down here, nestling discreetly inside a small wooden cabinet.
It’s clear then that this is not designed to be a dedicated family cruiser. The focus here is alfresco fun. In addition to that impressive aft deck, the long bow space provides a set of sunbathing cushions on the cabin top.
There’s also a central cockpit space with four forward-facing seats opposite another three helm seats that swivel 180 degrees to face aft across the table.
As the sun-top version, this boat features a large hardtop with a fabric opening sunroof but other notable deck options include a cabin version which closes the cockpit off for year-round recreation.
The Axopar 37 is built for twin outboard installations. The smallest option is a pair of 200hp motors for a top speed of around 40 knots.
However, we tested the Axopar 37 with the same option as this boat, a pair of Mercury’s super smooth Verado 350 motors. And in that form, you can expect a 47-knot top end and a very easy 40-knot cruise.
Speed is fun but only if kept firmly under control. That’s particularly true for first-time boaters where crew confidence is paramount, but you need have no worries here.
Our man in Mallorca described the hull as “so adept, so unflappable and so flattering that it’s easy to drive fast in a big sea and still feel utterly safe and in control”.
LOA: 36ft 9in (11.2m)
Beam: 10ft 10in (3.3m)
Draft: 2ft 9in (0.9m)
Displacement: 2.9 tonnes
Fuel capacity: 770 litres
Engines: Twin Mercury 350 Verado 350hp outboard engines
Contact: Salterns Brokerage
Almost a quarter of a million pounds might feel a little steep for a first boat, but it’s important to understand that people have all sorts of different budgets, and this boat works so well as a first boat that if you have the means, it’s actually a very sensible investment.
UK dealer Wessex Marine has confirmed that several have been supplied as first boats, including one to TV presenter James May.
On a Scandinavian designed and built boat, you expect plenty of cruising practicality and you get it.
In addition to a pair of very decent double cabins, plus a heads compartment and galley, the 310 features a really well protected cockpit. In all regards, it is a very safe and capable small cruiser.
The cleverness of the cockpit arrangement starts with the canopy system. The open-backed hardtop has two manual sliding roofs extending fore and aft from a central bar.
You can open or close these in seconds by simply twisting the release catch and pulling. But the real pièce de résistance is the side canopy system. That hardtop extends almost to the transom, providing the perfect location for hanging the aft canopies.
Once unclipped, a split on the centreline means that both sides slide along what are effectively curtain tracks, disappearing into dedicated vertical lockers. ‘Voila!’ as they say in Norway.
The fact that these are so easy to deploy makes the large comfortable dinette aft of the helm seat particularly handy for year-round use.
A single Volvo Penta 4-cylinder D4-300 was the standard engine, but many buyers (this one included) upgraded to the larger and more powerful 6-cylinder D6-370.
We described it as a “fine match for the 310”, topping out at 35 knots and cruising at just under 30 knots.
The Scandinavians design their boats to be used pretty much every day and that’s why the helm position is ergonomically so good.
It’s also well protected by large windscreens, enabling the helmsman to fully enjoy “an engaging and lively driving experience”.
LOA: 31ft 0in (9.5m)
Beam: 10ft 6in (3.2m)
Draft: 3ft 2in (1.0m)
Displacement: 4.5 tonnes
Fuel capacity: 440 litres
Engine: Volvo Penta D6-370 370hp diesel
Contact: Wessex Marine
4 more beginners boats from the April 2022 issue
In the 1980s Bayliner sold on price – undercutting the competition and gaining a name for themselves as the cheapest way into a new boat. As is so often the case, however, you got what you paid for or, more accurately, didn’t get what you hadn’t paid for.
It’s fair to say that the reputation was broadly comparable to Skoda’s at the time. But just like Skoda, the company has gone through something of a renaissance, and whilst the prices are no longer bargain basement, neither is the quality – both manufacturers are turning out a pretty solid product these days.
Still the budget end of the market, it’s the frills that are reduced these days, not the quality. It’s why the cabin of this boat, first introduced to the UK at the London Boat Show in 2014, has plenty of smooth gelcoat on show rather than soft vinyl and polished wood.
But it serves its purpose just fine as a space to get out of the weather or enjoy an occasional overnight stay. There’s even a proper plumbed-in sea toilet here.
The same applies to the cockpit: it might be a little more functional than expensive competitors, but you can’t fault the layout or the facilities. There’s a canopy frame that folds and stows beneath the aft seat, and a cockpit wet bar behind the helm seat includes a proper fridge and a hob.
There are some neat details too, like a section of the sunpad aft that lifts to provide a backrest if required, or folds to create a walk-through from the swim platform. The passenger seat backrest also folds forward to extend the seating along the full length of the cockpit.
Bayliner offers a variety of engines from a two-litre diesel right through to a 6.2 litre V8 350 Magnum. This boat treads the middle ground with a punchy but relatively (it is a boat!) economical Mercruiser 4.3 litre V6 giving 220hp.
It’s a small, light boat, so don’t expect to be crossing the English Channel in a Force 5, but for coastal cruising in sensible conditions it’s perfectly sufficient.
Length: 24ft 6in (7.5m)
Beam: 8ft 4in (2.5m)
Draught: 3ft 4in (1.0m)
Displacement: 1.9 tonnes
Fuel capacity: 196 litres
Engines: Mercruiser 4.3 litre V6 220hp
Contact: Salterns Brokerage
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Launched in 2014 and designed by Bill Dixon, the S330 was a very important boat for Sealine. When the original Kidderminster company went into administration in 2013, the brand was bought by the Hanse Group in Germany, and whilst the F380 was the first Sealine it launched, that boat was a design inherited from the British company.
