Try before you buy

Graham Lloyd | VOLUME 27, ISSUE 4

An effective test drive is essential before you hand over your money for that used trailer boat …

Before you hand over all that hard-earned cash for a new or second-hand boat, it’s vital you give it a test drive to uncover both its strengths and weaknesses.

Used trailerable power boats are the most common purchase for most boaties, so here we’ll concentrate on that market, but most of the points that follow are just as applicable to new or used boats of most sizes or power sources.

Before arranging the test drive, check the paperwork and confirm ownership of the boat, do your research to reveal any associated debt that may still be hanging over it, sight the registration papers for the boat and trailer and, where possible, try to confirm the dates and details of manufacture. A few Google searches and/or phone calls to boat builders, engine manufacturers, importers or dealers will usually enable you to confirm what the current owner has told you regarding the latter.

Now, think about what you want to achieve in your test run. List any particular points you want to investigate. If any particular aspect of boating is important for you, such as fishing, watersports or even straightforward family cruising, include that in your test. And discuss with the seller what you wish to do during the test run – that way there won’t be any surprises or disappointment for either party.

If you’re not an experienced boatie, take along a mate who is or – at the very least – have someone accompany you who is not emotionally involved in the purchase. If you can manage it, also take along a hand-held GPS.

If the purchase is a family decision, take everyone along so they can also pass comment. Even if it’s not, blokes can benefit from taking along their wife, girlfriend, sister or mother – it’s amazing how feminine insight will often pick up on certain aspects of the boat or its seller, even when the lady in question has no knowledge of boating.

In your pre-trip inspection you will have checked as much as you can, short of actually driving it and, for any boat worth more than $20,000 or so, an appraisal by a professional marine surveyor is advisable. Either way, before any test run you should be at ease about crucial aspects like the boat’s structural integrity, engine condition, wiring and electronics, plumbing, upholstery and safety gear. You should also be clear on what’s included in the deal – a particularly important point when it comes to watersports boats and all the related paraphernalia.

If you’re intending to settle on the boat and take delivery straight after the test run, you should also have taken out an insurance cover note and have your bank cheque ready.

Now let’s get behind the wheel – while ensuring you keep that ‘new boat fever’ at bay!


Firstly, try to meet the owner somewhere away from the boat ramp, so you can watch the boat and trailer under tow. Check that it runs true, that the boat sits straight and secure, and that the brake and turn lights work. It’s best if you can also tow it for the last few kilometres to check that the boat and trailer combination feels right behind your particular vehicle. If the current owner won’t allow you to tow before your test run, make it part of the deal that you do it after the test drive and before settlement.

Once you arrive at the ramp, carefully put your hand on the wheel hubs to make sure they’re not hot – a sign of bearing or brake issues. You should have previously looked over the tyres and brake lines and ensured there’s no corrosion on the trailer, and that the safety chains and shackles are in good condition.

Before the boat is backed down the ramp, find out how any covers are removed, along with boat tie-downs. Check how a bow line is best rigged to control the boat as it slips off the trailer, and never forget to check that the transom drain bungs are in place. If you’re new to boating, make notes on the owner’s sequence of pre-launch tasks.

Ask the owner to explain all the controls and instrumentation. Check, too, for marine radios and know where the safety equipment is stowed.

Get the seller to launch the boat and note the level of effort required. If anything seems difficult or out of the ordinary, ask to try that aspect yourself. No matter how well a boat performs on the water, if it’s a hassle to launch or retrieve, you won’t use or enjoy it as much.

Find out how any battery master switch and fuel controls work. Ask about pre-launch safety checks such as turning on a bilge blower to evacuate any fumes in the engine bay prior to start-up. Many engines require fuel to be pumped to the inlet system if the engine is to start easily. Older engines can require a particular starting sequence, so find out from the seller if any of these apply.

The engine should start quickly and easily, with few fumes or noise – older motors might show their age in this respect, but they should still start with no more than a few turns of the starter and then idle smoothly. Later injected engines should start instantly.

Allow the owner to drive the boat first and watch what they do and sense how the boat is performing. Listen for unusual sounds like squeaks and rattles (or engine alarms) and observe the overall levels of noise and vibration. In any good family boat, you should be able to comfortably converse all the time, and the boat should feel smooth. Ask the owner to drive with various trim settings for the drive leg or outboard, and get them to advise you on what trim settings work best for initial acceleration and at different speeds.

