Buying a boat is a big decision. If you ask any marine expert how to buy a boat with as little risk as possible, they will likely recommend you take the vessel out for a sea trial before making a final purchase. For many boaters, the sea trial is the last step before buying the boat, and the results of the test are often the determining factor between two similar vessels. This article explains how to sea trial a boat, including what areas you should pay close attention to while on the water and helpful boat-buying tips.
What Is a Sea Trial?
A sea trial is when you take a boat you are interested in purchasing on a test run on the body of water you plan to use it on, whether that be the ocean or a freshwater lake. You may also conduct a sea trial to test a boat you currently own after a major repair or refit. The idea is to use the boat the same way you plan to use it post-purchase, taking special note of how well the vessel performs. Only engage in a sea trial for a new boat once you have narrowed down all your options and have found the vessel you are likely to buy.
WHAT HAPPENS ON A SEA TRIAL?
Now that you know what it is, exactly how does a sea trial work? During a sea trial, you take the boat on the water and operate it under the same conditions you would on a typical boating trip, including varying speeds, maneuvering on different water conditions and adding extra weight on board. Although it’s usually a fun experience, don’t get too caught up in the thrill of a new boat. Be sure to focus on how well the vessel performs and take notes to compile a sea trial boat report. Some boaters will hire a marine surveyor, mechanic or industry expert to accompany them during the sea trial before buying a boat so they have trained eyes and ears helping to identify potential concerns.
HOW LONG DOES A SEA TRIAL LAST?
When you water test a boat, it can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Each boat dealership has its own rules and guidelines in place for sea trials — set aside enough time during the boat shopping period to discuss your expectations with the dealer. If you feel you need more time on the water to make a decision, ask about their policies. At this time, your boat dealer or surveyor may also discuss certain restrictions you must follow due to insurance and liability laws.
Importance of Doing a Sea Trial
Having a sea trial for a powerboat is a crucial step in the boat buying process, as it can alert you toward concerns you may have otherwise overlooked. It’s the best way to ensure that you are making a worthwhile investment. Doing a sea trial is especially important if you are purchasing a pre-owned vessel. Even if the test raises no red flags, it’s still an excellent opportunity to get a feel for how the vessel rides the water and what your sightline will be while at the helm.
Sea Trial Checklist: What to Look for on a Sea Trial
Before you begin your sea trial, make a list of the requirements that you need your boat to meet and the areas you want to inspect in a notebook. Keep these notes with you throughout the water test, and remember to record details about the boat’s performance. Use this same notebook to write down questions for the dealer.
WHAT TO CHECK ON LAND
Before you head out, perform a visual inspection of the boat on dry land. Pay special attention to the following areas:
- Upholstery: Examine the upholstery — including seats, cushions, drapery and linens — for stains, tears or fading. Inspect all seams for stability and note any wear.
- Exterior damage: If you’re buying a pre-owned boat, pay close attention to surface damage, such as scratches, chips in the paint, cracks or corrosion. Although a few minor blemishes are common, multiple cracks or concentrated corrosion in one area could indicate a more significant problem.
- Smell: Smell can be a powerful tool during a pre-inspection. If you smell excessive fuel, for instance, it could mean there is a leak in the fuel lines, or the tank is filled with contaminated fuel. If you note a musky, mildew smell, be sure to check for hiding leaks or standing water in storage compartments and other hard-to-see areas of the boat. Any trace of burning rubber or smoke is cause for immediate concern.
- Functionality: Finally, test the functional elements of the boat. Do all windows, doors and compartments open without difficulty? Are railings and pedestal seats firmly mounted? This is also a good time to check for loose wiring, including cut or frayed lines. Note the date on the battery, as well as its condition.
WHAT TO CHECK ON THE WATER
If possible, conduct a portion of your sea trial in daylight, as well as after dark, so you can get an accurate idea of how displays look in all types of lighting. Key performance areas to check during your sea trial include steering, speed, maneuverability, sound and comfort.
Being able to steer your boat quickly and efficiently is crucial for the safety of you, your passengers and other boaters. Two of the most important things to test your boat are the steering response and whether the steering system is worn. To test response, count how many times you have to turn the steering wheel to get from lock to lock. Three to four times indicates a quick response, while anything more than that may be more difficult to maneuver in an emergency. To inspect for a worn system, take a look at the cables and mounting area. Check that the drive or outboard engine has little slack. If it easily moves back and forth when you touch it, this could be a safety hazard later.
You need a vessel that can offer you the adventure you’re looking for. For powerboaters, this means speed. There are several ways to test the speed of your boat, including:
- How does the boat sound as you accelerate? How does it feel? Any abnormal noises or vibrations could be cause for concern.
