Ever since our ancestors carved boats out of logs or built makeshift rafts, navigating the rivers, lakes, and oceans of the world has been human instinct. In that time, boats have come a long way, and today our waters are buzzing with all manner of watercraft. Navigating the terminology and classification of different types of boats can be tricky, however, and it helps to start with identifying the main types of boats.
Boats are not the same as ships. Ships are often enormous and can range from cargo ships to cruise ships. Boats are smaller and can include everything from commercial vessels such as tug boats to a wide variety of recreational boats. The list of types of boats is simply huge, so let’s take a look at the main types and how used.
Flybridge cruisers and motoryachts moored in a marina
Types of Motor Boats
Motorboats today far outnumber sailboats and can be found cruising coastal regions,, lakes, rivers and in some cases across oceans. From the smallest skiffs with a simple outboard engine, up to much larger and more powerful motorboats and cruisers, there is a huge variety.
Express cruiser, a speedy style of cabin cruiser
- Pontoon Boats: Used on calmer, inland waters, the popular pontoon boat typically uses two or three aluminum tubes for hulls, has a shallow draft, and is powered by a modest outboard engine. Pontoons are great family boats for swimming, BBQs and sunbathing, and loved for their stability and often low prices. A newer breed of luxury pontoon boat is now gaining popularity, with features including waterslides, powerful engines and a host of luxury amenities (see our article on small luxury boats with a difference).
- Bowrider Boats: Another of the most popular boats in the United States is the bowrider, and, as the name suggests, it is identified by its open V-shaped bow with seating for several people. Bowriders are easy to handle, easily trailerable, and can accommodate between six or even 10 people for day trips and watersports. They usually have sterndrive or outboard engines and range in size from around 17 to 35 feet in overall length.
- Center Console Boats: The helm station of the center console boat is, naturally, in the center of the vessel. This type of boat is generally known as fast, spacious sport fishing boats for offshore or open-ocean cruising, and they can have one to four outboard engines to power them. The center console allows for walk-around decks for easy reeling in, and they come with all the necessary fishing accessories such as bait wells, gunwale rod holders, fish lockers, and livewells.
- Cuddy Cabin Boats: These are small, versatile boats offering a covered cabin space under the closed deck over the boat’s bow. Popular as family day boats they can be used for fishing, watersports, day trips, and coastal or inland cruising. They tend to be built of aluminum or fiberglass and are easy to trailer and to handle.
- Trawler Boats: Traditionally built as work or fishing boats, trawlers boats these days have had a makeover and in some cases today resemble small superyachts. Trawlers have displacement hulls, fuel-efficient engines and are designed for long-range cruising at modest speeds. With lots of interior space including cabins, galley and bathrooms they are a popular type of ocean boat for long-term cruising and one of the best boats for living on full time.
- Cabin Cruiser Boats: Cabin cruisers offer boaters the chance to use their boat for weekends or overnight trips thanks to a cabin, galley, and head. The spectrum of this type of motorboat is huge, from large cabin cruisers that resemble small superyachts, to much smaller models perfect for short trips. Cabin cruisers often have spacious decks for entertaining and lounging, and cozy living accommodation down below. See our guide to the different types of boats with cabins.
- Wakeboard/Ski Boards: Watersports boats (also known as tow boats) are designed especially to allow for waterskiing, wakeboarding, tubing and all manner of watersports. Characteristics of watersports boats include good visibility of the skier/wakeboarder from the helm, an inboard engine, and plenty of storage space for skis, wakeboards and equipment. Equipped with trim tabs and ballast tanks, watersports boats tend to be activity-specific with adjustable wake patterns; slalom skiers look for smaller wakes, while wakeboard riders and wakesurfers prefer bigger wakes. With powerful engines, watersports boats can also double as fishing and day boats; recently we’ve seen the emergence of sportfishing boats as a combination of the two (see our guide to the Best Sportfishing Boats).
