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How to Buy the Best Boat? Essential Tips

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Thinking “I want to buy a sailboat?” Learn how to choose the perfect boat for your needs without getting overwhelmed by the wide range of models and prices.

An enterprising student of psychology could write a best-selling book about the fascinating antics of people in the act of shopping for boats! Some veteran boat salesmen could team up with him to provide a mass of comical, weird and sad anecdotes about the things they say and do, to serve as raw material for his scientific analysis. The book could be given a catchy title such as “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Boatmens’ Mentalities But Didn’t Dare Ask!”

Now please don’t misunderstand me! I haven’t the slightest desire to make fun of earnest but inexperienced and confused people who are trying to decide which boat to buy. I knew nothing about pickup trucks when the time came to choose one to tote my camper. I knew nothing about motorcycles when my sons decided they wanted trail bikes. I knew nothing about ten-speed bicycles when my daughter announced she wanted one. Having myself experienced bewilderment, confusion and frustration while making my choices in these unfamiliar fields, I can readily understand and sympathize with the feelings of the chap who has just entered the boating marketplace!

Sailboats on the water
Sailboats in the harbour
Source: unsplash.com

So many makes and models! Such strange words flowing from the mouths of salesmen! Such gobbledeygook in the descriptive literature! Well, you’re thinking of buying a boat this year, so let’s get down to business.

There are two sides to every coin. On one side of the buy-a-boat coin, the wisdom is set forth in words of gold that one should select a boat from among those available at marine dealers’ establishments in one’s locality. This is so you can actually see a boat of the model you have in mind before purchasing, and so you will have a place to turn to for assistance when repairs or servicing are needed. Often this makes excellent sense.

But, don’t overlook the fact that it may depend on the Basic Hull, Keel, and Rudder Shapessize and type of boat involved. On the other side of the coin it is embossed in type so small that many people overlook this wisdom:

Don’t confine your choice to the relatively few makes and models on sale within a few miles of your home, especially when looking for a boat that you want to perform some special task especially well.

A few dozen firms dominate the entire automobile business. Dealers representing them are numerous and usually nearby. Cars being such an integral part of our daily lives, perhaps we unwittingly succumb to “car think” when considering boats, and thus forget that today there are many, many more companies making boats than there are making cars. Granted, it’s usually sensible to buy from a nearby dealer. But in so doing it is possible to overlook a boat outstandingly well adapted to your requirements by confining your choice to the often limited selection to be found in any one locality.

Always remember that marine dealers are as likely as any other merchants to stock items most likely to sell readily in their areas. At a typical large marine trade show, one can observe dealers strolling from booth to booth, eyeing various lines sharply and very obviously calculating the sales potential of each with specific reference to their own location and customers. Since most dealers have less storage and display space than they would like, and must use their working capital wisely, they are apt to pay scant attention to many thoroughly acceptable and useful boats for no more a reason than that they feel they might have to wait a little too long for just the right customer to come along and fall in love with it. So, you don’t see many boats that you yourself might find highly interesting for whatever special needs you have to fulfill.

How to Choose the Perfect Sailboat: Tips on Selection, Ownership, and Alternatives

It’s useful to visit boat shows to see a lot of boats quickly. But even there, again remember that each exhibitor has a very limited amount of floor space and therefore each tends to display those of his models that he feels will attract most attention and produce the most profit per sale. If you are a fisherman looking for a workaday fishing boat, a big show can actually be a rather unprofitable hunting ground, simply because the utilitarian boats have been left in the dealers’ storage sheds while the glamour craft have been put on display. By all means, pick up all the literature available at each dealer’s booth. When you get home, look it over carefully to see what other models the various manufacturers also make. Often enough you can find some very interesting possibilities this way, and any dealer worth his salt should be able to tell you where you can see one.

Chrisler boat
Chrysler’s 19-foot Fin Runner is an aluminium version of the fishing machine

Here is a practical example of how a little intelligent and determined hunting-around can turn up the ideal boat for a specific set of circumstances. Take a man who does most of his fishing in relatively protected inshore waters, but who occasionally wants to go out on the open water.

He does not care for the wreight, cost and required engine power for one of the 20 to 22 foot offshore outboard boats. He wants something light and handy enough to be more suitable for the frequent launching and hauling-out involved in his usual trailering from one protected inlet to another.

On the other hand, he does not see one of the increasingly popular fresh water “bass boats” with the swivel seat and stick steering up forward as being for him. Not large or deep enough in the hull for the occasional offshore trips he wants to make.

Give up? Compromise? No! He keeps on looking, with his brain in gear and his “resourcefulness” connector plugged in hard. Looking patiently and alertly through marine directories, he comes upon some of the big aluminum skiffs being used more and more for the burgeoning sport of coho fishing in the Great Lakes. He sees in one company’s listing that they offer a big, able 18-foot utility that resembles the 14-footers used by the beach buggy crowd, but obviously much more burdensome. It’s obviously large and deep enough to offer safety when offshore under reasonable small-boat conditions. It’s of aluminum and its lightness is therefore a welcome plus for trailering.

