Choosing a Saltwater Boat

What to consider when buying a saltwater boat in Alaska

by Marcus Weiner

Saltwater boats for the Alaska angler come in several shapes and many sizes, ranging from the high-end luxury cabin cruiser to an open-air skiff. For many, no matter the choice of model, this is the pinnacle of boat purchases. In Alaska, there are also several unique factors that contribute to the design of a good boat that should be considered before making a purchase. Beyond the necessary electronics and safety equipment, much of the accessories available are a matter of choice. We will examine the factors that many consider when buying a boat,the different types of craft available, power and trailer options.

Factors to consider: Alaska’s saltwater environs are no joke. Icy-cold water, huge tides and unpredictable, violent weather can make fishing offshore a very difficult task. Safety is a prime consideration when buying your boat.

Dudley Benesch, owner of Alaska Mining and Diving in Anchorage, talked with me in depth about saltwater boats and conveyed how important it is to get a boat that will be safe in the application that you are going to use it for. He has personally rescued people in dire straits, who were unprepared on the water.

One example of adding safety in boat design that Dudley has proposed to some of the manufacturers he works with is to integrate a motor mount bracket with a full-height transom, rather than mounting motors directly to a partial-height transom. This will help eliminate a following wave from entering the boat and will also add more floatation to the vessel.

From a simplistic approach, before beginning to shop for boats, figure out if you will be in open or protected water. I’d personally keep a boat smaller than 22 feet in protected waters and keep a close eye on the weather when fishing in boats ranging to 30 feet. That is not to say that a boat larger than 30 feet is meant to sail through all seas – it is just my opinion that boats of this class seem capable of handling the size of seas that one might typically encounter.

For most of us, 6- to 8-foot waves are about all one can handle while bottom fishing and mooching, while substantially smaller seas are needed for salmon trolling. It’s like one captain told us as we plowed through 8- to 10-foot waves. ‘We can probably get there,’ he said, ‘but I don’t think we can fish.’

With the ever increasing cost per gallon of gas and diesel, fuel economy becomes a very real factor in your boat purchase. In general, it takes more power to push more water and therefore consumes more fuel. Power plants consist of inboard options in gas and diesel and outboard gas choices in two- and four-stroke motors. Here you have to measure cost, fuel consumption, life span and ease of service.

If you expect to be able to take your family with you, you will probably have to consider comfort in making your choice. A heated cabin and enclosed head would be smart choices. A decent-sized forward berth with a bunk to sleep on may also be a boon, as this will allow some space for storage and for people to rest. Another comfort factor is how the boat rides in the water, especially in following seas. If it pitches and rolls versus riding flat, then seasickness could become an issue.

Other considerations are the smell of diesel and the roar of the engines. If it’s just a couple of 22-year-old roughnecks who love 30-knot winds, catching air and the spray of salt in their eyes, then an open skiff and an old two-stroke might be all you need. Most likely, the comfort of your boat will determine how often your family joins you on the water and may directly affect the amount of time you spend in the boat. A boat buyer’s challenge is to match budgetary constraints with the safest boat possible that fits the needs of you and your family. The advice here is to get the best boat that you can for your budget and add the accessories later.

Craft Design

The hulls of your standard cabin cruisers are categorized by either a plowing or planing design. Further delineation occurs between single hull and multi-hull designs like catamarans. Most boat sales in Alaska are of planing hulls, with manufacturers balancing the V of the bow with the rest of the shape. In comparing designs of your average planing hull, a deeper V in the bow will allow the boat to ride more smoothly through chop and handle bigger seas, while a shallower V allows the boat to plane more easily but will ride poorly through chop. For boating in protected waters, a flatter boat would perform well, while a deeper V would be more beneficial in open water.

Catamarans are becoming more popular in Alaska’s waters as well. Twin hulls are connected through a broad base, providing a wide, steady platform. They are usually quick to plane, ride smooth and track straight. The hull shape provides good fuel efficiency as the bulk of the hull rides out of the water. Boat roll is usually limited and this also contributes to a reduction in sea sickness. Design is especially important with these boats, as the stresses are different than those in a single-hull craft. Dudley explained that a badly designed catamaran will show a ‘stuttering’ effect – when one hull planes and the other rides out of the water. This problem manifests itself in cornering, as the boat slides rather than tracks around corners.

Other considerations to include are the horsepower rating, weight capacity, position and size of the hand rails, and presence or absence of a transom door (especially nice for getting large fish on board).

A crucial component is the design of the pilothouse. A forward leaning pilothouse offers several benefits including minimizing glare, spray and rain as well as more room on the dash for electronics. Additional specifications include cockpit layout, steering and electrical systems, fuel and water capacity, size of the fish holds, amenities (stove, shower, head, heater, seating, etc.) in the cuddy cabin, gear and rod storage space, hardware on the boat and all the standard items that come with the craft. It is quite a task to compare this many items, but for the size of the investment, it pays to do your homework.

