Difference between a vertical and cantilever boat lift (Explained)

A boat lift is an indispensable asset for most boat owners as it helps in transporting boats easily between elevations. However, the problem arrives in choosing the perfect model of boat lifts. There is the elevator, vertical, hydraulic, and cantilever boat lifts, but you need to know their differences before you begin using them. Let’s begin with vertical and cantilever boat lifts. 

Vertical boat lifts are meant to lift the vessel at a height above the rough water with parallel upper beams and adopt cable and pulley systems. Contrarily, cantilever boat lifts require leverage to lift the vessel at a height and include H-shaped frames to place the boat without any damage. 

If you’re planning to purchase one of these lifts, you should know about their working mechanisms, pros, cons, and specifications. Let’s discuss them in this article. 

Vertical vs. Cantilever Boat Lift

Vertical and cantilever boat lifts vary significantly in terms of their size, purpose, and working model. 

Vertical Lifts

Vertical lifts are great for lifting vessels to greater heights. These operate based on a cable and pulley approach to increase and decrease the height of the boat. 

Here’s how these vertical lifts work:

  • There are multiple upper beams arranged in a parallel manner. 
  • Each beam contains a shaft (motor-operated). 
  • To lift the boat, four different cables are connected across the shaft, and these lay the foundation for the boat stand. 
  • The cables are linked in the Z model. However, the front cable takes the lifting and is linked to a winch. The remaining cables establish support for the boat. 
  • To board the boat, the boat cradle is lowered. However, it’s raised when it needs to be parked for a long time at a certain height. 

Vertical lifts allow boat owners to lift boats at a certain height, including the cargo in them. As a result, these can lift your boat up to 38 inches above sea level. Isn’t that a great height?

More boat owners choose vertical lifts due to the lifting height capacity. Further, these are operated with a motor, unlike cantilever lifts. 

When you think of boat lifts, you’re more likely to be recommended vertical lifts. However, there are certain aspects to consider:

  • It needs an essential water depth of 12” minimum, depending on the boat type.
  • Some vertical boat lifts aren’t welded entirely. As a result, they can sway while lifting the boat. Perhaps, the ShoreMaster boat lift is an exception. 

Cantilever Lifts

Cantilever lifts are comparatively easier to handle and operate on a simple working mechanism. These utilize leverage to lift boats and push them off the water. 

Cantilever lifts work as follows:

  • The boat lift remains on the lake bed. 
  • There are two frames (H-shaped) that are responsible for lifting the boat to the frame. They’re placed flat on the frame. 
  • These lifts function according to cable and pulley mechanisms to handle the force and weight of the boat. However, this mechanism applies diagonal force mainly to manage the seating position of the structure. 
  • The cable that remains on the front part performs the major task of lifting the boat and coordinating with all the other pulleys. 

When you go for a cantilever lift, remember that the cable doesn’t bear the boat’s complete weight. Instead, levers handle the weight and work well in withdrawing the boat from the water. 

In most cases, cantilever boat lifts involve a range of up to 40”. Let’s look at an example to see how much your boat has to travel. 

Assuming your boat needs about 10” of water to perform usual operations, you need a 30” lever to lift the boat above water. This height can be manually straining and isn’t ideal if you’re tucking your boat on lakes. 

Although we’ve looked at their working models, there can be hassles in differentiating between them. 

Here’s a YouTube video that guides you with major differences and quick tips to spot them effectively:

FactorCantilever boat liftVertical boat lift 
Water depthShallowDeep/uneven base
ConditionLittle to moderate water fluctuationModerate to high water fluctuation
Maximum height60”81”
Maximum weight4,000 lbs12,000 lbs
SpeedSmoother & quickerModerate speed 

Vertical vs. Cantilever Boat Lift: Uses

It’s not uncommon to doubt the uses of these lifts. However, remember that their specifications and working mechanisms influence their uses. 

A vertical lift is ideal for rough conditions and larger boats, while a cantilever boat lift is perfect for a conventional boater in smaller spaces like lakes. If you’re a regular lake boater, it’s sufficient to go with a cantilever boat lift. 

In other words, a cantilever boat lift is ideal for limited water depth (up to 6 ft). In such instances, water fluctuations are minimal, and manual intervention is sufficient. On the other hand, a vertical boat lift is ideal for enhanced water depth (up to 8 ft) with multiple bottom conditions (little to moderate water fluctuations). 

Vertical vs. Cantilever Boat Lift: Pros & Cons

Vertical lifts are better in terms of height, technology, and ease of use, while cantilever lifts are ideal for starters and require limited maintenance. Cantilevers are affordable but don’t have great value, unlike vertical lifts. 

Let’s look at the pros and cons of vertical and cantilever lifts in detail. 

Vertical Lifts: Pros

  • Ideal for greater heights. 
  • It can handle serious fluctuations. 
  • It works well in rough bottom conditions. 
  • It can safeguard the boat from harsh waves.
  • It uses electrical power to lift the boat.
  • It has an efficient design that’s also futuristic. 
  • These are more reliable and ideal for rugged usage. 

Vertical Lifts: Cons

  • Higher maintenance.
  • Vertical lifts require frequent replacement of cables. 
  • It requires a high initial investment, making it inappropriate for starters. 
  • There’s added expense in maintaining various parts and in using electrical energy. 