So here is a boat adapted rather well to his special operating situation. Although it may be necessary to drive some distance to get one from the nearest dealer in the next state, or to have it individually shipped from the factory, its simplicity means the prospect of requiring skilled dealer servicing is rather slight.

Powerboat show
The United States Powerboat Show held each October in Annapolis, Maryland, with more than 150 inboard powerboats in-the- water, plus a huge fleet of smaller cruisers, fishing boats and runabouts displayed on land

Some boat manufacturers will sell direct when they have no dealer anywhere near a customer’s town.

So with a little correspondence, our man arranges to get one of these boats and ends up with a craft far better suited to his requirements than the big-selling models stocked by most of the marine dealers in his area.

United States Powerboat Show
The look and feel of the annual United States Powerboat Show at the picturesque Annapolis City Dock & Harbor, is like no other boat show in the world. Boatmen from all over the country and abroad come to board, inspect, compare and buy the new models at the world’s largest in-the-water powerboat show

Boat shows have been in existence for over 60 years. In the early days they were very naturally and logically held in city auditoriums in midwinter. People then had to travel by public transportation and the central city was a logical place. Likewise, it was felt that without cars to take them joy riding on weekends, they’d have time in January or February to get into the city to see the boats. With the comparatively modest production involved with early-day pleasure boating, there was ample time between January and June to build and deliver boats ordered at winter shows.

But conditions have been changing. Today anyone who can think about owning a boat is, of course, someone who owns a car that can take him where he wishes to go quickly. So boat show promoters realize that shows held in central cities are no longer the only way of doing it. By general agreement among large marine firms, September has been chosen as the standard month for making annual new-model announcements and introductions.

That’s why you see so many news items in September papers about new boats and motors for the following year. Simultaneously the trade shows are held so dealers can see and learn about what they will soon be selling. They order what they want to stock, and by midwinter have received their new models and are ready to put them on display at consumer boat shows.

The fly in the ointment is, with the steadily increasing volume of boats being manufactured by today’s major producers and with the public’s taste in boats apt to swing almost any way depending on what “catches on”, when midwinter shows generate a lot of orders for certain models, it is becoming harder to meet springtime delivery dates. The greater a factory’s production volume, the more lead time is necessary to get all the materials needed and all the production facilities arranged to pour out popular models in volume.

So, we’re seeing more and more in-the-water boat shows being held in the fall. The idea started in the south several years ago and has been spreading slowly but surely north and west. It’s still warm enough in September and October for it to be comfortable out on the docks. With a little planning, just-introduced next-year’s models can be trucked from the factories in time to make their debuts at these shows. These early shows are very valuable in helping the marine industry to take early pulse-readings of the public’s tastes and intentions and plan accordingly to have ready by springtime an ample supply of the wanted boats.

It’s an interesting experience to attend such a show for the first time. I had often felt cramped and frustrated at midwinter shows held in city auditoriums – the boats were there, but I missed the tang of salt in the air and hated walking around boats while strangled in suit coat and necktie! Some of the European boat shows have the happy custom of bringing in portable tanks a la sportsmens’ shows, building picturesque dockside scenery around them, and floating several typical boats in them alongside prop docks. At least in the immediate vicinity of these tanks, a chap can feel like a boatman! Now our new in-the-water boat shows are improving on this by moving the whole works out to the waterfront.

Nowadays, with everyone owning a car, it’s not much of a problem for prospective boat buyers to travel to a waterfront community some miles out of the city. In a midwinter boat show held in the city, a substantial number of people jamming the aisles are idly curious, off the streets to kill time. The only people who take the time to drive out to the waterfront are those who are seriously shopping for boats; overall attendance figures for on-the-water boat shows tend to be smaller, but salesmen find the people on hand are serious prospects. From a visitor’s point of view, the smaller crowds make it easier to move around.

It costs something frightful to move large boats into crowded cities on flat-bed trailers, unload them and jockey them into position in auditoriums. Such craft can come to in-the-water shows under their own power, at much less cost in time and money. So, these new shows tend to attract a lot of big boats. Nevertheless, there are an ample number of smaller craft on hand to make it usually worth the fisherman’s time to attend. Either in a large rented tent or in some nearby warehouse or other waterfront building, in-the-water shows try to provide space for booths in which engines, paints, hardware, electronics and similar items can be displayed. As time passes, no doubt refinements and new ideas will appear.

If you’re actively in the market for some kind of boat suitable for fishing, there are assorted reasons why an in-the-water boat show can benefit you. It’s possible to see what various boats really look like in the water. In an auditorium, you will be looking up at many boats and it’s easy to get a misleading idea of their actual size and appearance. At a waterfront show, you look down on all the boats from the dock and know exactly what each looks like when actually in service. With several hundred boats at such a show, a waterborne traffic jam of frightful proportions could result if every one of them kept coming and going on demonstration runs. So, sometimes show managements place a limit on the number of boats that can be demonstrating at any one time. However, if you see a boat that strikes you as being just what you’re looking for, a talk with the salesman can usually lead to a ride in it at one time or another during the course of the show.

