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Advice On Conducting A Sea Trial Test Drive

Sea Trial Advice

The COVID-19 pandemic has set the world on its ear and in an unprecedented upswing, boating is reaping the rewards. Boats are flying off the shelves with dealer inventories turning over at a rapid pace. The reason for swift boat sales are many: Cooped up for months, families are looking for a safe outside activity that naturally promotes social distancing. There are fewer activities competing for family time and the disposable dollar since dance lessons, professional sports and concerts have been cancelled for most of the rest of the year. Interest rates are low and financing is widely available in virtually contactless transactions. And finally, that vacation to France will have to be postponed so you might as well go boating.

Sales of new sport boats, center consoles and pontoons are leaving boat builders scrambling to ramp up production. But pre-owned motor yachts, sailboats and sportfishers are also changing hands. A buyer can test a new boat fairly easily and the dealer will guide the prospect through the entire purchase process. Buying a preowned or “brokerage” boat, on the other hand, can seem overwhelming. A somewhat archaic process, the boat purchasing experience isn’t like buying a car or a house although it has components of both.

The purchase of a brokerage boat requires an offer be made and accepted on a vessel before a seal trial, which is a test of the seaworthiness of a vessel. Unlike with a car, you don’t get to just hop on and take a pre-owned boat for a spin without showing serious intent and that’s to curtail folks getting free boat rides if they’re just tire kickers. Whether you’re a first-time boat buyer or you’ve done this dance before, it’s best to divide the sea trial into two parts – the hard facts/procedures and the softer/more subtle aspects that often tell a bigger story.

The Quantifiable And The Objective

The tangible and measurable parts of the sea trial usually receive all the focus because they’re easy to list and check off. The more prepared you are with the details for this factual part of the process, the smoother the sea trial will be.

Plan The Day

Most times, the various surveys and the sea trial occur on the same day. Perhaps the boat location requires the buyer to travel or the surveyor has a tight schedule so bundling everything makes sense. Ask who will be present for the trial including the broker, surveyor, seller or the seller’s representative. Who will run the boat: the owner, his/her captain or a hired captain? Because the buyer pays for all evaluation services like the haul out, survey, engine oil analysis and so forth, it’s in his/her best interest to become the conductor of this symphony.

The surveyor will want to inspect the equipment/engines cold at the dock so the sea trial will have to occur after that but before the haul out (also called a short haul) at the boatyard. That helps save money if something goes amiss on the test drive and the buyer changes his/her mind before the haul out.

Make Lists

As a buyer, do your homework and come prepared with multiple lists. For example, write down everything you want to test while you’re out. That will include running both engines at cruising rpm and at wide open throttle. Don’t expect to run the boat flat out for more than a minute or two. That’s long enough see if the temperature increases, signaling a potential problem. If you blow up an engine due to unnecessary stress (like 20 minutes at WOT), you’ll create a potentially expensive problem for yourself. Ask to drive the boat yourself and see how it handles in fast turns and in tight quarters.

Run the generator if there is one, use the navigation and communications electronics including the VHF radio and the autopilot, anchor using the windlass, play with the digital switching system if there is one, deploy the stabilizer system, and monitor the batteries. If you want to see how to get the dinghy down off the flybridge, ask for it to be done. A faulty davit looks the same as a good one but will cost you upwards of $8,000 to replace if problems are found post sale.

Educate Yourself – Due Diligence

If the boat is a popular model of which a number were built, you should be able to find information on performance statistics and possible problems. Then you’ll know what to expect during the ride. The sea trial is a test to prove that the boat will perform up to the standard to which it was built.

If the boat is older or unique, performance information may be harder to find but there may be an online history of issues that a particular model has experienced over the years. Just like with a home inspection, a boat survey and sea trial will generate a list of items that may need to be addressed. Don’t panic – this is normal and doesn’t mean it’s a bad boat. Large issues should be addressed by the seller and those include significant engine malfunction or structural problems. Smaller issues will need to be taken on by the buyer. Understanding the difference will make negotiations after the sea trial go more smoothly.

Don’t Make It A Pleasure Cruise

A typical sea trial lasts 30-60 minutes. It may be longer if the vessel is large or has exceptionally complex systems A sea trial isn’t the time to bring your whole family for a day on the water. A boat under 30 feet will perform differently with full fuel and water tanks and eight people aboard than at half tanks and three people.

Lean on Your Experts

Your surveyor should be present for the whole sea trial. Presumably, you interviewed this individual prior to hiring him/her. Ask questions about systems and the findings but do give him/her time to do the job without interruptions. While under way, the surveyor will be inspecting systems, taking measurements and photos and recording notes. The time to dig into the findings will be later when they’re assembled into a report, which is usually within 24 hours.

