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On Powerboats - Separating the sizzle from sense

She’s easy to fall in love with at the boat show, but make sure it’s a relationship that will last

She’s easy to fall in love with at the boat show, but make sure it’s a relationship that will last

She sure looked great at the boat show, the fathom-deep luster in the gelcoat, sleek windshield, back yard-size swim platform, and 12 — count ’em, 12 — stainless steel cup holders. Fact is, the salesperson had you at “Hi, I’m Jane. She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”

We’ve all been there and done that — fallen in love with the glitz and glitter, the curves and pizzazz. Plenty of boatbuilders lather on the graphics and chrome, the radar arches and straight-pipe exhausts, the cherry and Ultraleather interiors, knowing that sizzle sells boats, including lousy boats. Even when we know better we fall for the flowers and the smooth line.

It’s not until that first weekend on the water that you find out the berths are shorter than your eighth grader; a little pollen will plug the cockpit drains; you can’t see where you’re going without standing on the helm seat; the pancake-flat hull guarantees spinal collapse offshore; and the ski-jump foredeck calls for rappelling gear to get to the anchor, which, by the way, hangs up on the chintzy pulpit. Then there’s the dealer, whose service reputation, it turns out, is even worse than the boat — a real bummer considering how much work it’s going to need.

If you’re asking yourself how you can make sure this scenario doesn’t play out in real life, let’s take a deep breath and continue. To make sure you end up with a boat you can gladly live with after the lust(er) fades, you’ll need to know how to work with your dealer, what to look for dockside or at the dealership, and how to perform a sea trial. And keep in mind that there are three fundamental ways for a boatbuilder and dealer to make a customer happy: build a good boat, take care of the owner after the sale, and do a good job of managing expectations — underpromise and overdeliver. As the customer you can help manage your own expectations by thoroughly evaluating and comparing the boats on your short list, both at the dealership and out on the water.

Dealing with the dealer

Whichever boat you buy is going to need TLC long after the sale, so picking the right dealer is key to long-term enjoyment. Ask around at the dock, at the local marine store, at the yacht club. If the same dealer names keep coming up in either the plus or minus column, that’s a good sign of whom to seek out and whom to avoid. In fact, finding a good dealer who will take good care of you long-term is so important that you might opt for your second or third boat choice to get the best dealer.

You can always shop by price — brand and dealership — but you’ll likely get what you pay for. A better boat, one that’s well-built and outfitted, will cost more, as will a high-performing dealership. While there is nearly always room for negotiation, the dealer needs a reasonable margin to be profitable and stay in business. That way he can service your boat so well you’ll want to buy another one from him.

Tell the dealer what boats you’ve owned before, what your comfort zone is regarding distance offshore and boat size, and how you plan to use the boat. This includes the waters you will be operating in, how many people you want to be able to bring along, how far and for how long you cruise on a typical trip, or if you want to be able to fish or tow a boarder. If you intend to be in boating for a long time and want a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship, say so. For your part this would involve complete integrity on the salesperson’s part, including full disclosure as to the boat’s capabilities and limitations. You don’t want to be disappointed after the first season’s use. If you’re a first-time boater, tell the dealer. If it’s a small boat (under 28 feet or so, or whatever you can tow) get the trailer; you can’t expect the dealer to service the boat as quickly if he has to come pick it up.

Now grab your digital camera — you’d be surprised how much you miss walking through the boat the first time — a tape measure and note pad, and take a critical look at your potential heart throb.


Whatever boat you pick, going with the base power is rarely a good idea. Like cars, boats are available in stripped-down versions, and that includes engines that are too small for most owners’ purposes. Get the bigger, if not the biggest, power available so the boat will rocket up on plane when fully loaded or pulling boarders.

If it’s outboard power, get the EFI 4-stroke or the DI 2-stroke. All of the outboard brands deliver high customer satisfaction in these two technologies. If it’s a gas inboard or sterndrive, get the EFI engine, not the carbureted model; the EFI version is easier to start, smokes and fumes less, and is more efficient. With sterndrive power, get the Volvo Duoprop or MerCruiser Bravo Three counter-rotating drives, if available, as they offer superior performance and handling.


A boat that’s advertised to sleep six, especially if it’s smaller than 30 feet, is almost certain to count on two to four of those people being children, or at least people well under 6 feet tall. Make sure the berths are large enough to lay down and stretch out on comfortably (make note of any shorter than 6 feet, 4 inches) and that you can get in and out of them easily. Pay particular attention to the midcabin berth; make sure there’s enough height at least to be able climb over the person next to you, if not to sit up.

The trend in cruisers is toward more glass and sunlight, so you don’t have to settle for a cavelike interior. Make sure you’re comfortable with the amount of headroom — look for 6-plus feet at the companionway in a small cruiser, 6 feet, 4 inches in a 30-footer.

Be sure there’s enough storage space and that it’s accessible, and also that the galley and head facilities are adequate. Make sure the overhead hatch is accessible and big enough to climb through in an emergency. Also, a cabin with a fiberglass liner is a lot easier to keep clean than a stick-built boat covered with carpet.


Seated at the helm, you should be able to reach all controls without stretching or straining, and see all the gauges without craning your neck. If the steering takes five turns or more from lock-to-lock and the boat cruises at more that 20 knots, it won’t be as agile as it should be. Power steering should bring that ratio down to three or four turns, as with a sterndrive. Note on the sea trial how much effort it takes to steer the boat, and how comfortable the wheel is (more on the sea trial later). Some wheels inexplicably have sharp-edged spokes that dig into your fingers. The wheel and engine controls should be right at your fingertips when seated or standing.

