How to sea trial a boat: Professional boat testers share their top tips

Yachting World

How do you know which yacht is right for you? Will Bruton gets expert advice from sailors who test drive boats for a living…

Yacht brokers don’t really sell boats, they sell dreams. To buy any sailing yacht requires a leap of faith: a conviction that the winds will blow in our favour, and that the places we voyage to will be better than the places we leave behind (or at the very least, that the experience of sailing there will be better than staying put).

No matter how hard-headed you plan to be about a yacht purchase, it’s easy to get distracted. At boat shows an overdose of polished chrome or fancy systems can overwhelm sense and reason. Sales patter can paint a picture of idyllic sailing experiences that are not, in fact, how you actually spend and enjoy your time on the water.

With so many different designs on the market, making the right choice is far from easy. What’s more, few of us get to regularly sail a really wide selection of yachts. Even when we do test sail a boat we’re considering buying, time on board is often limited. So how best to use that time wisely, and to work out what is really important?

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Cockpit protection and the ability to trim and reef easily will be prime considerations for many who want to cruise offshore. Photo: Richard Langdon

We asked boat testers, who compare and trial dozens of different yachts all year round, for their tricks of the trade to help find the boat that best matches your needs.

Yachting World’s Toby Hodges has tested hundreds of yachts for these pages, viewed many more at shows and has sat on the European Yacht of the Year judging panel for the last decade. He stresses the importance of getting to know the yachts on your shortlist as thoroughly as possible, to understand the real, or standard, boat and not just the boat show model.

“Use any resources available such as videos, virtual visits and boat test reports – compare specs and numbers, always conduct viewings, and take trial sails if at all possible,” he says.

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“Try to visualise what your own reality will be like on board from the beginning. It’s almost impossible to replicate the sailing you’ll be doing, even with an extended test sail, so it’s important to mentally separate yourself from the artificial sales environment and focus: what would life be like day to day on this boat at sea? Be honest with yourself about your plans for the boat and realistic about whether it really does meet your needs.”

Do your homework

Hugely experienced sailing journalist and Yachting World tester Matthew Sheahan has test sailed more than 1,000 boats over the course of a 24-year career. He highlights how much doing serious preparation can influence your boat buying experience. “If you meet [the sales agent/broker] equipped with knowledge of the product, you will be taken seriously.

“Sadly, while agents are sometimes lambasted, they have to deal with a lot of tyre kickers that are far from serious, and with limited resources to demonstrate their product adequately. They are far more likely to arrange a test sail or factory visit if they can see you are comparing a list of contenders from the start that you have thought about.”

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Photo: Paul Wyeth

Norwegian journalist Axel Nissen-Lie, who is editor of SEILmagasinet and also a regular judge for the European Yacht of the Year awards, believes how you start your search is critical. “Establish your ‘musts’ before you begin. Agents selling boats want it to be an emotional process, so establish your priorities to keep that emotion in check!

“Data can be really useful to determine a baseline criteria for the boat you are seeking. Then, when you come to test sails, you can compare against this. Does the yacht meet your minimum passage speed? Is the draught realistic for everywhere you plan to explore? Is the tankage really suitable for long term cruising? These are the kind of numbers that will stop you buying a boat that isn’t capable of the sailing you have in mind.”

Nissen-Lie also believes prospective buyers shouldn’t shy away from looking at market depreciation, whether buying new or used. “There’s been a trend in recent years of manufacturers appealing to a genuine, if misguided, customer demand for ‘more boat for the money’. A quick look at the residuals will reveal just how much cheap big boats plummet in the first three years of ownership, whilst their smaller, seemingly more expensive quality counterparts often retain value and for longer.

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A factory tour can provide far more information than can be gleaned from marketing materials. Photo: Richard Langdon

“Of course, all boats lose a lot of value as soon as they hit the water. After looking at initial depreciation over three years, compare values at the 10-12 year mark as well. That’s when the yacht will really be starting to show how it stands the test of time.” If you are considering a new-build yacht, a factory tour can give you an opportunity to learn more than you’d ever glean from marketing materials.

“If you are offered a factory tour, take it,” advises Toby Hodges. “The time, effort and expense of travelling there will be well worth it and you’re likely to see parts of the yacht you would never normally have access to, while also getting a real grasp of what the yard that builds it is all about. There are big differences in how yards approach a build and some inspire more confidence than others.”

At every stage, dig into the detail. “Asking questions, perhaps some difficult ones, will reveal a lot about the substance of the boats they sell,” says Matthew Sheahan. “Can you see a relative stability curve to see how stable the boat is? How is the hull constructed? Can they show you how easy it is to get to the skin fittings? These are questions that start to open up what the boat is really like.”

