Not so long ago, many new and used boats sported canvas T-tops. But over the past two decades, fiberglass hardtops began to dominate, and then to evolve.
The once block-shaped shades now feature sexier designs and sophisticated detailing. Many builders even offer their tops as a standard feature.
“Since our first surfboard-style hardtop [in the mid-’90s], our tops have evolved the same way our boats have: They’ve gotten bigger and bigger and bigger,” says SeaVee marketing director John Caballero. “We design them using 3-D CAD technology and model them in the computer at the same time we design the boats to specifically suit each model.”
To understand this now essential feature for an offshore-fishing boat, we talked to five boatbuilders that have innovated when it comes to hardtop design. The companies are listed alphabetically.
“Hardtops are standard on every boat we build,” says Bryan Harris, vice president of sales and marketing. “We first offered hardtops in 2002, when the company started. R.J. Dougherty Associates was first founded to build hardtops for other manufacturers, and the tops carried over into the Everglades line.”
In fact, late founder Bob Dougherty’s patented rapid molded-core assembly process, or RAMCAP, evolved as a hardtop-building system, Harris says, and it later carried over into the boatbuilding side.
Harris says Everglades was the first builder in the industry to take two separate fiberglass pieces, place a core material in between them and then vacuum the pieces together. Everglades molds high-density foam to custom-fit this center area.
“This created a lighter one-piece top with recessed cavities for speakers, lights and other accessories,” he adds.
Today, Everglades still uses the RAMCAP process to build tops, and only makes them for its own boats. The company also does all of its own metalwork for framing in-house.
The hardtops vary as far as their features; larger tops come with underhanging rod storage, and smaller tops feature recessed lighting and flush-mount options for gauges and stereos.
“Every center console we build comes standard with a hardtop, patented sliding adjustable windshield [an Everglades hallmark] and a powder-coated aluminum frame,” Harris says. “Our hardtops have evolved to become these complete, integrated packages.”
Twenty-three of Grady‘s 26 current boat models come with standard (14) or optional (9) fiberglass hardtops. The company’s hardtop designs date back all the way to the early ’80s, when boat and outboard technologies were making it safer to go farther offshore and spend longer days on the water.
“The need to stay out of the sun and rain was a driving factor,” says Shelley Tubaugh, Grady’s vice president of marketing. “Many of the early designs were lightweight fiberglass shells that we elevated on simple aluminum frames onto which we bolted a radio box and some rod holders.”
With feedback from customers, the company designed a strong, durable top for its cabin boats — a prime factor for anglers taking longer trips. “By adding built-in storage nets for life jackets and other safety equipment, molding in the electronics boxes and adding more rod-holder storage — horizontal and vertical — we made the new generation of hardtops a key component for that terrific day offshore,” she says.
As boats began trending toward multipurpose fishing, family and functional vessels, tops for both dual and center consoles became more intricate. Grady designed molded-in cavities that allow for extendable sunshades, lighting, wire routing, sunroofs and even flat-screen TV storage.
“All of this has added weight, so the structures that support the tops have become more robust,” Tubaugh says. “Aesthetic expectations are now at a much higher level on the tops and structures. Tops are more shapely and aerodynamic. Often the underside of the top is painted to match the hull color. Frames are also painted and are using more interesting shapes than simple round pipe to achieve a more architectural look.”
The embodiment of those trends and innovations came together in Grady’s AV2 hardtop, first displayed on the Freedom 375 model. The AV2 comes with a sunroof (and a sliding screen), TV and horizontal rod storage in a molded overhead cavity.
“We also are developing full-height windshields for all of the center console models 20 feet and longer, and now offer the AV2 on the Express 330 and 370,” she says.
All of Invincible‘s center consoles — which range from 33 to 42 feet — can be equipped with an optional hardtop. “In the past six years, we have only built one boat with a soft top,” says Bill Cordes, director of sales and marketing. “We have offered hardtops from the beginning [10 years].”
Initially, Invincible built traditional rectangular and popular Key West-style tops — which taper inward or narrow ahead of the console to accommodate vertical rod storage. “We are on our third generation of hardtops. We’ve changed the shape of our tops to make them more appealing. They’re also 20 percent bigger than our closest competitors’,” Cordes says.
The newest tops feature a more exaggerated rounded front radius and a tapered transition on the front brow, he says. “We do not offer an overhead box [for electronics] as it is not needed with our ample console faces. All of our tops have conduit runs for all the flush-mount overhead LEDs and electronics components.”
Structurally, Invincible beefs up its support systems. “We have high-density foam placed where all of the support pads land. We support all of our tops with aluminum legs that are schedule-80 2-inch piping to ensure they’re stronger than they need to be.”
Eight of Scout‘s models, including the center console LXFs and the 275 Dorado, come with standard hardtops. Customers can order optional fiberglass tops for the XS and XSF models, and for the 255 Dorado and 195 Sportfish. The 225 Dorado and 177 series only offer a Bimini option.
The company’s first hardtop designs debuted in the late 1990s as a simple replacement for the canvas top, using a similar ring frame, says Scout CEO and founder Steve Potts. “These designs gave a cleaner look and were far more durable than fabric, which was prone to leaking over time,” he says. “Our hardtop designs soon evolved, eliminating the aluminum canopy framework. We accomplished this by creating molded gussets and ribs for the two-part composite top design.”
In 2006, Scout broke new ground with a patented powder-coated hardtop with a curved-glass enclosure. “This happens to be a trendsetting industry design widely used today,” Potts says. “This is a hardtop supported by an aluminum framework that has far fewer welded gussets, creating a much cleaner look with improved visibility.”
Since then, Scout has modified its design on larger LXF models to include a SureShade electronically retractable awning and the company’s National Marine Manufacturers Association Innovation Award-winning articulating rocket launcher. The rocket launcher — a row of rod holders aft of the hardtop — moves from vertical to horizontal as the SureShade extends, shifting the overhead rods out of the way. Dropping the launcher also helps shorter anglers, who might have to stand on a cooler or the gunwale to retrieve an overhead rod, by lowering the tackle within reach.
Although a fiberglass or canvas T-top is an option for all models, hardtops are specified on practically every boat order, SeaVee’s Caballero says.
When SeaVee started designing its first hardtops, they were meant to fix the shortfalls of the canvas version: “Canvas was a light and simple solution but didn’t last very long in the Florida sun, and they’d flap. It was difficult to add equipment to the frame later, and it was also difficult to get a clean, sophisticated look,” he says. “It also didn’t always keep its waterproofing and sometimes dripped on your head.”
A key innovation for hardtops came with the Key West version, with its narrow forward taper to allow rod storage. “This innovation enables the South Florida style of fishing, which is embodied in the idea that we carry many rods, all rigged for a specific type of fishing and ready at a moment’s notice,” he says.
As boats and hardtops have grown, integration has become a byword. “The customer wants more and better shade, and integrated features such as light bars and speakers,” Caballero says. “We’ve developed optional speaker pods and spreader lights that can be molded onto the hardtop bottom in an elegant and seamless way.”
SeaVee also now offers remote-controlled aft sunshades with molded fiberglass covers that integrate into the top. Several more new designs are on the drawing board for the company’s larger Express and Fish-Around models.