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RC Boat Buying Guide

  • Written By: Gary Katzer
  • Posted: 2007-07-26

While RC airplanes and cars tend to get the majority of modelers’ attention, there is another area of RC that can be just as much, if not even more fun than both. RC Boats provide a totally different experience than flying a plane or driving a car on many different levels. There are boats for everyone from performance enthusiasts, casual sailing fans, those who love the detailed runabouts of years gone by and more. Besides the aesthetics of individual boats, there are other considerations to think about such as battery or fuel power, to build or buy a Ready-To-Run boat, and more.

The first decision you’ll need to make when deciding on a new RC boat is whether you want to build your boat and install the electronics on your own or if you’d prefer to have a pre-assembled kit. Years ago, the argument could be made that you needed to buy a kit in order to get a quality boat. RTR’s (Ready-To-Run) have advanced to a point where their quality, fit, and finish equals that found in kits. With an RTR, you don’t have to worry about finding the appropriate radio gear for your boat. All your gear has been included and installed for you, including having the throttle linkages set at the factory. These extra steps are taken to reduce the amount of time it takes to go from box to water.

Years ago, the cost of a kit and radio gear was significantly less than purchasing an RTR. Much like how the difference in quality between kits and RTR’s has been reduced, the cost of RTR boats continues to drop. It has come to the point where buying an RTR can actually be less expensive than purchasing a kit and running gear separately. Even with all the advances in recent years in regards to RTR’s, kits are still a popular choice in RC Boating. Many who would enjoy RC boating enjoy building static models as well. By selecting a kit, you will also get the modeling experience you might desire along with the RC experience in one vehicle. The level of detail and personalization found in kits can be higher as well.

The power source for your boat is a very important feature to look at when deciding on a boat. Where you plan on driving your boat can weigh heavily on whether to go with a fuel-powered boat or an electric-powered one. Some communities have noise ordinances that would prevent you from being able to use a fuel-powered boat. In an instance such as this, an electric boat will allow you to still enjoy model boating without creating excessive noise. Electric boats also provide simple, plug-and-play operation. When you want to drive your boat, all you’ll need to do is charge up the battery pack, plug it in, and you’re ready to go.

If noise isn’t a concern, you might want to consider going with a fuel-powered boat. These boats are available with two different engine configurations: gasoline powered and nitro powered. Gasoline-powered boats use basically the same gasoline that your full-size car uses, making refueling relatively inexpensive and easy. There is one difference between what your car runs on and what an RC boat utilizes for fuel. RC boats run off of a gasoline and oil mixture, very similar to what you might use in a gas leaf blower or string trimmer. Nitro-powered boats run off of a very specific type of fuel available through hobby dealers. Nitro fuel tends to be more costly per gallon, but its also safer than gasoline. Nitro fuel has key oils and lubricants blended into it, eliminating the need to mix your fuel with oil as you would with gasoline-powered boats.

Boats that run off of gasoline engines are larger and use a larger displacement engine than their nitro-powered cousins. Regardless of whether you decide to go with a nitro- or gasoline-powered boat, you will find that, generally speaking, fuel-powered boats offer extended runtimes when compared to battery-powered boats. Fuel-powered boats are also capable of higher top speeds, requiring a larger area to run in. Fuel-powered boats also offer the intangible sensation of the realistic sound produced by the engine as it rips across the water’s surface, adding to the experience and excitement. The engine noise could possible eliminate some ponds and streams from consideration as areas to drive in. Make sure that, regardless of whether you buy an electric or fuel-powered boat, you observe and follow all posted regulations.

Caption: There are a number of different ways to propel a boat across the surface of the water. Small block .18-size engines, battery packs, electric motors, and powerful 26cc Zenoah engines are all used in model boats.

There are few more enjoyable and relaxing experiences than a leisurely day sailing around an open stretch of water. Just imagine gliding silently across the top of the water, effortlessly, as the sun sets on the horizon and loons call out from the water’s edge. This sort of quiet, serene experience is exactly what RC sailing is all about. RC sailboats capture this experience of sailing perfectly in scale form, while requiring a lot less work than sailing a full-sized boat. Much like an RC glider floating effortlessly in the sky, tacking the sail of an RC sailboat into the wind will propel it into the distance. Thanks to the lack of a motor or engine, the only power requirements on an RC sailboat is for the receiver and servos. Due to this, RC sailboats provide extremely long runtimes.

