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The Smart Buyer: Gauge performance with a sea trial

With the economy showing signs of strengthening, you might be ready to consider buying a new or used boat. The winter months are a popular time for people to get serious, perhaps even handing over a down payment.

The writer has done a good number of sea trials.

A friendly reminder: Make sure a sea trial is part of the purchase process. Buyers should make it clear in their agreement with the dealer, broker, manufacturer or private seller that the purchase hinges on their satisfaction with the boat’s performance.

The last thing you want is to discover deficiencies after taking ownership. What if you learn during your first cruise that the boat struggles to get on plane with the family aboard and the tanks full? Or what if that self-bailing cockpit the salesman raved about floods whenever three adults stand in the stern?

During my interview for this month’s Talkin’ Boats Q&A (see Page 25), John Deknatel, president and owner of the naval architecture and design firm C. Raymond Hunt and Associates, told me that boaters who are unhappy with the boat they bought often are dissatisfied with its performance.
“I think people end up with boats they don’t like because they are not comfortable and pleasant,” Deknatel says. “They buy it thinking it’s the right boat, but it ends up turning them off. They think it should be capable of getting from Point A to B in certain weather, but it’s not, and it’s not fun.”
Your comfort and satisfaction with the boat’s performance could be the most important factor in your buying decision. But setting up a sea trial, of course, is more difficult than simply going to a car dealership and taking a vehicle for a spin. And if the boat has to be launched, you might have to split some costs with the seller. However, with boat sales still on the rebound, sellers are more likely to cover the cost.
“In the boat business today, people treat every buyer so seriously that the consumer has some leverage,” Deknatel says. “The length they go to sell just one boat is very different than five or 10 years ago.”
The sea trial should take at least an hour. Bring along a flashlight, a tape measure and a way to document your work (notebook, voice recorder, camera, etc.). Boats with engines from model-year 2000 and later should be equipped with a helm gauge that indicates fuel-burn 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 compared to auxiliary fuel meters that I’ve used for boat tests.
On the water, the first thing I do is determine the boat’s running angle on acceleration. The bow should not point to the sky when you push down the throttles. And trim tabs are not the answer. In my opinion, they’re primarily for fine-tuning a boat’s ride, not for correcting a possible design flaw.
Check the sightlines at various speeds. Does the radar arch or hardtop framing block your view? Are the pilothouse windows large enough?
Try to schedule the sea trial for a day when conditions will challenge the boat — 2- to 4-foot seas for boats from 20 to 30 feet and maybe 3- to 5-foot seas for larger boats. Note how fast you can push the boat before the ride becomes uncomfortable. I like to run the boat at cruising speeds in all directions to see how it behaves. Check the responsiveness of the steering system. Is the wheel hard to turn? How many rotations does it take to get from lock to lock? In my opinion, three turns of the wheel affords good control.
Make sure the boat is stable at trolling speeds and while adrift. Kill the engine or shift into neutral. Walk around and carry out some of the functions you normally would when you’re on the water — check the bilge, see if you’d be comfortable working in the galley, open and close the fishboxes and try out the seating.
You should also hire a qualified surveyor to 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. “You should get an independent, arm’s-length surveyor who is unbiased,” Deknatel says. “You certainly don’t want the seller of the boat choosing the surveyor.”
Seek out a professional surveying organization, such as the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (, the National Association of Marine Surveyors ( or the Association of Certified Marine Surveyors ( Hiring a surveyor is a good idea even if you’re buying a new boat. Used-boat buyers should also consider hiring a technician to check the engine and other machinery.
These steps require substantial time and effort, but you’re more likely to end up with the right boat for you.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.