- Motor Yachts: A motor yacht is typically a larger motorized vessel – usually over 40 feet – designed for luxury cruising. Equipped with modern amenities including cabins, galley, and heads (bathrooms), they offer lots of space for entertaining, swimming, and long-range cruising. Depending on their design and the power of their typically diesel engines, motor yachts may be capable of top speeds ranging anywhere from 12 to 35 knots. The largest motor yachts will have a full-time crew including captains, engineers, and deck and interior crew.
- Fishing Boats: There are many types of fishing boats and we have already mentioned popular types such as center console boats, but the list goes on. Built for serious fishing, whether that’s on inland waters or open ocean, fishing boats will all share some similar characteristics. They will come equipped with a range of fishing equipment, from livewells to rod holders, swivel seats and plenty of deck space for reeling in catches. They also may have a trolling motor system which allows for quiet, hands-free movement. The differences arise in the environment in which the boats will be used. Ocean-going vessels will be built to withstand harsher conditions and have a more stable hull shape and larger engines. Those designed for inland waters will have flatter bottoms for accessing shallower waters and need less power. Types of recreational fishing boats include:
- Bass boat
- Jon boat
- Center console boat
- Dual console boat
- Sportfishing boat
- Fishing kayak
- For more information check out our guide to family fishing boats
- RIBs: The mighty RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) is a well-loved type of motor boat that is comprised of a solid base and strong, inflatable tubes which form the hull. They’re used for everything from tiny tenders with a detachable outboard, to ultra-luxurious, high-speed Maxi RIBs with cabins and a host of amenities (see our article on small luxury boats with a difference). RIBs of all size and shape are known for their hardiness and make for versatile and fun lake boats, as well as being tough workboats.
- Deck Boats: Often compared with bowriders, deck boats are identified by their even wider bow areas and spacious decks. They are a popular family runabout boat, offering plenty of outside space, and some can accommodate up to 14 passengers. More affordable than many cabin cruisers, think of them as lightweight day cruisers. They are also often used for fishing, especially on lakes.
Types of Sailboats
Sailboats come in all shapes and sizes, from three-masted schooners that have sailed the oceans for centuries, down to tiny bathtub-sized dinghies like the hugely popular youth sailing boat, the International Optimist Dinghy. Differentiating a sailboat is based on far more than size though as sailboats can be classified by their sailing rig or hull design, too. Check out our guides to the many types of yachts or different types of sailboats for a more in-depth look, but a quick rundown of types of sailboats follows:
Sloop with cruising accommodations
- Sloop: The most common type of sailboat is the sloop, recognized by its single mast and two sails, a mainsail and headsail or jib. Sloops are popular for their ease of handling, ability to sail in varying conditions, and good speeds upwind and downwind with their simple rig. You’ll find sloops from small daysailers, sometimes with a mainsail only, all the way up to high-performance racing boats.
- Cutter: Similar in appearance to a sloop with its single mast, the cutter has two headsails offering improved stability and control options in high winds. They also often have a bowsprit that increases sail area. Cutters are often preferred by those embarking on voyages across rougher waters.
- Schooner: The schooner is easy to identify with its multiple masts, the foremost of which is shorter or the same height as the masts aft of it. Carrying several sails and offering excellent offshore handling and the ability to withstand strong sea conditions, schooners have been crossing the oceans for hundreds of years.
- Ketch and Yawl: Ketches and yawls are identified by their two masts, with one (the mainmast) being taller than the other (the mizzen). Their difference is that the ketch has a taller mizzen mast in proportion to the height of its mainmast, and the mizzen is stepped forward of the rudder post. In contrast, the yawl has a typically shorter mizzen mast aft of the rudder post. More information: Ketch vs Yawl: Comparing Two Classic Sailboats.
- Daysailers and Dinghies: The smallest types of sailboats are dinghies and daysailers that are used to sail short distances in protected waters. They normally have a single mast and a simple sailplan, are ideal for beginners, and can be bought fairly inexpensively, especially on the second-hand market. Dinghies designed for racing can be more complex and extraordinarily fast, requiring a high degree of skill and athleticism.
