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The walkthrough

Maximizing an inspection during a crowded show is easier with research and a plan

Looking beneath the surface can tell you whether a builder sweats the details.

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It's a ritual that takes place at all boat shows - stepping aboard a boat that tickles your fancy, opening the cabinetry and the refrigerator, testing the settee, walking forward and aft, looking up the mast and imagining yourself at the helm, heeled to the breeze as you head for the horizon or an afternoon sail on the estuary.

This is, after all, why one attends boat shows: to go beyond the hyped-up marketing effort and get a personal look and feel for the coveted vessels. Although it's true that quality research upfront will help avoid disappointments later, there is also a boat-show etiquette to such walkthroughs that is considerate of other people on board and the company representatives' limited time, especially when crowds are big and the model is in high demand.

Some vendors try to control the mayhem and prequalify customers with sign-up lists so there's a limited number of guests on the boat at any given time. This ensures that potential customers and sales personnel can get a better feel for each other.

It's the age-old dance. Companies want to sell boats and generate quality leads by separating lookers from buyers and people who attend want to maximize their time at the show. So here are a few useful tips that should help both sides.

  • Get in touch: In the social media era, this is not a chore. If you have a short list of boats you want to see, scan the manufacturer or dealer Web sites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to get a sense of what will be at the docks. Calling ahead can't hurt, but be prepared to leave messages, because many boat companies have stripped a lot of staff, and whoever remains has many more responsibilities - and less time. Although companies will show new models, don't automatically assume they will be available for testing at a dealer near you. Inventory financing is still difficult to obtain, so dealers might be sparsely stocked with new models.
  • Come prepared and bring your notes: You know best what you want, so structure your research. Visit manufacturer websites, read magazine previews, collect technical information and jot down some questions. None of this will spare you from due diligence later on, but initially it will help you ask pointed questions when you have a chance to talk to representatives. Focus on the features that are important to you and the way you intend to sail the boat, and don't be afraid to show you have done some homework.
  • Go for a ride: If you are serious about a specific model, ask whether there is a chance to go for a spin after the show, when the boats are often kept around for the media to do their photo shoots and testing. If that doesn't fit the schedule, ask for open houses or other events when the boats might be made available for inspection and sailing.
  • Learn from the pros: During my days as a boat tester, I learned from yacht designers, builders and bluewater cruisers, who were hired to judge the boats entered in a contest. They had the boat closed off for an hour and swarmed out - armed with pencil, notepad and digital camera - to record details for discussion in the evening. They peeked into the bilge, engine room, lockers, galley cabinets and the electrical panel to find out what's under the glossy surface and to get an idea of a manufacturer's attention to detail, which typically becomes evident in the dark and rarely seen spots.

It's what surveyors would do and it's far beyond a regular walkthrough during boat show hours, when the vessel is crawling with other people. By all means, take notes and snap a few images for your records, but before you get on board, ask the attendant whether it's OK to do so. You will have a chance to do a more thorough inspection before you buy, either with an experienced buddy or with a surveyor.

  • Ask questions: Published specifications and prices of new models are often preliminary and approximate, or they may relate to a model that is being sold in a different market. The sail area usually begs definition. Is the given square footage calculated for non-overlapping jibs (also known as 100 percent sail area) or for larger headsails (also known as working sail area)? Does it include the roach of the mainsail, which can be considerable, and/or sails that fly on a bowsprit?
  • Talk money: In this day and age, the tactic seems to be to put an attractive price on the sticker to lure people, then hit them with "options" that were standard in the past. Some manufacturers advertise base prices that don't include engine, sails, electronics and such essentials as dock lines, an anchor, lighting, commissioning, delivery, etc. A seemingly attractive $110,000 base price can balloon to $130,000 or more by the time you have a boat you'd want to sail. Get a price quote and double-check what's included.

Larger boats built overseas often are delivered on their own keels to the East Coast, so arrangements must be made for direct delivery elsewhere. If the boat is foreign-built, which most midsize and large sailboats are, check the currency on the price list. The dollar fluctuates against the euro, but no one updates a price list daily. Ask what conversion rate was used to calculate U.S. prices.

  • Tap into technology: Few sailboat builders have the know-how or the wherewithal to use cutting-edge technology for marketing purposes, but those who have figured out how to use animated renderings are giving their potential customers tools they can use to research the desired boats in more detail than ever before. Check out the video that Beneteau put together for its new Sense line (, and test the 360-degree view of a Lagoon catamaran's deckhouse ( to get an idea of how these boats look and feel before you board a plane to attend a show. Despite all this wizardry, it's important to remember that the final decision must rest with a personal inspection and, of course, a test sail with real wind on real water.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.