High-Performance Speed Boats: The Ultimate Guide

The greatest powerboats in the world – those that inspire movies and movie stars, the boats that are the most fun to drive, the boats that invite clusters of onlookers at the docks – are high-performance speed boats. Go-fast boats are the stuff of legend. You could be in a marina with luxury yachts and sailboats, and the high-performance powerboats would always garner the most attention. The faster the better, and if yours can top 100 mph, you’ve really got something special. Let’s take a look at:

outer limits speed boat
Few things can get your adrenalin pumping like a speedboat blasting across the water’s surface. Photo via Outer Limits.

For the uninitiated, offshore powerboats have been known as “cigarette boats” (in much the same way facial tissue is known as a Kleenex and off-road 4×4’s are called Jeeps). But, Cigarette boats (note the upper-case C) is the brand name of one of the premier builders of performance boats in the world. Cigarette is one of the original American manufacturers of performance boats, but in today’s market, it is one of many.

cigarette boat
Many people call speed boats Cigarettes, but this is actually a brand name. Photo via Thunder Marine.

Fast boats come in a few different forms, but if you’re browsing fast boats for sale and considering a purchase – congratulations! You’re about to have a lot of fun. They aren’t cheap boats by any means, but they are worth the investment.

Brief History of Fast Boats

The saying goes that powerboat racing began the day the second powerboat was built. That’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but probably not far off the mark. Powerboat racing began with the advent of the internal combustion engine in the first few years of the 20th century in the U.K. with the Harmsworth Trophy, which was awarded to the fastest boat that crossed the English Channel and arrived in Calais, France.

These boats weren’t fast by today’s standards — or even those of 50 years ago, for that matter — but it marked the first time boaters could cross the Channel without hoisting a sail or shoveling coal into a steam engine.

In the United States, powerboat racing got its big start on Long Island Sound. Here again, speeds were glacial compared with modern performance boats, but it did mark the beginnings of the sport. One event began in 1959, the “Marathon Around Long Island,” and is still held by the National Powerboat Association. The record is two hours, 11 minutes – which will be tough to beat considering the course is roughly 260 miles!

Farther south, Sherman “Red” Crise staged the first Miami-to-Nassau Ocean Powerboat race in 1954, which would make South Florida the epicenter of offshore powerboat racing in the United States, and in 1962 Don Aronow founded Formula Marine in Miami. Aronow went on to start other performance boat builders: Donzi, Cigarette, and Magnum Marine. He built them on a spit of land at the east end of 188th St. in Miami, a street that became known as “Thunderboat Row.”

By the 1980s – a decade most boaters consider the heyday of offshore powerboat racing – movie stars and international royalty faced off on the open ocean. As popular as these boats were with the people who raced them, they were also enormously useful to the people who used them to bring cocaine and other drugs to U.S. shores. The seedy side of the high-performance powerboat industry was highlighted by Aronow’s murder in 1987. Even though there were witnesses to the murder, which involved car-to-car gunfire at the end of 188th St., it took 10 years to get a no-contest plea from two men in charges related to the murder. Bobby Young finally confessed before he died in 2009. The story formed the basis for the 2018 John Travolta movie, Speed Kills.

Aronow’s murder essentially marked the end of an era for speed boat racing, and the U.S. DEA redoubled its efforts and began using go-fast boats to stanch the flow of drugs coming into South Florida in the 1980s. Today, Thunderboat Row is home to a small park and high-rise condominiums. Those four companies Aronow founded are still in business to this day and are still among the marquee builders of high-performance powerboats.

High Performance Boat Types

In the beginning, go-fast boats essentially came in one shape: a V-bottom monohull with a lot of deadrise and two or three engines depending on the length and beam. Today, the go-fast boat market offers buyers more variety than ever and almost any builder that has fast boats for sale can tailor them to meet individual needs. The different types include:

V-Bottom Speed Boats

pantera speed boat
V-hull powerboats are the norm, when it comes to high-performance. Photo via Marine Unlimited.

The V-bottom is the quintessential high-performance powerboat. Typically, high-performance V-bottoms measure from, say, 21 feet to upward of 50 feet. The longer the boat, the bigger the seas you can take on comfortably. The above Pantera 24 Sport is a good example of a relatively small V-bottom speed boat, though some smaller ones do exist.

Propulsion systems also are varied. Buyers can get inboard engines with horsepower that range to upward of 1,500-hp. Outboard power also has been making leaps and bounds, particularly in the last few years. Remember when 300-hp was a lot of horsepower? Invariably, it used to come from a two-stroke engine that belched smoke and fouled the marine ecology and environment that boaters go out there to enjoy – but today’s four-stroke outboards run cleaner than ever. In general, boaters are much more aware of how eco-friendly boating practices can help reduce the impact on fragile ocean ecosystems and water quality.

