Average Boat Speeds: Pontoon, Cruiser and Sail Speed Examples
How fast do boats go on average?
Is a fast boat the exception or the rule for average boat speeds?
What horsepower can you realistically expect from the average boat purchase?
Well, these questions can be answered in lots of different ways.
The fastest boat speed record ever was 317.6 MPH. It was achieved by a man named Ken War who was using a speedboat he named the Spirit of Australia. To be fair, though, when that boat made its water speed record run back in 1978, it was powered not by a propeller but by a jet engine. Most boats don't go quite that fast (and we're thankful for that).
Motorboats designed primarily for speed - known as rum-runners in decades past and often called cigarette boats (due to their slender shape) or simply go-fast boats today - can achieve speeds up to 90 MPH with relative ease over calm flat waters.
Even that's quite a bit faster than the average boat speed, and unless you're considering a career in smuggling (which we don't recommend, by the way), it's probably quite a bit faster than you need to travel over the water.
So, let's talk about average recreational boat speed statistics that are a bit more practical.
Why Boat Speed Matters
Going fast in a boat can be lots of fun.
The enjoyment that comes from speed is a huge plus for adrenaline-seeking boaters. That's one reason why knowing how fast a boat goes is important.
It's also important to consider boat speed when you're getting a boat for water activities. Think about the types of activities for which your ideal boat will be used. You should even consider whether you live in, or want to enjoy your boat in, high-altitude areas.
Even then, desired speeds can vary. The best speed for a towing activity such as water skiing can vary from 10 MPH to 35 MPH. Lower speeds are better for younger skiers and certain trick-skiing activities, and the higher speeds are for more experienced water skiers completing slaloms or jumps.
As you can see, some action-loving boaters might need a craft with plenty of potential for speed.
The fisherman who likes to slowly troll through calm waters, on the other hand, might do well enough with a boat that only cruises along at a top speed of 15 MPH.
If you use your boat for long trips, then balancing speed and fuel efficiency is important.
How you're going to be using your boat should inform the ideal average and top speed ratings of the boat you ultimately buy.
Don't just go looking for a super fast boat that you might not ever really take advantage of. What a waste that would be!
Average Pontoon Boat Speeds
The trusty, stable pontoon boat can travel a good deal faster than many people think.
Pontoon boat speeds can surpass 30 MPH under the right conditions. A few pontoon boats can even reach the 35 MPH mark thanks to larger engines and great conditions.
The G3 Suncatcher pontoon boat, with a 90 HP motor, can easily go more than 30 MPH.
A 20-foot Bass Buggy with a 60 HP engine, on the other hand, will only go around 15 MPH.
A middle-of-the-road option in terms of average pontoon boat speed is the 21-foot Triton pontoon boat and its 90 HP engine. This boat's combination of speed and strength gives it a top boat speed of around 25 MPH even when you have a few friends aboard weighing it down.
Average Cruiser Speeds
For cruiser-style motorboats that are in the price range of many American families, let's discuss a few options that give a good sense of average powerboat speed.
The Marlow-Pilot 32 has a relatively slow top cruising speed of 16 MPH, but its range at moderate speeds is the more remarkable thing about the vessel. It can travel more than 800 miles without re-fueling.
If you want a motorboat with a bit more speed, such as what a sport fisherman might need, consider the stats of the Pursuit SC 365i Sport Yacht. It can come close to 50 MPH at top speed and cruise comfortably in the 30 MPH range.
Finally, if you're wondering how fast larger motorboats go, the 40-foot Carver C40 Command Bridge cruises along at 30 MPH with ease and is suitable for use during multi-day trips.
Average Sail Boat Speeds
Most people use sailboats because they savor the practice of harnessing the wind, not because they expect to go all that fast.
The average cruising sailboat, such as a celebrated Island Packet 420, will sail along at an average speed of between 8 and 12 MPH under most decent circumstances.
The world speed record of a sailboat is a bit faster than that, at just over 75 MPH. That breakneck speed was achieved by the Vestas Sailrocket 2 in 2012.
And just for your interest, have you ever wondered how fast Columbus's ships sailed? Experts agree that ships of the late 15th century likely cruised along at just under 4 knots and a likely top speed of 8 knots. That's an average boat speed of somewhere between 4 and 9 MPH.
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Average Boat Speed and Fuel Consumption
Going fast in a motorboat is lots of fun but it can also be very expensive.
To help get a picture of the direct relationship of average boat speed to fuel used, let's select the Formula 240 Bowrider motorboat as our example. This affordable and capable 24-foot speedboat is a common favorite for American families.
At a steady cruising speed of 7 MPH, the 240 Bowrider consumes about 3 gallons of fuel per hour. At twice that speed, around 15 MPH, it consumes over twice the amount of fuel, burning up around 7 gallons per hour.
Double that speed again and the boat consumes 11 gallons of fuel at around 30 MPH. The Bowrider can go well over 45 MPH.
Many powerboats offer relative fuel efficiency at their mid-range speeds, so puttering along at only a few miles per hour isn't necessary for fuel savings. You can cruise at an enjoyable clip and still conserve fuel.
Laws About Boat Speed
It's generally rather easy to figure out the speed limit when you're driving on a road. All you have to do is look for the posted speed limit sign. Knowing boat speed regulations laws is a bit trickier.
The limits aren't always posted and can change based on a myriad of factors, including the type of waterway, time of day (or night), type of boat and more.
And what's more, a boat speed limit is rarely a specific numerical figure.
Once you're out on the open water of a sea, ocean or large lake, it's safe to assume you can take your boat up to its top speed provided you can see the way ahead of you is safe and clear.
Closer to shore - on a river, in the bay or in other such areas - you have to be a bit more cautious.
Generally, you must watch out for "no wake zones," which are enforced in many places, including near docks and marinas, in canals and near the shore in many cases.
To remain in compliance with a No Wake Zone rule, a boat must travel slow enough that it doesn't produce a swell large enough to threaten others in the area (including other boaters, swimmers, animals and so forth).
Most motorboats produce a noticeable wake at speeds greater than 5 MPH. Yes, navigating the way through a no wake zone can be an exercise in patience. But the rules regarding boat speed were designed to help keep all people out on the water safe, from the family enjoying a trip in their pleasure yacht to the fisherman casting a line off of his sit-on-top kayak.
Keep these considerations in mind when you're choosing your boat and taking it out for a spin to test its full speed.