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How to Choose Your First Boat?

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Discover the basics of how to choose your first boat. Writing something on how to buy a boat is like writing on how to choose a wife. Although a writer might do a masterful job of surveying and analyzing the various features and qualities to consider in appraising a boat or a lady, there are some men who will ignore his words of wisdom and buy the boat or marry the gal they just happen to have fallen in love with.

So all right. Let’s put it this way. Some men are going to buy boats just because they like the fancy lines and fine trimming. In an effort to give them whatever brief advice one can, we can simply quote the old seaman’s saying:

“Boats are like women because what breaks you ain’t the cost of the hull but of the rigging!”

With that phase of the subject out of the way, we can go on to talk to the obviously substantial number of men who prefer to apply different tape measures to boats and females. We say “substantial number” because of the letters we get from readers in appreciable quantity that ask intelligent and searching questions about choosing fishing craft. On reading a batch of these letters it becomes quite clear that their writers have made a diligent study of various boats and have collected a lot of information on them. Sometimes so much that their heads are spinning! Some get themselves so confused, they look around for some more experienced boatman to ask advice of.

Well, on one hand we admit being flattered to be considered expert enough to give a well-informed opinion. On the other hand, we have to be honest about it and admit we do not know everything about every make and model on the market – there are just too many of them. No man alive can find the time and wherewithal to go out in all of them long enough to evaluate them thoroughly. When asked “Is the 18 foot Whizbang a better-built boat than the 18 foot Boombah?” or “Does the 21 foot VeeVeepound less than the 21 foot BeeBee?” we have to do some artful dodging that would bring a gasp of admiration from a politician skilled at the art of obfuscating!

When it comes to comparing various boats, then, a person can’t expect to get inside information by writing to any outdoor or boating magazine. It isn’t just editors’ desire to be impartial or fear of saying something an advertiser won’t like. It’s just that most boating writers and editors have to keep their noses to the grindstone to keep up with the cost of living and they simply do not spend the livelong days riding around in all the different makes and models on the market today.

Occasionally a reader expresses surprise that boating experts can’t reel off strings of profound commentary on the merits and demerits of any boat they may happen to mention. After all, the news stands are full of magazines that contain articles putting various automobiles under the editorial microscope. Well, one has to remember a fact – there are far fewer makes of cars than of pleasure boats, and far more dealers for specific makes of cars than there are for boats. The automotive writers have fewer models to choose from and find it easier to borrow one locally for a trial run. Stick this bit of inside information under your hat for future reference! It isn’t that boating “experts” are dumb or evasive, it’s that the field they cover just happens to have a lot of significant differences from other fields.

For example, an automotive writer can drive out to his favorite bumpy road when he wants to evaluate a new car’s riding qualities. But because wave conditions on the water vary from day to day, your boating writer can’t always find exactly the kind of waves on which to test the VeeVee’s riding quality that he chanced to encounter when he took the BeeBee out. How then is he to make a fair and accurate comparison between the two boats’ riding qualities? He can’t – unless he is so independently rich that he can spend all his time trying out assorted boats. And if he were that rich he would not need to try to make a few bucks pounding the typewriter month in and month out!

However, we can borrow from the automotive and aviation fields to come up with a bit of really sound advice for the prospective boat purchaser. The old Packard firm’s advertising catch-phrase was “Ask the man who owns one!”, and the old Waco airplane firm used to advertise “Ask the pilot who flies one!”.

Actually, when you stop to think of it, the best person to seek out when you want an honest opinion of a boat is someone who owns one like it. He has been out in it often enough under enough different conditions to have learned quite well its good and bad points. He is not afraid of offending someone by saying exactly what he thinks about it. He has probably talked to others who own identical boats and gotten their opinions.

Boats in the harbour
Sometimes one basic hull is offered with a variety of options, including choice of outboard or inboard engines, seats, outriggers, towers and so on
Source: unsplash.com

He is not trying to sell a boat and earn a commission. He has dealt with the local dealer for the make and knows how good or poor—the service is. The expert you seek to give you an opinion may not been writer or editor in Boston, New York or Miami – he may be some ordinary Joe down at the local launching ramp! Catch him after he has returned from a day afloat and secured his craft. If he’s in a talkative mood, you’ll get the scoop you want!

