The Different Types of Boat Covers: How to Choose the Right Type

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Don’t let your shiny new boat become one of “those boats”.  You know the ones – the boats left stranded and cover-less in some open-air asphalt lot or even tied up towards the back of the marina. With their lusterless and oxidized finish, cracked upholstery, and faded helm controls, these boats look almost derelict after less than five years of use.

The one commonality between “these boats?” They’ve all been left uncovered in the open air, exposed to the elements. Unfortunately, in some cases, even a “covered” slip can’t protect boats completely.

To keep your boat from becoming one of “those boats,” you’ll need to invest in quality protective boat cover. This must-have can keep your boat looking sharp today, reduce maintenance costs tomorrow, and even boost resale value in the future.

Old derelict runabout

Image source

Understanding Boat Covers

A boat cover serves as a barrier against the detrimental effects of sun, wind, water, and other threats. Choosing a quality boat cover is important for maintaining your boat’s appearance and durability.

Types of Boat Covers

Boat covers come in lots of shapes and sizes.  Each is made to address the different needs of different boats.  Specific types of boats are protected best by a model or type-specific cover. For example, a deck boat is protected better by a cover made specifically for these kinds of watercraft rather than a cover designed for bass boats, for example.

Image source

Common types of covers are bimini tops, enclosures, cockpit covers, bow covers, and storage covers.

Boat “canvas”, either bimini tops or full enclosures, are structures.  Bimini tops offer only shade for passengers. Full enclosures provide shade plus protection for both the boat and its passengers. Enclosures, however, typically have “roll-up” sides with clear panels for visibility.

Some covers protect the entire boat, from bow to stern and across the entire width (beam). 

Other types shield only certain sections of the boat. like the helm or seating areas. Whereas a cockpit cover protects a vessel from the windshield to the stern. 

Boat with a bimini

Above: Boat with a bimini top. Image Source

Enclosure with wide zippered hatch at helm

Above: This enclosure has a zippered hatch at the helm since some captains prefer to operate standing. Image Source

Universal vs. Custom vs. Semi-Custom Boat Covers

Universal fit boat covers are the lowest-cost option.  Usually, they are made to fit the boat, based only on the boat’s length and width.  Without well-placed underside supports (usually poles), universal covers will generally deliver a looser fit and less protection than custom or semi-custom options. 

Universal boat covers are usually held to the boat in one of two ways:  

  • Adjustable straps that are suspended at intervals along the bottom of the cover, secured by fastening them to a fixed object like trailer bunks beneath the boat.
  • Drawstrings sewn into the hem of the cover, which is positioned over the rub rail and then pulled taut.
Linkely universal cover on trailered bass boat

Above: Likely a universal boat cover. Note the short bow and stern overlaps, plus the valley aft of the helm. Image Source

Pro tip: Universal boat covers are not recommended for trailering. These storage covers’ loose fit can damage the boat’s finish or cause damage to or loss of the cover at highway speeds.

Custom boat covers are the highest-cost option and are tailored to your boat’s exact measurements.  A custom boat cover offers a tighter fit and thus better protection against the elements, as well as critter intrusion.

Custom boat covers plus biminis on two wake on boats.

Above: Custom boat covers (2 per boat) plus bimini tops. The cockpit covers aft & bow covers forward. Image Source

Positioned between universal and custom covers are semi-custom covers.  Their appeal is a balance between affordability and fit for boats with basically the same hull style. Semi-custom cover suppliers may keep “patterns” for popular boat models.

Key Factors to Consider When Shopping

You will need to select your boat cover by balancing its cost against the quality of the materials, the construction, and the fit.  “Good, better, best” designations by sellers suggest the differences in overall performance across product lines.

Fit and Fastening

A precise, secure fit is crucial in preventing damage to your boat during storage. The cover should provide as much protection as possible to vulnerable areas, including helm controls, seating areas, and carpets. 

