Center Consoles, Side Consoles And Dual Consoles: What’s The Difference?

Let’s talk trends in the boat deck layout and design world. First off, center consoles are all the rage right now, thanks to their versatile layout. Dual consoles remain popular with family day boat crowds. Finally, the simplicity of a small side console boat is often perfect for bass fishing and tooling around on narrow rivers and shallow lakes and marshes. But what is the difference between these common small boat layouts and designs? First, we’ll explore precisely what features make a boat a “center console boat”, versus a “side console boat” and a “dual console boat”, then we will look at some of the pros and cons of each of these deck layouts.

Center Consoles Defined: Why All The Hullabaloo?

On a center console boat, the steering wheel and main control station (helm) is located in the center of the boat, mounted on a console (hence the term center console). This configuration of the boat’s deck allows for maximum usable space onboard while still providing for a control station. Passageways on either side of the console along with open deck areas forward and aft of the boat provide ample space. (Of course tiller boats with no control station have more deck space, but that can quickly get tiresome on the arm and back and is not practical for larger vessels with bigger outboards). With the uncluttered open areas on a center console, anglers are free to cast from any side of the boat, be it starboard or port. Many center console boats are designed with an elevated casting deck in the bow and/or stern, along with an unobstructed aft deck. These boats are built as fishing boats first and foremost, and are sought after by pro anglers and those competing in coastal fishing tournaments.

Versatile Layouts = Great Utility Boats

Center console boats offer general utility beyond just fishing too. They also make ideal utility boats for hauling and transporting equipment such as dive gear, lobster pots, marina equipment and oyster baskets. Generally center consoles are fairly seaworthy and can handle some amount of rough water, provided they have self-bailing hulls and good scuppers, along with adequate drainage, freeboard and high capacity bilge pumps. Most modern center consoles can take a wave over the bow and the water will wash through the cockpit, around the console and out the scuppers and notched transom, with excess water pumped out by a bilge system. Thus they are considered relatively safe boats as well.

Largest Center Consoles Vs. Smallest Center Consoles

Although they were traditionally smaller boats, these days center console boats come in a wide variety sizes – from the largest center console in the world (HCB’s Estrella) clocking in at a whopping 65 feet long (that’s bigger than some large offshore cruising yachts), to the smallest center consoles in the world coming in at 13 feet (small flats boats and poling skiffs with center consoles). Boston Whaler’s older model Super Sport is a famously rugged small center console boat (13 feet long) that is a great starter boat for kids. It has a storied past across America as a favorite family fishing boat and a great platform for learning how to drive a boat. A bit more rare and niche in the world of small center consoles would be specialized boats like the NanoCraft 13 – a shallow draft boat designed for plying the skinniest waters in the world while still having a center console station onboard.

In between the absolute biggest center consoles ever built and the smallest center consoles on the market, are some of the best center console fishing boats on the market today, from the flagship Pursuit S 428 to the Invincible 36 Open Fisherman – these are boats that have evolved over the years to become battle-tested, sturdy platforms that will satisfy even the most discerning boat owners in terms of capability, layout and design.

Above: Boat Trader and reviewer Marilyn DeMartini walkthrough a Pursuit S 428 center console boat in Fort Pierce Florida and point out its key features.

Above: Join Boat Trader along with boat reviewer and fish head Lenny Rudow for a full walkthrough virtual video tour of an Invincible 36 Open center console boat with triple Mercury 400s – with a walloping top speed of 76 MPH. Talk about getting out to the canyons to fish quickly! 

Family-Friendly Fishing Craze: “All The Bells-And-Whistles”

Center console boats have evolved to become more family-friendly over the years. With practicality top of mind, it became apparent that a boat that could not only satisfy the fishing needs of a boat owner, but also the recreational and family entertaining needs, would be a winner. Thus, many modern center consoles now have creature comforts such as sun pads and lush seating plus added amenities including a head in the console and even a berth for overnight adventures. The center console market is so competitive today, that most builders are trying to find ways to one-up the competition of the center console boat craze by including space-saving innovations and added functionality in every nook and cranny of the boat. This results in some seriously eye-popping boats that consistently surprise boaters with an ever expanding list of the best center consoles in the world.

Dual Consoles: The Boating Family’s Dream Boat

If center consoles are the sport utility vehicles of the sea, dual consoles might be the family sedans. Think: Subaru Outback versus Jeep Wrangler. They are similar yes, but with key and very important differences. First, as the name suggests, dual console boats provide not one but two consoles onboard, allowing for more storage space and added amenities. Instead of just the captain’s seat(s) behind the controls, there are now two protected seating areas in the middle of the boat’s cockpit – one on the starboard side and one on the port side. Often the area between the two consoles can also be closed off, separating the front bow area from the rear aft portion of the vessel completely. This separation can be as simple as a piece of removable fiberglass or small hinged door, to as complex as a full-frame, steel or structurally reinforced fiberglass windshield with heavy duty glass and weatherstripping for keeping the water splashing over the bow from entering the rest of the boat.

