By the time my husband Evan and I were ready to buy our first boat we had done years of research. We knew how and where we were going to use our boat, and how much money we had to spend for the purchase and outfitting. We knew which features were essential and which we could live without. So, when we found what looked like the perfect boat—we bought it.
What we didn’t know when we initially signed the paperwork was there were several unexpected things about that boat we’d eventually end up being thrilled with. For example, I had no idea how well-thought out the storage was until it came time to move aboard and the lockers effortlessly swallowed all our belongings. I also loved how secure the small cockpit felt, a feature I never realized was important to me until sailing in bad weather at night. But there were also details that turned out to be completely wrong for us—there was no sea hood over the companionway and during stormy weather waves poured through the hatch. And there was absolutely no straightforward way to put a sailing bimini on that boat—so when we hit the tropics we roasted.
Beyond the Big Picture No boat is going to be perfect, but there are things that most lay people just don’t see or anticipate unless an expert points them out. When we look at boats we’re mostly thinking big picture: imagining ourselves sipping cocktails at sunset, or powering along with the wind in our hair. But when a surveyor, boat builder, or yacht designer looks at a boat they see the details—those things that will eventually either drive us crazy, or make us love our boat.
For example they’ll notice if the camber of the deck will make moving around in rough weather tricky, or if the furniture is pushed back to give the illusion of space at the cost of storage. They won’t be fooled by cheap gear and poor finishing just because it’s all shiny and clean looking. And they’ll know when a given boat is exactly what you said you were looking for—even if the settee material is an especially ugly shade of green.
Unfortunately most of us can’t take along an expert while shopping. And because of this there’s a good chance we’ll bypass a few right boats for the wrong reasons, and pursue a few very wrong boats just because they fit our most obvious needs.
But to make your search easier we’ve sought out some input from the experts—posing the question, “What do you know that the rest of us miss?”
- Decide What You Need This is really the first step—because until you’ve pinned this down, local surveyor Brian Beckett points out you simply can’t know if a boat will be suitable for the intended purpose. He explains, “If she’s for family cruising (sail or power) then there needs to be enough seating, berths, and storage to accommodate the numbers intended for the periods planned. But if she’s for racing your budget needs to include things like the replacement of uncompetitive sails and appropriate insurance coverage.”
- Know What You Are Looking at When Vancouver surveyor Captain Tony Toxopeus is asked to survey a specific boat he immediately heads online to research builders, owners groups and whatever else he can find, “The internet is full of information, so do your research and learn the possible shortfalls before looking at the vessel.” And when possible look at more than one version or year of the same model, and more than one brand of the same style of boat.
- Don’t Get Blinded By Love “Don’t be fooled by great accommodations or creature comforts on a sailboat,” Art Webb of Lands End Surveyors advises. “The boat must sail well first, and accommodation is second unless you want a wharf queen.”
But you also don’t want to give up comfort entirely. As naval architect Vince den Hertog points out, “It’s easy to initially forgive the fact that maybe you can’t stand up everywhere (or fit in the beds). But after that first longer voyage, your neck and back may not share your feelings.”
One quick check is to lie down in the largest berth with your significant other and see if you’ll find it comfortable, then head to the galley and mimic preparing a meal and finish up in the shower stall with a pretend lather up. And if you have kids, make sure you don’t squish them into a short berth and forget they will continue to grow.
- Think Through a Day On The Water—From Everyone’s Perspective Webb explains that women and men often see boats differently, “One person may envision sunny days, beer holders and bikinis while the other may be looking at accommodation, food preparation areas, toilet facilities and a safe space for kids.”
Then consider how it’s all going to work. I’ve been on boats where smaller women can’t reach many of the sail controls, or where only the kids are agile enough to use the swim ladder, or where the engine is positioned so that only a contortionist can get to the dip stick.
- Look Beyond The Obvious Will the hatches provide enough ventilation? Is there deck space or room for davits to store a dinghy? “For the cruiser, towing a dinghy is not a realistic option in anything but sheltered waters. But deflating and re-inflating a roll-up dinghy gets tedious quickly,” den Hertog points out.
If it’s a powerboat, how is the visibility from the helm? Can you see through that cloudy vinyl window or will it need replacement immediately after you purchase the boat? And if you are going to use the boat year round—how protected is the helm from the weather, and is there room to install a heater down below?
- Use All Your Senses If you are shopping for a used boat start with a good look at the hull. Toxopeus shares his technique, “I look at the vessel from the bow or stern and walk slowly around the vessel looking for dents, bulges or imperfections (This is best done with good light and a wet hull). I carefully look at the fairness of the rub rail to see if there have been any impacts which tend to show at the hull to deck join. If it’s in the water I check the “scumline”—is the boat listing, squatting or is she sitting low in the water?”
Toxopeus goes on to give the inside of the vessel a sniff test, “decay, sewage, burnt wiring, dampness and oil are all there for the taking… like a bad glass of wine.” Then he heads out on deck, “I walk around the decks listening for crunching noise (separating core material) then gently flex the stanchions looking for deflection at the bases or openings in the sealant.”
- Think About Maintenance “Don’t buy a project boat unless you have abundant time and superior construction skills.” Webb suggests, “In most cases, it is better to buy a boat you can afford and use it as is, rather than getting saddled with an ongoing project.”
Den Hertog goes further and warns against boats with too much brightwork, “On a modern boat, wood is mainly cosmetic. And while some owners find wood-refinishing therapeutic, if you’re not that person, then find a boat that has a minimal amount or none at all.”
Beyond this, make sure the engine is one that can be serviced locally and the general equipment is of a recognizable brand. A lot of older engines are much harder to find parts for, or they are only available from overseas. And when you need a replacement for a piece of equipment you don’t want to be waiting two weeks for a new thermostat from Italy or head gasket from Sweden.
- If She’s “The One” If you have made an offer on a boat and negotiated a price, hiring a surveyor should be your next step. No matter how carefully you have checked over a boat, your efforts are really just designed to get a sense of the vessel’s condition and as Toxopeus explains, “Hopefully save you the cost of paying good money to survey a lemon.” A surveyor is your consultant—helping you sort out exactly what you are buying, what its strengths and deficiencies are, and demystifying the process so there are no big surprises down the road.