A Little Art & A Little Science

Use hard tests and soft skills to take the trial out of sea trial.

To the uninitiated, the boat-buying process may seem overwhelming, a procedure that’s part technical skill and part mysticism.

Mired in somewhat archaic processes and a flood of paperwork, the boat-purchasing experience isn’t like buying a car or a house, although it has components of both.

Only after an offer has been made and accepted on a boat can the process of evaluation begin in earnest. A variety of surveys are usually scheduled, including an in-water survey, a haulout/bottom survey, an engine survey and a sea trial, which is the test drive. Unlike with a car purchase, prospective buyers don’t get to just hop on and take a pre-owned boat for a spin without making an offer. That’s to curtail folks from getting free boat rides if they’re just “kicking the tires.”

To be clear, a sea trial is a test of a brokerage or pre-owned boat whereas a boat test is generally used to evaluate new vessels offered by a dealer that people can try without an official offer. “The sea trial is a test of the seaworthiness of a vessel,” said Tamara Krimstock of South Coast Yachts.

“A sea trial is at least as important as the survey,” said Doug Wright, a San Diego-based marine surveyor. First-time boat buyers and buying veterans might find it best to divide the sea trial into two parts:

1. Hard facts/procedures
2. More subtle aspects that often tell a bigger story
Then plunge in.



Just the Facts, Ma’am

The tangible, quantifiable and objective parts of the sea trial usually receive all the focus, because they’re easy to list and check off. The more prepared you are with the details for the factual part of the process, the smoother the sea trial will be.



Plan the Day

Most times, the various surveys and the sea trial occur on the same day. Perhaps the boat location requires the buyer to travel or the surveyor has a tight schedule, so bundling everything makes sense. Ask what players will be present for the trial, including the broker, surveyor, seller or the seller’s representative. Who will run the boat? The owner, his captain or a hired captain? Because the buyer pays for evaluation services such as the haulout, survey, engine oil analysis and so forth, it’s in your best interest to become the conductor of this symphony.

The surveyor will want to inspect the equipment/engines cold at the dock, so the sea trial will have to occur after that but before the short haul at the boatyard, if possible, to save on that bill if something goes amiss on the test drive and you change your mind. Boatyards may haul the boat and leave it in the slings over the lunch hour or may only have time to do it in the morning before a sea trial can happen, so the schedule can go either way.



Make Lists

You have to do homework and come prepared with multiple lists (i.e., write down everything you want to test while you’re out). Of course that will include running engines at both cruising rpm and at wide-open throttle. Dick Simon of Dick Simon Yachts in Dana Point, Calif., said buyers shouldn’t expect to run the boat flat out for more than a minute or two. That’s long enough, he said, to see if the temperature increases, which could signal a potential problem.

Blowing up an engine due to unnecessary stress — 20 minutes at WOT, maybe — will create a potentially expensive problem, but you should still ask to drive the boat and see how it handles in fast turns and in tight quarters.

Other test items on the list may include running the generator, using the navigation and communications electronics including the VHF radio, engaging the autopilot, anchoring, playing with the digital switching system, deploying the stabilizer system (if there is one) and monitoring the batteries.

“If you want to see how to get the dinghy down off the flybridge, ask for it to be done,” said Leanne McNally, also of South Coast Yachts. “A faulty davit looks the same as a good one but will cost you upwards of $8,000 to replace later.”


Big Issue, Small Issue

If the boat is a popular model of which a number were built, information about its performance and possible problems should be easy to find. Nothing should be a surprise during the ride.

“The sea trial is a test to prove that the boat will do what the manufacturer originally stated it would do,” said Wright. “It’s to find out if the boat will perform up to the standard to which it was built.”

If the boat is older or unique in some way, performance information may be more difficult to find. There may be an online history of issues that a model has experienced over the years, whether with performance or problems with engine mounts, fuel tank corrosion, steering irregularities and so on. Just like with a home inspection, a boat survey and sea trial will generate a list of items that may need to be addressed. You need not panic, though, as this is normal and doesn’t mean it’s a bad boat. Large issues should be addressed by the seller, and those include significant engine malfunction. Smaller issues will need to be taken on by you as the buyer. Understanding the difference will make negotiations after the sea trial go more smoothly.



Not a Pleasure Cruise

“A sea trial isn’t the time to bring your whole family for a day on the water,” said Simon. “A boat under 30 feet will perform very differently with full fuel and water tanks and eight people aboard than at half tanks and three people.”

A typical sea trial lasts 30 to 60 minutes. It may be longer if the vessel is large or has exceptionally complex systems. Build in extra time for getting through any no-wake zones. Decide whether it’s necessary to take the boat out on the open ocean to test upwind power and performance in a seaway.

“If there’s no weather happening or you’re allowed to get up to speed in the bay, don’t waste everyone’s time going outside,” said McNally.



