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The smart buyer - Sea-trialing a sailboat, part II

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

The sea trial is your chance to determine how a prospective boat performs. Last month I discussed the conditions the boat should be taken out in, putting her through her paces, how she sails, how she handles under power alone, and more. But the sea trial is also an opportunity to “live the boat.”

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I’ve often seen sailboats that performed well but were very uncomfortable. Evaluate whether the boat will serve your purpose. If you just want to race around the buoys on Wednesday evenings with a bunch of friends, you may not care much about creature comforts below. If you want to cruise with your family, you’ll want to pay more attention to the cushy stuff.

Spend time doing the things you plan to do when you own her, whether it’s short daysails or full-time living aboard. Here are some examples.

Steering: Are the controls intuitive and easy, and will you be comfortable at the wheel for long periods of time? Keep in mind that the owner may not allow you to take the helm during the sea trial.

Hanging out: Are the seats comfortable? Can you hear others talk? Can you make a sandwich under way and get it to the helm station in one piece? Can you use the head? Does the bilge smell ruin your lunch when it starts sloshing around under way?

Sleeping: Lie down in the berths. Do waves slopping on the chine, washboards or stern platform make so much noise that you won’t be able to sleep? If you sit up in a hurry in the middle of the night, are you going to hit your head on something hard?

Anchoring: Drop the anchor in deep water. How easy is it to lower your ground tackle without undue complications? The fairlead from the rode locker to the windlass to the bow roller should be good. It should be easy to safely secure the chain or rope. Check how quickly and easily the windlass pulls up the anchor, and make sure it doesn’t overheat while doing so.

If you plan to anchor overnight, see how the boat feels on the hook and how much it rolls and yaws. You might find that a boat is quite stable while under way but you can hardly stand up in it at anchor.


Checking machinery while under way can be dangerous, but the alternative could be more dangerous. Unless you really know what you’re doing and are ready to assume the risk, have a qualified professional check machinery.

Carefully listen and feel for unusual vibration at various operating rpm and in all gears. Check that the shaft and shaft seals aren’t leaking excessively, vibrating or moving. Look for prop shaft whipping. A stuffing box typically will show some motion, but if the stuffing box for the prop shaft is jumping about noticeably, there is likely an alignment problem, bent shaft or damaged propeller. (The rudder also might have a stuffing box.) An experienced surveyor should know what’s normal and what’s excessive. Be careful in these spaces; they are among the areas where injury can occur.

Check the temperature of certain components. For example, a typical heat exchanger with heated water (usually fresh water and antifreeze) passing around the tubes should be noticeably cooler at the end where the water exits. The parameters vary, but if there is no drop in temperature it’s likely that the engine is being cooled only marginally and that more problems will develop. Look for signs of equipment deterioration, such as rust, oil or water weeping.

Make sure you can access all machinery and components, get tools to them, and remove and replace items in the space available. This is typically done during the dockside waIkthrough, but I can’t emphasize the importance enough. I once examined a boat that had a starter that was impossible to replace without pulling the engine or cutting up woodwork. On another occasion, I saw a boat that had an engine refrigeration compressor mounted beside the raw-water pump. To change that pump’s impeller, you had to open the refrigerant tubing (dumping the refrigerant) and remove the compressor.

I’ve only scratched the surface with this subject. Read all you can, talk to friends with boats, use qualified professionals. It’s worth the time and expense to lay the foundation for years of fun.

January 2013 issue