The Best Boat Switches

Put a light switch into a house, and it’s likely to last for decades on end. Put the same sort of switch into a boat, and you’ll be lucky if it lasts a few months. Thanks to ever-present moisture and the generally corrosive atmosphere boats live in, sensitive metal parts like electrical contacts and small moving pieces are prone to failure early, and often. So, which switches are best for boats? What are the high points and low points for each? When boat shopping, you’re likely to come across several different types of switches.

Rocker Switches

Rocker switches are one of the most common types of switches found at the helm of modern boats. These have several advantages: they’re relatively inexpensive, come in illuminated versions that light up when you flip them on and tend to be reasonably reliable. They can also be customized when ordered in bulk, so a boat manufacturer can have an illuminated logo or icon put on. The main downside to using rockers on a boat is that it’s easy to trigger them by accident. It is not uncommon for someone to bump into one and turn something on or off by mistake.

Toggle Switches

Toggle switches are also reasonably priced, can be found in illuminated versions, and score high for reliability. They have a bit of an advantage in that most require a decent amount of pressure to flip on and off, so accidentally triggering one is less likely. Most also make an audible click that’s hard to miss. Toggle switches are extremely hearty compared to other manual switches, and most high-quality models are downright difficult to break. On the flip side of the coin, many people feel that they look old-fashioned. Plus, you cannot customize them.

Press-Button Switches

Press-button switches look slick and are the only analog switch that can be flush-mounted. That means that accidentally triggering one is exceptionally rare, which is one of the reasons some engine manufacturers like to use push-button starting switches. They can also become illuminated, and customizing it is an option as well. The big downside to push-button switches is a potential loss of reliability. Since they’re spring-loaded, there’s an extra internal part that can fail. Another downside is that push-buttons are generally not available in multiple-position versions for use with accessories like navigation lights. On the other hand, rockers or toggles are available in multi-position models that can be clicked from the off position into one direction for running lights and the other for anchor lights.
All three of these different types of switches have high points and low points, but one should recognize that all are also available in different quality levels. Some are waterproof and dustproof, while others are not. Some are sturdy, while others are cheap and flimsy. Toggle switches versus push-buttons at the helm doesn’t necessarily mean they will inherently be any more reliable, the level of quality matters.

Touchscreen Digital Switching

One of the latest trends in boatbuilding has been to shift from analog switches to digital switching, which allows you to integrate your boat’s switching systems with a touchscreen, commonly the boat’s multifunction displays.

With these systems switch icons are displayed on the LCD screen, and you turn everything on or off with a swipe of your finger. It’s no different  modern automobiles touchscreens, which you use to turn on the radio or change the air conditioning temperature.

Digital switching offers complete customization. The needs for illumination or multiple positions are antiquated by the utility of a touchscreen, and bumping a switch on or off without realizing it virtually becomes impossible. Reliability also gets an overall boost, especially on open boats like center consoles. The contacts and moving parts of the switch are moved away from an exposed helm and can be located in protected compartments and enclosures. And digital switching systems have a huge leg up over physical switches because the system can be expanded and customized over time. In many cases can even interface with your cell phone or tablet and a Bluetooth or WiFi link, to take control of your boat’s systems via an app.

As advantageous as it is, digital switching can be intimidating, especially true for old salts who think that digital gremlins are capable of shutting the boat down. Fortunately, most boatbuilders utilizing digital switching recognize this, which is why they incorporate physical back-up switches for critical systems somewhere on the boat.

Switch to Digital

Which type of switches will be the best, on your next boat? If you stick with analog, it’s mostly a matter of personal preference just as long as you pay close attention to the quality level. If you’re buying a used boat, you may not have much choice, but should certainly give the system a close look to be sure that the switches are all in good shape and high quality. If you’re buying a new boat and going digital is an option, it’s the hands-down winner. While it may be a bit scary at first, more and more builders are shifting to digital switching every day. At some point soon, finding those rockers, toggles, and push-buttons at the helm will probably become as rare as finding incandescent light bulbs instead of LEDs has become these days.

Written by: Lenny Rudow

With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, Lenny Rudow has contributed to publications including YachtWorld,, Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, and he has won numerous BWI and OWAA writing awards.