An affordable way to get into the game

By Jake Thomas

Buying a new boat is a rewarding process, but as the price of new towboats continues to rise, many are looking to the used market for salvation.

Like pickup trucks, built to withstand the tough day-to-day hauling of heavy loads, towboats are built to withstand the rigours of dragging skiers around the lake day after day. Ski pylons and towers are built right into the boat and the interior and exterior finishes are typically thicker and more robust. As a result, towboats hold their value quite well and with regular maintenance can stand the test of time. Sure, colours might fade and upholstery might get worn, but the boats themselves should keep going and going.

Many early fibreglass towboats were built with wood stringers, floors and transoms. It wasn’t until the early to mid ‘90s that some manufacturers started steering away from wood. If you are considering an older towboat, be sure to inspect the condition of the wood components. Marine grade wood was not as readily available in the ‘70s and ‘80s as it is today. It can be an expensive and time-consuming upgrade to replace any rotten wood.

The powerplants in towboats are typically V8 engines coupled to either a direct drive or V-drive transmission. Today’s modern engines are equipped with electronic fuel injection, catalytic converters and other technologies to make them more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly. Older engines are just that, older, but with regular maintenance they can still have a long lifespan. Keep them running by servicing the cooling system and doing regular fluid changes.

An hour meter indicates the mileage on a towboat engine. Many used buyers are intimidated by high hours, but boat engines have it pretty easy. They turn fresh, cool water and typically never get warmer than 160 degrees as a result. With our short summers, most users don’t put more than 50 hours on a towboat in a season. So in theory, a 10-year-old boat with 500 hours on it is barely broken in. By comparison, when I was running a ski school, we would put close to 400 hours on our boats in a season. We were running all day every day for the entire summer, so there is always an exception to the rule!

Most buyers looking for a towboat today want a V-drive transmission that places the engine in the rear of boat. The rear engine configuration creates better wakeboarding wakes and is typically paired with bow rider seating. These boats started showing up on the towboat scene in the early ‘90s and by 2000 were outselling mid engines by 10:1. You should expect to pay more for a V-drive towboat because of the construction and transmission, but there can be great value in the mid engine towboats as well.

Today’s boats can be loaded with enough features and gizmos to rival the USS Enterprise. These features showcase the latest technologies, but for the value minded used towboat buyer some of the key extras can be added on as an upgrade. With mid engine boats, you can add a high pole to the ski pylon to mimic the performance of a wakeboard tower, built in ballast tanks can be replaced with portable ballast bags to increase the weight and the size of a wake, and as I mentioned in the Spring issue, Perfect Pass™ makes it easy to add cruise control to a just about any boat.

As with any vehicle ownership, there are those who take care of their equipment and those who don’t. Both of these scenarios can have a direct result on the value of a used towboat. Boathouse or garage-kept boats are great because they don’t stay out in the sun at all times, but don’t be afraid of a boat with some fading. Most reputable towboat manufacturers use the best gel coats in the business. That means a boat’s colours can shine like new again with a little TLC and some buffing.

There are pros and cons to buying privately and it may not be for everyone. Working with a reputable towboat dealer can be a good way to go and many of their used towboats come with some sort of warranty. If the dealer sold the used boat as new, having the service and maintenance records can also give you additional piece of mind.

I’m a firm believer in the adage “there’s a boat out there for everyone.” Just be sure you know what you are getting yourself into.

This article is featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Boats&Places.