If speed is important to you, use a hand-held GPS to check against any speedo on the dash. Even if speed is not a key factor, using a GPS to get a reliable speed reading will enable you to get a good idea of the efficiency of the boat-motor-prop combination.

Ask the owner to run for a while at top speed and again check noise and vibration levels. Ensure the boat doesn’t porpoise (the bow rising and falling) nor chine-walk (tipping from side to side) at high speed. Then request a few turns and see if the hull banks securely and comes around without slipping or jumping across the water.

Keep an eye on the gauges or electronics and monitor factors such as oil or water pressure (oil for inboards, water for outboards), engine temperature, volts and so on. You should have obtained information before the test run on satisfactory readings from the engine manufacturer or a marine mechanic.

Ask the owner to slow the boat to an idle and stop the engine; let it rest for a minute then try a re-start. Watch how the boat comes on plane and check there’s not too much bow rise; some is common on most boats, but the driver should be able to maintain forward visibility.

Stop again and look in the engine compartment for any fumes or excessive heat, or oil or water leaks. Walk around the boat to see how stable it is while at rest and to try all the seating positions. Try all the seats again when underway; sometimes passenger seats can be subject to excessive wind blast that makes them uncomfortable during a cruise.


Settle into the driving seat and take the time to make yourself really comfortable. If the seat or wheel are adjustable, move them around to find the positions that suit you best.

Check your lines of sight to the waters ahead and around you – can you easily move in the seat to see astern? Can you watch any seats where kids might be? Also check how clearly you can see all the gauges and electronics on the dash – the rim of the wheel ideally shouldn’t obscure anything, or at least not anything of any importance, like oil temperature or water pressure.

See how comfortably you can reach all the various controls. Is there a foot rest or brace at a comfortable position? Does the seat offer good back and thigh support?

Once you’re satisfied, get everyone settled in seats and start the engine. During your test run, stop and start a few times to make sure each re-start is quick and clean. Now the engine has warmed up, the idle should be quiet and smooth.

Turn the wheel and assess the steering. Some boats have really tight steering that can be a severe pain after a while. Even mechanical steering systems should be fairly light and comfortable to use, although these will be affected by the torque of the prop at higher speeds. Power or hydraulic steering set-ups are best in higher-powered boats. Whatever the system, you should feel at ease with the prospect of potentially driving for hours at a time.

If the owner doesn’t want you to try something with the boat (after all, it’s still their boat at this stage), ask them to do it instead. Keep others onboard informed of your intentions, so nobody is caught by surprise and loses their balance.

Accelerate the engine and bring the boat onto plane. It should come up smoothly and then quickly settle to a comfortable running angle so that you can see ahead without having to strain in any way. Try a few gentle turns and again the hull should come around smoothly and safely. Try progressively higher speeds and then see how the boat handles at full throttle. At sensible speeds, try tighter turns. See what happens if you accelerate and decelerate a little more sharply.

Slow the boat and stop the engine. Try another re-start and then engage reverse to see how the boat turns when going astern. Stop again, apply full lock on the wheel and slowly accelerate ahead to see that the boat doesn’t bank excessively. Try this in both directions. Try cruising through some rougher water or the wakes from other boats to see how the hull behaves itself and how softly it cuts through the waves. Find a convenient (and preferably deserted) dock or jetty, and try coming alongside to discover how the boat manoeuvres at low speed.

If watersports are on the agenda, see how the boat performs from the end of a ski rope. If you plan to tow two skiers, check that the boat can pull them up from a deep-water start. See that the wake suits your particular watersports activity.

In all these tests there’s no need to be aggressive – just drive the boat as you plan to use it. Especially if you’re new to boating, the important thing is that you feel safe and secure. A good boat will keep you feeling that way.

When you return to the ramp, allow the owner to retrieve the boat onto its trailer, and once more watch carefully. Make sure you’re comfortable with whatever technique the seller uses to put the boat on its trailer; they may drive it on, but you might prefer to winch it on. Try your preferred method for yourself.

As soon as the boat is back on its trailer, remove the transom drain plugs and check that little or no water comes out. Check, too, how easy it is to secure the boat on its trailer, and to re-fit any covers and tie-downs.

During the whole test process, trust your intuition – it’s a very powerful tool! And buy as much based on your feelings about the owner as about the boat. If you sense that the seller has taken care of the boat and is fair in his or her dealings, you won’t go far wrong.

How to-Safety