Lean on Experts

A surveyor should be present for the whole sea trial. Presumably, it’s someone you’ve interviewed prior to hiring her, as well as potentially one or two others, and you should ask questions about systems and the findings, but give her time to do the job without interruptions. While underway, the surveyor will be inspecting systems, taking measurements and photos, and recording notes. The time to dig into the findings will be later when they’re assembled into a report, which is usually within 24 hours.

If the seller is present, this may be a time to learn about the boat’s idiosyncrasies, but some brokers don’t want the seller aboard during the sea trial.

If a hired captain is running the boat, don’t be shy about taking the wheel and asking him what he thinks. Remember, however, that no matter what you ask of whomever, what you’ll get back is an opinion.

“The boat tells the story. Not the broker, captain or seller,” said Wright.

“A good broker will have done serious preparation, including having the bottom cleaned and the props serviced, so there’s no speed-robbing growth on the day of the trial,” said Simon. “Hard growth on a prop can set up a vibration and can cause the boat to not reach its top-end rpm potential.”



Consider Payment Details

Come prepared to make payments for all services rendered on the day of the trial, including the surveyor and the short haul. Surveyors and some boatyards may require a check rather than a credit card. Most boats can be sea trialed and surveyed in one day, but for large vessels, it may become a multiday process and run into the thousands of dollars.



Ask for Records

Whether the owner is aboard for the sea trial or not, ask to have the vessel maintenance records available for inspection. That should be of interest to you as well as the surveyor and may explain things if the boat behaves a certain way during the sea trial.

“Checking the thoroughness of the recordkeeping is a good way to learn the past owner’s priorities,” McNally said. “It lets you know who you’re buying from.”


Zen & Art of the Sea Trial

Now for the softer side of the process, which is where communications, expectations and emotions meet. Before you roll your eyes and turn the page, remember that more deals get hung up due to a lack of preparation and soft skills than due to bad oil samples.

Divide these touchy-feely items into groups.

“A sea trial is like a dance,” Simon said. “Things can be finessed right down to the weight balance on a smaller boat, so be aware of what’s real.”

Marine surveyor Brad Destache pointed out that the process of arriving at a fair value for a boat can be contentious. “The art is the different people and how you deal with them.”

Destache likes to get a feel for the whole group: buyer, seller, broker. “You’ll see right away who’s laidback and who’s the natural alarmist. I adjust my bedside manner accordingly. In the end, everything is repairable and negotiable.”



Communications & Time Management

Making multiple working parts come together isn’t easy, so leverage your broker to help. Either you or your broker should make contact with all parties and create an itinerary for the day. When everyone works well together, the sea trial is more productive and goes more smoothly, and any negotiations that happen afterward are more amiable.

As the buyer, don’t show up late, even if you’re flying in. Making other people wait means you’re not honoring their time and their role. Don’t lollygag through the sea trial. Get out, get things done and get back. If the boat doesn’t meet your expectations, say so and either move on or make a list of contingencies and repairs.

Most importantly, treat the sea trial as a lesson. “If this boat ends up being yours, you’ll never have more people with more knowledge assembled at one time to help you learn the vessel,” Destache said.



Expectation & Emotion Management

No used boat is perfect. For that matter, no new boat is perfect, so expect that the sea trial will uncover something. Address everything that comes up with as much reason and as little emotion as possible. Get an estimate of what a repair or a replacement will cost.

Understand that if the offer comes in low, the seller won’t be motivated to make many changes. “An offer may have to be full price to get a seller to make significant repairs,” McNally said.



Understand All Parties’ Motivations

The art of making a good deal is to understand everyone’s motivations. The surveyor works for the buyer and will find issues to show the boss. Sift through what’s important and don’t worry about the rest. The seller wants to offload the boat but will expect a fair value, unless desperation is a factor. The broker wants the deal to come together; she has a commission on the line and wants happy customers who will buy or sell another boat in the future. And therein lies the crux: a good deal is where the expectations of all parties are understood and somewhat met.

“The key,” Destache said, “is to not get involved emotionally, but that’s hard for folks to do.”



Keep it Safe

Check to make sure there are basic safety items aboard before you get on someone else’s boat, even if the sea trial is just in the harbor. Have PFDs for everyone, find the location of a couple of fire extinguishers and do a radio check before you depart the dock.



Focus on the Details

A finely tuned attention to detail will serve you well on the sea trail. Engage your senses. Watch for things you do and do not want to see. Smell the engine room, lay eyes on the seacocks, and feel the wheel and how the boat responds.

“You don’t have to be emotional to be engaged and aware,” Destache said. “If there’s a vibration, a hum, a ping or a broken switch, note it, learn about it and decide if it’s something small or significant.”



Respect the Boat & the People

This one should be a given. You need to respect all parties involved as well as the vessel itself on the sea trial and during the whole purchase process. Especially if the sellers are present, remember that until your check clears, this is their boat and should be treated with courtesy. You don’t need to heed the advice of the broker or listen to the owner’s sea stories, but you can excuse yourself politely while you test drive or just smile and nod. It doesn’t hurt—much.