Pursuit DC 326 Dual Console. Photo by Pursuit.

Above: A Pursuit DC 326 dual console boat underway on the water. Photo by Pursuit Boats.

Amenities And Creature Comforts Come First

As opposed to center consoles, where the deck layout is all about fishing first, and comfort second, dual consoles are more about comfort first and fishing second. Hardcore anglers may not love the way that a dual console layout limits their fishing mobility, but many modern dual consoles have found innovative ways retain fishability while still catering to the recreational side of things. With the added onboard interior space, marine toilets (heads) can be incorporated into one console, leaving the other for a berth or a convenient storage space for water toys, food and picnic supplies and beach goodies. If a dual console is big enough to incorporate a berth, it’s usually beneath the port side of the console and the head (and shower) are usually under the starboard side of the boat. The two consoles also provide for nice back rests for passengers in the bow area, meaning the front of the boat is often setup more as a lounging space than a casting deck, although, they can be utilized for fishing as well.

Big Dual Consoles: Blurring The Crossover Line

Larger dual consoles can begin to blur the line between a simple day boat and a what many may call a “crossover boat”. Crossover boats are generally considered boats that provide a great experience for a wide variety of boating uses – from day boating and water sports (wakeboarding, surfing and skiing) to weekending and coastal cruising. On the smaller side of things, dual consoles are equipped for a modest day on the water with friends and family. On the bigger side, they can start to rival some of their yacht-size cousins and cabin cruisers.

For example, Boston Whaler’s 32-foot 320 Vantage dual console is about as big as a day boat as any family would need for local waters and provides a “yacht like feel” with a cozy below deck interior. Another contender on the list of “line-bluring dual consoles” is the Grady-White Freedom 375, an over 30-foot dual console that transforms the day boat experience into something more akin to a larger family yacht experience while still being nimble enough for most marinas and harbors.

Near the largest side of the size spectrum for dual consoles is the WorldCat 400DC-X – a new flagship model from the power cat builder that offers a game changing dual console layout with luxurious appointments, abundant storage and serious seaworthiness. With over 200 square feet of usable deck space, expansive bow seating and both a port stateroom cabin and starboard head cabin this model pushes the envelope in terms of dual consoles. She has a full head, holding tank and macerator, 52 gallon water tank, 6 gallon water heater, cabin air conditioning, onboard generator, standup shower, sink with vanity and a solar-powered vent.

Side Consoles: Simple, Automotive Styling

With a control station located amidship on the starboard side, side console boats are usually simple boats with modest controls that allow for an open cockpit and minimal clutter. These boats are generally under 20 feet, with some exceptions (see below), and are designed for inshore fishing and simple day boating adventures in coastal areas and protected waters. Aluminum skiffs and deep-V aluminum fishing boats, such as the Tracker Super Guide V-16 SC are often side console-driven boats.

Above: Ryan McVinney walks through a 2021 Tracker Super Guide V-16 SC side console aluminum fishing boat.

Smaller Consoles: Easy Controls, Open Decks

The disadvantage to having the console on one side is that you can only pass through to the bow area on one side of the vessel. So, if you’re fishing and the fish are on your starboard, you will be restricted somewhat in your movement and casting ability. However, since the consoles are usually fairly small, they may take up less room than some larger center consoles and actually offer anglers more usable deck space overall. The feel of driving a side console boat is very familiar to owners who are used to driving a car, and the controls are generally styled in an automotive fashion. This makes them great contenders for some of the best starter boats on the market, and perfect for learning how to handle a boat on various inland and inshore waterways.

Side Consoles: From Small To Big

If we’re getting creative with the term side console and looking at some larger crossover day boats that position the console to one side, we might land on boats like the 2020 Regal 38 SAV as a notably large side console boat. The SAV stands for “sports activity vessel” and the model is a combination of a sporting, day boating and overnighting yacht in one unique and versatile layout. The cabin below feels more like the interior of a big yacht than a smaller day boat. And while the controls are more of a full dashboard style with windshield, there is a passageway on the port side that leads to an open bow for lounging. Technically, this may be one of the largest side console boats on the market, and to be sure – it is a luxurious experience onboard!

Above: Ryan McVinney gives viewers a full walk-through boat review of a 2020 Regal 38 SAV boat with triple Yamaha 300 HP outboards and a top speed of 50 MPH, at Sundance Marine in Pompano Beach, Florida.

Written by: Ryan McVinney

C. Ryan McVinney is a film director, writer and producer. As an experienced boater he regularly produces and directs on-the-water video shoots for major boat manufacturers, yacht brokers and dealers, as well as independent film and media companies. He is president of the National Soho House Film Club with chapters in Miami, FL, Manhattan, NY and Los Angeles, CA and regularly contributes content to YachtWorld, boats.com and Boat Trader.

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