While I think we have always done a good job of inspecting the boats we are looking at, our technique has definitely improved with practice over the past month. More than one broker has commented that we look like we have done this a few times. So, we thought we would walk you through our process in case you are setting out to examine a boat you might want to make an offer on or just want to know exactly how we go about inspecting the boats we are reviewing.
Whenever we are going to check out a boat, I always bring a strong, small flashlight, a notepad, and a pen. I try to note any problems I see as well as things that are not in the listing but are worth remembering, such as additional gear, self-tailing winches, and the types of anchors. When I am back home, I often wish I had noted both the good and the bad about each aspect of the boat, but I realize this would take an enormous amount of time and patience, so I pretty much just note the nasty stuff. Margaret will have the camera, and occasionally I borrow it to get a photo of something noteworthy that I think she may have passed up.
I don’t usually start off by asking the broker any questions, but I certainly listen when they offer information. While brokers often know a lot about the boat, I do not feel like I can put their comments in perspective without actually having a sense of the condition of the boat first. So, I tend to save my questions, if I end up having any, for the end, or, even more likely, a follow up phone call. More than likely, though, the broker will give you some information to start with. Pay attention to these nuggets, but take everything they say with a grain of salt. I don’t know that we ever had a broker flat out lie to us, but they are certainly an interested party, often trying to put the boat in the best light possible. Interpreting their comments is an art. I should also say that we have encountered some very truthful brokers who just want to make sure you know all the pertinent facts about a boat to make a sound decision. Moreover, you also tend to get a much higher percentage of good insight into the boat when the broker has a sense of what types of boats you have looked at before and what you intend to use the boat for, so go ahead and tell them that stuff as soon as you meet them.
If the boat is on the hard, I like to start at the stern, making certain the rudder, propeller, and shaft do not have too much play in them and that there is no damage to the bottom of the rudder or skeg. Then I circle the boat, examining the hull for blisters and areas that do not seem fair. To do the latter, just sight along the hull as you walk around. I also like to scrutinize the bottom, especially the leading edge, of the keel to make sure there are no obvious signs of a hard grounding. Also, be sure to check that the keel shows no signs of separating from the hull. What you are looking for is a straight line of cracked bottom paint where the keel meets the hull. Not all boats have bolted on keels, but many do, and a space can develop over time. I also like to examine the thru-hull fittings and strainers, making sure they are not obviously in bad shape or clogged with crap. When I am at the bow, I study the bowsprit, pulpit, and bobstay and take a glance at the anchors and anchor rollers. I am most interested in any obvious signs of corrosion or rust on the bobstay and rot on the sprit.
After circling the boat, I will then climb aboard. If the boat is already in the water, I try to take a good look at its bowsprit before stepping on. Once on deck, I usually head straight for the bow, lest I miss something by not working in an orderly fashion. I will do a visual inspection of the bowsprit, windlass, anchor chain, anchors, and anything else that is up there. I hate to see major rust on the anchor, chain, or shackle, because it not only seems like a sign of an owner who does not take care of what really matters on the boat, but has proven to signal just that, with the attendant problems elsewhere (I swear, if I had to make a determination of the condition of a boat based on one thing, it would be the anchor chain). If there is an anchor locker, I open it up and take a look in, just generally assessing its size and cleanliness. I will glance at the condition of the genoa, but I typically assume it is in bad shape unless the listing specifically says it is new, though I probably should unfurl a little bit of the sail. Before leaving the bow, I will also give the stanchions and, especially, the railing around the bow pulpit a good shake, always hoping that it is sturdy.
