I’ve been boating for over 45 years, own a non-stepped high performance boat, but have driven many stepped hulls at the marina where I work part time. I’m also a Mechanical Engineer by degree, but didn’t spend much time with hydrodynamics. So most of what I’m going to say comes from seat of the pants experience.
Even in the “old” days with non-stepped hulls, everyone knew that reducing the wetted surface area of a hull made it go faster. One of the common techniques was to “trim the hell out of it” to get the bow up and thus reduce area and drag. Unfortunately, this also wasted some thrust from the motor / prop and also made for a real white knuckle ride. This technique generally only worked in fairly calm water and in a straight line. Just try to find that on a weekend!
A common design technique to reduce the wetted surface area was to add a “pad” to the keel of the hull. The boat then rode up on this narrow pad and went faster. That’s the way my boat’s hull is designed to work and as long as you know how to drive it (due to chine walk), life is pretty good. But, most folks don’t know how to drive through chine walk and messing up generally means getting wet – and maybe a lawsuit for the manufacturer.
Then came steps. They’ve actually been around for along time if you look, but for some reason no mainstream manufacturer grasped the value. Reggie Fountain – love him or hate him – was probably the first to really jump on steps. He found that the step (or steps) “lubricated” the wetted surface area and allowed the boat to go faster without a ton of positive trim. This had several benefits. First, one could go faster and not have to know how to drive through chine walk and other things. Second, the additional speed was literally free.
Unfortunately, early stepped hulls were literally experimenting with how much lubrication one could add and not get so slippery as to allow the boat to spin out. As most of us know, more than a few manufacturers found out they had more design & development work to do. The boats were fast in a straight line, but corners got really interesting. So the lubrication effect could work for and against you.
Finally (a few years ago) enough was known about how many steps, how deep they should be and where they needed to be placed that most of the nasty handling gremlins of stepped hulls had been exorcized. Almost anybody can drive the newest stepped hulls and go fast – without spinning out. All in all, it’s probably better for everyone out there. Personally though, I still think a non-stepped hull can corner much harder than a similar length and beam stepped hull.
I will offer a couple of reasons that a non-stepped hull might be a good experience though. First off, if you can drive a non-stepped hull at the limit, you can probably drive anything. Second, some hulls really don’t need any steps. When folks ask me why Kevin doesn’t add steps to his Progression hulls, I show them the picture below. Where the hell would you place a step to lubricate that little bit of the pad that’s actually in contact with the water?
For many folks though, I believe the benefits of stepped hulls far outweigh the “advantages” of non-stepped hulls. As further proof, try to find a competitive race boat without steps these days. They’re about as common as an honest politician.