The S330 was the first Sealine that Hanse developed from scratch. The boat proved to be a great success, so much so that it spawned a C330 Coupe version that remains in production today as the mildly upgraded Sealine C335.
Sealine kept the layout traditional inside, with the usual cabin at each end separated by the saloon and galley set-up that has worked for the brand and countless others for years. There is a factory option to lose the forward bulkhead but most got the separate forward cabin.
It’s nicely done though, large hull windows offer both light and view (the former augmented by skylights), and headroom is great. This boat has the popular walnut finish to bulkheads, although oak and cherry were also offered.
The hardtop came as standard, so you won’t find a completely open version, but Sealine has been careful to retain the feeling of being outside. Not only does the roof slide almost all the way back, courtesy of having a fabric centre section, but the aft section slides forward to meet it. You can also remove the clear vinyl panels above the fixed glass sidescreens.
Three forward facing seats at the helm is a great feature, and there is plenty more seating around a table further aft.
Sealine launched this boat with a pair of Volvo Penta D3 220 220hp engines, which is exactly what this boat has got. A single Volvo Penta D6 was an alternative, and more recently Sealine launched a twin outboard engine version called the S335V. When we tested the boat at launch with the 220s, we achieved a credible 33 knots.
Calm seas made it difficult to assess the seakeeping but we certainly enjoyed the handling, describing it as a ‘brilliant hull and powertrain’.
Length: 33ft 10in (10.3m)
Beam: 11ft 6in (3.5m)
Draught: 2ft 9in (0.9m)
Displacement: 6.7 tonnes
Fuel capacity: 570 litres
Engines: Twin Volvo Penta D3 200 220hp diesel engines
A rare beast in that, although the styling has distinctly American overtones, Doral boats were actually made in Canada. Prevalent in the Nineties and Noughties, Doral actually dates back to 1979 and built a range of craft from speedboats up to 50-footers.
The standout feature of this boat is the finish and the colour of the woodwork in the cabin, which looks both classy and inviting, and a huge step up from the very plain and austere looking interior of the boat we tested in 2000.
The layout is entirely conventional for a boat of this size and type, with a dinette forward, a small galley opposite the heads and a double berth running transversely beneath the cockpit.
There is standing headroom at the bottom of the steps, and although the shape of the boat means that you lose this further forward, the nature of the dinette is that you’d be sitting by this point anyway.
Almost all mid-20ft sportscruisers are constrained to an 8ft 6in beam in order to maintain the ability to be towed on the road but Doral has been particularly clever in how it ekes out the maximum amount of space.
No side decks is an obvious win, access to the foredeck being granted via steps and an opening windscreen. More intriguingly, Doral has fitted a sliding section of cockpit seating, meaning that if you’re happy to lose a little bathing platform space, you can slide the aft portion out over it and drop in infill cushions. In fact, this example has the extended platform, reclaiming some lost ground.
We tested a 250SE with a 260hp Mercruiser V8 petrol engine and achieved a very sporting 37 knots! Subtract the extra weight of the diesel engine (and the extended
bathing platform), add a little back for the extra 40hp of the Mercruiser 300hp diesel and you should still be the right side of 30 knots.
We found the handling of the 250SE to be ‘excellent’ apparently, with no heavy slamming. Like all tall narrow boats of this genre, it relies on the trim tabs to maintain an even keel in a crosswind.
Length: 28ft 8in (8.7m)
Beam: 8ft 6in (2.6m)
Draught: 3ft 5in (1.0m)
Displacement: 3 tonnes
Fuel capacity: 245 litres
Engines: Mercruiser 300hp diesel engine
Contact: One Marine
Fairline Targa 30
The Targa 30 is the final evolution of a successful Fairline model that dates back to 1994, when it was introduced as the Targa 28. Two years later it morphed into the Targa 29 with little changing beyond a longer bathing platform.
But the Targa 30 variant introduced a new cockpit layout with a sunpad, and windows (rather than portholes) for the cabin, although bizarrely these were optional extras.
The layout echoes smaller sportscruisers with its U-shaped dinette forward, galley opposite the heads and a mid cabin aft. However, the extra length, and in particular the 10ft beam, make this a far more spacious area.
The galley is an L-shape, with room for a two-burner hob, an oven and a grill. Those hull windows are worth looking out for (although I’ve only ever seen one boat without them so they should be easy to find).
A sunpad aft is the big news. Where the 28 and 29 had seating to the transom, the 30 shifts it forwards. However, Fairline cunningly claws space back via a neat swinging backrest to the passenger seating next to the helm, allowing it to be used as forward facing seating under way or join the cockpit dinette at rest. That sunpad also creates space for a very handy deck locker.
When new, you could specify your Targa 30 with a pair of 4.3-litre petrol engines (190hp or 205hp each) or a single 7.4-litre 310hp motor but the vast majority went out with twin diesels.
These 150hp AD31s gave the boat a perfectly respectable 30+ knots, but the KAD32 upgrade that this boat received doesn’t just give higher speed (past 35 knots when new), it gives far lustier acceleration due to superchargers bolstering low-end torque before the turbos spin up at higher revs.
These boats handle brilliantly. Stable and fast, they don’t require excessive trim tab action, and spray management is great. For a 30 foot boat, it punches well above its size and weight.
Length: 31ft 2in (9.5m)
Beam: 10ft 2in (3.1m)
Draught: 3ft 2in (1.0m)
Displacement: 4.1 tonnes
Fuel capacity: 418 litres
Engines: Twin Volvo Penta KAD 32/dp 170hp diesel engines
First published in the April 2022 issue of MBY.
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