With outboards now available all the way up to 600-hp (in the form of the Mercury Verado V12 600), outboard power is now a viable performance option, especially when you consider that using multiple engines is easier with outboards than it is with inboard and sterndrive applications. Several of Mercury Racing’s other potent options use supercharged four-stroke V8 powerheads.

Catamaran Speed Boats

outer limits sc 46
Catamarans like this Outer Limits SC 46 can go even faster than a V-hull with similar power. Photo via Outer limits.

Another popular type of high-performance powerboat is the power catamaran. Because they pack air under their hulls and benefit from less wetted area, catamarans capitalize on their horsepower more than V-bottoms.

More wetted area means more hydrodynamic drag, and more hydrodynamic drag means more load on the engines. Compared with an automobile engine, boat engines face a far more brutal load cycle. Imagine driving your truck up a steep hill at 50 mph in second gear while pulling a trailer. That’s essentially what it’s like for boat engines every time you use them. That’s why catamarans are the fastest high-performance boats you can buy. A catamaran of the same length to a V-hull boat will always be faster with identical power. Always.

Modern offshore catamarans are capable of speeds in excess of 150 mph. You can get them with twin inboard sterndrive propulsion systems up to 1,550 horsepower per engine, or a phalanx of outboards strapped to the back. It is a glorious time in performance boating.

Fast Center Console Boats

deep impact 369 sport high performance boat
Center console boats like this Deep Impact 369 Sport have become very popular among the go-fast crowd in recent years. Photo via Unriehl Performance.

Go-fast center-consoles got their start in offshore fishing tournaments where speed is essential for getting to the hotspots before the competition. Most, if not all of the mainstream manufacturers build them. Donzi, Wellcraft and Fountain, to name a few, already built some seriously fast fishing machines. After the Great Recession, fewer people could justify a boat that was only good at going fast and couldn’t accommodate more people than a runabout, so the utility of the center-console began to emerge as a useful alternative to the typical offshore V-bottom.

Center-console boats offer a lot more deck space and seating options as compared to many designs. They can be used for fishing, or poker runs, or just going out to cowboy around, and part of the reason for the increased popularity of the center-console is the advent of those big-power outboards.

Offshore Speed Boats

donzi 41 gt speed boat
Big, offshore-capable speed boats like this Donzi 41 GT rule the roost. Photo via Total Marine.

The top of the industry and the boats that get the most attention are the offshore V bottoms and catamarans between 35 and 50 feet. That’s what it takes to tackle rough ocean conditions. Anything with less length overall, and you’re getting your fillings knocked out.

In a very real sense, offshore V-bottoms are what gave the industry its start. These are the boats actors Kurt Russell and Don Johnson raced. These are the boats drug runners used to carry their cargo to U.S. shores. These are the boats that carved out the niche that make the industry what it is.

Speed Boat Brands and Manufacturers

Some of the builders most known for offshore V-bottoms include the aforementioned Donzi, Magnum and Cigarette. In addition, the go-fast boat industry came to include other icons Fountain, Baja Marine and Checkmate. Formula announced in 2019 that it will no longer build its FASTech line of performance boats, which was disappointing.

For a good long time, Wellcraft built some of the most notable offshore go-fast boats, but now it specializes mostly in center consoles, a move the performance industry followed in the wake of the Great Recession. The go-fast boat industry is an alluring, but cruel mistress, and so there are lot of builders that came and went.

If you’re looking at center consoles, you’re in luck. There are a ton of builders of go-fast center consoles, many of which are mentioned above. If you’re looking for more options, consider Sunsation, Statement Marine, Sonic Boats, Nor-Tech, Mystic Powerboats, Deep Impact, Midnight Express, and Marine Technology Inc., which started out making only offshore catamarans.

invincible 46 cat
This Invincible 46 is clearly designed first and foremost for fishing, but with quadruple outboards on the transom, qualifies as a speed boat as well. Photo via Invincible Boats.

There’s also a bevy of builders who build speedy center consoles that are geared toward fishing but hit speeds that qualify as high-performance, including Invincible, Freeman, SeaVee, and many others.

For high-performance offshore catamarans, the industry leaders are Skater Powerboats and Marine Technology Inc. By their very nature, offshore catamaran builders are exclusive and high tech, with prices to match. Buyers also can choose models from Mystic Powerboats, Doug Wright Designs and Outerlimits, which also has an extensive line of custom offshore V-bottoms. Other offshore catamaran builders include Sonic and Hustler, which also make a full line of V-bottoms, Statement Marine and Spectre Powerboats.