The windshield, canvas and radar arch shouldn’t interfere with horizon visibility for more than a few degrees at any given point. If you have to move your head from side to side to see, the obstructions, including windshield mullions (frames) are too wide. You should be able to stand at the helm with plenty of room between the seat bolster and the wheel. The dash area under the windshield should be a flat, dark color (like in your car) to help eliminate glare.


In the cockpit, look for at least 28 inches of coaming height, deep toe kicks, toerails and non-skid that grips your boat shoes well. A self-bailing cockpit is ideal, as water drains overboard rather than into the bilge, making the boat both easier to maintain and more seaworthy. The bigger diameter the drain lines, the better — look for at least 1-1/4-inch hoses — as they drain quicker and are less susceptible to clogging. The scupper pocket should drain completely through recessed deck fittings.

If the boat has sterndrive power, make sure the swim platform projects past the lower unit when it’s in the raised position — a big diver/swimmer safety issue. The boarding ladder should be deployable by a swimmer in the water.

Access to the bow should either be on centerline, with wide and deep molded steps and a tall rail leading through the center-opening windshield, or by wide — at least 6 inches — and flat side decks with something to hold onto all the way forward. Bow rails should be at least 26 inches tall (30 inches or more is great), aligned with the outboard edge of the walking surface (not the gunwale), and strong enough to withstand 400 pounds of pressure.

Engineering systems

The engine should be accessible for both routine checks and maintenance as well as overhaul work, as should components like the bilge and live well pumps, inverter, batteries and generator. The battery switch should be easy to get to behind a single door or hatch; having to move seats and other obstructions to get to the battery switch, or having to climb down into a center console to reach it, are unnecessary inconveniences that increase the chance of the switch not being used.

Seacocks should be directly accessible or fitted with remote operating gear (long handles) that allows them to be opened and closed from the cockpit. The engine hatch or box should be guttered to drain water overboard, keeping the compartment dry.

The sea trial

Don’t buy a boat without taking it out for a real-world, fully loaded test ride on a windy day. Take notes on what you like and don’t like about the boat, and be sure to get plenty of feedback from the family. The boat should suit everyone, not just the skipper. Make note of time to plane, all-around seated helm visibility, continuous cruise speed (ignore the WOT speed), and how well it rides in rough water.

Why load her up? Because the difference in the weight of a 20-footer with one passenger and a quarter tank of fuel and the same boat loaded with fuel, passengers and gear can easily be 60 percent or more. Add a coat of bottom paint and canvas, and the boat slows more, which is why you want it loaded for the sea trial. Bring along a few well-fed neighbors. Also, note how effective the trim tabs and engine trim are at lowering the bow and correcting for list and heel.

Make sure you’re satisfied with the smoothness of the ride running into waves. With the wind on the beam, see how much spray comes aboard. Running down sea, see how well the boat stays on course. With an inboard boat, time a 360-degree turn at cruise speed; 20 to 30 seconds is a good turning rate. If the boat is smaller than 45 feet and it takes more than 35 seconds, the boat has issues. In a hard turn at high speed, the boat should turn predictably and in control, not spin out, bow dive or heel excessively.

If the boat has installed fuel-flow equipment, note the fuel consumption against various speeds so you can calculate ranges. Buy a $60 sound level meter at Radio Shack and record noise levels at the helm and in the cockpit at cruise speed. Use the A-weighted scale set on slow response. To prevent permanent hearing loss, the standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration limit noise exposure to 8 hours daily at 90 dBA, while higher levels mean shorter exposure times and vice versa. An open boat that runs at 80 to 82 dBA at speed sounds quiet, while 88 or 90 dBA sounds loud. The mid- to high-70-dBA range of well-built cruisers is excellent and measurably improves on-board enjoyment. With an inboard, the highest noise levels can be from the machinery, radiated through the deck and hull, or from the exhaust.

Back at the dock, note how well you can see close aboard from the helm — both seated and standing — whether you see the stern or swim platform clearly from the wheel when backing into a slip, how much “traction” the props have at idle speed, and the minimum steerageway in various wind conditions. Does it blow around like a kite or behave solidly when docking? Can you talk conversationally with your line-handlers? If the boat has twin engines, does it twist reliably and responsively?

Sorting sizzle from fizzle

Decide if the boat suits your needs and budget. If you’re stretching financially to buy it, make sure everyone who matters agrees that forgoing a vacation or two each year or keeping the minivan for a while longer is worth it. If not, find a less-expensive boat.

Hold off on a final decision until you’ve had a chance to muse a little about your sea trial; sleep on it to give the left side of your brain a shot at the decision-making process. Do your homework and research other boat brands and models on the market. You might even cross over to a different boat type if you go at it with an open mind. Maybe that big outboard walkaround is a better choice than the sterndrive express cruiser if you cruise but have developed a taste for fishing. If the dealer owns the marina, ask about a free slip for the first season. If you live in Florida or another access-challenged area, see about making a slip available as part of the package.

Once you’ve bought the boat, get a thorough product demonstration at delivery. The dealer should have a written checklist that you sign, but it should include systems (electrical, saltwater, freshwater, head), daily engine checks, how to do routine maintenance, and trailering instruction if needed. Make sure you know when and how to use the navigation lights, blower, horn, portable and fixed firefighting equipment. Don’t be afraid to ask for boat handling instruction, including docking and undocking, unloading and loading onto a trailer, man overboard procedures, anchoring, how to drop off and pick up a skier, and so on.

So now that you’ve been fairly rational about the whole process, and she still makes you tingle all over when you look at her, it’s time to get out there and have some fun.

Eric Sorensen was the founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice and is the author of “Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance.” A longtime licensed captain, he can be reached, and his book purchased, at .