A thorough dockside inspection and sea trial will set you on a course to find your ideal boat
If you've just spent serious money to buy your dream boat, the last thing you want is to discover glaring deficiencies early in your ownership. What if you learn during that first cruise that the boat struggles to get on plane with the entire family aboard and is probably underpowered? Just as bad, what if that "self-bailing" cockpit the salesman raved about floods whenever three adults stand in the stern? New or used, your perfect boat has suddenly become something less.
To avoid surprises such as these, you can do some homework by reading boat reviews in magazines, extracting information from website chat rooms and talking to knowledgeable boating friends. Your research should, however, also include a thorough dockside inspection and a sea trial of the boat or boats you're considering. You need to be the toughest critic. Trust your eyes, your instincts and your experience. When in doubt, ask questions, dig deeper and don't leave things to chance.
I've tested boats for more than 10 years, so I've done my share of stem-to-stern inspections. I'll outline the areas, equipment and components that need your attention, such as the characteristics of properly designed anchor lockers and swim platforms, helm visibility, engine accessibility and more. Then I'll take you out on the water and identify the traits I look for in a seaworthy, thoughtfully designed and functional powerboat.
Depending on the size and style of the boat, the examination and sea trial should take one to three hours. Bring along a small flashlight, a tape measure and a way to document your work (notebook, voice recorder, camera, etc.). Boats with engines manufactured from 2000 on should be equipped with a helm gauge that indicates fuel-burn rates in gallons per hour. Engine systems linked to a GPS can provide mileage data. In my experience, this computer-generated information has proved accurate when matched with auxiliary fuel meters, such as the FloScan units I've used.
After completing your evaluation, you should hire a qualified surveyor to thoroughly go over the boat. The surveyor, among other things, can check the hull for structural integrity, identify electrical issues and make sure the boat complies with industry standards and Coast Guard specifications. Hiring a surveyor is a good idea even if you're in the market for a new boat. I recommend that used-boat buyers also hire a technician to inspect and run the engine and check compression.
I had the opportunity to look over and drive five boats from 17 to 39 feet at a recent Yamaha Motor Corp. press event that showcased the company's new 4-strokes, including 300-, 250- and 225-hp V6 outboards; 250-, 225- and 200-hp V MAX SHO (super-high-output) engines; and a new lightweight 70-hp engine.
I drove a Contender 39 Step Tournament center console with triple F300s; a Regulator 29 FS center console with twin F300s; a 22-foot Sea Hunt center console with an F250; a 23-foot Pathfinder 23PV-11 bay boat with a 250-hp V MAX SHO; and a 17-foot Sundance flats boat with an F70.
I'll use these boats to illustrate some of the things to look for when you conduct your own inspection and sea trial. I paid particular attention to the two largest boats, the Contender and the Regulator, so many of my comments refer to them.
I like to start at the bow and work aft. I check the anchor locker first. It should be large enough to hold the appropriate-sized hook and enough rode to safely anchor. When open, the lid should not interfere with access to the ground tackle. The Contender's hinged anchor-locker lid opens to port and lies flat so the wind won't blow it shut. Lids that can be pushed around by the wind can interfere with the task at hand.
The gunwales on this fishing boat are nearly waist-high at the bow and there's toekick along the hull sides and around the immense fish compartment - a coffin box - in the center of the foredeck. I like the way Soundings technical writer Eric Sorensen explains toekick in his book, "Sorensen's Guide to Powerboats": "As in a kitchen, toekick space on a boat is provided so a person can stand right up against the countertop, or coaming, without feeling off-balance."
Toekick, handrails, deck rails and bow rails greatly improve balance and overall safety. In addition to high forward hull sides, the Contender has a recessed bow rail for enhanced safety.
The Contender is built with a flush foredeck, but many big center consoles, including the Regulator, incorporate a raised foredeck for storage and some bow seating. Foredeck and helm deck steps can be tripping hazards, so it's wise to point out areas such as this to guests. That goes for the T-top framework that may be high enough for you to pass under, but not for someone taller.
On cruising boats with forward cabins, look for relatively wide side decks (8 inches or more), a high bow rail (the American Boat and Yacht Council recommends 24 inches minimum), and handrails along the hardtop or superstructure.
If access forward is via a centerline windshield walkthrough, the passage should have large steps covered with non-skid and a handrail to help you through. You want a sturdy bow rail with little flex and it should be inboard of the rubrail to avoid damage from dock pilings or other solid structures.
The depth of the cockpit will vary depending on the boat's design and purpose. Lower sides (24 inches or less) allow anglers to more easily board their catch, and boats with higher sides do a better job of preventing you from falling overboard.
