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The Smart Buyer - Sea-trialing a sailboat part I

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about sailboat sea trials

A sea trial often is just an excuse for a pleasurable boat ride. Instead, it should be a disciplined and thorough test of how a prospective boat performs in the real world. It can be fun, but it should be work, not play. You and your surveyor will have crawled through the boat ashore, but there are many things about a boat that you can’t learn sitting at a dock.

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The right conditions

Take enough time for a realistic test in realistic circumstances. This includes sea state. You can’t order up the weather, and you don’t want to do anything dangerous, but you need to see how the boat handles in conditions other than flat calm. If there are no waves out beyond the jetty, at least look for some wakes, though this isn’t as good as waiting for a more realistic day. The owner likely will still have risk of loss and will have the ultimate say, but he or she should understand that, within reason, you need to put the boat through its paces in a meaningful way.

Take help if you need it

If you’re an experienced and qualified skipper, you might be able to safely evaluate the boat. If you aren’t, bring someone who can handle the boat safely and advise you — a surveyor qualified to run the boat (your surveyor should be aboard anyway), or an experienced captain or friend. A thorough sea trial can involve serious risks, and you can minimize them if it’s conducted by qualified people.

Put her through the paces

Check how the boat handles in wind and current (particularly during close-quarters maneuvering), how she handles seas from all angles, how much spray and/or green water she takes aboard if it’s rough, how well she runs astern, her ability to overcome momentum (as when you must reverse suddenly while under way), and how she gets up on plane if it’s that type of hull. Some spend so much time checking electronics that they forget these aspects of the sea trial. Remember, electronics won’t work if the boat doesn’t float.

Sail her on all angles off the wind, but also balance sails and rudder appropriately to a favorable angle of wind and see if she can sail herself for a while. Test how she handles under power alone. Some sailboats are quite deficient in this, but keep in mind that you will need to dock her, back her and make distance on windless days.

Look, listen and feel

Look at broad hull sections. If they trampoline when you hit a sea, there isn’t adequate structural support. Look in the bilges for signs of flex and, yes, running water. Look at your wake. It should be appropriate for the boat and the speed you’re running.

Listen for noises that may indicate poor construction or things going wrong. Developing problems often manifest in unusual noises. And listen to the ambient noise. A decibel meter helps, but you can tell without one whether the engine and sea noise is comfortable for you in various parts of the boat. Listen to the engine not only while running but also when it is being started and shut down. The engine room hatch (or outboard cowling) should be open when you do this.

Feel joints, especially those where bulkheads attach to the hull. If there is flex or working, this likely is a sign of trouble. Put your hand over door, drawer and storage locker hatches. Are they working against their frames as the boat moves in a sea? This could indicate poor construction or damage. Feel the hull where the struts are bolted through. It should be free of excessive vibration and without flex. Most boats are going to vibrate in all of these areas to some extent, and this is one instance where your surveyor should be helpful. If you can’t readily access these and other important areas, that’s a mark against the boat.

Sailboats experience immense stress where the keel is bolted on, where an internal ballasted keel flares into the hull, and where the rudder comes through the hull. Check for working in these areas by observation and feeling. If the keel is bolted on, look for signs of working, leaking or flexing around the bolts. Also, check areas where the chain plates are fastened to the hull. This should be done with the boat heeled over in a stiff breeze, when the keel and rig are being subjected to high stress.

December 2012 issue