COVER UP: Boat Cover Buying in an Online World

Custom top shops like M & J in Hampton, Virginia make covers the old fashioned way, by hand.








by John Tiger

In-season or in storage, your boat should be absolutely be covered when you’re not using it, to protect it from the elements. In any weather, the cover protects the boat’s finish, interior and instruments from weather degradation, and helps keep critters out as well. In summer, the cover also helps keep water out, so if your boat’s kept in the water, you don’t find it on the lake bottom after every rainstorm.


If you’re in need, how should you shop? These days, it’s standard practice to search online first, whether you plan to buy online or local. But that brings up the question—where can you get a better boat cover, locally or online?

This cover, ordered from an online retailer for a ‘ski boat’ (generic fit), fits too tightly over the rubrails and is difficult to keep in place.

Owners of popular late model brand-name boats like Sea Ray, Boston Whaler, Chaparral, Malibu, Glastron, Wellcraft, Larson and many others have a great advantage as many online retailers sell custom fitted covers for these hulls at greatly discounted prices. In fact, many share the same “search engine” mechanism so that while the home pages of many of these websites look different, the search function is the same. Simply go online, type “boat covers” into your search engine, and you’ll instantly see dozens of sites to choose from. Type in your year/make/model, and chances are good there’s a cover for your rig for less than half of what it would cost to get a high-quality cover made at a local custom canvas shop. Even popular bass and walleye fishing boats, as well as tournament ski hulls, are usually “covered”.

These custom covers, by and large, fit pretty well because they’re designed for that particular boat. It’s pure supply and demand; the more popular the boat, the more likely the cover will fit properly.

Generic boat covers for sale at a big-box retailer. These will fit, but are not custom-fit.

For those with lesser-known brands and older models, buying a cover from an online/catalog vendor gets a lot tougher, and very chancy. Most vendors have what they generously term “semi-custom” covers available, listed under generic headings like “ski boat”, “bass boat” and “runabout”. This means they “sort of” fit. Here’s where a local custom shop will be a much better choice; you’ll pay more, but get a much better cover.


Check material qualities before you buy. Most online resellers have material quality charts to show you which covers repel water best, last longer, are good for travel, and resist UV-ray deterioration. They’ll even designate each “best use”, such as inside storage (like a dust cover) or outside, trailering, mooring, etc. Buy the cover that best suits your intended use. If your boat stays outside year-round, then spend the bucks to buy a higher-grade cover; it’ll last longer and protect your investment better. If you have a “garage queen” that sees the light of day only when you use it then goes back into hibernation, a lesser-quality cover to keep the dust off will do just fine. Generally, well-known fabrics like Sunbrella will last longest, wear less, and protect the boat better.

For a cockpit or other specialty covers, like box covers, seat covers or dash/equipment covers, you’ll have to work with a local shop.


Buying online will save you substantially; for example, most covers for boats in the popular 20-23’ range will run less than a grand, with many high-quality covers selling for less than $750. A cover made for a larger boat in this size range will cost well over $1000 at a local shop.

But remember the old adage, “you get what you pay for”. While it will typically cost much more, a custom cover made locally will almost always fit tighter, look better, last longer, and have custom features (like cleat flaps, Velcro closures, draw-strings, tie-downs, and vented support poles) that mass-produced covers won’t have. Some online and catalog vendors offer features like these, but typically at extra cost. By the time these features are added plus shipping, the custom cover looks pretty appealing. We checked that with a local cover maker M & J Tops of Hampton, Virginia (; their price was higher than what we saw online for a cover for the same boat, but as owner Jill Brinson noted, “While a cover from a local shop like ours may cost more than an internet or mail order cover, ours are fitted better, they last longer, and any custom feature can be included. Additionally if there is ever an issue, we’re right here, available, and we service what we sell. You can’t get that from a mail order supplier”.

For specialty boats like this pontoon and wakeboard boat, a custom cover shop is the likely place to go. This pontoon cover sold for just under $1000, custom-fitted by a local canvas shop


While online retailers generally accept returns, most online resources make custom covers non-returnable; if you got the model, length or color wrong when ordering, it’s usually your tough luck. When in doubt, don’t just use the “shopping cart”; pick up the phone and discuss your cover with a sales rep. Locally, you’ll find your options much more varied, and you’ll be able to help design your cover with features you want.