If you’re new to boating, choosing your first ride is a tough decision—should you look at center console boats, bow riders, or pontoon boats? Or, are speedy jet boats more your style? Perhaps a yacht-like power cruiser is to your liking. You’ll have to identify the genre on your own, but once you narrow the focus a bit, we can help you find a good first choice.

The requirements? It should be relatively inexpensive so you don’t bang up an uber-expensive boat while you're still learning the ropes; it should be relatively simple to operate; and it should be versatile enough for you to enjoy a wide range of activities until you discover what you like most about boating. Here’s what we liked and what we wished for in five top starter boats, which are ideal for the boating beginner.

stingray bow rider

Need a bowrider for beginners? This Stingray should be ideal.

Bowrider – Stingray 195

WE LIKE the Sting Ray l95 LX because it can be easily converted to do a huge number of jobs. Leave it in the bowrider configuration for general fun on the water. Add on the forward casting deck and pedestal seat, if you think a bit of light-duty angling is a possibility. Grab a tow rope and put a wakeboard in the large in-deck locker, when watersports are the activity dejure. And when you feel like just zipping around the lake, you’ll discover that the 195 LX has plenty of pep with a small, inexpensive 4.3 MPI Mercury stern drive and it hits speeds in the mid to upper 50’s.

WE WISH handling was a bit tighter at the top-end. If the boat weighed more or rode lower in the water, of course, it wouldn't go quite as fast.

Approximate Price Range: $25,000 - $35,000 depending on power choice and options.

For more information visit Stingray Boats, or read our review: Stingray 195 LX Fish and Ski Package.

triumph center console

Fishermen, pay attention: this center console is for you!

Center Console – Triumph 1700 Skiff

WE LIKE the indestructible nature of this boat, which is made from Roplene instead of fiberglass. Smash it into the dock, drag it up onto a rocky beach, or drop lead fishing weights onto the deck without worry, because you just can’t hurt this stuff. Plus, this boat is super-simple with minimal systems and wiring, so there’s little to go wrong.

WE WISH the fit and finish was a bit better, but the fact is that molded polymer parts just don’t look as good (or have as fine tolerances) as molded fiberglass.

Approximate Price Range: $20,000 - $25,000

For more information visit Triumph, or read our review of the 1700 Skiff.

yamaha jet boat

When it comes to jet boats, Yamaha is a big player - and you'll be doing some playing yourself, if you get an AR 192.

Jet Boat – Yamaha AR/SX 190/192

WE LIKE Yamaha’s long jet-boat track record, and special features that come with it like Cruise assist and No Wake Mode, which make the boat easier to handle - especially in slow-speed situations where many jet boats tend to wander. Another high point is the MSRP pricing for the entire package, instead of confusing pieces-parts pricing that come with lots of optional features. Although those listed above are all essentially the same boat, the different model designations s (AR, AX, 190, and 192) relate mostly to power and tower packages. Pick the one you like, and you’ll know exactly how much you need to spend.

WE WISH these jet boats were a bit quieter. Though our reviewer recorded a maximum volume of 96 dB-A  (less volume than some outboards produce) when running the 192, he described the high frequency resonance as “harsh,” which is a common complaint aboard small modern jet boats.

Approximate Price Range: $26,000 - $33,000

For more information visit Yamaha Boats, or read our review of the Yamaha AR/SX 192.


sweetwater pontoon boat

This Sweetwater makes a great starter pontoon boat.

Pontoon Boat – Sweetwater SW 1570

WE LIKE the fact that this boat delivers a lot of value for a base-model pontoon. Although its small and inexpensive it maintains a high level of quality throughout, with a fiberglass helm station, quality vinyl on the seats, a table with built-in cupholders, a color-coordinated Bimini top with boot, and colored rail skin. And even though it’s merely 15’ long, there’s seating for up to seven passengers.

WE WISH for a little more power; with the base 20-hp outboard, performance is not exactly thrilling. Upgrading to the 40-hp maximum makes us happier—but also drives up the price tag.

Approximate Price Range: $15,000 - $22,000

For more information visit Sweetwater, or read 10 Top Pontoon Boats: Our Favorites, which includes this model.

bayliner discovery 266

Ready for a power cruiser? The Bayliner Discovery 266 isn't exactly a yacht, but it has a lot to offer the beginner boater.

Power Cruiser – Bayliner Discovery 266

WE LIKE that this pocket-cruiser has an enclosed cabin and a completely protected helm station, yet still manages to fit in a (small) cockpit for fishing, sunning, or relaxing. Belowdecks there’s a mid-cabin berth, a full galley, a V-berth, and a stand-up head—which is a lot more than most boats of this size can offer. Performance is good, too, with a cruise of about 30-mph when powered by a Mercury 5.0 stern drive.

WE WISH for more cockpit space, but of course, that would force the sacrifice of cabin space. Also, we should note that this boat has a high center of gravity and is a bit tender.

Approximate Price Range: $70,000 - $95,000

For more information visit Bayliner, or watch our Bayliner Discovery 266 Video Boat Review.

Want more ideas? Read Six Super Starter Boats for the Beginner Boater.