How to Choose the right Boat Lift

In some ways, talking about boat lifts is like talking about the bathroom plumbing. There is nothing glamorous about either, but they are essential. Think about it: When is the last time you heard someone say, “Wow! Look at that sleek, stylish boat lift?”

For many vessel owners, the boat lift or davit is a critical piece of equipment for keeping the boat stored off the water when not in use, easier cleaning of the boat’s hull, accessing water that would be inaccessible without the boat lift, completing boat repairs in a more convenient manner and lifting the boat out of the water so it can be moved to boat storage as a step in the winterization process. There are different types of boat lifts, meaning you need to decide, with the help of a marine professional, which one best fits your needs.

The following sections present some basic information on factors to consider before looking at boat lifts, maintaining a boat lift, and other tidbits of information you might find useful. Quite honestly, the topic became more complex than expected because much of the existing information discusses only one aspect of boat lifts. This discussion tries to bring it all under one roof…or shall we say…one boat canopy.

Factors Impacting Boat Lift Selection

Buying a boat lift requires some serious research. There are boat lifts for every imaginable situation and that fit every imaginable boat. Some of the things to take into consideration when selecting a boat lift include the following.

  • Boat length
  • Boat beam width
  • Type of hull - v-hull, pontoon, tritoon, PWC, sailboat
  • Boat weight - dry and loaded weights
  • Propulsion - inboard or outboard
  • Water depth – must be able to accommodate the height of the lift frame and carriage and the boat draft
  • Type of water – saltwater versus fresh
  • Water fluctuations - tides, dam water flow, high traffic churn, etc.
  • Typical weather conditions - frequent storms, high winds, usually calm, etc.
  • Dock style - height and type
  • Pillars – location and height
  • Location - high traffic area, calm cove, rough water area, riverfront, lakefront, gradual or steep shoreline, rocky shoreline, etc.
  • Type of water bottom – muddy, sandy, rocky, weedy, firm, etc.
  • Power source - electric (is electricity even available?) or manual operation
  • Materials – stainless steel, galvanized steel, aluminum, advanced polymer (floating dock)
  • Flotation tank material for floating dock– fiberglass, metal or polyethylene (best choice)
  • Dock features – fixed or floating; roof structure; slip width, water depth in the slip
  • Seasonal removal required – some lakes and marina require seasonal installation and removal which determines need for removal boat lift
  • Marina restrictions – boat lift height, width, type, etc.
  • State and/or local rules - permits, height restrictions, homeowner association rules, etc.
  • Potential future purchase of a larger boat – need adjustable bunks
  • Boat lift style – elevator, cradle (cantilever or vertical), floating, sling, etc.

Selecting the lift is one step. You also need a boat lift manual crank/wheel or motor to operate the hoist. The lift motor needs to be matched to the lift brand to ensure the motor can be attached properly. The motor also needs to have enough lift capacity. Motors and gear systems and hydraulics are discussed in more depth in our Boat Lift Basics article.

Tidbits of Information There are a few other tidbits of information concerning boat lifts to share. One is that there are systems that use a cradle or a sling on which the boat hull rests. There are slings designed for shallow water when it is impossible to lower a lift deep enough to load the boat. Also, you can order a custom boat lift. For example, you need non-standard beam dimensions or angled lower beams.

Sailboats are put on lifts too. Remember that when choosing a lift for a sailboat the mast needs accommodation (an elevator boat lift will work well), or the mast may need to be removed before it is placed in the boat lift, if there are crossbars in the lift frame.

Boat lifts are made to hold small personal water craft (PWC) up to large yachts that may weigh as much as 180,000 pounds. You can buy lifts for personal water craft (PWC) like a Jet Ski, Sea-Doo and WaveRunner; pontoon boats; catamarans; and even kayaks. Also available are lifts for boats with a shallow draft or that sit in shallow waters, like fishing boats. There are also lifts specifically designed for center console boats or are front mounted to leave room in a double sized slip for a PWC.

New Technologies and Accessories

It is not surprising that there are new technologies introduced each year. They include lift controls operated by a smartphone, solar power and cable protectors that hold cables in place to reduce wear and tear and increase safety.

Of course, you will also find a wealth of boat lift parts and additions that make life so much nicer. They include gangways, walk abouts, cargo lifts, power pedestals and canopy covers.

Boat Lift Maintenance

The type of boat lift installed determines how much maintenance is needed. Following are some common maintenance requirements.

  • Watch for cable and frame UV damage, cracking, corrosion, etc.
  • Steel cabling can weaken from bending or fray from use or corrosion, so it needs periodic replacement (every 2 years, after a major storm or when excessively used
  • Keep cables and cradle out of the water as much as possible to avoid barnacle growth, corrosion due to saltwater and/or electrolysis, i.e. leave the unit up when not in use
  • Rinse the cables and cradle each time the boat is removed, especially if used in saltwater
  • Spray rust inhibitor on pulleys periodically
  • Maintain the winch
  • Keep the cables spooling correctly
  • Have the entire lift system, especially the cabling, inspected at the start and end of each boating season
  • Never ignore sounds of screeching or squealing because it is the system letting you know there is a problem
  • Apply penetrating oil (no grease!) to cables on a routine basis to minimize abrasion
  • Apply grease as recommended to bearings and pulleys but at least every six months
  • Regularly check electrical lines
  • If a bolted rather than a welded lift, check regularly for loose bolts
  • Do not place more weight on the boat lift than the manufacturer’s specifications indicate
  • Schedule routine maintenance

Rely on a Professional Marine Technician

Though some people assemble and install their boat lifts, it is much better to let a professional boat lift installer near you handle the job. It is the best way to ensure the boat lift is installed properly and in alignment. For example, pilings must be able to support the boat and the boat lift weight. Cables and pulleys need correct installation to make sure they work properly and to avoid an improper installation that leads to early wear-and-tear.

Of course, a boat lift that requires electrical installation must use a licensed electrician if you want to meet state and local code requirements and ensure maximum safety and insurance coverage.

Talk it Out

The bottom boat lift line is that there is a product ideal for every situation. You need to identify your particular needs and then have a long discussion with a marine professional. A boat lift requires an investment, but the benefits far outweigh the costs.