How to Test Drive a Boat or Yacht You Want to Buy

By: Richard Crowder

Ryan Bruce / Burst

Taking a test drive on a boat you want to buy is always a thrill and often a bit nerve-wracking. Having a plan and knowing ahead of time what you want to accomplish will serve you well in the ultimate enjoyment of your powerboat in the years ahead.

By the time you're ready to test drive a boat, you will hopefully have spent time on board with the people in your life that will be on board ninety-nine percent of the time. That normally means just yourself along with perhaps your spouse, your best boating/fishing/watersport friend, and/or your immediate family.

You should have already determined that the general layout and purpose of the boat, its amenities, seating and/or sleeping and/or entertainment facilities are sufficient and accommodating for the needs of this immediate group that will time on board with you. If any of these items are not suitable, then it’s no use wasting your time or the seller’s time going for a test drive.

In addition to the above, you should also have determined that you are satisfied with the structural soundness of the boat’s construction by means of a hull survey from a recognized and qualified marine surveyor. You should also have determined that you are also satisfied with the boat’s mechanical and electrical systems by means of a mechanical inspection by a recognized and qualified marine technician. You should also have checked with your insurance provider to determine under what conditions they will insure the boat.

In other words, by the time you actually go for your test drive, you should know that all the features and conditions of the boat are acceptable for the price being asked, and that if the test drive is acceptable to you, that you will go ahead with the purchase. Based on the pre-determined features and condition of the boat, you have agreed with the seller that if the features operate as expected on the test drive, and if the boat operates and handles as described by the seller, you will go ahead with the purchase following a successful test drive.

This also means you have pre-arranged how you will pay the agreed price following the test drive. The test drive should be the last item on your boat purchase checklist. If all the other items mentioned above are not in place and pre-agreed with the seller, then you will be wasting your time and the seller’s time by engaging in a test drive which, depending on the complexity of the boat, can be very time consuming.

So now, finally, the boat is in the water and you and preferably only of your boating companions climb aboard. I am recommending a maximum of one other person come along for the test drive. The more people on board with you, the more difficult it will be to concentrate on achieving your objectives of properly assessing the boat. Ask the person with you to listen and observe carefully on your behalf in case you later forget anything and need help remembering details.

The only time you may want more for the test drive is if you normally have that many people on board when operating the boat. And this would only be if you are concerned that the quantity or arrangement of the seating may be inadequate, or that the boat may not perform properly with that many aboard, i.e. to pull up waterskiers or wakeboarders or to get onto plane and cruise at a reasonable speed.

You will have hopefully asked the seller beforehand not to start the engine before arrival so it is cold when you get aboard. Only you and the seller should get aboard and tell anyone else to stay on shore for the moment. Before touching anything else, access the engine compartment and check that the engine is indeed cool to the touch. In the case of an outboard, remove the cover.

Check for any signs of oil or water leakage or any indication it has been recently wiped clean. If an inboard or sterndrive, check the bilge area and note the condition and cleanliness. Check the oil level and condition on the dipstick if a four-stroke engine. Assess the seriousness of any other visible anomalies as indicated on your mechanical inspection results.

Be assured there is sufficient and current safety equipment on board as required by law. Turn the batteries on (if on a switch) and run the blower (mandatory on all but outboard powered boats) for the required two minutes prior to starting the engine. Once the engine is started, check for smoke or a film of oil or gasoline on the water behind the boat. If you see any, make a note and check with a technician as to probable cause and remedy.

Now, with the engine warming up, check the function of all switches on the dash to ensure all pumps, lights, horn, accessories, etc. are working properly. All required safety items at least must be working properly before you will be able to use the boat. Check that all instrumentation and navigation electronics are working properly. Any repairs required for any electrical malfunctions could prove costly. Throughout the test drive, make notes of any problems for later reference.

Now anyone else you brought along can help you untie, cast off, and get aboard. The seller may request to drive and control the boat initially especially if you are unfamiliar with the size or type of boat or the body of water. This is good as you now have an opportunity to observe the seller’s actions and reactions and to ask lots of questions.

Take this opportunity to observe the accuracy of the instruments and to “feel” the boat’s reaction to the water conditions as well as to listen intently for any untoward hull or mechanical sounds. These sounds may include banging, rattling, squeaking, or groaning from the hull and scraping, grinding, clunking, ticking, or vibrations from the engine or drivetrain. All of your senses should be on full alert. Do you smell anything you are concerned about?

When you get the chance to drive, sit in the driver’s seat and relax, observe, and think for a minute. Is the seat comfortable? Can I see forward through the windshield? Can I see out the sides and out the back? Does the steering wheel feel to be in a comfortable position? Can the seat and/or the wheel be adjusted to my liking? Is there too much reflection on the windshield from the dash? Can I easily observe the instrumentation? Do the engine controls fall readily to hand?

