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The Smart Buyer - THE DRIVEWAY PURCHASE, part II

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series about buying a trailerable boat and inspecting it on its trailer. Last month we looked at the hull, keel and transom. Here we’ll look at the engine, deck hardware, steering gear, the electrical system and more.

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The splash well on outboard boats is designed to prevent the water that comes over the transom cutout from entering the boat.

The splash well should have a high forward bulkhead to keep water out of the cockpit, and all cutouts for outboard rigging should be closed up with flexible, snug-fitting boots. Any access plates should be sealed in place, and the drain hole should be large enough to allow the well to drain rapidly and not clog easily.

Be careful with boats that have a cutout transom but no splash well. Make sure there is adequate drainage for water that comes over the transom and into the cockpit.

Sterndrives should be in the lowered position to avoid stressing the bellows and linkage boots, as well as to allow water in the outdrive to drain. Outboards also should be lowered to reduce the leverage strain on the transom.

Take extra care when inspecting deck hardware. Look for large backing plates and through-bolted hardware. Some small boats can take a lot of water over the bow, and I have seen poorly secured windshield frames pull free from the pressure of onrushing water.

Depending on vessel configuration, much of the steering gear can be difficult to access, although you should diligently inspect for loose or corroded fasteners, and chafed cables and hydraulic hoses. Mechanical steering requires periodic lubrication, without which it has a shorter life span.

I always operate both the engine and steering controls through their ranges several times, looking for resistance or excessive free play. Excessive resistance — a sign of inadequate lubrication — or free play in the steering system should be evaluated by an experienced technician.

Electrical systems can run from very basic on runabouts to fully functional on fishing boats with sophisticated electronics and electric downriggers. Regardless of the level of gear on board, the basics remain. Every boat that requires a battery to operate should have two. The system should be set up so that one battery starts the engine and the second powers accessories. Batteries must be kept dry and the terminals clean. They should be properly secured in approved battery boxes and installed high enough to protect them from any seawater that comes aboard. Ideally there should be a convenient method of charging the batteries while the boat is on the trailer in the driveway.

Because much of the wiring and controls are in relatively exposed locations on smaller boats, corrosion can be an issue. Wiring normally is tucked up under the gunwales or transom, which can lead to corroded terminals, connections and splices. Be thorough in checking the condition of the wiring and electrical system.

In general, accessories shouldn’t be wired directly to the batteries; they should be powered from a fuse panel mounted near the helm, away from environmental problems. Many small-boat owners perform their own electrical/electronic installations, which can produce numerous random splices and can lack overcurrent protection. Consider rewiring any accessories that have been installed using household- or automotive-grade wire.

This should go without saying, but it is critical that bilge pumps be installed aboard all vessels. Small boats need big pumps, and more than one. The smaller the vessel, the quicker it must be pumped to remain stable and afloat.

Fuel tanks should be accessible for inspection. Boats with portable tanks make the job easy, as the tanks are simple to inspect and replace, and tankage can be tailored to your requirements. Even with portable tanks and outboard engines, auxiliary fuel filters should be installed, preferably a spin-on canister style filter/water separator. Permanently installed metallic fuel tanks need to be inspected for corrosion, which can be difficult if they are built into the boat. Be wary of metal tanks installed in foam, as the foam can trap water and lead to crevice corrosion. When fuel tanks aren’t accessible, especially where access would require the deck to be cut, I would insist on pressure testing. Also, consider how difficult or impractical (read: costly) it would be to replace tanks that aren’t easily accessed.

As with all boat inspections, gather your detailed information first, then consider the services of a professional surveyor or consultant. If you aren’t required to provide a written survey report by your insurance carrier or lending institution, you should still consult with a professional about any matters of concern or questions about the purchase.

November 2012 issue