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Getting the most out of boat shows

I love going to boat shows, and I can think of three reasons to attend:

  1. You’re interested in buying a boat and want to see what’s out there.
  2. You’re interested in adding or upgrading equipment and want to see what’s out there.
  3. You enjoy boat shows and just want to see the latest and greatest that’s out there.

So how do you get the most out of a boat show? Start early. For Nos. 1 and 2, you need at least two visits to a show to make it worthwhile. If you have some idea of what you are looking for in a boat, spend the first day getting a broad-brush look at those that interest you. Board the boats you think might work for you, but don’t get into a detailed examination of them; just get a feel for the layouts above and below deck. Are there any deal-breakers that jump out at you? If there are, abandon ship. You have a lot to look at, so don’t waste your time.

Talk to the salesman on board just enough to make a determination as to whether this boat — and salesman — qualifies for your short list. If yes, explain that you are a serious buyer and, though you are interested, there are other boats you’ll be visiting today. Make an appointment with the rep for a follow-up visit, when you’ll expect a detailed examination of the boat. Tell him or her you’ll need a fair amount of time, and make sure there is a commitment to provide the time. If that commitment can’t be given, forget it.

Take note of things you like or dislike about the boats that make your short list. At your leisure, review your notes and compare your choices. If you’re a newcomer to the game, your best bet is to discuss what you’ve seen with someone knowledgeable and prioritize your issues.

Some salespeople at boat shows are honest and knowledgeable. Those are the only ones to whom you should be talking. Unlike cars, you can’t get out and walk if something bad happens to a boat.

On your second visit, take the time to visit parts of the boat that most visitors won’t see.

  • What is the workmanship like in the hidden spaces of the boat?
  • Did the builder through-bolt hatches, hatch hinges, rails, stanchions, ports, etc.? Are the bolts properly backed and sealed?
  • How and where are seacocks and through-hulls installed? Can you get to them?
  • Can you readily service the engine? Can you remove the batteries without throwing out your back or disassembling the boat?
  • Will the plumbing and electrical systems be easy to service when necessary?
  • Do you see anything that might make the boat difficult to run or dock?
  • What about the deck layout? Are cleats properly sized and located? Is there room to store and use adequate ground tackle? You may never plan on anchoring, but it could on occasion save your life in an emergency.
  • Will you be able to work in the galley when under way? Can you or your significant other easily access the refrigerator and freezer?

You get the idea. These issues, along with price, terms, etc., determine whether a boat makes your short-short list.

The same holds true for equipment. Survey the brands and gear on display. Look for representatives who can offer expertise, and talk briefly about the equipment in which you’re interested. Come back later for a more detailed discussion.

Most manufacturers have knowledgeable people on the floor, but they typically don’t sell the products. Exhibitors such as Boater’s World, Defender and West Marine do the selling. The problem is that the big retailers don’t always have experts on hand. You may find a couple at major boat shows, such as the Miami or Fort Lauderdale shows. When buying electronics or other equipment, first talk to the manufacturer’s people. Then make your short list and revisit those you are most interested in. Manufacturer’s reps will often advise you where the best deals are at the show. I think the best deals can be found at the end of the shows. Come early for your first passes, and return late for the target run.

For the rest of us, go and enjoy — and hope it doesn’t rain.

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.