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Sea Trial Like a Pro

Countless boat tests have taught me never to overlook the obvious.

Sitting in the helm chair of a midsize convertible recently, I noted the sightlines were 360 degrees—perfect for cruising, docking, and watching the cockpit. But as I stood up and pulled away from the dock I realized something was missing: I could no longer see the gauges that were recessed into the helm console.

It reminded me of another boat with idiot lights on the dash panel fitted with wristwatch-size gauges. During this sea trial a hose slipped off the heat exchanger, dumping engine coolant into the bilge. I was running the boat from the lower helm station and when the light lit up I couldn’t see it because the sun glare was pouring through the windshield. The alarms quickly followed, but it took precious moments to study the gauges to determine exactly what was going on. Though I was able to shut off the engine before it cooked, the alarm and the time it took to identify the source left me rattled.

Think about maintenance when inspecting an engine room

Think about maintenance when inspecting an ER.

The lessons I learned that day cannot be overstated. It is not enough to have the usual features on a boat; they also have to function when you need them. The excitement of stepping aboard a new boat with an unfamiliar helm has to be augmented by astute, coldly rational observations.

The other day, a friend complained to me about a new boat he had sea-trialed, claiming it ran terribly. I knew the boat and was surprised by his dissatisfaction. I offered to go with him on another sea trial. This time around I understood his plight; his current boat had a top speed of 21 knots, and he typically cruised at 18. This new ride was bigger, more powerful and cruised at 36. This was double the speed he was used to, and he was unnerved by the velocity because he had never driven a boat that fast. Even more so, at top end, this boat would hit 40 knots, not to mention its frisky idle.

The lesson here is that when you sea trial a new boat, especially if it’s larger and has more power than your current one, you should begin by running it at the cruise speed you are used to. This offers a better appreciation of how it feels and handles in your familiar environment. Once you have gained some confidence and are more familiar with the power in your hands, you can let all the ponies out of the stable and better appreciate your new boat’s capabilities.

While the power and propulsion aspects of the sea trial are critical, save ample time to peruse the engine compartment and other machinery spaces. If you have been out of the boat-buying process for several years, you will likely be astounded at the way most manufacturers have cleaned up the engine compartment and introduced new equipment, such as gyro stabilizers and other high-end accessories. However, the more complex the machinery, the more attention it needs on the maintenance front.

Give the salesperson time to walk you through the spaces so you not only learn about what you are buying, but also the effort and expense needed to keep everything functioning properly. Don’t hesitate to climb around the machinery and see for yourself what it will be like to swap out batteries, change watermaker filters, clean raw-water strainers, check the engine and generator zincs, and perform other routine chores.

The more familiarity you gain, especially during the relatively short time frame of a sea trial, the more comfortable you will be with your decision.

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.