It has been said time and again that all boats are compromises. That logic applies probably most pointedly to tow boats: ski boats and wakeboard boats, and we can now add wake-surf boats to the equation, too.
Tow boats are so purpose-built that it’s practically impossible to use them for anything else. You can fish from a pontoon boat, but not a tow boat. The interiors have become so plush, you wouldn’t want a fish anywhere near them, so it’s automatically a nonstarter. The kicker is that tow boats have become so segmented that they are often good for only one thing.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Ski boats evolved with three-event ski competitions: slalom, trick, and jump. One boat was good enough for all three because they all depended on the boat’s ability to pull hard from a dead stop and create as small a wake as possible at slalom speeds, usually around 36 mph. Trick skiers preferred a slower speed, but because wakeboarding hadn’t been invented yet, one boat, the direct-drive inboard, could serve all three disciplines.
The direct-drive inboard is still used for slalom skiing and jump, but for anything that involves aerial tricks, the direct drive has been eclipsed by the V-drive. The direct drive still has the most balanced weight distribution of all tow boats, which translates to the flattest wakes and the crispest handling. The drawback today is the same as it has ever been: The engine is in the middle of the boat, which takes up a lot of valuable cockpit space and leaves little room for usable seating. For example, when you’re pulling a skier no one can sit on the rear bench lest they be decapitated by the tow rope. These days, the only people who buy direct drives are the hardest of hardcore skiers who want the flattest wakes possible. Many buyers are willing to give up a little on wake height to get the usable passenger room of a V-drive. For more on all of this, read Tow Boat Powertrains: Direct-Drive vs. V-Drive.
V-drive inboards really boomed with the ascent of wakeboarding as the predominant water sport. Because the weight distribution is rear-biased, they throw a larger wake by default. In the beginning of the wakeboarding craze, that was enough, but things escalated, of course, and companies began selling ballast bags, which held hundreds of gallons of water to add weight to the back of the boat. The OEMs caught on, and now all wakeboard boats have built-in ballast systems from the factory standard, with options for obscene amounts of extra weight.
So the market has evolved quite a bit since its early days, but you’re still looking at the kind of boat that does pretty much only one thing. If you are a hardcore slalom jock, get a direct-drive inboard, but don’t look to bring any more than two people with you on those morning ski runs. If you want a wakeboard boat, you can use it for skiing, but the wakes won’t be as small as a direct drive. If you want to go wake surfing, you can use a wakeboard boat, but boats designed for wake surfing are better.
Perhaps no other segment of the market is as targeted as tow boats. Each does what it does and that’s about it. Buyers need to know that up front and be ready for the high prices these boats command, even in the secondary market.
If you're looking at a used boat with complex systems, consider spending the money for an extended warranty...