The short answer to this question is no. People have used boats for centuries without them. But on the other hand, do you need electric lights – no, you don’t. There are alternatives, but if available, shouldn’t you use the best technology available.
Most people who opt for bow thrusters have single engines. Face it, it is easier to maneuver a twin engine boat by using both engines independently, especially in docking. The bow thruster allows a solo boater with a single engine the ability to easily fit into cramped slips, etc. without the extra hands required.
Bow thrusters come in basically two different styles – external and traditional tunnel type. We do not advocate the external bow thrusters as the chance of impact damage is significantly increased. The advantage to the tunnel system is that all the components are protected either in the tunnel or in the boat itself. Although the installation time is increased, the benefits far outweigh the cost. Also, there are a wider variety of brands, models and sizes to better fit any boat size.
Maintenance on a bow thruster is fairly low. Unless you opt for a sealed system, you will need to occasionally check the gear oil. Some models will have brushes in the motor which will also need to be inspected. The prop will need to be pulled off annually to be cleaned and lubed, and the zinc will need to be changed. The tunnel and prop are protected with regular bottom paint – be careful not to apply so much paint that you “glue” the prop to the shaft with it.
We have never had a customer who regretted the installation of a bow thruster. The ease of docking the boat and peace of mind about single handing has made them all happy to part with a few dollars.