Boat-show season is coming up fast, and despite the obvious kid-in-a-candy-store appeal, there is some real serious shopping you can accomplish on the floor - or docks - at these shows. It helps to have a good idea of what you are looking for, so that you don't get sidetracked in the excitement.
Comparing features can take months if you look at one boat at a time. Get them all in the same hall or along the same dock and suddenly you don't have to carry the memories of what you liked and what you didn't from showroom to showroom. You can compare them side by side, on the spot. That can be a big advantage in narrowing your decision to buy.
Deciding what to look for and what to compare is the first step. You first have to rule out as much of the emotional excitement new boats engender as you can. Just because you like a pale-yellow hull with a dark-green boot stripe and matching bolsters doesn't mean the boat is going to serve your fishing needs. You need to identify and compare the features you want and need. These are the things that will make your purchase a wise one once the glitter of the showroom floor is a distant memory.
Here at SWS we have the most knowledgeable experts in the business, people who know boats from years of experience. So we cornered a couple of them, and asked them some of the things they look for when they do an evaluation of a boat.
The Dry Walk-Through
Karl Anderson has worked professionally on the water for more than a quarter century. Big boats are what he knows best - if it's too big to fit on a trailer, Karl has probably spent a day fishing it. Or fixing it. How-ever, his advice applies equally well to those shopping for a smaller boat.
Anderson approaches every boat with an eye towards repair. Not that he doesn't believe in quality, but he knows that no matter what it is, if it's installed on a boat it will have to be fixed sooner or later. And the fewer mysteries there are when that time comes, the quicker the thing gets fixed, the less it costs and the faster the boat is ready to fish again.
"The most important stuff is belowdecks," he says. "And serviceability is critical. If I can't get to the major components, then something has to change. Pumps and impellers have to be easy to get to. Oil filters, fuel filters, any drive belts that can wear, alternator belts, and most generators have to be accessible. But most essential, you have to be able to get to the shaft log and rudder stuffing boxes. You have to be able to replace seals, in a hurry. If you have a problem here, you have a big problem."
Anderson also says it is critical to be realistic about what you want in a boat and what you plan to do in it. Do you want a crew, or are you going to take care of things yourself? If you are planning on doing it yourself, keep it simple. Otherwise you'll spend all your time on maintenance and never get to use the boat.
"Serviceability and function are paramount," he says "If you can't service stuff it will eat you alive. You may be big enough to buy the boat, but are you big enough to maintain it and keep it in safe, go-to-sea condition? Be honest with yourself about what you are willing and able to do. That helps you define what you really need in a boat, and prevents you from making a foolish and costly error."
Doing the walkthrough on dry land is only part of the battle; after all, you are not going to run the boat much in your driveway. Get it on the water and see if it performs they way you want it to. This is where in-water boat shows can be a great opportunity to refine your shopping, as you can actually run several boats and compare them on the same day.
So you schedule a ride with a salesperson. Then what? You might end up sitting in back and watching the sales-person run the boat as hard as possible in brutal conditions, "showing you what she can do." It happens all the time.
One of the more venerable boat companies in the country has an attitude when offering boats for testing that is summed up in what has become almost a corporate mantra to marine journalists: "Run 'er like you ain't got a dime in 'er." Durability and safety are pushed to the max when you run a boat like that; beyond that it really doesn't tell you whether you'll get years of fishing enjoyment out of a particular boat.
Running as hard and fast as possible will point up any weak spots in a boat's construction. But is that the way you are going to drive the boat once you are making the payments and buying the gas and paying the repair bills? Probably not.
If you are planning to fish tournaments, especially hard-core ones like the kingfish events, speed in all conditions is a real consideration. Leave the young and the weak at home, invest in a back brace and a cervical collar, and pray for small-craft warnings on the day of your test drive. Then run 'er like you ain't got a dime in 'er! For the rest of us, a little more measured approach is likely to prove most beneficial.
More Expert Advice
When it comes to sea trials, there is no one in the industry with as much knowledge and experience as John Brownlee. For years, Brownlee tested boats in these pages, and has owned more boats than most people will ever own cars. As a marine journalist he was without question the leader in the field for more than a decade. So, what does Brownlee look for when he tests a boat?
First of all he makes sure the boat can be made to run like he wants it to. That means trimming the ride, which requires basic, good hull design and effective trim tabs to adjust for sea conditions.
"You want the boat to get up on plane quickly," says Brownlee, "without too much bow rise - or at least if it rises you want it to come down quickly. You also want the water to break about a third of the way back from the bow; otherwise the hull is bow-heavy and will be a handful in a following sea. Make sure the boat runs bow-proud, without a lot of trim tab. If the bow tends to run low and you are trolling into a sea, you are going to eat a lot of green water."
Once you have narrowed your choices, try to run the boat without trim tabs. This will give you an idea of how the boat naturally rides. The performance can only improve with the addition of tabs, provided they are the right size and have been installed properly. "The tabs must have a quick and positive affect on the boat," Brownlee says. "Many times they are mounted incorrectly. You want them as far outboard as possible for maximum effect, and oversized is better than undersized. A large tab will move a lot of water. Little tabs on big boats do nothing at all. They should be big enough to drive the bow way down. Not that you want to run the boat like that, but you want that much control, and that is how to determine if you have it."
Of course, the type of fishing you intend to do has a lot to do with the way you want the boat to perform. For instance, if you are going to slow-troll or fish at anchor, stability is key. You want a hull that will keep its chines in the water, rather than roll uncomfortably.
"To check a hull for tenderness, let it sit in a trough," says Brownlee. "You can do the same thing by laying broadside to a boat wake, or even by standing on the gunwales, to see how tender it is."
Check Fishing Features
Once you are comfortable with the way the hull performs, consider the way you will fish. If you are going to be bottom fishing, make sure the deck gives you the space and support you need to stand up and hoist fish over the side. If you plan to do a lot of live-baiting, make sure the bait wells are large enough.
"Look at the plumbing and make sure the live wells are easy to service," Brownlee says. "Make sure everything is easy to operate and service. Also, fishboxes should not drain into the bilge. If they do, you are going to be replacing bilge pumps clogged with fish scales. Make sure the console is big enough to carry the electronics the boat deserves. A good-size center console deserves good electronics, and those require ample room."
Finally, Brownlee says, run the boat like you are going to be driving it. "Go through some S-turns and Figure-8s to check for tenderness. Run it through enough chop to make sure it runs dry and comfortable. Watch the gunwales when you hit a wave. They will flex, which is okay, so long as they don't flex too much. It's subjective. If you think they flex too much when you hit a wave, then they probably do. Follow your intuition."
Everybody agrees that it's nice to have top speed, but cruise speed is a more realistic concern, as this is where you are going to spend most of your time. It's far more important for most of us to be able to stay on plane and maintain headway at low speed than it is to milk those last few miles per hour out of a boat.
At the end of the day it's all about what you like, and what is going to work for you. It helps to make sure there will be no big surprises once you belly up to monthly payments. Other than that, go with a reputable manufacturer and get a boat that serves your fishing needs. Oh, and get a color you really like. With matching cushions.