Keeping new boats in storage from autumn to springtime can be quite a problem for manufacturers and dealers. Much as they hate to, they often have to put boats outdoors for some months until buyers come along. It releases limited storage space to sell as many boats as possible at an autumn in-the-water show. To encourage people to buy, often the prices are reduced as inducements. Sometimes, they bring a price down even more if you buy their demonstrator at the dock, take it back to your home marina by water, and thereby relieve the dealer of the need to get the boat back to his storage shed or yard.

So keep on the lookout for announcements of in-the-water shows in your area! If you travel a lot up and down the coast and want to plan to be someplace on a business trip at the same time an in-the-water boat show is taking place in the area, write to the National Association of Engine and Boat Manufacturers, Box 5555, Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10017; tell them where you’re going and when, and ask if they know of any such show scheduled for that area.

One of the problems facing the would-be boat buyer is that the boat industry is as subject to style fads as are some other businesses. Somebody with more than the usual amount of courage comes up with a new type of boat, the public takes to it eagerly, and in a short time several other firms rush their own versions of the new idea into production. Then the buyer is faced with choosing between several different makes of similar-type boats! That’s when the confusion and frustration begin to set in! Which boat is best? What are the good points and weak points of the various makes? Alas, it’s like being a judge at a beauty contest! There is no one authority on boats and boating to whom one can turn for an expert appraisal, for there are simply too many makes and models on the market today for one person or organization to give each and every one a thorough and fair tryout.

“Boat test reports” currently popular in the magazines are of uncertain value. Obviously, there are not enough magazines around for it to be possible for each and every new boat model to be given a write-up. Obviously, it isn’t possible for a writer to borrow a new boat for a day and learn in so short a time how it works out under a variety of conditions. Obviously, having met the boat’s builder or his representative and become acquainted in the course of a day afloat, a test-report writer can t bring himself to fill his report with a number of bad things he discovered about the boat.

Generally you will find the average “test drive” report to be a rather bland appraisal of a particular boat. Read such articles when you chance upon them for whatever general information you can extract, but don’t be carried away by some writer’s enthusiasm. Sometimes the enthusiasm is put into the story to make it read good so it will sell to an editor!

Sailboat and sunset
Circolo Nautico Torre del Greco
Source: unsplash.com

About the best way to choose from among several different makes of a similar type or style of boat, is to ask owners how they like them. These people are not trying to sell a story to an editor, and they’re not worried about offending advertisers. Having used their boats for some months, they will usually tell you exactly and plainly what they like and dislike!

Often the question comes up of what motor to choose for your boat. Now that all boats Self-Survey Criteria for the Engine and Electrical Systemscapable of carrying an engine are going to have to bear power capacity information plates under the Safe Boating Act of 1971, you are going to see that many of the boats you look at are rated for surprisingly high horsepower. You will see average-looking runabouts and utilities that are rated to carry 100, 125, even 200 or more horsepower.

These maximum ratings are arrived at through formulas and tests. The amount of hull volume aft of amidships determines how much of a load of motor weight the stern of an outboard hull can safely support when at rest. How sharply a boat can turn in a series of S-turns and still be adequately stable and controllable determines the maximum power from the controlability standpoint.

Obviously, some examples of a particular boat model coming out of some factory are going to find their way into the hands of owners who will use them on comparatively smooth fresh water. They’re entitled to install as much power as the boats can handle, for the sake of satisfying high speed. That amount of power can make these boats go so fast on choppy salt water that they’ll fly out of control.

So, you don’t automatically go and install the maximum power for which a boat happens to be rated. You do evaluate your particular power needs realistically, then make a sensible choice – which may quite likely be something below the maximum allowable power.

Any planing type boat needs a certain minimum amount of power to boost it onto plane without a fuss. This minimum figure is going to vary.

The boat you’re thinking of might, for example, be able to get onto plane easily with 40 h. p. and two passengers aboard, but it would need 50 or 60 h. p. to do it with four aboard.

And then, of course, as power goes up so does motor cost and fuel consumption. Your task is to think things over realistically and find some horsepower between minimum and maximum that will give you the Boat Performance Factors Explained: Key Metrics and Analysis Guideperformance you want without at the same time taking more of your money than necessary.

An experienced dealer who has sold quite a number of boats of a particular model ought to be able to tell you all you need to know about what motors of various power will produce in the way of performance. If you find yourself talking to a dealer who obviously can’t or won’t give you straightforward and useful information, that’s your signal to go elsewhere in your search for a happy choice of boat and motor!

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.
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  7. Small Boat Journal, P. O. Box 400, Bennington, VT 05201.
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  11. Yacht Racing/Cruising, North American Building, 401 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19108.
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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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