Come on and take a free ride - making the most of your test sail

By Frank Lanier
Chesapeake Bay Magazine (2004)
Offshore Magazine (2004)
Latitudes and Attitudes (2004)
As a marine surveyor I’m often asked by clients if an “official” sea trial is really a necessary part of their pre-purchase condition and value survey, particularly if they’ve already been on what they consider to be a successful test sail. Sea trials are a crucial part of any surveyor’s toolbox when it comes to assessing a vessel’s condition. Inspections conducted during the static portions of the survey (both in-water and while hauled) are important in their own right, but it’s the sea trial that provides the surveyor with valuable insight on how a vessel and her systems operate in a “real world” environment.

Most buyers take a test sail with the owner or broker prior to making an offer to determine if the vessel's performance is in general satisfactory. Kicking back with a weirdly named tropical fruit drink and listening to the broker’s sea stories is certainly one way to enjoy this test sail, however the savvy buyer will try to put this “free ride” to better use. The purpose of this article is to help you get the most out of you test sail by discussing some of the things a surveyor commonly checks as part of his sea trial.

Most test sails are typically shorter in duration than a full blown sea trial, meaning you probably won’t have time to do everything we’re going to cover during your test sail, however those you can observe will help put your underway time to good use (an important consideration if you have a list of potential vessels you’re trying to whittle down). This leads us to the single most common mistake made by most would be buyers during the test sail (and sea trial for that matter) – the infamous “joy ride” syndrome.

Boats are a lot of fun and hey! Who doesn’t enjoy time on the water? The problem however, is that friends, relatives, small children, pets, Elvis, Bubba Hotep and Bigfoot will all likely cause unwanted distractions on board. Keeping the guest list down to those having an immediate interest in the boat buying decision will not only help you to better focus on the vessel’s performance during the test sail, but will also enable your surveyor to get the most out of his sea trial as well.

Another consideration is that from an evaluation standpoint, both test sails and sea trials are more informative if conducted in less than ideal conditions. I’m not suggesting they be carried out during a hurricane (or during any unsafe conditions for that matter), but it stands to reason that if you’re buying an offshore sport fisherman, you’ll learn a lot more about how she handles if the test sail or sea trial includes exposure to conditions you could reasonably expect to encounter during normal operation of the vessel. In other words, for this particular example a short run offshore would probably tell you a lot more than a 3 knot cruise along the ICW.

The first thing you want to ask the seller when setting a day and time for the test sail is that they don’t crank the engine(s) prior to your arrival. There’s a lot of things that can be told by watching an engine cold start (See “On the spot engine check” article) but the simplest is how hard the engine is to start, a perfect time for weak batteries and other such problems to make themselves known.

The following is a general list of observations that can help you get the most out of your test sail. As mentioned earlier you probably won’t have time complete all of them, but the ones you can squeeze in will give you get a better feel for the boat and at the same time help note any issues you feel need to be more closely inspected by your surveyor during his sea trial. Rather than trying to cram all of them in, my suggestion would be to concentrate on the ones you feel will yield the most information in the amount of time allowed for the test sail. For those that involve temperature taking, a small point and shoot laser thermometer works well (I purchased mine for less than $50 at Sears).

Finally, a word of caution - the tasks listed are generic in nature and may need to be modified depending on the vessel and/or circumstances. If you are not 100% confident in your ability to conduct a certain item, leave it to your surveyor to avoid any liability on your part. It’s always best to ask the broker, captain, or owner to perform any maneuvers or engine operational tests you’d like to observe rather than taking control of the vessel yourself (a move which automatically puts you in a liability situation).

Along those lines you’ll also want to give the owner, broker, or captain (whoever’s going to operate the vessel) a heads up what you’d like them to do while underway. Make a list of any maneuvers you’d like them to perform in advance (figure 8 turns, back down tests, etc) and go through it with them prior to leaving the dock. During the course of the trip they’ll probably offer you the helm in efforts to increase your purchasing blood-lust, but make sure they’re manning the helm during any test maneuvers – you should also reiterate that they’re in charge of the vessel’s operation at all times and should stop immediately if they feel a test is unsafe for any reason.

Try to schedule your test sail so that you’ve got a little time on the vessel prior to getting underway. Check the condition of bilges (bilge water level, presence of oily water, etc) and compare it with how the bilges look once you’ve returned to the dock. Check the engine and transmission oil levels both before and afterwards, confirming correct fill levels and noting any changes that could indicate leaks – it’s good to do this for hydraulic steering systems and trim tab units as well, if applicable.