Some fishing enthusiasts tend to shy away from membership in such groups as the Coast Guard Auxiliary and U. S. Power Squadrons. “Buncha gold braid yachtsmen!” they snort. What they overlook is that a lot of interesting personal knowledge is swapped between boat owners at the meetings of such groups. It wouldn’t hurt to attend a few of their safety classes this winter to get acquainted with them.

A few paragraphs back we mentioned that the boat business today offers many more makes than does the auto business. A somewhat similar situation exists in the field of boat and auto shows. At almost any sizeable auto show, you can see all but a few obscure makes of cars. Because “everybody’s there” is true of auto shows, many boat prospects seem to conclude that any boat show of reasonably large size will exhibit every make of boat.

But it isn’t that way at all! The sad thing is that every year, an unknown but probably sizeable number of prospective boat purchasers give up the idea of buying a boat after attending a show. Since what they happened to be looking for was not on display, they jump to the conclusion that nobody makes what they wanted. We thus offer a little suggestion to boat show operators: put up signs at the doors that say “If you don’t see what you want, ask for it!”

The boating boom has, obviously, brought many new and hopeful boat manufacturers into the field. Similarly, assorted exposition companies have inaugurated many new boat shows. The idea of staging a boat show is an attractive business proposition. You reserve an auditorium for certain dates, then rent booth space to as many firms in the boat field as you can contact and sign up, do the advertising, sell tickets and make a profit. Lately, there are so many boat shows, the boat and motor firms are finding it hard to decide which ones to appear at and which to skip.

It costs a lot of money to appear at a big show – booth rental, displays, moving boats in, staffing the booth every hour the show is open, putting the staff up at hotels when displaying away from home, and so on. As more shows are scheduled, companies find they simply cannot appear at all of them. They often have long debates in corporate offices to decide which ones to sign up for and which to skip.

That’s one reason why you cannot expect to find every available boat at the show you happen to attend. Another reason is that, once a boat builder or How to Choose a Boat Broker: Tips on Yacht Sales, Consignments, Fees, and Trade-Insmarine dealer has signed up for space at some show, he very naturally wishes to make that space produce the best possible return for the money spent. Thus, much discussion often takes place as to which models to show and which to leave at home. Just as auto dealers display the most exciting, eye-catching models at auto shows, the boat people tend to display their plush models.

Men fishing on a boat
All boats are offered with a choice of options. This one has cockpit rails as a safeguard against falling overboard when standing to cast and to land fish. Ask what’s available
Source: unsplash.com

This doesn’t mean they are greedy. They are just using proven principles of salesmanship. Suppose all the boats at a show were painted olive drab and trimmed with flat black hardware! Glitter, color, drama, pizzazz and hoopla are necessary to attract attention. Always remember that companies display at boat shows not only to sell the models on display, but also to put their names in front of the public in hopes of encouraging people to come out to their salesrooms after the show.

Thus, if you’re in the market for a fairly plain, utilitarian fishing boat, a glittering boat show might actually be a very unlikely place to hunt for it! But go to the show anyway to learn who the dealers are for various makes in your area, and to pick up their literature. The plain boat you want might be waiting for you to discover it on page 9 of some catalog!

Emerill Lagasse Fishing Tournament
One of the new breed, this Bluefin is designed for fishermen’s needs
Source: unsplash.com

Just as boat shows cannot display all makes and models, so likewise it is impossible for most dealers to show all models of the makes they handle. Boats are bulky things, often a lot harder to move about and put under cover than cars, and they tend to sell on a much more seasonal basis. Thus, dealers stock rather selectively. A dealer in a swank resort area will stock up with many fancy runabouts and cruisers, while a dealer in a rural area noted for its panfishing will stock up with the plain boats likely to be bought by panfishing enthusiasts.

What it all amounts to is that you have to go shopping for your boat with some plan in mind, not just wander into a show or salesroom and expect to stumble upon just the craft you want. Not long ago I was in a boatyard on business when a couple of prosperous looking gentlemen strolled in.

“Do you sell trawler cruisers?” they asked the manager.

