Issue: August 2010

No boat is perfect, but with some time and careful study, you can learn what your boat does best (or not) and zero in on her performance "sweet spots."
by John Page Williams
photo by John Bildahl

News flash: There's no such thing as a perfect boat. Okay, you already know that. So how do you make the most of the boat you already own? I got to thinking about that question recently on a three-day fishing trip on Tangier Sound with some friends. We towed two outboard skiffs to Janes Island State Park in Crisfield, Md., and rented a cabin at the park, launching each day at the ramp there. Over those days we ran about 110 miles, prowling around Tangier, Smith and Cedar islands, which gave me plenty of time to observe First Light, my 1992 16-foot Boston Whaler Montauk, in all kinds of conditions--running into and with seas, at a wide variety of speeds, and carrying three people and plenty of gear.

First Light is not perfect at anything, but she is very good at some important things, like efficiency, seaworthiness, and trailerability. And with some tweaking over the years, she has proved her worth at other factors that matter, like dry, soft riding and efficient interior space. But it has taken a long time to get where we are today. The Montauk is a great example of a love-her-or-hate-her skiff. After 18 seasons together, I know how to optimize her performance in all kinds of conditions. But if she's powered, loaded or run wrong, this boat will beat her occupants to death, and soak 'em in the process. After years of learning how to let First Light show her best stuff, I offer you these tips.

Know Your Boat: At Rest and Moving Slowly
While in the slip, take a walk around the boat. How does she handle shifts of weight inside? Where are you when she feels balanced best? Now start adding stationary weight: a cooler full of ice, fishing tackle boxes, water skis, wakeboards, whatever gear you normally carry. Where does she like to have them loaded? Add more people. Where should they sit or stand? If they stand, do they have secure grab handles to hold wherever they might reach for one? Are there differences in her behavior between light and heavy loads?

Now ease away from the dock and go through the same process with your boat moving slowly. If you can easily do so, run her out into open water where there is some sea running and experiment some more. Remember the chances are good that you'll need to handle her on the drift, at anchor, and moving slowly, so pay close attention to the best locations for people and gear under these conditions, you're bound to find yourself in each scenario sooner or later.

Know Your Boat: Speed and Fuel Profile
Now imagine you're testing your boat for a magazine write-up--or analyzing it for a fuel-conscious friend who's thinking about buying the boat. This job will entail measuring speed (preferably a two-way average to account for wind and current), fuel flow (if possible), running angle and sound at regular intervals from idle to full throttle. Speed is easy to measure with a GPS.

Many fuel-injected gas and common-rail diesel engines built since the turn of the 21st century have fuel-flow meters built into their instrumentation. If you don't have this feature, check your manufacturer's website for performance data with your engine(s) on a comparable hull. Other options include installing a Floscan meter in your fuel line ( or simply keeping track of your fuel usage. If you can spring for some type of fuel meter, do so. I've had a Mercury SmartCraft tachometer on First Light's 60 EFI BigFoot four-stroke for eight seasons, and it's worth its cost in fuel savings, as well as keeping track of engine hours, operating temperature and voltage.

Running angle is an interesting variable. It'll tell you at least two things: where your hull's happiest running attitude (trim) is and whether she squats too much as she climbs onto plane (a condition that can interfere with the skipper's line of sight in front of the boat). The handiest tool is a sailboat clinometer, used to measure heel angle (available for $20 to $40). Affix it fore-and-aft to measure running angle at each of the speed intervals in your profile. For measuring engine noise, try a sound-level meter from Radio Shack ( for $45 to $50. If this project is starting to sound expensive, don't worry; you can also just take subjective notes on angle and sound as you run your speed/fuel profile. But if you run your boat a lot, you'll find that these instruments will really help you find your boat's sweet spots. They'll pay off in performance, comfort and quite possibly fuel savings.

Now run a speed profile with a light load in calm water, beginning at 1000 rpm if you're running gasoline and 900 for diesel. Draw up a chart in a notebook with a column for each variable (including both speed runs) and note performance at intervals of 500 rpm (gas) or 300 rpm (diesel). Use engine trim and trim tabs (if available) to optimize speed at each rpm level. If you can find the time and the crew, run the profile again with a normal load of people and gear.

With these numbers in hand, look at where in the profile your boat seems to be "happiest,"--that is, most efficient and quietest. Ideally, what you're looking for is both the dead-center sweet spot and the range of speeds at which efficiency is nearly as good. You should come out of this test with a sense of your boat's best "high cruise" and "low cruise." The former should serve you best in calm conditions, while the latter should get you home if the seas kick up.

Special Note: Low Cruise Speeds
Pay particular attention to how your boat runs at speeds in the teens. If you get caught out in truly nasty conditions, it's valuable to be able to slow down but stay on plane, so you slide over the seas instead of wallowing through them. Anything you can do to keep her close to her happiest running angle over a wide speed range will pay dividends in learning to fit her speed to specific sea conditions. Useful techniques for boats that tend to squat at the stern while accelerating include redistributing weight (e.g., people, gear and even batteries) and installing adjustable trim tabs, which add lift while climbing onto plane. You may also want to upgrade to a four-blade propeller (or a pair if you're running twin engines). First Light runs a precision-cast Solas aluminum four-blade propeller, which offers enough lift to allow her to plane at 10 to 12 mph, depending on the load. That low planing speed has gotten us across Tangier Sound and home safely and comfortably on more than one gnarly day.

Adjusting Trim Fore-and-Aft
In general, plan on running more bow-up in big following seas, so your bow doesn't "trip" on a sea's back and cause her to broach. When running into head seas, lower the bow at least a bit to allow the sharpest part of the forefoot to cleave the seas. Experimenting in less-than-dangerous waves will give you a sense of how much to adjust trim to keep her running as soft and dry as possible. Essentially, trim tabs and adjustable drive units like outboards and inboard/outboards allow skippers to choose which parts of their hulls will hit the seas. Savvy captains study the shapes of their boats' hulls and integrate that knowledge with those adjustments in their "trim tools" to get the most comfortable riding attitudes in specific sea conditions. They also experiment with the trim tools to fine-tune their speeds at particular throttle settings.
There's a "feel" here that is well worth learning. If you experiment with seas, you'll find that in any condition, there's a speed where your boat rides them easily. Push the throttle(s) and you'll begin to feel her forcing her way through them. We all find ourselves in situations when we need speed and have to put up with the harder ride that comes with it, but if you pay attention, your boat will tell you the speeds where she runs easiest. It's not unlike giving a horse her head and allowing her to pick her favorite speed. This speed may be slower than you'd initially planned to run, but think hard about when it might be appropriate. It will reduce wear and tear on the whole rig and her people, and probably save fuel too.

By the way, in most conditions, First Light is happiest at 14 to 20 mph. That, I believe, is the speed range for which the Montauk was originally designed. The Mercury 60 four-stroke is very close in weight and power to the 55-hp Fisher-Pierce Bearcat four-stroke outboards that Whaler founder Dick Fisher ran on his own Montauks. Fisher covered a lot of ground in those boats, and First Light has seen nearly all of the 1,800-mile Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. Many long-legged 32- to 42-foot cruising boats derived from Down East and Chesapeake workboats are happiest at those speeds as well.

In the end, there is no substitute for spending time with your boat, under way in a variety of sea conditions. Whether she's large or small, the more you observe about her behavior and put that knowledge to work, the closer you'll come to getting the best out of her.