by John Page Williams

I's funny how things come full circle. Back in the 1960s, my late cousin Bish Goodwin bought a very useful 16-foot boat called a Beachcomber, built by MFG, one of the major companies of the Early Fiberglass Age. The Beachcomber had an early version of the cathedral hull and an open "bow rider" seating area molded in forward of a split windshield that allowed free passage fore and aft. It was powered by a Johnson 40 outboard, a workhorse engine of that era.

Bish used the Beachcomber for family outings and fishing on the lower Potomac and to teach water-skiing at a summer camp on the Mattaponi River. The boat's layout focused conversation and movement on the centerline, enhancing both sociability and stability. The open bow provided a great spot for casting jigs and plugs to rockfish and blues chasing bait at the surface. The rig was a great success for six or seven years; until Bish got caught up in the center-console rage of the 1970s. Center-console skiffs remain popular right up through today, of course, and for good reason, but they can be somewhat austere, with minimal weather protection.

Now, lo and behold, the old bow-rider layout is quietly but steadfastly making its way back to the marketplace;though nowadays it's much more likely to be called a "dual-console" boat, even if that nomenclature is a tad confusing. That is, since the "onsole" referred to in the term "center console," is in fact the boat's helm station, the term "dual console" suggests that such a boat would have dual helm stations. It does not; it has, rather, a sort of split console, with the helm station on the starboard half and either storage, a fuel tank or an enclosed head (on larger boats) in the port half. In between;that is, splitting the console and windshield in two;is a gangway leading to a forward cockpit.

Many of these boats are laid out strictly as runabouts, with emphasis on water sports, day cruises and socializing. Others are adaptations of larger center-console boats, designed to mix family recreation with serious fishing. And there are dual-console catamarans, which offer special advantages based on the cats' twin-hull configurations. Here's a rundown of the design advantages and limitations of each of these categories.

This category includes 18- to 28-foot boats from companies like Bayliner, Chaparral, Cobalt, Four Winns, Monterey, Regal, Rinker and Sea Ray. They tend to offer an array of color schemes in hull and upholstery, snap-in carpets, swim platforms and ladders, ski-tow pylons, stereos, satellite radios, wet bars and multiple coolers, not to mention sports car-like helms. The split windshield configuration offers space for a long, deep central storage compartment for skis, wakeboards, water toys and PFDs, plus additional storage under the helm console and under the bow seats. Runabouts from 22 feet up have enough hull depth to offer a head in the port console, though headroom is generally tight for adults on boats less than 25 feet. One important design element is the shape of the head entry door. It should curve into the top of the console, to minimize bumped heads on entry.

Power for these boats is generally a single gas inboard with stern drive, with twins available on the largest models (28 feet). A general list of performance characteristics includes top speed of 35 to 50 knots, a soft and dry ride, good visibility at the helm (especially when coming up onto plane), good stability under way and at rest, solid construction and assembly of many parts, and maintenance access to mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

Most prospective runabout buyers look first at the amenities, but the best builders invest considerable R&D in overall performance characteristics first, beginning with hull design. "Fit to use" is the maxim by which long-time Cobalt naval architect Sean Callan lives. It means making sure a boat meets the specific needs and desires of its owner. The primary design objective is to provide the best ride possible under a wide range of conditions, an objective driven by the need for safety and comfort on coastal waters and large lakes in rough water and heavy traffic.

One important element is Cobalt's "extended running surface," which  means the hull extends aft on either side of the outdrive, providing lift that gets the boat onto plane quickly without loss of visibility at the helm and holds it up even at speeds as low as 10 to 12 knots if necessary in rough seas. Callan, in fact, tests each new design through a standard list of 25 on-the-water boating situations to ensure good "fit to use" and reduce the degree to which the skipper must adjust to weather and water conditions. Cobalt invests an average of 15 months in the design of each new model to make sure it's fit to use through all those 25 boating situations. In 25- to 28-foot boats, the hulls must accommodate both runabout and cuddy-cabin layouts. In those cases, Callan and his team lay out all possible applications for the hull, including interior features and appointments, then design it for the application with the greatest expected weight in the bow (generally the cuddy-cabin version). "It's much easier," he says, "to adapt from the cuddy to the runabout than the other way around."