- Wooden Boats: Classic wooden yachts deserve a category of their own, even though they will normally carry one of the rigs described above. There is no mistaking a beautiful wooden boat, and they are a valuable part of our maritime heritage. There are many types of wooden boats, from 15-foot daysailers, to 22-foot weekend yachts or 50-foot cruising yachts. Check out our guide to Types of Classic Wooden Yachts for more information.
Types of Multi-Hull Boats
- Catamaran: Catamarans fall into their own category as they can be either sailboats or motor boats. Comprised of two hulls instead of the usual one hull, they have a shallower draft, offer a smoother ride than monohulls, and may have lots of cabin and storage space. Smaller catamarans have a trampoline in between its hulls whereas larger models will have above-water living space with large windows and lots of light.
- Trimaran: Instead of two hulls, the trimaran has three and offers increased speed and stability over a catamaran. They are popular racing boats and good for long-distance cruising. While gaining in popularity they are still relatively uncommon compared to catamarans.
For more information check out our article: Catamaran vs Trimaran: Choosing the Perfect Multihull Vessel
Sloop-rigged cruising catamaran
Types of Small Boats
Small boats can of course be sailboats, motorboats or even multihull boats, but because of their size and different functions, it’s worth differentiating them from their larger cousins. Our guide to Types of Small Boats gives more information, but in brief, small boats can include:
- Personal Watercraft (PWC) Boats: Personal Watercraft are often overlooked as boats, but these small, fast motorized crafts are a popular feature on the boating scene. They are generally defined as recreational vessels that the rider sits or stands on rather than rides inside the boat and include popular brands such as JetSki and SeaDoo.
- Jon Boats: Jon boats are designed for fishing on calm inland waters and are slim-line, flat-bottomed, robust boats. They can range in size from around 10 foot to 18 foot and usually come with a range of fishing accessories.
- Dinghies: Whether powered or not, dinghies are one of the smallest types of boats and are popular as tenders on larger boats or to be rowed, sailed, and even raced by adults or youth. Often powered with paddles, dinghies are for inland or gentle coastal waters. Sailing dinghies are popular for beginners, and offer a very simple rig and ease of handling. They are inexpensive and easy to transport.
- Canoes, Kayaks, and Stand-up Paddleboards: These human-powered watercraft offer one of the easiest ways to get out on the water. These inexpensive boats offer lots of fun and are easy to transport on a car roof rack. Some are even inflatable and fold up small enough to go in the trunk.
Youth dinghy, International Optimist class
Types of Lake, River and Canal Boats
While many boats operate in both freshwater and saltwater conditions, there are some designed specifically for one or the other (see our guide to saltwater vs freshwater: what’s the difference?). Flat bottoms are a common feature on lake boats as they make it easy to launch and access areas with shallow waters, while on rivers and canals narrow beams and longer lengths are popular.
Types of lake, river and canal boats include:
- Houseboats: Houseboats tend to make the best types of boats to live on and are a unique category of boat. All over the world there are different styles of houseboats, from the Dutch barges of mainland Europe to the narrowboats common in the UK. In the United States, houseboats tend to be either float boats (unpowered) or powered, and can range from simple but spacious floating platforms with plenty of home comforts, to large, luxurious models reminiscent of a condo. Houseboats tend to stay in one place for long periods of time, usually in residential marinas, and are not designed for regular cruising. It is worth noting that houseboats are commonly found in both freshwater and saltwater.
- Pontoon boats
- Deck boats
- Jon boats
- Fishing boats
- Watersports boats
- Sportfishing boats
- Cabin cruisers
- Dutch barges
- Check out the pros and cons of each with our detailed guide to the most popular types of lake boats.
Related Articles and Guides
26th May 2023
How Long Can you Finance a Boat?
13th May 2023
Essential Boating Safety Tips Aboard All Types of Watercraft
11th May 2023
Tritoon vs. Pontoon Boats: An In-Depth Comparison for Boating Enthusiasts
10th May 2023