RC sailboats are among the most scale-looking RC vehicles of any genre and class, thanks to the intricate level of detail that goes into each model. Manufacturers recognize this, and acknowledge that those who would own an RC sailboat would take as much pride in admiring their boat as they would sailing it. Because of this, RC sailboats include a display stand for storing your boat when it’s not in use.

Whether you enjoy classic Mississippi River Paddle boats or wooden runabouts, there’s something here for you. There are some fantastic-looking boats out there, many of which rival the level of detail that you would normally find in static models. These boats are designed with form over function, but they still perform very well once they are on the water. Many boats that feature authentic detailing and scale features are sold as kits that you will need to assemble. There are a number of great-looking RTR’s out there as well, if building is not your cup of tea.

Many scale-oriented boats have a number of intricate details that may not be noticed to the untrained eye. Subtle details such as rivets, lighting, and traditional-looking steering wheels in the wheelhouses all add to the scale appeal of models such as these. Some of the popular kinds of scale boats include paddle boats, classic runabouts, steamships, tug boats, and even more. For those looking for something truly unique, there are even WWII-era RC submarines and battleships, making it possible for you to enjoy a totally different boating experience.

We know your type all too well. You’re the kind of person who can tell engines apart by listening to them idle; the kind of person who can tell the difference between 10w30 and 5w40 by swirling the bottles around; the kind of person who’s always looking to be a little better and faster than everyone else. High-performance boats can fill the need you have to be bigger, faster, louder, and more aggressive than anyone else on the water. No one will think of pushing you around once you show up with one of these bad boys and fire up its powerful fuel-burning engine. When talking about the performance and handling of a particular boat, the configuration of the hull will have enormous impact on the overall performance and handling of a boat on the water. When talking about the different types of hulls, there are three main configurations for performance-oriented RC boats: Deep-V’s, catamarans, and hydroplanes.

Deep-V’s are modeled after full-scale boats and are capable of tremendously high speeds. A deep-V gets its name after the look and profile of the hull’s distinctive V-shape. This hull configuration relies on hull strakes for improved stability and cornering ability, and its deep-V design helps the boat absorb the impact of bigger waves on rough water. When you jump on the throttle with a deep-V, the nose will typically come out of the water and as the boat gets on plane, it will ride on the rear 1/3 of the hull.

Another hull type is a catamaran. Catamaran’s have been modeled after off-shore race boats and, due to their increased surface area in the water, provide additional positive stability when compared to a deep-V. While it is more stable, the fact that a catamaran has more of its hull in the water translates into increased drag and slightly reduced top speed.

When you’re talking about speed and performance on the water, you’re clearly talking about Unlimited Hydroplanes. Hydroplanes skim across the top of the water at tremendous speeds capturing the look and feel of their full scale counterparts, even down to the huge turbine exhaust ports at the back of the hull and gorgeous sponsor decals. Hydroplanes are designed primarily for oval racing and feature a turning fin on the backside of one of the sponsons to aid in cutting the tightest lines possible around a racecourse. RC hydroplanes can be considered to be the “Formula One of RC Boating,” due to their high speeds and performance-driven designs.

What happens when you cross an airplane with a boat? You get an airboat, of course. Airboats use a top-mounted nitro engine to push the boat across the surface of the water, much like a prop on an airplane. Airboats generally use a flat-bottom hull to skim over the water’s surface with minimal resistance. There are two popular ways to control the direction an airboat travels in. One method uses a rudder in the water to turn the boat, while the other method uses panels mounted behind the prop to direct the prop’s thrust. This second method of controlling the direction of the boat isn’t as effective as using a rudder, but it will allow the boat to be operated in much more shallow water where a rudder could get hung up on the bed. Airboats are somewhat of a niche class of RC boats, and because of this the majority of airboats are available as kits.

When you want to drive a boat but you don’t have access to a huge piece of open water, a mini or micro boat is the perfect option. Minis are smaller than other boats, but they feature similar handling and performance characteristics of their larger cousins. Minis are available as RTR’s that require very little preparation time to get on the water and provide an inexpensive and economical way for someone to get their feet wet in the world of RC boating. Some mini boats can be driven in swimming pools if you need to get your boating fix in a snap, while others have some very unique features, such as water cannons or intricate details.