Common failure points are seams and areas around fasteners, vents, and supports. Mechanical reinforcement and double stitching in these areas are marks of quality construction.  

Any area subject to stretching due to the boat’s contours can also fail.  For custom-fit covers, look for double-layering reinforcement in these sections. 

Evaluate the mechanisms that secure the cover to the boat, usually snaps, straps, or drawstrings. Will they withstand strong winds from any direction? 

Material and Fabric Quality

The choice of high-quality materials for your boat cover enables superior levels of protection.  Common materials include acrylic, vinyl, polyvinyl composite, and marine-grade canvas. 

Acrylic material, such as Sunbrella canvas, is the gold standard for boat cover materials.  It excels at breathability, UV and fade resistance, and quality. Designed to withstand the harsh marine environment, it is the preferred choice for boat covers and biminis.

Ask about the thread.  Better thread resists UV rays, lasts longer than non-UV resistant thread, and indicates quality.  

The distinction between waterproof and water-resistant fabrics is crucial. 

Waterproof covers have no “breathability”, so the boat owner will need to facilitate ventilation for the protected areas to mitigate mold and mildew formation.

Analyze the type of fabric that best suits your boat’s storage environment.  Acrylic, which is a breathable fabric, is generally appropriate, especially in hot, humid climates.

A waterproof storage cover might be more suitable for winter storage in cold climates with frequent snowfall and rain. Often boats in these conditions are “hauled” from the water as winter begins, treated against mold and mildew, and then professionally shrink-wrapped using waterproof materials.  The shrink wrap stays on until the boat is ready to be “splashed” next spring.

4 inches of snow covering expensive fishing gear in an uncovered cockpit

Above: Coulda used a cover. Image Cover

NOTE: If your boat is kept in the water during the winter, even if you have it covered, you should check it periodically to ensure no moisture is accumulating inside.  That can ruin the furnishings, plus the weight of accumulating water has sunk boats.

Covers for Specific Boat Types

There are boat covers available in all quality and price points for many types of boats. Although custom covers may be unavailable “from stock” for some models, universal-fit covers are available for most boats. You can also find semi-custom covers for many recent models.

A custom canvas shop can provide custom-fit boat covers for any boat.

Custom fit cover on this aft-cabin. Notice vents and covered radar. Most other boats here have enclosures.

Above: Custom cover on this aft-cabin. Note vents & covered radar. Most boats here have enclosures. Image Source

Save up to $1,200/year on boat storage

Measuring Your Boat for the Best Boat Cover

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions when measuring.  For semi-custom and custom-fit boat covers, include additional room for optional or add-on (aftermarket) equipment.

Additional Accessories for Boat Covers

To enhance the performance and longevity of your boat cover, additional accessories such as support poles and storage bags are available. 

Adjustable height poles lift the boat cover to maintain contours so water will roll off rather than puddle.  Grommet-like devices are available that fit the tops of the poles.  Primarily used to spread the upward force across a wider area, some also include ventilation capability.

Caring for Your Boat Cover

Proper maintenance of your boat cover prolongs its life. Boat covers get dirty because they intercept dust, sand, leaves, and other debris. Just sweeping the cover will help, but washing using mild soap and water at least every 3 months is recommended.

Watch for any rips or fraying of the fabric, loose fasteners, or deterioration of stitching or seams. DIY kits with adhesive patches are available to extend the life of the cover. 

Water-resistant covers will eventually begin to lose their water resistance.  Retreatment solutions are available (Sunbrella recommends 303 brands). Always follow the label instructions.

Regarding colors: Covers stain, so think twice about white.  Also, excessive heat develops under dark colors.

Wrap-up

That’s what you need to do – wrap up that shiny new boat of yours in the best boat cover you can. There are reliable online resources that provide more information, including Boatus.com and WestMarine.com.

Remember that finding the right storage unit is just as important as finding the right cover for your vessel. After you’ve secured the right cover, consider Neighbor for your boat storage needs.

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