If the seller is present, this may be a time to learn about the boat’s idiosyncrasies but understand that some brokers don’t want the seller aboard during the sea trial so you may not benefit form his/her knowledge and experience. If a hired captain is running the boat, don’t be shy about taking the wheel and ask him/her for their thoughts but beware that this individual is working for the broker or seller and may not be forthright with their opinions.

Consider Payment Details

Come prepared to make payments for all services rendered on the day of the sea trial including the surveyor fee and the haul out expenses. Surveyors and some boatyards may require a check rather than a credit card.

Ask For Records

Whether the owner is aboard for the sea trial or not, ask for vessel maintenance records. That should be of interest to you as well as to the surveyor and may explain things if the boat behaves a certain way during the sea trial. Checking the thoroughness of the recordkeeping is a good way to learn the past owner’s priorities and attention to detail.

Softer Skills And Observations

The second part of the process is where communications, expectations and emotions meet. More deals get hung up due to a lack of preparation and soft skills then due to bad engine oil samples. The process of arriving at a fair value for a boat can be contentious. The art is negotiating a path that is acceptable to all parties.

Communications And Time Management

Making multiple working parts come together isn’t easy so leverage your broker to help. He or she should make contact with all parties and create an itinerary for the day of the sea trial. When everyone works well together, the sea trial is more productive and any negotiations that happen afterward are more amiable.

As the buyer, don’t show up late even if you’re flying in. Making other people wait means you’re not honoring their time and their role. Get out on the sea trial, get things done and get back. If the boat doesn’t meet your expectations, say so and either move on or make a list of contingencies and repairs.

Most importantly, treat the sea trial as a lesson. If this boat ends up being yours, you’ll never have more people with more knowledge assembled at one time to help you learn this vessel.

Expectation And Emotion Management

No used boat is perfect. For that matter, no new boat is perfect so expect that the sea trial will uncover something. Address everything that comes up with as much reason and as little emotion as possible. Get an estimate of what repair or replacement will cost. Understand that if your offer comes in low, the seller won’t be motivated to make many changes.

Understand All Parties’ Motivations

The art of making a good deal is to understand everyone’s motivations. The surveyor works for the buyer and s/he will find issues to show off their competence and thoroughness. Sift through what’s important and don’t worry about the rest. The seller wants the boat off his/her hands but unless desperate, s/he will expect a fair value. The broker wants the deal to come together so s/he can collect the commission and presumably make happy customers who will come buy or sell another boat in the future. A good deal is where expectations of all parties are understood and met.

Keep It Safe

Check to make sure there are basic safety items aboard before you get on someone else’s boat even if the sea trial is just in the harbor. Have PFDs for everyone, find the fire extinguishers, make sure there’s adequate fuel and do a radio check before you depart the dock.

Focus On The Details

Attention to detail will serve you well on the sea trail. Engage your senses. Smell the engine room, lay eyes on the seacocks and feel the wheel and how the boat responds. You don’t have to be emotional to be engaged and aware. If there’s a vibration, a hum, a ping or a broken switch, note it, learn about it and decide if it’s something small or significant.

Respect The Boat And The People

You need to respect all parties involved as well as the vessel itself on the sea trial and during the whole purchase process. Especially if the seller is present, remember that until your check clears, this is his/her boat and should be treated with courtesy.

If you’ve gotten to the sea trial, you’ve already jumped through some of the boat buying hoops. You’ve educated yourself on the lifestyle and researched the brand and model of the boat you’re considering. You’ve found the experts, set aside time to be involved, made lists and arranged finances. Then it’s time to make the most of the sea trial, which is arguably the most important part of the whole lengthy process to boat ownership.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a sea trial?

A sea trial is the testing phase of a watercraft whether it be a powerboat or sailing vessel, and is conducted once the boat’s construction has been completed as well as when a buyer is considering purchasing a vessel. Essentially a sea trial is a test drive on the water, and is usually one of the later stages of the buying process, done to confirm the vessel is in good overall condition.

What happens on a sea trial?

During a sea trial the boat’s seaworthiness and performance will be tested along with all onboard equipment and safety devices.

Written by Zuzana Prochazka

Written by: Zuzana Prochazka

Zuzana Prochazka is a writer and photographer who freelances for a dozen boating magazines and websites. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana has cruised, chartered and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world and serves as a presenter on charter destinations and topics. She is the Chair of the New Product Awards committee, judging innovative boats and gear at NMMA and NMEA shows, and currently serves as immediate past president of Boating Writers International. She contributes to and, and also blogs regularly on her boat review site,


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