Savvy buyers know to make their boat purchase contracts contingent on satisfactory completion of two separate inspections—a complete physical survey and a thorough test of the boat's ability on the water. Whether the boat is new or used, a comprehensive survey will help protect the buyer by uncovering any mechanical defects in the vessel. Once this inspection of the boat is complete, the final step in the process is to assure the buyer of the boat's performance out on the water. This is what we call the sea trial.
It's an unfortunate aspect of the boat buying process that many sea trials become miniature rituals of the transfer of ownership. The surveyor is happy to be nearly done with his job, the seller almost has his check, the broker can smell his commission, and the buyer is emotionally overcome by how close he is to owning his dream boat. Rather than rigorously putting the boat through her paces, sea trials often degenerate into brief daysails with congratulations all around.
In fact, sea trials should be thought of as the most important part of the inspection process. While the haulout and survey may take more time, they only view the boat's mechanical systems in a static state. On the other hand during sea trials, the buyer is able to see the equipment in dynamic operation. So, while the surveyor might examine each individual part in the steering system for wear or potential problems, the sea trial will tell the buyer whether the boat actually steers properly. Additionally, putting the boat through a series of sharp turns and docking-like maneuvers gives the buyer an opportunity to see if the boat's performance is up to his expectations.
It is only logical that some of the larger, more expensive parts of the boat should be checked out on the water where they eventually will be asked to perform for the new owner. Sails need to not only be hoisted and inspected for shape and wear, they should be adjusted for every point of sail to insure that running rigging is properly placed and in good operating order. Jamming the boat hard on a stiff breeze is the only way to tell whether her degree of stability is satisfactory to the buyer.
The engine should be run at full throttle and the resulting RPM checked against the manufacturer's specifications. This not only tests whether the correct propeller has been installed, but also puts a strain on the engine that would likely cause any weak parts to fail. Shifting repeatedly from forward to reverse and back again is a normal test for the condition of the transmission and it also lets the buyer learn how the boat responds to the controls.
All electronics need to be switched on and viewed critically. Does the depthsounder go blank when the engine is running? Does a VHF transmission cause wavy lines to appear in the radar screen? Does the GPS crash when the engine is started. Is there static in the SSB radio when the wind generator is running? We once came across an autopilot that went full right rudder every time the electric head was flushed as the electric cables to the head pump motor had been routed too close to the autopilot compass. The only way to find answers to these questions is to take the time to test each piece of gear on the water.
Every winch should be repeatedly turned, preferably under a load, and an expensive windlass should certainly be tested. Telescoping whisker poles should be extended and retracted several times under load and the end fittings examined. Heads that the surveyor tried at the dock should be tried again underway. Light the stove, run the generator and prove the operation of the pressure water system while heeled on both tacks. Careful observation below decks while the boat is being sailed hard allows the buyer to check for proper handholds, movement of bulkheads and squeaks or other noises that may indicate problems.
Sea trials are usually the last opportunity for a buyer to decide whether a particular boat suits his needs, desires, and specifications. The only way to capitalize on this chance is to take time to give the boat a good, hard workout and observe her behavior as dispassionately as possible.
Of course for any sea trial to fulfill its complete potential, the first step is for the buyer to inform all the other participants as to how much time he or she expects to spend on the water. This forestalls an anxious seller, broker, or surveyor from hurrying the process of scrutinizing the boat. Secondly, and most important the buyer must keep his own emotions in check, stay focused on the evaluation at hand, and make as many observations as he is able.