As I move aft, I take a quick glance at all the hatches, looking for signs of cracking and water ingress. I also note the condition of the lifelines and shake a couple more stanchions along the way. At the mast, I tend to take a few moments looking up it, making sure it is straight. Then I study the standing rigging and the spreaders. Honestly, I do not know exactly what I am looking for here, but I always imagine some problem might become apparent while I am doing it. Moreover, it just seems silly to not look up at the rig while inspecting the boat. Next, I spin all the winches on the mast, making sure they freely turn clockwise and fully stop in the counter-clockwise direction. Often times, I will need to take lines off the winches and cleats to do this; I just make sure I re-cleat them afterwards. I will also look down and examine where the mast enters the deck, looking to see what kind of collar is there and whether it looks to be in good, watertight condition. Then, I peel off some of the canvas sail cover and take a look at the mainsail. It seems like you do not really have to look at much more than the very head of the sail to get a good sense of its overall condition, which, more often than not, is poor. At this point, I am not averse to jumping up and down on the cabin top a bit, trying to ascertain whether there are any weak spots where water has entered the core. Obviously this is fairly unscientific, especially because I do not do it in a thorough and orderly fashion, but it makes me feel good.
Moving aft from the mast, I continue checking the lifelines and stanchions and also see if I can easily move the jib and, when i get there, traveler cars. I also check the winches on the cabin top and in the cockpit. But before settling into the cockpit, I check the stern of the boat, shaking the metal railings and examining any equipment that might be back there. Finally, I come into the cockpit and take a seat at the helm station. I will look forward from there, trying to determine just how obstructed the view is. I turn the wheel back and forth, making sure it runs smoothly. Next I give the binnacle a good solid shake and look at the condition of the binnacle compass and layout of other navigation instruments. I also look around for a manual bilge pump, which should be somewhere easily accessible, and note the model and condition. Then, I dive into the lazarettes, checking out their size and, especially, the condition of any seacocks, hoses, wiring, autopilot, and whatever else I find in there. I really spend a lot of time in this area, especially if I can access or see the engine from the cockpit lazarettes. I am no expert in these matters, but I am just generally looking for rust and corrosion, checking out the engine access, and looking for anything that is amiss. There is also some strange way in which I am trying to get a read on how well the owner cared for the boat, and I see the lazarettes, like the anchor chain, as a good source of information in this regard. For instance, a nearly rusted solid autopilot ram is a good sign that the owner had no clue what he was doing and that there are serious other problems on the boat.
Finally, I head below, where Margaret has usually been looking around for a while (and she will have to tell you exactly what it is she is looking at down there). My careful bow to stern examination of the boat also usually ends here as Margaret and I, and sometimes the broker too, have to get out of each other’s way in the enclosed space of the cabin. So, I typically head to whatever part of the boat is open and start my inspection there. In no particular order, I try to remember to check the chainplates (you can see some really horrific corrosion and/or water damage here), mast step, tanks, hatches and ports, underside of the galley and head sinks, headliner at the mast, and, of course, the engine. I am also carefully looking for any signs of water intrusion and damage wherever I might lay my eyes. I also look into the bilges as much as possible, checking the hoses, wiring, and overall condition as well as simply making sure the various access points open easily. I will also open and close all doors – to check whether the cabin top and hull have not been stressed in some weird way – and all the hatches and ports – to make sure they are operable and have good seals.
Another place I peak into is the navigation station. I like to glance through the maintenance logs and see what the owner has in there and how well they have kept records. More than once we have found a nice core of the hull from when they drilled a new thru-hull, which gives you a sense of the hull thickness and layup. I also look over the electronics, noting the model numbers and checking their installation. I will, if easily accessible, look behind the circuit board to see how neatly the electrical work was done. I typically do not use a screwdriver to access anything, but I think you should feel free to do that if you want.
Aside from checking for problems, I also try to take a moment to assess the layout, woodwork and joinery, and size and develop an overall sense of the boat. Of course, I usually have a hard time remembering simple details about the cabin a few hours later, but I do retain a feeling about the boat, both belowdecks and topsides.
Before leaving, I might ask the broker a few specific questions about the boat, but I consciously try not to talk too much about it at that time. I always feel that if we end up really being interested in the boat, there will be no harm in calling the broker in the coming days and asking all sorts of things. But for the time being, I am just trying to let my impressions sink in and coagulate into a coherent opinion about the boat. Moreover, I want to get into the car and see what Margaret has to say.
One final note…Don Casey’s Inspecting the Aging Sailboat is an unbelievable resource for anyone shopping for boats. The whole text is useful, but if you are in a hurry, just read the last section where he gives you a good overview of things to look for.