Most boats are built with self-bailing cockpits, but make sure the vessel has enough buoyancy aft to drain with increased weight in the stern. Take a friend or two on the sea trial to conduct this test. The cockpit needs to drain quickly. I used to intentionally flood the deck to check a boat's drainage capabilities by backing down hard until water came over the transom - a bit extreme but effective.
With the scuppers, bigger is better and location makes a difference. Some vertically mounted scuppers are placed an inch or so above the deck's draining surface or gutter level, allowing water to puddle. There are no puddling issues with scuppers that are horizontally mounted and are flush with the draining surface, such as the stainless-steel ones on the Contender.
The Contender and Regulator have transom doors with oversize hardware and positive-locking latches. On both, the hatches in the deck and the raised live wells at the stern are built with thick rubber gaskets - again with positive-locking latches - to keep water out. Gutter drains built into the deck hatch perimeters carry overboard any water that does enter. And stainless-steel gas lifts keep the hatch lids open. I also found nicely designed and built hatches on the Pathfinder and Sea Hunt boats.
Swim and boarding platforms should be free of protruding cleats and hardware that could injure feet, shins and so on. On sterndrive boats, the platform should extend beyond the drive and prop - even when the lower unit is trimmed up - to prevent injury.
In the interest of safety, the ladder design should allow a swimmer to deploy it from the water. Also, you want the ladder to be as far outboard and away from the prop as possible. Ladders that extend so that at least two steps are in the water are easier to climb than those with one rung submerged. And some ladders are too narrow, making them awkward to climb. Is there a handrail near the swim ladder? Is the swim platform coated with non-skid? The answer to both of these questions should be yes.
Engine and systems access
Hatches to access the engine or other mechanical equipment should be watertight. If water gets to these components, they can corrode. Hatches should be large enough to access fuel/water separators, engine oil and fuel filters, bilge pumps and pump switches, seacocks and batteries. Make sure the batteries are secured and installed high and away from bilge water. Battery boxes need to be properly ventilated and the positive terminals should be covered.
It's helpful when hoses, valves and seacocks are labeled, and when the bilge is painted white to brighten the area for better visibility. The Contender and Regulator have these thoughtful features.
Components that ought to be accessible on inboard and larger boats include raw-water strainers, inverters and generators, as well as the engine's oil fill, filter, dipstick, spark plugs, etc. There should be a ladder or step to access the engine room and a flat platform with traction to stand on while you work. The engine room should be well lit. Larger boats may also have day hatches for quick maintenance jobs, such as fluid-level top-offs and oil-level checks.
Make sure the fuel tank fittings are accessible. Ask the dealer or manufacturer whether the deck or hull would have to be cut if the tank had to be removed for repair or replacement.
When I was writing boat reviews, I encountered one of the worst helm blunders I've ever seen. The boat was a walkaround with a hardtop and a starboard-side helm. When I stood at the wheel, a storage box molded into the hardtop was staring me in the face, inches from my nose. No one taller than 5 feet could pilot this boat while standing.
You should be able to drive a boat comfortably while standing or seated. In fact, I find standing is necessary while driving a small boat in rough seas. On your sea trial, try both positions at various speeds.
Ask yourself the following: Are sightlines clear in all directions? Are the engine gauges, GPS, radar and other navigation displays readable? Is anything blocking the view of the compass? Does windshield glare impede visibility? (A dark helm background limits glare.) Is the horn separate from the other switches and buttons for quick identification and use? Is there enough or too much space between the helm seat and the wheel? Is the seat adjustable (up and down, fore and aft)? Do the windshield wipers work and do they cover the areas you'll be looking through at various speeds? Is the second mate going to be able to drive the boat in an emergency?
Boatbuilders have improved helm design and ergonomics during the last decade or so. For example, sightlines are better. In the past, many builders of express cruisers used a clear plastic insert (attached via snaps and zippers) to fill the gap between the windshield and the hardtop. The plastic eventually discolored and became creased, hindering visibility.
Builders chose this design to maintain air flow and ventilation. Now many boats have windshields that extend all the way to the hardtop, and vents are built into different sections of the side and front windshields to keep things cool. Steering systems have gotten better, too, especially with the addition of power-assist hydraulic steering on outboard boats.
Remember to check the access to helm wiring and controls. The access hatches on the Regulator and Contender are big enough to get two hands into the compartment to work. Look for tinned (or tin-coated) wiring, which resists corrosion. The installation should be organized and neat. Any electrical terminals should be covered. Also, find out whether there are built-in wiring chases for auxiliary equipment you might add, such as a depth sounder or a windlass.