One look around should have told them that that yard specialized in sailboats! When the manager said “Sorry, no”, they asked if he know who sold them in that area. Being a sailboat man, he did not know. Knowing that I am a writer and am familiar with boating literature and publications, he turned and asked, “Bob, do you know who makes trawler cruisers?” So I went over and told the visitors that while I am a small boat man myself and could not reel off all the names of trawler makers, I did know where to find out about them.

Whereupon I wrote down the name and address of an annual boat directory, and the name and address of a powerboating magazine that had put out an issue a few months previously that contained a round-up of trawler cruisers. I suggested they obtain these publications.

Yacht in Crimea
If you’re shopping for a family boat, take the family along on the demonstration run to see how they all fit in and how well it works out
Source: unsplash.com

Some weeks later I received a letter addressed to me in care of that yard. It was from one of the men. He wrote to say that they followed my suggestions, found exactly the boat they wanted, and thanked me sincerely for the bit of advice I had given them on how to start gathering names and addresses of makers of such craft.

So you see, it pays to go shopping with a plan in mind. Say you have the notion that a 35-foot aluminum john boat would provide you with the special fishing platform you need. You will not find such a boat at the booth of Stickey & Itchey Fiberglass Marine Corp. The salesman at Tintype Houseboats, Inc., which makes steel-hulled houseboats, will answer your inquiry by saying disdainfully, “What are you, some kind of a nut?” The only john boat you see at the show is one being used by a booth demonstrating a car-top boat carrying rack. You ask the man if the company that made the boat he is using makes a 35 footer. He replies, “I dunno, I just sell carriers, I don’t know nothing about boats.” So you go home – if you have no plan.

Small boat on the water
Well designed small boats are capable of fishing the far offshore grounds. This is a Chris Craft, outboard
Source: unsplash.com

But if you do have a plan, you could rather easily ferret out that one company which does make a 35-foot john boat. Boating magazines and publishers and sellers of boating books often have stands at boat shows. Most of the boating magazines have “boat show annual” issues, big fat ones filled with listings of boats, motors and no end of equipment. You will pick up a few of these. You will keep your eyes open for stands that display any kind of aluminum boats, be they canoes or speedy runabouts, and will pick up their catalogs.

You will take time to look at display posters behind or above the main displays – these often show the OTHER models built by these companies, but which are not on display for lack of booth space. Back home, you will browse through this literature and come up with the names of several likely-sounding firms. One of them replies that no, they do not make a 35-foot john boat, but your inquiry opened their eyes to the fact that there might be a market for such a craft and they’d be pleased to sell you the first one off the production line at a discount to show their appreciation.

Read also: Expert Tips for Negotiating a Boat Purchase

You never know, you never know! It just seems to pay off to put your brain in gear and then follow whatever inspirations it may crank out. And it seldom pays to wander around a boat show floor in a daze, seeing nothing beyond the glitter and glamour.

Mako Marine boat
Mako Marine’s clean-lined 19-foater offers lots of cockpit space

It also helps to realize quite firmly that things don’t just happen to appear on the market. Designers and manufacturers do a lot of thinking before deciding what they will make. Often they rely heavily on what they learn about trends at the huge Marine Trades Exposition and Convention held in Chicago each September, and on what they hear from their chains of dealers. Sometimes they guess right, sometimes not. Since no one has offered a better method of sounding out the market, the aforementioned one is what the industry generally relies on.

You do want to remember that it has one big flaw – it naturally tends to make copycats out of the designers and builders. VeeVee Marine is seen to be attracting a lot of dealers into the little conference booth at the back of their display area. The story gets around that the new quadruple-vee hull by VeeVee is selling fast. Dealers of BeeBee boats say to the executives of BeeBee,

“Quick! Give us a better quadruple-vee with which to compete with the local VeeVee dealers!”

Before a kitten can grow into a young cat, you’ve got ninety-eight firms pumping out their imitations (with slight changes) of the original quadruple-vee hull, and it turns out there are not all that many customers who want or need whatever advantages the original hull had.

If you find yourself badly confused by conflicting claims in advertisements and from the mouths of salesmen, you can often sort things out fairly well just by remembering that it all goes back to the sales department’s dilemma of how to offer their own version of a hot-selling item while being different enough to avoid the stigma of copycatism, yet not be so really different as to amount to something other than what the customers are looking for (or supposed to be looking for!).