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A factory visit also allows you to see the fittings and structure you may not be able to access on a finished boat. Photo: Paul Wyeth

Build a relationship

John Rodriguez is now a well-known broker specialising in bluewater yachts, but started out in yachting as a first-time buyer, looking for a boat to take he and his wife, Nicola, around the world. He freely admits that, at the start, they knew very little. “Until we met other cruisers I became convinced our boat was cursed… it kept going wrong!”

Today he uses this experience to help his clients, many of whom are planning similar adventures. He has also been the chairman of the Association of Brokers and Yacht Agents, and has strong views about what customers should expect from a good broker.

“Because we specialise in bluewater, I never think of myself as a salesman, partly because it’s not a strategy that gets results. You should expect guidance from the broker and a depth of knowledge you can draw on from day one. If they’re pushing a particular boat really hard, that’s a bad sign,” says Rodriguez.

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Evaluate cockpit size, practicality and comfort based on your needs – what features make the yacht suitable for you day-to-day? Photo: Paul Wyeth

“People come to me and often that initial conversation will be around viewing a boat that I just know isn’t right for what they want to do, but that can be a starting point as they learn what is suitable over time.

“My biggest advice to customers starting out on their search is to read as much as possible. Books on bluewater sailing, blogs and owners’ experiences of particular boats can be absolutely invaluable. Over time your broker should be getting a feel for you, your plans and what you really need.

“Also, don’t rule out refit. A good broker will find boats that don’t meet your needs currently, but would with a quality refit. A good broker will also know the people to make that process far less daunting, which ultimately opens up your search to far more yachts in total.”

An early sea trial of a new Italia 13.98. Photo: Paul Wyeth

How to test drive a yacht

On the water, a yacht’s true nature will out. It’s here that a creaky interior, carelessly positioned winch or uncomfortable helming position will become clear. But most test sails are time limited, so how best to make the most of it?

“A test sail is an unrivalled opportunity to see a yacht in its real-world environment, on the water. It is crucial to make this time count, ensuring it works for you, not just the agent selling the yacht,” explains Toby Hodges.

A test sail is still a long way from the reality of owning the boat and living aboard, so a lot of it is about visualising what life aboard would be like. Put the boat through its sailing paces, certainly, but don’t let that be all you evaluate.

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Think about maintenance and problem solving: how you might you access and service machinery? Ask if changes can be made to suit your needs. Photo: Paul Wyeth

“When we test for Yachting World, we will go overnight if at all possible, to cook and sleep aboard. That helps to really get a deeper impression, but if you can’t do that, you can visualise.

Walk around the cockpit, deck and interior while out on trial. How practical is the layout?

“Would this shower compartment be large enough for everyday use? Is there enough stowage space in the galley? How noisy is it in the cabins? Bringing someone along with you that you sail with a lot can help to talk through the boat candidly.”

Test sails are provided by the agent, but all the testers we spoke to emphasised the need to try and shut out the sales pitch.

Cockpit practicalities

Test sails are something you should look to do early in your boat search rather than later, yet most people leave it until they are really serious about a type of boat. Sail several yachts and don’t be afraid to negotiate with the agent to get as much time as possible. A shared test sail for a couple of hours with several others immediately after the boat show isn’t going to give you the time and space to feel how the boat might be with just you on board.

The sailing experience is important, but try to see beyond the fun factor. Professional IMOCA 60 racer and RYA Yachtmaster examiner Pip Hare also tests for Yachting World. While naturally interested in all aspects of boat performance as an offshore racer, it’s the relationship between the sailor and yacht that stands out to her most when testing boats.

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Get the boat sailing hard to windward, then go below and walk around, advises Pip Hare

“When you go for a test sail, do every job possible in the cockpit to see how it works in practice, or doesn’t. Can you get from the wheel to the sheets, or is there too much in the way? Particularly if you’re sailing with inexperienced crew, it’s something to consider.
Good positioning of winches, jammers and sheets can make a huge difference. Also, are they sufficiently powerful for the job they have to do?

“Below decks, test usability by getting the boat sailing hard to windward. Go below and walk from one end of the boat to the other. How hard is it to move around? Are there enough handholds? Does that spacious saloon suddenly become dangerous because of how beamy it is?”

Matt Sheahan agrees: “A boat that’s physically comfortable on deck will be mentally comfortable. What I mean by that is: if you can’t get to the mainsheet from the helm, you can’t depower the main quickly, so it can make you anxious. Good boats are designed around ease of sailing and logical design.”

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If you are equipped with knowledge of the product you’ll be taken seriously, says Matt Sheahan

Pip is positive about modern boat design, but occasionally sails boats that fail fundamentally. “Occasionally you’ll come across yachts, even monohulls, where sailing comes second to marina comfort. In one case I was initially impressed by a beautifully clean cockpit with all lines leading to two winches close to the helm.

“The trouble was, no one had thought about where all the lines go, so when you actually went sailing you were left with a huge mass of lines with nowhere to put them. That’s never going to work.”

