Ace the Test

Get the most out of a used-boat test drive by using your eyes, ears, nose and hands.

shutterstock_124178611 copyA boat test sail (much like test driving an automobile) can provide valuable insight as to how a vessel and its systems operate in the real world. Sure, you can ride around with a mango margarita in one hand while the owner regales you with tales of far-away, exotic locales and/or locals. A smarter move, however, is to approach your test sail with planning and a critical eye designed to glean the most info possible about your potential purchase. Doing so can help weed out potential lemons before you spend hard-earned cash on a surveyor.

A test sail is typically shorter than a formal sea trial, so you may not have time to undertake all of the suggestions to come, but they are generic in nature and can be modified as needed, allowing you to concentrate on the ones you feel will yield the most information in the available time. If you’re not 100 percent confident in your ability to conduct any of the checks, leave those for your surveyor.

FIRST THINGS FIRST
Start by giving the owner, broker or captain (whoever’s going to operate the vessel) a heads-up about what you’d like him to do while underway. Make a list of any maneuvers you’d like to perform in advance — figure-eight turns, back-down tests — and go through it with the captain before leaving the dock.

During the course of the trip, the driver will probably offer you the wheel, but make sure someone else is manning the helm during any test maneuvers, so you are free to look at “stuff” during the maneuver — and you’re not liable for any problems that might occur. Along those lines, you should make clear that the owner or his representative is in charge of the vessel’s operation at all times and should stop immediately if he feels a test is unsafe for any reason.

VELVET ROPE
Approach the test ride as that — not a joy ride. Restrict your guest list to people with an immediate interest in the boat-buying decision, so you can stay focused on the vessel’s performance instead of worrying whether your kids are behaving or if Fido is watering the upholstery. Also, consider finding some lessthan- ideal conditions to conduct your test ride. You don’t want to go out in a gale, but it stands to reason that if you’re buying a sportfishing boat for offshore fishing, you’ll learn a lot more about the boat operating on some healthy seas rather than skimming up a calm river.

AT THE DOCK
Ask the owner or broker not to warm up the engine before you get there on test day. You can learn a lot from a cold start, but the most basic observation is how hard the engine is to start — a perfect time for weak batteries and other such problems to make themselves known.Capture

Try to arrive a bit early and undertake a little familiarization time on board before getting underway. Check the bilges for indicators such as water level and the presence of oily water, and compare that with how the bilges look once you’ve returned to the dock. Check the engine oil and coolant levels, as well as the transmission oil level, before and after the trip, confirming correct fill levels and noting any changes that could indicate leaks. It’s good to do this for hydraulic steering systems and trim tab units as well, if applicable. If there’s a generator, check oil and coolant levels and ask that it be started at the beginning of the test ride and placed under load (powering the air conditioning, for example). Let it run for the duration, to observe its operation for as long as possible.

Place a clean drip cloth under the engine and generator before getting underway, which makes oil leaks more noticeable, and record engine and generator hours before and after the test, to verify the hourmeters actually work. Test day is also a good time to check the propeller shaft and rudder stuffing boxes for excessive leaking; again, compare how things look before and after the test.

Once the captain has started the engine (and generator), take a moment to conduct a visual inspection for any fluid or exhaust leaks. Note the engine rpm at idle; if it’s greater than 800, it may have been bumped up to cover an idling problem. Ask that the engine be revved up to the 2000 rpm range (unloaded) to see how smooth the throttles operate and how the engine itself responds, noting any hesitation or bucking when throttling down.

While the boat is still tied to the dock, ask that the vessel be placed in forward, neutral and reverse, to check shifting. Listen for and note any unusual noises. Also verify alternator output at the batteries: 12 volts nominal, 13 to 14 volts on average for 12v systems.

UNDERWAY CHECKS
Once underway, record the oil pressure, coolant temperature, volts and gearbox oil pressure for each engine at various speeds (slow throttle, half, full, and cruising speed). Record these at all helm stations to compare readings and verify the gauges work and that readings match.

If you have a laser thermometer and are comfortable around engines, here are a few additional things to examine. (A small point-and-shoot laser thermometer is less than $50 at Sears.) Check the temperature of the engine oil pan, which is typically between 190 and 220 degrees, depending on the engine. Higher readings could indicate a fouled oil cooler, something you may be able to verify by comparing oil temperatures at the oil cooler intake and discharge; the temperatures should differ significantly if the intake and discharge are working properly. This works for transmission oil coolers, too. Sweep exhaust manifolds and risers for hot and cold spots. Manifold temperatures should be within about 10 percent of each other, while riser temps should be fairly close to the cooled part of manifolds. Hot spots in any of these areas could indicate internal corrosion and blockage.

Check all exhaust systems for coolant or gas leaks. You should also note the temperature of the stuffing box; the higher it is above ambient temperature, the more urgent the need for attention.Capture 3

While underway, inspect stuffing boxes, dripless shaft seals and rudder glands for leaks. It’s not unusual for rudder glands to be dry at the dock but leak while the vessel is underway.

Check the shaft for vibration or wobble. If there’s visible wobble, you can get a rough idea of how bad the problem is by touching the top of the gear box — if you can feel it there too, the issue needs to be corrected sooner rather than later.

If there’s an engine manual on board, note the manufacturer’s maximum recommended rpm. Then, after the engine has warmed up a bit, ask that it be run at full throttle for a short distance. The rpm at wide-open throttle should be within about 100 of the specs (depending on the engine). A maximum rpm higher than recommended could mean the prop is too small,while a slower rpm could indicate a prop that’s too large in pitch, diameter or both.

While the boat is running at maximum speed, verify that the actual speed matches the advertised speed. This is also the time to look and listen for any unusual sights and sounds — burning smells, smoke, vibration, excessive broker sweating.

As you can see, there are plenty of things you can do to make a test sail productive, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time as well. You can still listen to the raucous tales of the owner or broker — just tell them to hold off on the margaritas until after the work is done.Capture 2

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