You'll get a good idea of what a boat can handle by looking behind the dashboard and seeing how the wires are joined. Almost all builders make connections using crimped-on fittings, which stand up well to vibrations. Hard-to-Moderate Service: The fittings should be waterproofed with adhesive-lined heat-shrink tubing. Look for a brown-gray goo oozing out of the tubing. Some builders paint on an insulation or lacquer coat. Light Service: Only the plastic on the crimp fitting is heat-shrinked to be waterproof.
Batteries are heavy and contain acid - two good reasons for not wanting them to bounce around loose in the boat. Hard Service: The best mounting we've seen has the batteries secured in a fiberglass box with a latched lid and a vent hose that leads overboard. This then carries away the explosive gases created while the batteries are charging. Admittedly, this is a rare setup. Moderate Service: Each battery should be in its own strapped-down plastic box that has vent holes on top. Another option is to have the batteries sit on a corrosion-proof tray and held down by a strap or bracket; the terminals should be protected by insulating rubber covers. Light Service: The battery is strapped down and the positive terminal covered.
What about cleats? Hard-to-Moderate Service: If you're ever going to set two anchors or run two dock lines, the boat needs to have two bow cleats. It should also have midship cleats if you ever plan to be tied up for more than half an hour. Cleats should be at least 8" long. Light Service: A single bow cleat is fine, you won't need midship cleats, and 6" but no less is fine.
If you're going for light service, you might be able to put up with side-decks that are too narrow to walk around or a walkthrough windshield that doesn't secure when open. You can also get by with no dedicated anchor locker, as the hook is often so small that it can be stowed anywhere.
Marketing experts like items they call touchpoints. These are a few obvious name brands or features that may make you overlook the less obvious details. For example, the boat may come with a high-end Sony TV.Hard Service: It'll be bolted down. Moderate Service: It's screwed in place. Light Service: It's left sitting on the shelf.
Nothing takes more of a beating and shows a boat's age faster than its upholstery. Hard-to-Moderate Service: You'll want triple-stitched seams, piping to protect edges, multiple layers of different foams, and an underside backing that lets the foam breathe. Light Service: You'll see exposed staples on the underside and foam less than 3" thick.
THE ULTIMATE ADVICE
We'll say it again: Buy only what you need. Purchase the boat that suits the level of service you'll demand of it. Get one that's well built and safe. But don't be fooled into thinking that you must have the best. Go for value instead. This way you'll get the most pleasure from your boat with smaller monthly payments-pleasurable indeed