To try to find a boat’s flaws. US boat tester and former editor of Sail magazine, Peter Neilsen, believes you shouldn’t aim for everything to go really smoothly on a test sail.

“It’s tempting to just go through the usual manoeuvres of tacking, gybing, and so on, seeing how well the boat goes on various points of sail, how easy it is to balance the sail plan,” he says. “But why not try stopping the boat: let the sheets fly and see what she does. How does she lie to the wind?

“Find out how well she heaves to and, indeed, if she will heave to. Spin in a circle without touching the sheets to see how easy it is to get out of irons; try to sail under mainsail or genoa alone. Under power, find something you can back up to, to see how she steers going astern. Bring her up to cruising speed then let the wheel go, and see if she dives off in one direction or another.”

Eyes wide open

It’s clear, then, that you should approach buying a boat with eyes wide open. Be realistic about identifying the type of sailing you do – or want to do – and draw up a list of your absolute necessities. Think about your priorities in the short and longer term. The more comprehensive your list, the better the chance you’ll find the boat that fits your needs. Some may find it helpful to rank or score their criteria to help make the decision.

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It’s easy to be seduced by the helming experience, but try and sample as many jobs and manoeuvres aboard as possible. Photo: Paul Wyeth

Use this to draw up a shortlist of suitable boats, and as a means of rejecting ones that will be unsuitable – but don’t rule out a refit, or ask if something can be altered.

Crawl over yachts at boat shows, but always push for a test sail for a yacht you are considering. And once you get aboard, try to visualise how this particular boat will serve you in the real world. It may be then that you find a yacht you have a real connection with.

Charter first

Chartering a boat that’s the same as, or similar to, one you’re thinking of buying is the best way to establish if it’s really for you. “Ask the manufacturer’s agent or broker if there is scope to charter the boat or a similar model,” advises Toby Hodges.

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Chartering a multihull is a good way to find out if you’d enjoy owning one. Photo: Pawel Toczynsky / Getty

“In the case of a new yacht, the charter cost can sometimes be written off against a purchase. For larger yachts, which are often semi-custom, it’s a great way to determine how you’d like your own build fitted out, what works and what doesn’t.”Multihull sales have seen a big increase over recent years, and many of those sales are to owners switching from a monohull. “If you’re thinking of converting to a multihull, consider where the major points of difference are and put them into practice by chartering,” says Toby.

“Power handling, anchoring and living are all very different aboard a multi. Sailing, while often a pleasant surprise, is a very different thing on a cat. So why not enjoy the selection process more by chartering in some lovely locations first?”

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Boat shows (when they’re up and running again) will provide the best opportunity for a first look at a wide variety of yachts

Boat show comparison

Terysa Vanderloo and Nick Fabbri compared dozens of catamarans when searching for their new Ruby Rose. Terysa shares her top tips…

After living on board a 38ft monohull for the past five years, my partner Nick and I decided to make the move to a catamaran. We had no clear idea of which catamaran we wanted, or even what the options were, so over the course of 2019 we went to numerous boat shows, toured dozens of catamarans and did five sea trials.

We took our YouTube audience with us on this journey, filming a total of 19 catamaran reviews and sampling the entire spectrum of catamaran designs.  We wanted to be analytical in our decision making process, so we assessed each boat using five criteria: safety and design; build quality; interior design and liveability; price; and performance.

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Terysa Vanderloo and Nick Fabbri took a detailed look at 19 catamarans when choosing their new boat

Each boat was given a total score out of 50, and we even opened up the ‘scoring’ to our audience through an app, which removed any bias from both ourselves and brokers. These are some of the things we learned:

Come prepared: Knowing your must-haves in advance will be of huge benefit at the show. Every boat is a compromise, so it helps to know the characteristics or features that are absolute red lines. For example, in choosing our new boat we were determined to have a catamaran with well-protected helms, high build quality and excellent natural ventilation.

This allowed us to create a shortlist in advance by doing online research before arriving at the show. Most manufacturers will have virtual tours or comprehensive photo galleries on their website and obtaining information on price in advance is a good idea if you’re working to a budget.

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Bring a camera: Filming a full walk-through on your phone or an action camera for further study and comparison when you get home is really useful. Once you’ve seen a few boats, it can be hard to remember the details – getting it all on film lets you relive the experience later and compare different models retrospectively.

Allow extra time: Although I’m a big advocate for being prepared, sometimes you fall in love with a boat you totally overlooked during your initial research. And sometimes your priorities change once you’ve done a few walk-throughs.

You might think you want a performance catamaran, for example, but after spending some time in the spacious hulls of a cruising catamaran you start to rethink your stance… Give yourself plenty of time to do some generalised browsing, because you might be surprised by what you fall in love with on the day.

First published in the October 2020 issue of Yachting World.


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