Check the generator oil level as well (if so equipped) and ask that it be started at the beginning of the test sail and placed under as much load as possible (air conditioning, heating, etc) – let it run for about hour (or the length of the test sail, which ever is shorter) so you can observe its operation. Placing a clean drip cloth under both engine and generator prior to getting underway will make oil leaks more noticeable once back at the dock. You’ll also want to note coolant levels for engine and generator before and after the test sail, to try and ferret-out any hard to spot leaks. Record before and after engine and generator hour meter readings to verify operation – now’s also a good time to check engine shaft and rudder stuffing boxes for excessive leaking (once again, comparing before and after test sail observations).

Once the seller has started the engine (and generator), take a moment to conduct a visual inspection for any fluid or exhaust leaks. Note engine idle RPM – if greater than 800, it may have been bumped up to cover an idling problem. Ask that the engine be revved up to the 2000-RPM range (unloaded) to see how smooth the throttles operate and how the engine itself responds, noting any hesitation or bucking when backed-down. While still firmly tied to the dock, ask that the vessel be placed in forward, neutral, and reverse to check shifting, once again noting any unusual noises (chattering, etc.). You may also want to verify alternator output at the batteries (12 volts nominal, 13 to 14 volts on average for 12 volt systems).

Once underway, record the oil pressure, coolant temperature, volts, gearbox oil pressure, etc, for each engine during various speeds (slow throttle, half, full, and cruising speed). Record each of the above at all helm stations to compare readings and verify gauge operation.

If you have a laser thermometer and are comfortable around engines, here are a few additional things to look at. Note: Always be safety conscious and use appropriate safety gear (goggles, hearing protection, etc) when working around hot engines and any rotating equipment.

Check the temperature of the engine oil pan, which is typically between 190 to 220 degrees (depending on the engine). Higher pan oil temps could indicate a fouled oil cooler, something you may be able to verify by comparing oil temps at the oil cooler intake and discharge – temperatures should differ significantly if they’re working properly. This works for transmission oil coolers as well. Sweep exhaust manifolds and risers for hot and cold spots. Manifold temps should be within 10% or so of each other, while riser temps should be fairly close to the cooled part of manifolds – hot spots noted in any of the above could indicate blockage. Check all exhaust systems for coolant or gas leaks and listen to the muffler at idle for internal rattling, which could mean broken baffles. You should also note the temperature of the stuffing box – the higher it is above ambient temperature, the more urgent the need for inspection.

While cruising, re-inspect all shaft logs, stuffing boxes and rudder stuffing tubes for leaks (you’ll also want to check them out for leaks after returning to the dock). I’ve seen rudder tubes that were dry in the static position, but gushed water while underway. Check the shaft while cruising for vibration or wobble. If there’s visible wobble, you can get a rough idea of how bad the problem is by touching the top of the gear box – if you can feel it as well, it needs to be corrected sooner rather than later.

If there’s an engine manual onboard, note the manufacturer’s maximum recommended RPM. Then, after the engine has warmed up a bit, ask that it be ran at full throttle for a short distance (first noting that it doesn’t exceed the above recommended level). The RPM at wide open throttle (WOT) should be within 100 or so of the specs (depending on the engine). Higher than listed max RPM could mean the prop is too small, while a slower RPM could indicate a prop that’s too large in pitch, diameter, or both. While running at maximum speed, verify actual speed matches advertised speed. This is also the time to look for any unusual sights and sounds, such as a burning smell, visible smoke, excessive vibration, etc.

All maneuvers must be conducted in an area with suitable water depth and adequate space, ideally removed from channels or shipping lanes. Standard maneuvers while under power include a back down test and figure eight turn. The back down test (shifting from cruising speed to neutral, then to reverse while increasing power) allows you to check the engine mounts for excessive movement (you’ll have to be where you can observe the engine while it’s being conducted). Engine movement greater than ¼” can cause shaft alignment problems, meaning the mounts themselves may be bad or due for replacement in the near future. Figure eight turns at cruising speeds are good to verify maneuverability, handling, and that the vessel has an equal turning radius port and starboard.

Additional checks for sailboats include raising the mainsail and unfurling the jib to check for smoothness of operation and to inspect each for broken and or sun deteriorated stitching. It’s also a good time to check all reef points and lines – if unclear about how the reefing system works, now’s the time to ask. Check all sail hank/snap-on hardware, as well as operation of the roller furling system if so equipped. One way to get a feeling of the latter’s condition is by holding your hand on the furling track or drum and turning – hard or rough movement indicates the bearings may need replacing. Continue by checking the condition of the furling line (particularly where it’s connected to the drum) and all running rigging (halyards, sheets, etc).

For maneuvers under sail, try a variety of tacks, from close hauled to downwind to check handling and vessel reaction. It’s also a good time to check dagger board operation of so equipped, as well as any downhaul systems onboard.

As you can see, there’s plenty of things you can check to make a test sail productive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have a good time as well. You can still let the broker regale you with tales of the open sea and exotic ports – just tell him he has to hold off until afterwards in the marina bar…and remind him he still owes you that Mango Daiquiri.