- Operate the boat on both calm and busy waters, so you see whether it maintains a low planing speed on rough waves without sacrificing too much time.
- Shift the throttle between casual, steady cruising and top speed performance. Note how the speed holds and shifts through each transition. While you do this, be sure to travel over different depths of water to get an accurate read.
- Make several turns while going each speed. If the boat stays on plane, this is the minimum planing speed. The slower the planing speed, the better, especially if you plan to do a lot of boating on rougher waters.
Maneuverability refers to the way the boat handles the water, and how easy or challenging it is to move around the boat while on board. Take note of any factors that impede performance, such as strong wind currents, uneven steering or jarring movements. To test the vessel’s maneuverability, incorporate a variety of turns into your test, including:
- Left and right turns
- “Swerve to avoid” motions
- Full circle turns
- Backing in and docking
To test onboard maneuverability, you or a passenger should walk from end-to-end of the boat while it’s idle and while you’re cruising, noting whether grab bars are accessible, how much traction the floor provides and how much mist and water covers the seating area. Open and close storage receptacles, including doors, hatches and cabinetry.
All powerboats make noise while in use, but there are certain sounds you should be aware of, including:
- Starter: Before starting the boat, open the hatch, so it’s easier to hear. A steady vibration or hum is expected, but severe rattling or clunking isn’t normal.
- Engine: If possible, start the engine for the first time when the boat is cold, as this is the best time to hear abnormal sounds. If your engine makes any noise variations— called “hunting” — it could indicate a serious issue, such as a failing fuel pump or injector.
- Abnormal sounds: While cruising, note any noise in the transmission, as well as abnormal sounds like rattling, thumping, powerful vibrations or cracking. Pay attention to the way the boat sounds while idle and while at top speed, as well as when shifting.
Finally, how does the boat feel? Even when a boat performs well, small features can mean all the difference between a fun day on the water or a day filled with squinting through glares, sore muscles and frustrating inconveniences. Ask yourself and your passengers the following questions while onboard:
- Do you feel secure when you walk around when idle and at cruising speed? Is there any place that is unstable or slick?
- Are the railings tall enough, and do they provide sturdy support?
- Is the cabin hatch wide and tall enough for family, friends or crewmembers to fit through?
- Do any latches, knobs, cabinet doors, drawers or fixtures rattle loudly when cruising?
- Are there plenty of grab bars at each end of the boat?
- Is there plenty of room for both you and your passengers to move around?
- Are storage receptacles easily accessible?
- Are the seats comfortable?
- Can you reach the control panel and gauges easily from your seat? Can you read the electronic display screens in the daylight?
- How is your sightline when behind the wheel? Are there any harsh glares from the windshield or reflective surfaces?
Tips for Buying a Boat
Now that you know more about how a sea trial works, use these tips to get the most out of your water test:
- Bring the family: You want to get an accurate read for what the boat will be like on a typical day. This means operating at full-fuel levels, with several pounds of loaded gear and the additional weight of passengers. Bring a few friends or family members to your sea trial with you. This will give you the best indication of the boat’s true performance, and your passengers can also offer feedback about how comfortable the boat is and whether they see or hear anything concerning. Should the boat perform slower with a few extra people on board, consider asking about additional horsepower options.
- Ask questions: If you’re unsure about anything during the sea trial, don’t be afraid to vocalize your concerns. If you suspect that something might not be right, consult a marine expert or surveyor when you get back on land.
- Be the passenger: Spend time both behind the wheel and as a passenger. As a driver, take note of your sightline, including any visual obstructions. As a passenger, sit in different seats, walk around while cruising and assess how comfortable and stable you feel as you navigate to each part of the boat, such as the cabin and cockpit. Include things like noise level, seat vibrations and the proximity to handrails and cupholders.
- Choose carefully: When choosing a boat to purchase or sea trial, take time to research the dealership and manufacturer. Do they have a reputation for providing top-quality products and excellent customer service? What financing options do they provide?
About Formula Boats
At Formula Boats, we’re on a mission to bring friends and families closer together by helping each of our customers find the boat that fits their exact wants and needs. That’s why we offer preowned and stocked vessels, as well as the unique ability to customize and build your own boat.
When you browse the Formula preowned inventory, you can filter your search by manufacturer, year or sales class. You can also find a Formula dealership near you to see boats in person. When you opt for the build-your-own option, you get to customize every part of your vessel, including the boat class, series, model, engine, colors and graphics, interior decorations, optional add-on features and more. Whichever boat you choose, our staff is standing by to guide you through the process.
As a valued member of the Formula family, you’ll also gain access to the Formula Service program, which includes:
- Maintenance management systems
- A network of service professionals
- Technical assistance
- After-hours customer service
- A five-year membership with an emergency sea towing provider