Speed Boat Racing World Records

Of course, where you have a fast boat, you will have people pursuing speed records. Where you have more than one fast boat, there will be racing. The fastest speed on the water ever achieved came on Oct. 8, 1978 on Blowering Dam reservoir in Australia, where Ken Warby drove the “Spirit of Australia” to a two-way average top speed of 317.6 mph, a record no one has been able to touch ever since — it’s the fastest speed boat ever.

In drag boats, the record belongs to Daryl Ehrlich, who hit 260.98 mph in his Top Fuel hydroplane drag boat in November 2009. This record is all the more remarkable considering he achieved it from a standing start.

For offshore V bottoms, the kilo record belongs to drivers Brian Forehand and Joe Sgro, who piloted their Outerlimits SV 43 to a two-way average of 172.876 mph. The record had been held for a number of years by a Fountain powerboat. Fountain tried to set a new record in 2018 but was not successful.

Types of Boat Racing

mti 52 pleasure
As long as there have been boats there have been people racing them, though today’s speed boats certainly set a new standard. Photo via TNT Marine Sales.

On the recreational boating market, performance boats are built to accommodate a driver and passengers. Boat racing is different. Most of the race boats are single-seat variety. The most visible forms of boating motorsports are offshore racing, unlimited hydroplanes, and outboard tunnel boats.

However, there are a lot more forms of boat racing and classes that take place on lakes and rivers across the United States. Tunnel boats alone comprise more than 10 different classes. There is drag racing, hydroplanes, inflatable “Thundercats,” inboard endurance, “cracker boxes,” Jersey Skiff racing, jet boats, personal watercraft, and even vintage and radio-controlled racing. There are also six classes of racing for kids and teens.

The American Power Boat Association (APBA) is the governing body of boat racing in the United States as authorized by the Union International Motonautique, the worldwide sanctioning body of powerboat racing. If racing interests you enough to want to get involved, visit the APBA.

Speed Boat FAQs

What is a high-performance boat?

By conventional standards, a high-performance boat is one that tops 60 mph. That’s where the high-performance world begins. They can take the form of a V-bottom or a catamaran.

Are there any fuel-efficient fast boats?

Unfortunately, not really. Boats are notorious for high fuel consumption. If you want a fuel-efficient boat, buy a sailboat. In general, catamarans are more fuel-efficient than V-bottoms, but none could be described as fuel-efficient. The good news is that modern motors run much cleaner than old motors, and thus pollute the environment much less than their predecessors.

What is a cigarette boat?

Cigarette, with an upper-case C, is a brand name performance boat builder that became synonymous with an entire market segment.

What is the fastest boat in the world?

The current world water speed record belongs to Australian driver Ken Warby, who drove his boat the “Spirit of Australia” to a two-way average top speed of 317.6 mph on Blowering Dam reservoir east of Canberra, Australia, on Oct. 8, 1978. This is a “kilo record,” which means you have to run in two directions, and the average speed is calculated from both runs. No one has been able to top Warby’s record since.

Warby’s boat was jet-powered. The fastest propeller-driven kilo record was established by Dave Villwock in the “Miss Budweiser” Unlimited hydroplane. The two-way average was 220.493 mph.

What are some of the most iconic high-performance boat models?

Not all of these are available new anymore, and they did come in different lengths, but some of the most iconic go-fast boat models are: Formula FASTechs, Cigarette Top Gun, Baja Outlaw, Fountain Lightning, Donzi ZX, Wellcraft Scarab, and the Eliminator Daytona.

Seattle Seafair; San Diego Bayfair; Offshore World Championships, Key West, Fla.; Madison Regatta, Madison, Ind.; Rockin’ the River, Bay City, Mich.; New Jersey Offshore Grand Prix, Point Pleasant, N.J.; Detroit Gold Cup, Detroit, Mich.; the 24 Hours of Rouen in Rouen, France.

What’s the future of high-performance speed boats?

Internal combustion engines are still the most viable means of propulsion for go-fast boats because electric powertrains are challenging on the water. That doesn’t mean electric propulsion systems are impossible, but it is difficult for them to match the speed and range of internal combustion engines at a comparable price. Batteries are also heavy and not best suited to saltwater environments, so the internal combustion engine will remain for the foreseeable future.

Written by: Brett Becker

Brett Becker is a freelance writer and photographer who has covered the marine industry for 15 years. In addition to covering the ski boat and runabout markets for Boats.com, he regularly writes and shoots for BoatTrader.com. Based in Ventura, Calif., Becker holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in mass communication from the University of Central Florida in Orlando.