My own experience with these runabouts is limited to sea trials of several Sea Rays, a Bayliner and a big Chaparral (a 28-foot SSi with twin V-8 engines). Even with twins, the big runabout was impressive, coming up onto plane level at low speeds and capably handling a nasty chop while providing the space and amenities to keep a large family or group of friends happy all day.

For a deeper sense of the value of open-bow runabouts, though, I turned to a neighbor, Sam O'Daniel, who has spent the past five seasons running a 1999 Sea Ray 260 on the Severn River and the Chesapeake around Annapolis with his wife, Ilene, their four children and a wide assortment of friends and relations.

"This boat is perfect for my use," O'Daniel says. "We don't need a cabin. There's nothing in the bow but seats. It's big enough and deep enough to go anywhere in the river and the Bay on a decent day at a reasonable speed with up to ten people. With a single screw [a MerCruiser V-8 engine with a Bravo dual-propeller outdrive], it's good for skiing and wakeboarding."

He particularly likes the Sea Ray's dry ride, the comfortable bucket seats at the helm and the port console, and the bow compartment that's safe enough for children to ride with the wind in their faces, right under mom and dad's watchful eyes. Though the bow can be uncomfortable for adults on a choppy day, the cockpit offers plenty of seating for four to eight friends to ride downriver for dinner in town. The boat has a portable toilet in the port console, but O'Daniel notes that it sees minimal use. "It's a day boat," he continues."That's just what I need. And it has aged well. . . . Sea Ray got this boat right."

Dual-Console Fishing Boats
Port-and-starboard consoles on a fishing boat offer the same comfortable seating and weather protection for family and friends that they do on runabouts, but the fishing boats typically have nonskid, self-bailing cockpits without carpet, for hose-it-out washdowns. The design emphasis is on a well balanced, seaworthy hull that adapts well to multiple fisheries but also offers a mount for a ski-tow bar and a boarding ladder for swimmers. The interior must accommodate fishboxes, livewells, rod and tackle storage, space for skis and wakeboards, and, of course, a stereo. The dash must provide mounting space for a fishfinder, GPS and VHF radio.

Most of these boats are in the 18- to 22-foot range and outboard powered, with new models designed for the extra weight of 150- to 225-hp four-strokes and direct-injected engines;which means cruising speeds in the 20s and low 30s. The larger models offer a head in the port console. Manufacturers include Boston Whaler, Cobia, EdgeWater, Grady-White, Hydra Sports, Mako, Polar, Robalo, Scout and Seaswirl. The only possible downsides for anglers are that there is often no space to store a rigged fly rod, and that it's more difficult to follow a large hooked fish completely around the boat. For many fishing families, though, those are not serious issues.

Stevie Potts of Scout Boats Inc. listens to customers and talks extensively with his father, Steve Potts, founder and president of Scout, in the development of new models. One successful hull family is that of the 20 footers (actually 19 feet 10 inches overall), based on the company's trademark Air-Assist hull. The first in this series, in the late 1990s, was the 202 center-console Sportfish. The 202 dual-console Dorado followed shortly after. Now Potts is modifying the 202 to become the 205 Dorado, with a slightly altered sheer line that follows those of recent models, like the 235 and 210 Sportfish, and has an improved interior layout. In turn, the 205 Dorado will give rise to a new 205 Sportfish. All use the same hull mold.

In each case, Potts and his design team invest significant time working with hulls in a test pond. They mock up components such as consoles and seats for the new model and move them around, along with the batteries and fuel tank. Then they build a prototype and test it under power in a variety of conditions. Building full-size prototypes "gives the best feel," he says, even down to something like shaping the seatbacks. The Dorado 202/205 has two smaller siblings, the 175 and 185, and a larger one, the 222;which offers a head in the port console, with a door that curves over the top. For family outings, Dorados offer an optional ski-tow bar, swim platform and stereo.