Console and cabin
The consoles on open boats often include a head and they're also used for storage. I appreciate a console door that remains open - with a latch, magnet or gas lift - while you stow or retrieve gear. The Contender is equipped with a stainless-steel gas lift to hold open the door. If there is a head, make sure there are hand holds to help you in and out, and the space should provide proper ventilation, light and sufficient headroom.
On cruising boats, think about how you and your family will use the cabin. Play house. If you plan to cook a lot, examine the galley closely. Is there enough counter space to make sandwiches? Are there countertop fiddles and stovetop gimbals? Are the cabinet door latches positive-locking? Is the sink big enough? Is there enough storage? Is there enough space between the dinette and the settee to accommodate your largest crewmember?
There should be handrails along the companionway steps. Check the amount of headroom below deck - in the cabin, at the galley, in the head. Make sure the berths are large enough to sleep comfortably and can be accessed without a struggle.
With little natural light, cabins can feel like caves, so make sure there are enough portlights and hatches. And they should have screens for ventilation.
The electrical distribution panel should be enclosed so children will not be able to play with the switches. The panel needs to be easily accessible from the helm deck, as well as the cabin.
If you're eyeing a boat with lots of wood below, check the joinery and overall workmanship.
Find out what materials and methods were used to build the boat. Are the hull and the decks solid glass or cored? Is the coring material hand-laid or does the builder use a more advanced process, such as resin infusion or vacuum bagging? There's more room for error in the bond between core and fiberglass skins in a hand-layup process, according to the experts.
Also, ask the builder whether the core material is backed away in through-hull areas and replaced with fiberglass or some other type of composite material. You don't want screws or bolts penetrating the core - a wet core leads to problems.
A vinylester skin coat will protect against blistering better than polyester, although polyester resins are of high quality these days. High-end builders often use epoxy resin.
Other construction questions: Is the hull-to-deck joint bonded and/or through-bolted for maximum strength and durability? Is the hardware through-bolted? If wood is used, is it fully encapsulated?
With the inspection completed, the next step is to put the boat through its paces on the water. The first thing I do is check for excessive bow rise upon acceleration. While sitting at the helm, and with the trim tabs fully recessed and the drives down, punch the throttles. The bow should never block the view of the horizon, even if you are seated.
If the boat needs the tabs to get on plane in a reasonable time the "trim tabs are being used to compensate for poor design," Sorensen writes in his book. "Though there are exceptions, if a boat needs tabs just to run well when normally loaded in calm water or to get on plane without aiming for the clouds, something was amiss in the design phase." From my experience, I agree.
Find a comfortable cruising speed and check the sightlines. On a center console, the hardtop framing may hinder your view. On an express cruiser, the radar arch may obstruct visibility. On a pilothouse boat, the windows may be too small or the mullions too wide.
Pick a day for your sea trial when seas are a bit rough - not unsafe, but challenging for the boat, maybe 2 to 4 feet for a 20- to 30-footer and 3 to 5 feet for a larger vessel. I run the boat at cruising speeds in all directions to see how it behaves. Make sure the trim tabs are large enough to do their job. In the down position, the tabs should push the stern up and the bow down. This helps soften the ride in a head sea. With one tab up and the other down, the boat should heel to port or starboard. This compensates for unequal weight distribution.
Find out how fast the boat can be run before it starts to pound and the ride becomes uncomfortable. Can the boat maintain a low planing speed (about 15 mph) so that in rough seas you can slow down, but also make decent time?
I use the engine gauges to determine the most economical speed. Modern engines may provide miles-per-gallon readouts. If not, they usually calculate fuel use in gallons per hour. Divide your speed by the gph number to come up with mileage.
There's a lot to remember during a sea trial, so when I'm about halfway through I'll put the engines in neutral and jot down some notes. The wind can be loud on the water, so I don't recommend using a voice recorder once you leave the dock.
While drifting, gauge the stability of the boat. Is it tender? Do you feel safe moving around on deck? On a boat with a cabin, I go forward and check the side deck width, non-skid surface, handrails, bow rail, etc. On a fishing boat, check the live well, and open and close the fishboxes.
To gauge steering response, I count the number of turns it takes to spin the wheel from lock to lock. Three or four turns indicates a steering system that provides quick helm response and course correction, which is important in collision-avoidance situations. And it's easier to maneuver a boat with efficient steering in close quarters.
No boat can satisfy all of the criteria set forth here - some of it's pretty particular. So there's no need to wave goodbye to a boat if the bilge isn't bright white or the hatches lack rubber gaskets.
Try to think ahead and envision how you and your family will use the boat. The overall results of your inspection and sea trial should help you determine whether the vessel's design, equipment and performance meet your needs.
This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.