Boat Buyers Advisor

How to get what you need without paying a penny too much.

May 23, 2006

The key to boat buying is so simple it should be obvious. But in case you missed it, here it is: Purchase only what you need. Forget about buying the “best” boat out there. Good value doesn’t automatically come with a boat that has been built to the highest standards. Of course, your boat has to be built well enough to perform the tasks demanded of it. Beyond that, you’re tossing money overboard. So don’t get talked into purchasing a level of refinement that you don’t need, will never use, and shouldn’t pay for. Start by evaluating the boat’s intended service-where and how it will be used. I’ve simplified this into three categories: Hard Service for unforgiving environments such as offshore racing and fishing, long-distance cruising, or speeds above 40 mph; Moderate Service for coastal waters, open bays, large lakes, and speeds under 40 mph; Light Service, which is for slower boats that don’t venture beyond small lakes, reservoirs, or narrow rivers. Here’s what, and where, to look for as indicators of each type of service. Find them and then don’t pay for anything more.


The most obvious sign of how strongly a boat is built can be seen in its hull-to-deck joint. To inspect this, go into the engine compartment and look at the inside of the gunwale. Hard Service: Look for a continuous fiberglass surface with small, evenly spaced lumps. This joint has been bolted (the small lumps) and then glassed over. Many serious offshore racers are built like this. Others use only a tenacious adhesive such as any of the methacrylate family, which some claim to be equal to bolts and fiberglass. ****Moderate Service****: There should be a wood or aluminum strip with the protruding tips of screws. Ideally, this joint is reinforced with an adhesive. Sealant works too, but not as well. To determine which is being used, sink your fingernail into the material squished out from the joint. Adhesive is usually hard, sealant is typically soft and rubbery. Light Service: These boats use rivets or screws and a sealant, with no wood backing strip.


While you’re in the engine room, look at the stringers (the longitudinal supports) and the floors (the lateral supports). Hard-to-Moderate Service: Fiberglass over a foam core is common-it’s strong and long lasting. It will make a thin, sharp sound when tapped. Fiberglass-encapsulated rot-resistant plywood is also good. It makes a solid, booming sound when hit. Light Service: Plywood with a glaze of resin is smooth, without fiberglass’ textured appearance. Thankfully, this is almost never seen anymore.

Check out the cockpit sole. It’s a structural component as much as it’s something to stand on. The hull’s twisting and bending forces put it under a lot of stress. Open a hatch and feel the sole from underneath or look at the edges to tell what type you have. Hard Service: The sole is cored-fiberglass bonded to the hull or part of the inner liner. This is easy to spot and virtually impervious to water damage and rot. Moderate Service: You can get by with a sole of fiberglass-encapsulated plywood. Light Service: A sole of resin-coated plywood is acceptable if it’s done well and not stressed, otherwise it’s prone to rot.

Usually, one-piece construction is stronger than when many parts are joined together. Fewer parts make for tougher construction. A good place to check is in the cabin. Look inside a locker to check out the manner in which things are put together. Hard Service: A single molded-fiberglass cabin liner can make a boat exceptionally tough. Look at the cabin sole, bunks, galley, and lockers to see if it’s made from one seamless piece. Moderate Service: Fiberglass-covered or resin-coated plywood components are built outside the hull. Once in the boat, they’re joined to each other as well as the hull and deck. Light Service: Instead of a few large components being joined, there are a lot of small parts-which is rarely as strong. Panels and supports are joined in the boat, as if building a house.



An engine can impart tremendous strains on a boat’s hull. Hard Service: Boats that punch through or fly over waves need a durable mounting system. This can include bolting the engine to metal channels or brackets, which in turn are bolted through the engine bearers. (Bearers are beefy stringers that support the engine.) Moderate-to-Light Service: The engine’s mounts are lag bolted directly into the tops of the bearers. Severe vibrations and shocks can work the bolts loose, which can cause engine-alignment problems.

The same vibrations and hull shocks also affect the fuel tanks. Their mountings are usually difficult to inspect. Your best chance of seeing them is often by looking at them through the engine room. Hard Service: You should be able to tighten any slack in the hold-down straps by using turnbuckles. Plus, every place the tank comes into contact with the boat should be cushioned. Moderate-to-Light Service: If you’re not pushing the boat to its limits, a tank chocked in place with wood beams is acceptable. One improvement to consider is to have each corner held in place with a bracket and then have padded metal straps placed over the tank.


The hoses leading from the tank are another good indicator of how well a boat is manufactured. This is an easy place for a builder to skimp without being obvious. Hard-to-Moderate Service: You might find pressed-on threaded fittings. Stainless-steel hose clamps are adequate, and only slightly less secure. True stainless won’t attract a magnet and is easy to check. Light Service: On the low end, bordering on dangerous, are plastic clamps.


After the hull itself, it’s a boat’s plumbing system that keeps it afloat. For easy inspection, we suggest starting in the engine room. All Services: All through-hulls that are below the waterline must have a seacock (a combination through-hull and valve). We prefer the bronze ball-valve type. Seacocks made of the composite Marelon can be safe if they’re stamped UL Approved. Their primary weak spot is the lever, which can break. Our advice? Stick with bronze. Seacocks should have glassed-in backing plates where the fitting passes through the hull. If the hose connected to a seacock comes off, your boat will sink. We recommend two hose clamps at each end.


If water does get below, your only hope is the bilge pump. The centrifugal pumps found in most boats often have high, 2,000 or more gallons per hour (gph) ratings. You must realize, however, that this is misleading. Their flow rates can be cut by almost half if they’re required to raise water higher than six or eight feet. Hard Service: Look for multiple pumps, high gph, intake strainers, smooth-bore hose, and an anti-siphon loop of the exhaust hose if it’s close to the waterline. Moderate Service: A midlevel (1,500-gph) automatic pump with corrugated hose is acceptable. Light Service: Only boats that live on a trailer can get by without an automatic bilge pump.

Automatic pumps need switches. Hard Service: Look for a solid-state switch mounted high and out of reach of any bilge water. Moderate Service: A flapper-style float switch is fine. Light Service: If the pump has an automatic switch, it’s built in.


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.


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


More Boats