Cantilever Lifts: Pros

  • Great for smaller boats. 
  • It’s easy to maintain. 
  • It’s inexpensive. 
  • It’s ideal for starters. 
  • It works with a hand wheel in place. 

Cantilever Lifts: Cons

  • The lift floats in water, getting prone to algae. 
  • It isn’t ideal for saltwater. 
  • Doesn’t work in cold climates. 
  • It relies more on hand power. 
  • The lifting height is limited compared to vertical lift.

Like every other product in the market, vertical and cantilever boat lifts possess a range of pros and cons. However, these are meant to educate you on their purpose and limitations. 

In the next section, we shall look at the exact ways to choose the best boat lift for you. 

Vertical vs. Cantilever Lifts: Which One To Choose?

The market is flooded with several boat lifts, and it can get confusing to choose the perfect model for your boat. Here’s a guide to help you choose the boat lift that can protect and lift your boat in the long run. 


The primary factor influencing the choice of a boat lift is the size of your boat. While most boat lifts handle medium-sized boats, it’s essential to choose the ideal type that fits your boat. 

For example, cantilever lifts are ideal for small to medium-sized boats. As the size of the boat increases, the weight also increases, and it gets difficult to lift the boat with the hand wheel. In such instances, you should go for a vertical boat lift. 

What does this model do? It has a built-in motor to lift the boat using a pulley and associated levers. If you’re a boat hosting large families or guests, you should go for the vertical lifts. These can handle better weights and use electrical energy to quicken the process. 


Ask yourself: why do I need a boat lift? 

Do you have a place to dock your boat? Are you likely to sail on rough seas? What kind of water current are you more likely to sail on? 

These questions define your use and influence the choice of the boat lift. If you’re a hobbyist preferring to sail occasionally and use a small boat, you should go for a cantilever lift. Most importantly, if the water current is limited to lakes with little to moderate fluctuations, you can blindly choose a cantilever lift. 

What if you’re sailing across different water currents? What if you prefer adventurous sailing journeys? Well, vertical lifts can simplify your job. It doesn’t require much space, and it protects your asset (boat) irrespective of the degree of water fluctuation. 

If you’re someone sailing across oceans, you should never go for cantilever lifts. The reason is that these cantilever lifts can experience wear and tear frequently. Further, the carriage present in this type of lift moves in the reverse direction as the depth of water increases. This is quite risky. Hence, it’s better to choose a vertical lift.  

How Much Does A Boat Life Cost? Cantilever vs. Vertical

A cantilever boat lift costs around 2,000 USD on average. Contrarily, a vertical boat lift starts from $2,500 and increases based on its capacity and functionality. 

Perhaps, there’s a minor difference in margin between these lifts. Apparently, they differ invariably in terms of functionalities and working mechanisms. 

Before you choose the type of lift, ask yourself: what is my budget?

If you have a budget of 2,000 USD and sail on lakes, a cantilever boat lift is the solution. If you’re an explorer on the ocean, you should be prepared to spend extra towards a vertical boat lift. 

While it’s true that vertical lifts can incur a few hundred dollars each month towards maintenance, these can ease your job and remain flexible at all times. You can’t expect this leverage with cantilever boat lifts. 


Cantilever boat lifts are highly recommended for beginners and those interested in manual operations. Contrarily, vertical boat lifts have moderate learning curves and are great for sailors of all experiences. 

If you have prior experience handling boat lifts and prefer a model on a medium budget, you can go with hydraulic cantilever boat lifts. The advantage here is it’s quick and a lot smoother. Though you need manual intervention with this model at times, cantilever boat lifts are still worth it. 

Now that you know how to choose the perfect boat lift for you, you’re all set to purchase one. 

Here are my top picks for each category:

Cantilever Boat LiftsVertical Boat Lifts
Hewitt 2500 Cantilever Boat Lift Lakeshore LSC1576 Cantilever PWC LiftCraftlander 10PWC Vertical Lift Shorestation SS-V30108MS Freestanding Vertical Lift

Frequently Asked Questions

What Type Of Boat Lift Is Best For Shallow Water?

A cantilever hydraulic lift is ideal for shallow water but supports a height of up to 60”, while a vertical hydraulic lift is ideal for installing in shallow water and supports up to 81” in height. 

If you’re dealing with shallower shores frequently, you may require a vertical hydraulic lift or a sling-type lift to handle the depth. When you choose a boat lift for shallow water, ensure that you go for a bottom-standing lift, as it safeguards the boat and handles the pressure of water (even while floating). 

What Is The Life Expectancy Of A Boat Lift?

A boat lift has an average life expectancy of 25 years, and it can increase further depending on various factors – usage, maintenance, material, lubrication, storage, and alignment. 

Based on the experience, it’d be ideal to mention how vertical lifts are less prone to water-associated damage but are comparatively more expensive. On the other hand, cantilever boat lifts are extremely easier to maintain but are prone to wear and tear. 

Final Thoughts

Maintaining a boat relies greatly on storing the vessel appropriately and taking care of wear and tear. The main purpose of a boat lift is to safeguard the vessel from strong waves and position the boat at a certain height. There are numerous boat lifts designed to handle all kinds of boats (in terms of size, capacity, weight, and purpose). 

In this article, we looked at the differences between vertical and cantilever boat lifts. There are more models, and every boat lift allows the opportunity to upgrade based on the use. However, keep in mind, you need to maintain the boat lift to make it worth the investment and extend its longevity. 


Boatlifehq owner and author/editor of this article.

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