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May 1st 2018. By Alex Smith.

Sea trials

Whether you’re buying new or used, sail or power, it pays to get the sea trial right.

A sea trial is rather like a car test drive, and just like a test drive, it is more usual to undertake one with a new boat purchase with a boat dealer than with a private sale.

While a sea trial doesn’t always form a standard part of the boat buying process, the enduring relevance of Caveat Emptor (the buck stopping with the buyer) means that even for a private used boat purchase, a sea trial can represent a very important step. Of course, if a boat is not seaworthy (for instance if it’s being sold as a project) then a sea trial will prove impossible; and if the modest price of a used boat makes the seller unwilling even to entertain the idea, then there’s not much you can do about that. But in all other circumstances, whether new or used, from stock, from the builder, from brokerage or from a private seller, it is perfectly legitimate to insist upon a sea trial prior to purchase – and in all cases, the finalising of the deal and the payment of any balance should be dependent upon its satisfactory completion.

Top sea trial tips

  1. Make it plain that your sea trial is not solely about fault finding but about your own subjective satisfaction with the boat.
  2. Take your regular crew along to act as additional eyes and to make sure they feel as good about the boat as you do.
  3. It’s not yet your boat so treat it with respect but, conditions permitting, you should operate it at maximum revs to see how it copes.
  4. Compile a full set of performance figures to verify that it behaves as it should and to clarify the likely running costs.
  5. Vary your angle of approach, pace and trim settings to get a genuine feel for the boat’s abilities in an open sea.
  6. Don’t forget to have a go at close-quarters manoeuvering to make sure you’re comfortable with how she handles in the confines of a marina.
  7. Do everything you can to recreate as faithfully as possible the things you would do on a regular day out boating.
  8. Check out the noise and vibrations throughout the boat – and not just in the communal areas but in the cabins too.
  9. Don’t waste valuable sea trial time on any of the things you can carry out ashore.
  10. Be aware that a sea trial is a valuable supplement to, not a replacement for, a professional marine survey and engineer’s report.
Sea trial

Whether you’re buying new or used, sail or power, it pays to get the sea trial right.

What’s a sea trial for?

For some boat buyers, a sea trial is simply about achieving final verification that every practical aspect of the boat (that cannot be properly assessed while alongside) is safe, functional and correct. For others, it is a chance to add the reassurance of personal certainty to the professional evidence of a survey and marine engineer’s report. However, if buying through a broker, it’s often the case that a sea trial will only be conducted once a deposit has been left and a provisional deal agreed. So if you want to be able to claim back your deposit and walk away from a deal on the basis of elements of the boat you dislike (rather than outright faults), you need to make it plain that refusal remains at your discretion – and that you and you alone are the one who decides whether you are satisfied.

Making your time work

By the time you embark on a sea trial you will already suspect that the price, performance, specifications and features fit the bill; and that, for the most part, the hull, layout and propulsion choice match your intended usage.

However, the noise, the vibrations, the visibility, the ergonomic sophistication, the security, the ride, the handling and the ease of use can all radically change your impression of a boat once you exchange the warmth and serenity of the yard for the wide open exposure of the sea. A lot of these subjective impressions will strike you very quickly, but time on a sea trial tends to be quite short so it pays to have a plan in place to ensure you cover everything you need.

In short, rather than turn up blind, you need to use your sea trial to examine the things you can’t achieve ashore. That doesn’t involve pottering around in storage spaces and cupboards, but it does involve helming the boat, sitting in every seat while underway and navigating every walkway and climbing every staircase while the boat is moving around at sea. Are the decks flat and grippy? Are the guardrails adequate? Are the grabbing points in all the right places? Of course, you should already have a realistic understanding of how the boat ought to behave because you will have done your research, but there’s no substitute for discovering how she makes you and your crew feel.

The helming experience

When driving the boat, identifying and understanding the compromises is key. A fast, efficient-running craft may be less content in a swell or in the turn, while a beamy, spacious, buoyant boat may be less capable in a head sea. So pick a day when the weather generates some modest lumps – and then put the boat (safety permitting) at every angle to the swells. Play with the trim and the tabs, the pace and the angles to assess how fast, how comfortable, how dry and how composed the boat is in each situation.
This also gives you a chance to assess how much control you are able to exercise from the helm. Is the boat sufficiently responsive and dextrous to enable you to drive to the conditions? Is the helm sufficiently supportive, protective and communicative to enable you to take control and really enjoy the drive? And are there any peculiar quirks in the handling? Does your position at the helm offer you the security, the view and the comfort you need? And does it enable you to read the dials with ease, speak to your friends without shouting and integrate with the rest of the party while driving the boat?

In addition to examining the comfort and adjustability of the helm position and the placement and effectiveness of the electronic gear, it’s also useful to consider the attitude of a planing boat as it makes its transition to the plane and to note the pace at which it falls back into displacement mode. A particularly low-speed plane can be very useful for more comfortable and controlled rough-water work and handy if your cruising grounds are subject to speed limits. You should also think about the off-plane tracking and the impact of windage and check out the impact of any driver aids like joystick control or thrusters. Does it offer the ease of manoeuvrability you want for comfortable close quarters operation? And does it have the clear visibility and ease of access to the side decks you may need for working with a minimal (or inexperienced) crew?

You will find boat dealers will often offer sea trials with new boats, but it is less usual to have a sea trail of a secondhand boat.

The passenger experience

The right purchase is as much about the people you expect to accompany you on board your boat as it is about personal preference. Whether that’s your family or friends, try to take them along so you can gauge their impressions. If you can’t take them along, then make sure you explore the boat as fully as you can, sitting in every seat, standing in every space and making your way along all the walkways. Think about whether it’s a boat your passengers could properly enjoy. Does it feel safe and reassuring at sea? Is the ride sufficiently soft and dry to keep the external seats usable underway? Will your crew feel comfortable and secure negotiating the wet bow, navigating the side decks or heading up the steps to the flybridge? Will they be happy with noise and vibration levels, visibility, seating positions and ease of movement when trying to make their way around the boat? Again, the answer at sea may be different to the one they gave ashore.

The real-world performance figures

Having done your preliminary research you will have a good idea how high the engines should rev and how fast the boat should go – but it makes good sense to compile your own performance notes. It doesn’t take long (perhaps five minutes) and it’s very easily done. Simply set up the dash display for revs, fuel flow and speed. Then run the boat at 500rpm increments from 1,000 rpm up to the top end, noting down the fuel flow and Speed Over Ground figures as you go. If you want to be scrupulous, you can do this once with the elements and once against them in order to reach a realistic average. You can then sit down in the comfort of your own living room and calculate the best cruising range (and the real world cruising costs) with nothing more than knowledge of the fuel tank capacity and a calculator. If it’s a used boat, you can also assess how closely the boat complies with its quoted parameters and (if it’s new) you can decide whether a different engine choice might make more sense for your lifestyle.



Alex Smith is an ex-Naval officer, with extensive experience as a marine journalist, boat tester and magazine editor. Having raced as a Pilot in the National Thundercat Series and as a Navigator in the inaugural Red Sea RIB Rally, he has now settled in the West Country, where he lives and works as a specialist marine writer and photographer from his narrowboat in Bath.