Take the now-popular center console control location as an example. It was originally used in the earliest of the deep-vee boats for the simple reason that makers of those craft very quickly discovered that when a lone occupant rode in a driver’s seat set to one side of the center- line, such boats would often list to that side so much as to go skimming along heeled over on one side of their bottoms. Putting a center console amidships forced the driver to sit on the centerline. It looked good, it looked different, people began to regard it as the new and accepted style and to ask for it in other boats. Now you find it in assorted craft that often have no need at all to make their drivers sit on the centerline!

Or, take the very popular deep-vee hull. It does indeed do a fine job of giving a good ride when speeding many miles over ocean swells to get out to deep water. In some parts of this vast country, the ocean bottom slopes very gradually seaward and one must go 50 miles out to find deep water fishing. For such long trips, the ride of a deep vee is a blessing. Then travelers saw these boats being used in distant areas, got excited about the new idea in bottom design, and brought such boats home with them.

Some started using them in places where the best fishing is 100 yards off the beach, not 50 miles. They did not particularly need the soft ride which made very long runs bearable. At the same time, they discovered that they did not at all like the tendency of a deep vee to roll badly when slowed down or stopped for fishing. So, makers began to offer modified versions of the deep vee, flattening them out to make them stiffer fishing platforms. So, today if space men arrived from Saturn (we found out there are no men on Mars, shucks!) and wanted to know what a deep-vee hull is, the answers they would get from various people would send them home shaking their heads in bewilderment!

When the automotive industry brings out a Self-Survey Criteria for the Engine and Electrical Systemsbrand new engine and chassis, they have to keep it in production for several years to amortize the enormous tooling-up costs. They just change the sheet metal at each end, the paint and the trimmings to make annual model changes for the sake of spurring sales. But a boat factory can make up a Manufacturing of Fiberglass Boats and Design Featuresnew fiberglass mold in a couple of months and start popping out something entirely different in a rather short time. This encourages the proliferation of variations on a basic idea. Some company shows up at the boat shows with a fiberglass copy of a Viking ship, mainly to attract attention to their booth. To their amazement, people start placing orders for it, since most boats look so much alike and something really different appeals to people who want to attract attention. In a few months, several firms are offering Viking ships and people everywhere rush to buy them without stopping to ask,

“Hey, what in heck do I need a Viking ship for, anyway?”

In a nutshell, today boats are merchandise first and boats somewhere after that primary fact. Knowing this helps you to see through the razzmatazz and get to the crux of the matter, which is whether one boat or some other one would be best for your particular needs.

Author photo - Olga Nesvetailova
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  2. Motor Boating & Sailing, P. O. Box 10075, Des Moines, IA 50350.
  3. Multi-hulls, 421 Hancock St., N. Quincy, MA 02171-9981.
  4. Nautical Quarterly, 373 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016.
  5. Sail Magazine, P. O. Box 10210, Des Moines, IA 50336.
  6. Sailing, P. O. Box 248, Port Washington, WI 53704.
  7. Small Boat Journal, P. O. Box 400, Bennington, VT 05201.
  8. Soundings, Soundings Publications, Inc., Pratt Street, Essex, CT 06426.
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  10. Wooden Boat, Subscription Dept., P. O. Box 956, Farming-dale, NY 11737.
  11. Yacht Racing/Cruising, North American Building, 401 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19108.
  12. Yachting, P. O. Box 2704, Boulder, CO 80321.
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  14. Chapman, Charles F. Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling, 56th ed. New York: Hearst Marine Books, 1983.
  15. Coles, Adlard. Heavy Weather Sailing, 3rd rev. ed. Clinton Corners, N.Y.: John De Graff, Inc., 1981.
  16. Pardey, Lin and Larry. Cruising in Seraffyn and Seraffyn’s Mediterranean Adventure (W. W. Norton, 1981).
  17. Roth, Hal. After 50 000 Miles (W. W. Norton, 1977) and Two Against Cape Horn (W. W. Norton, 1968).
  18. Royce, Patrick M. Royce’s Sailing Illustrated, 8th ed. Ventura, Calif.: Western Marine Enterprises, Inc., 1979.
  19. Kinney, Francis S. Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design, 8th ed. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1981.
  20. Street, Donald M., Jr. The Ocean Sailing Yacht, Vols. I and II. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973, 1978.


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