When looking at a mini boat, how a boat comes equipped can help separate one model from another. The type of radio gear included with a mini will impact a boat’s performance and increase your level of enjoyment. Boats that feature digitally proportional throttle and steering will respond more precisely to transmitter inputs than a toy-grade on/off-style radio. The differences between the two different radio types are fairly substantial. With a digitally proportional radio, if you move the throttle a little, the boat travels slowly; move the throttle further and the boat will go faster. The same is true of the steering, subtle steering movements on the radio translate to slight rudder movements, while greater steering inputs translate to greater steering on the water.

1/8-Scale Hydroplane
Pro Boat Miss Elam

When it comes to authentic-looking and functional boats, no one does it better than Pro Boat. The officially licensed Miss Elam is no exception, as it captures the look and feel of the full-scale boat perfectly. The 1/8-scale Miss Elam comes out of the box equipped with a powerful and reliable gas-powered Zenoah engine that features a water-cooled exhaust system. All of the Miss Elam’s hardware has been made from stainless steel and aircraft-grade aluminum to better resist rusting and corrosion. Controlling a big boat such as this at high speeds is especially important, which is why the Miss Elam includes a genuine JR XR3i FM computer radio system.

Best Equipped Sailboat
Pro Boat Sanibel

When the time comes to sit back and relax behind the sticks of a sailboat, the Pro Boat Sanibel should be at the top of your list. The Sanibel is equipped with a two-piece aluminum mast for strength and ease of transport. The fiberglass composite hull is both lightweight and durable and its ripstop-nylon sail features colorful red and blue stripes along with the Sanibel logo. Out of the box, all of the radio equipment has been installed for you, including the powerful winch servo.

Best Pool Performer
HobbyZone Zig Zag 3 Racers
HBZ3700 (Yellow); HBZ3705 (Red); HBZ3710 (Blue)

If you’re looking for a boat to go out and simply have fun and laugh with, the Zig Zag 3 from HobbyZone deserves more than just a passing glance. The Zig Zag 3 includes absolutely everything you need to get up and running right in the box. From the 6-cell battery pack and charger to the 8 AA batteries for the transmitter, everything is here. The Zig Zag 3 can be equipped with the included front bumpers to play "capture the flag" with the floating buoys that also come in the box. There’s nothing not to like about the Zig Zag 3.

Most Unique Kit
Dumas Myrtle Corey Tow Boat

There's something special about 19th-century paddle boats, and the Dumas Mertle Corey Tow Boat captures that feeling perfectly. The Myrtle Corey Tow Boat features a precision vacuumed-formed hull and roof pieces. The Myrtle Corey also features precision laser-cut parts to provide a clean and realistic re-creation of this particular model. You can’t overlook the gorgeous paddle wheel which truly sets this kit apart from any other model available. When you are on the water with it, you might even be able to hear the quiet cries of "mark twain" off in the distance.

Outstanding Mini
Pro Boat Mini-V
PRB3000 (White); PRB3001(Red); PRB3002(Yellow)

Quality smaller RC boats have been few and far between until recently, and the Pro Boat Mini-V definitely pushes the performance envelope further than ever. The Mini-V uses a scaled-down Deep-V hull design to skim across the surface of the water effortlessly. The Mini-V features an advanced digitally proportional radio system to provide exceptional control and precision. The Mini-V’s ESC has been coated with a water-resistant film to extend its life and improve durability in the event that it becomes wet. Available in three different hull colors, the Mini-V is simply a fun boat to take to a local pond with a couple of friends, spending an afternoon blasting around the water.

Fastest Gas Boat
Pro Boat ShockWave 55 Super Sport

When you are looking for the ultimate RC boating experience, the Pro Boat ShockWave 55 is the boat for you. From its gasoline-fueled high-performance Zenoah engine, genuine JR XR3i computer radio system, stainless steel and aircraft-grade aluminum running gear and much more, the ShockWave 55 is the baddest boat you will find. The deep-V hull design helps the ShockWave 55 smooth out rough waters as its hull strakes aid in fast-cornering maneuvers. The ShockWave 55 comes out of the box ready-to-run; it doesn’t get much easier or faster than this.

Best Overall Airboat
Pro Boat Vortex .46 Airboat

The Pro Boat Vortex provides fans of airboats with an enjoyable experience with very little effort required. The Vortex includes all the running gear you're going to need to get on the water, minus some fuel and a glow driver. A reliable and easy-to-tune Evolution .46-size engine spins a tri-bladed prop to propel the Vortex over the top of the water effortlessly. The durable fiberglass hull comes out of the box fully detailed. An oversized rudder is bolted to the back of the hull, ensuring that the Vortex goes in the direction you command.

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