Mans Hakansson / Unsplash

Now stand up. Can I stay standing comfortably between the steering wheel and the seat? Can my hands still comfortably reach the wheel and the controls? Can I still see the instrumentation? Can I still see out forward, side, and aft? If there is a forward flip-up seat bolster, does it offer proper support and fit me effectively? Do any of the fixed or canvas enclosures restrict visibility?

Now sit back down in the driver’s seat. Ensure there is no other boat traffic close at hand in any direction. Test the trim system for the drive that it is functioning properly and its action recorded on the trim gauge if any. Slowly move the controls from neutral into forward at idle. There may be a very brief clunk or grinding noise that is expected from cone clutch or engaging gears depending on the drive system, but going from neutral into forward should not create a sudden lurch. If so, the idle speed may be set to high or there could be another problem.

Ensure that the drive unit is fully trimmed down and once underway at idle observe the handling of the boat. Is the steering free but not too loose, and not too much slack on-centre? Then move the throttle slowly forward and repeat the above. Does the throttle move freely? If lots of water around you is available and while at slow speed, move the steering wheel slowly lock to lock. Is the steering smooth and easy throughout the range? Are there any noises like clunking sounds from the drivetrain?

Now point the boat straight ahead, ensure that there is no boat traffic close by and that your passengers are seated and prepared for the next step. Proceed to move slowly but firmly to full throttle and move the boat up onto plane. Does the engine respond positively to full throttle application and accelerate the boat smoothly? Do you need to apply trim tabs (if the boat is so equipped) to assist in getting up and onto plane? Can you properly see ahead while the boat is coming up onto plane?

Once you are up onto plane, throttle back until you find a comfortable and economic cruising speed. This is usually the minimum speed that will hold the boat onto plane without accelerating and without dropping off plane and causing the bow to ride too high.

At this point you may choose to trim up the drive until you feel the hull is running at an efficient angle. You may have to add throttle to hold the boat onto plane and/or you may want to add a bit of trim tabs to bring the bow down. It’s called “finding the sweet spot” and it may take some time after you actually own the boat to experiment and find the most efficient and most comfortable cruising speed and boat attitude. The point is though, are you satisfied with the cruising speed and the attitude (running angle) of the boat? This is where you will be spending a considerable amount of your time aboard.

Until this point you have hopefully been running in a straight line to properly assess the boat’s performance on plane and its optimum cruising speed. Now you want to assess the boat’s performance under normal usage involving different manoeuvres. Check all around to make sure you have no nearby boat traffic and, assuming you have reasonable and acceptable water conditions for the size and nature of the boat, start making long sweeping turns in both directions. Does the boat respond smoothly? Is it holding the angle of the turn or is it slipping or jerking? Is the steering easy to work with and not hard to move? Do you have good visibility throughout the turns?

If the water you have so far been running is representative of the conditions you would normally expect when you own the boat, then you have assessed how the boat handles in terms of noise, wave handling, and comfort and whether that is up to your expectations. If the water so far has been smooth then continue those sweeping turns back into and through your wake to assess the boat’s handling of rougher water conditions. You need to do this coming from both directions into your wake and preferably at different angles too.


Now straighten the boat out again and, as long as the water conditions allow it for your safety and you are experienced enough to do so, slowly take the boat up to full throttle and top speed. Listen and observe to determine that the boat is operating as it was designed and without over-revving, ventilation of the propeller, or exhibiting any signs of hull instability.

Now you can slow down and head back to dock. While at cruising speed and if at all possible, run straight broadside to any prevailing wind and waves to assess the rolling or tilting of the boat and whether the result is acceptable. Along the way, you can also assess the operation of the entertainment system, navigation electronics, depth and/or fish finder, etc. If it is a waterski or wakeboard or wake surf boat, check out on board electronic aids as well as optimum wakes at optimum towing speeds.

Once you get back near to the dock, with the boat at rest, move the controls from forward into neutral and then into reverse and back through neutral again two or three times to assess that docking, which involves these movements, can be accomplished smoothly. Once tied up with the engine turned off, check the bilge area and around the engine and drive unit for signs of water, gasoline, or oil. Check the oil dipstick again for quantity and quality. At this point you should check that the outboard or sterndrive trim works throughout its range, including the trailering position, and properly records this range on the trim gauge.

Now you can examine the condition of the upholstery, any canvas, storage compartments, etc. Check the operation of all additional accessories you may have missed on your initial inspection including pumps, water systems, VHF radio, bilge alarms, livewells, refrigerators, toilets, and in the case of cruisers, all galley appliances, electrical systems, generator, anchor windlass, thrusters, washdowns, etc.

Ensure you know how to work these items and where the controls are located, and where tables, support posts, and spare cushions may be stored. Also ask for any manuals for the boat and its accessories, as well as any additional keys or fobs, remote controls, etc.

If all of the above meets or hopefully even exceeds your expectations then proceed to complete the purchase. Congratulations. You are now a boat owner.


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