The boats are definitely fisherman-friendly and seaworthy. Several years ago, I ran an extensive sea trial in a 202 Dorado in sharp two- to three-foot seas. One aspect that struck me was how well it was laid out to run standing up, for more comfort. Not only were the helm and controls readily accessible to the standing skipper, but there were plenty of handholds for three crewmembers to stand as well. Although the ride was rough with the 200-hp Yamaha opened up, cruising at 20 knots was easy, dry and safe, and the boat felt as solid as a rock. Fishboxes, cutting boards and tackle storage made it readily adaptable to bottom fishing, chumming, jigging, light trolling and casting to breaking fish. Though the test boat performed well without trim tabs, Potts recommends them for skippers who want to be able to fine-tune the boat's running attitude in rough water.

Other fishing boat manufacturers are likewise finding good success with dual-console models. I can't keep them in stock, says Bill Gay, general manager of Tri-State Marine in Deale, Md., referring to Grady-White's new Tournament 185 and 205 dual-consoles, and its well proven Tournament 225.

Last fall, I had an opportunity to take a long ride in Robalo's new R227 dual-console. Like the Dorados, it's seaworthy and ready to take on everything from hardcore angling in the morning to skiing in the afternoon to sunset-watching in the evening. I was pleased to note a human-size port console with a porcelain head with holding tank;as well as an ingenious stern seat that folds away for fishing action and for wide-open maintenance access. As on the runabouts discussed above, the R227 offers a huge storage compartment on the centerline of the cockpit sole. It includes an innovative fishing rod rack, as well as storage for skis and wakeboards.

Dual-Console Catamarans
A dual-console catamaran is a natural. The consoles mount over the deepest part of the twin hulls, offering great space for a head on the port side and storage on the starboard side. For comparison, consider that the head in a 22-foot monohull will have about four feet of headroom, while Glacier Bay's 22-footer, the 2240sx Renegade, offers 5 feet 4 inches. The sides of the open bow and the cockpit are naturals for coolers, fishboxes and storage.

The upsides to these boats are their super-soft ride and plenty of space for a given length, though any model from 20 feet up requires twin engines. Large cats like the Glacier Bay 2640 and 2640sx Renegades and World Class Catamaran's 250 Dual Console and 270 Leisure Cat are amazingly seaworthy. I've run 26-foot Glacier Bays and the World Cat 250 in some nasty seas (to six feet in the case of one Glacier Bay), and they are awesome performers. Meanwhile, the storage and seating space they offer is outrageously large. Both companies go to great lengths to accommodate anglers.

An interesting and simpler cat option is Twin Vee's new 19 Family Fisherman. It's simpler than either the Glacier Bay or World Cat models, but it runs well with a single 115- to 140-hp four-stroke, as long as it carries a correctly shaped and cupped four-blade propeller. And yes, it is readily adaptable to fly-fishing, with bow and stern casting decks and storage racks. It's not a bluewater rig like the larger cats from Twin Vee, but it's a tough little bay boat that handles a sharp chop well.

Adapting cat hulls from one configuration to another takes the same painstaking design work as do V-hulls. Larry Graf, founder and designer of Glacier Bay, says he and his team begin their process by brainstorming the most likely configurations for a given hull and design accordingly. It's so much easier to plan from the beginning, he says. All of the layouts should perform the same. I want harmony.

Families ask a lot of their boats. No one design can provide everything. But folks like Sam O'Daniel who carefully think through their needs realize the value of an efficient day boat. For them, the dual-console, open-bow configuration makes a lot of sense. Boat manufacturers are taking notes and turning out sophisticated rigs. We've come a long way from Bish Goodwin's Beachcomber, but the fundamental virtues remain the same. These boats serve water-loving families well.