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.
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.
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.
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