Choice of Materials

The primary materials used in the design of saltwater boats are fiberglass and aluminum. It appears that there is a pretty even split among boat owners in Alaska, and there are certainly pros and cons to each material. In general, fiberglass hulls require more maintenance but are easier to repair. They allow for more insulation, which results in greater sound dampening, less sweating and more heat retention. They can be molded into intricate shapes and this results in a more appealing look for a boat to the average buyer. Warm-water fiberglass boat owners can experience blistering from year-round exposure to heat and sunshine, though this is rarely a problem in Alaska with our colder climate and short season. Aluminum boats are rugged and easier to power than fiberglass. They will take the abuse of everyday fishing and can handle the wear and tear of trailering. Aluminum is less likely to catastrophically fail if the boat collides with a large log or submerged structure.

A metal boat will also suffer less from an accidental or purposeful beaching. Improvements have been made to the interior design of aluminum boats, giving the pilothouse more of the feel of a fiberglass craft. The ride is harder than fiberglass, but the fuel bill is easier on the wallet. In the end, it is a matter of budget and preference between materials.

Provided the boats have been engineered properly, both will perform well in Alaska’s saltwater.

Options for Power

Boat owners need to choose between inboard and outboard motors. A combination of fuel economy, horsepower, boat space, average distance to travel and hull design factor into this decision.

In boats larger than about 35 feet, the overall weight of the boat seems to dictate the need for greater horsepower, and therefore, an inboard motor (or two). In your average 15- to 35-foot craft, outboards are growing in popularity. In the past, inboard motors were more reliable than outboards. Today, outboard technology has closed the gap. In trying to determine whether to use one large outboard or two smaller motors equaling the same horsepower, there are several things to consider. A larger motor is less expensive – from the cost per horsepower to the cost of rigging and steering. The larger motor also produces less drag in the water than the two smaller units and therefore adds to fuel efficiency. On the other hand, there is an intrinsic factor of safety in having two motors. It is not a question of when your motor breaks down, it is simply when. It is always good to have a kicker on board, for not only trolling, but as a last resort to get you back to land.

Boat owners have a greater variety of outboard manufacturers and designs to choose from than ever before. The advent of the four-stroke outboard has increased fuel economy and decreased emissions quite significantly. Likewise, today’s direct injected two-stroke motor is a far improvement over its predecessors and rivals the four-stroke technology in fuel efficiency and pollution. A decrease in emissions also contributes to less nausea among those afflicted with sea sickness.

Among the inboard enthusiasts, there is a pretty even split between diesel and gas engine advocates. Diesel proponents would argue that their motors have a longer life, the motors are more efficient and the fuel is less combustible and thus safer. Gas motor users would argue that their motors are less costly to fix and replace, and that they provide better performance.


For saltwater applications, a trailer should be made of galvanized steel. I prefer ones with sealed hubs and grease fittings. These seals are not completely waterproof but will help to keep the saltwater from corroding your bearings as quickly and the grease fitting will allow you to keep the bearings lubricated more easily. Since saltwater is so damaging, we’d recommend that you go over the bearings each season to make sure they are staying properly lubricated and to help slow down corrosion. Like everything else in the boat that touches saltwater, it should be hosed down with freshwater after each use. Trailers come with either bunks or rollers. Dudley recommended ones with bunks rather than rollers. The trailer we use on our 20-foot Fiberform has bunks and they don’t appear to be causing any harm to the boat. The bunks provide good hull support and allow the boat to slide on and off with ease. The roller that serves to guide the winch cable appears to be wearing a small spot in the gel-coat on the bow, so I am inclined to stick with the bunks over rollers on a fiberglass boat.

The Whole Package

The dealer is the place where the hull, motor, electronics and trailer come together and therefore becomes a truly crucial component in your decision where to buy your boat. Dudley conveyed to me that there is a debugging process in every new boat. This can be frustrating to both the dealer and client since both want the boat to work and the client wants it right now and without any glitches. I feel that it is important to buy your boat locally, if that option exists, so that you have someone with expertise to turn to get your boat running right.

My Mandatory
Safety Items 

The US Coast Guard mandates that you have certain items on board your vessel depending on the size of the boat. Check out  for a complete listing of the items you need to have. The following serves as my basic checklist of safety items.

  • Flashlight
  • Satellite and Cell Phones
  • Radio
  • GPS
  • Life raft
  • Flares
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Life jackets and survival suits
  • Survival kit – including food, shelter and warm clothes

Marcus Weiner is publisher of Fish Alaska magazine.