Every boat is a compromise. It’s a fact of life. So when you’re trying to find a boat that fits your on-water lifestyle you know there’s no such thing as perfection. There are only boats that can achieve some percentage — you hope a large percentage — of what you have in mind.
Center-console boats are good at that. They occupy a huge segment of small-boat market because they can bring a lot of utility to a lot of people. They also deliver generally excellent performance, rough-water ability, and good looks. They can range from fuel-efficient (single-engine, minimal transom deadrise) to ocean-aggressive (double or triple outboards, lots of deadrise). You can load them with coolers and fishing gear, skis or tow-tubes — or keep them open and simple. And they’re built by a range of well-established, high-quality manufacturers.
You can buy a center-console boat so big that it has room for amenities like bunks, a mini-galley, and even air-conditioning. But a “standard” center console from, say, 20 to 30 feet long, is an open boat with some weather protection for people clustered near the console behind the windshield and under the bimini top. Many center-consoles will have a small head compartment and wet locker inside the console itself, and some minimal seating – behind the console, on top of cooler lids, and often in the bow. The rest of the boat is for doing stuff.
So let’s get back to the utility issue, because center-consoles are like hunting dogs: They’re optimized to do a job, and that’s where they shine. In this case, it’s fishing. Center-consoles offer plenty of standing room and open decks for following a fish, open sky for casting, few things to snag lines on, good security in the cockpit, and capability in rough water. Many of the same qualities make it good as a general-purpose tow-boat — but if you and your family are serious about skiing or wakeboarding, you should look into boats built for the purpose – they’ll have hull forms, engine and drive configurations, wake-making abilities, and on-deck gear built to maximize your enjoyment of those sports. The same is true for scuba diving. A center-console can get the job done, but dedicated divers will want to look at other options, too.
If you have a variety of interests on the water – not just fishing or tow-sports, but cruising, picnicking, gathering with friends, then you’re going to need more protection, more comfortable seating, and better stowage. This is where smaller center-consoles begin to lose their edge: Few offer much built-in seating, and even that tends to isolate people in remote areas of the boat — two in the bow, two in the stern, and a big console in between. But once you start loading folding chairs and tables into a boat like that, you undercut its strong points. And there’s no room to stow loose furniture anyway.
As they increase in size, center-consoles do begin to offer more amenities – pull-out transom seats, reversible helm seats, U-shaped settees in the bow, etc. And again, the really jumbo models can set you up for a weekend out of your house. But now we’re talking very serious bucks. With those same bucks you might do better with an express cruiser, a small sport-fisherman… or maybe a vacation home equipped with a small center-console?