Ten Minute Walkaround

Bright gel coat, polished fittings and colorful accent stripes make all new boats look good. As a buyer, you face the problem of getting beyond the eye-catching cosmetics in order to see intrinsic quality. This 10 Minute Quality Walkaround is designed to help you learn enough about any boat - power or sail - to determine the basic quality of its construction. The idea is to check out easily seen equipment, fittings and systems and from these checks draw conclusions about things you can’t see.

For instance, checking the quality of a fiberglass layup requires a destructive burnout test under laboratory conditions. However, it’s rare that a boat builder will properly install expensive deck hardware on a poorly built hull. As a rule, the quality of what you can see accurately reflects the quality of what is hidden from view.

Our 10 Minute Quality Walkaround starts outside the boat with a check of the hull and gel coat. This part is done most easily with the boat on dry land. Then we walk around the deck checking safety items and deck hardware. Finally, we go below for an inspection of the engine(s) and other mechanical equipment.

Remember, we are not making a thorough survey of the vessel. It takes years of experience to become a marine surveyor. But you can make a fair assessment of a new boat’s basic quality without a professional survey by making an inventory of specific quality- related items. Keep in mind that quality is relative both to the sale price of the vessel and its intended purpose.

Step #1 - Hull and Gel Coat, Time 1:30
Stand at the bow or stern where you can look down either side. Use the reflection of the sun or other bright light source to assess both the smoothness of the gel coat and the fairness of the hull. By leaning your head left or right you will "move" the reflection of the light along the hull.

A smooth, well-made gel coat will reflect the light evenly along the entire length of the hull. There will be no dull spots or color changes. A sudden jump in the motion of the reflection indicates an unfair spot in the hull. A typical unfair situation is a hard spot usually caused by improper installation of internal bulkheads.

Next, look for print-through of the underlying fiberglass material. This usually shows up as a faint pattern of woven roving which can only be seen with the light at an oblique angle to the surface. Print-through is only a cosmetic defect, but if severe it suggests possible quality control problems in the overall layup.

Finally, use a coin (a quarter works best) to tap lightly the edges of the chines and the sharp corner where the transom meets the hull sides. Laying ’glass into these right angle bends is difficult. A sharp rapping sound from the coin indicates the job was done right. A dull thud is the telltale sign of a hollow where the laminate has not been pushed up against the gel coat.

Step #2 - Deck and Fittings, Time: 2:00
Use the sun or bright light to check the deck in the same manner as you checked the hull. Tapping an occasional sharp bend or edge with your coin is also a good idea. Deck moldings are often more susceptible to hollow spots than hulls.

Deck hardware such as cleats, chocks and lifeline stanchions, is expensive. High-quality boats use cast stainless, bronze or aluminum. Bronze fittings are easier to maintain if chromed, but may be left natural for a more traditional appearance.

Cleats and chocks should be large enough to handle the sizes of rope appropriate to the vessel. Six-inch cleats (measured from tip to tip of the horns) are fine on boats under 20 feet in length, but look for at least eight-inch cleats on a 30 footer and ten- inchers on larger boats. Thoughtful builders install oversize cleats on the foredeck for anchoring.

Check at least one cleat to be sure that it is properly through-bolted and backed. To do this you will have to get underneath the deck. Stern quarter cleats are usually the most accessible. At a minimum, you should find large washers and either self-locking nuts or regular nuts with lock washers. Higher quality boats use a metal backing plate to spread the strain over a wide area of the deck.

Railings and lifelines should be at least 24 inches tall with stanchions no more than seven feet apart. Stanchion bases should be through-bolted in the same manner as cleats. Welded rails are strongest, but built-up installations are acceptable if all parts are bolted together. Tubing should be a minimum of 3/4 inch in diameter.

Decks intended for walking must have some sort of non-skid treatment. Non-skid patterns molded into the gel coat are acceptable, although sanded paint is better and patent non-skid material best.

Step #3 - Helm Station, Time: 0:30
Move to the primary control station. On most boats this will be the flying bridge. Sit in the helmsman’s seat to check for visibility. You should have an unobstructed view from dead ahead to just past abeam on both sides. Controls should be positioned so they come to hand without requiring you to look away from the horizon. Engine instrumentation should include water temperature, oil pressure and an ammeter. Be sure the design of the console allows for proper installation of a compass.

Most boats have the main 12-volt switch and fuse panel located on or near the control console. Check that all circuits have either fuses or circuit breakers. Routing circuits through fuses or breakers on a single panel is thoughtful construction. A boat with an excessive number of in-line fuses hidden behind the control panel can be a nightmare when electrical troubles appear.

Step #4 - Cabin Hatches and Windows, Time 2:00
Nothing makes living aboard more miserable than leaking hatches, or opening ports or windows.

Opening ports that close water tight are required on sailboat cabins and in powerboat hull topsides below the sheer line. The best have metal frames and thick glazing of Lexan (tm) or shatterproof safety glass. Well-made plastic frames are acceptable, but beware of low-quality foreign imitations of ports made by U.S. manufacturers.

Deck hatches should be strong enough to withstand the weight of a falling adult man. Industry standards (ABYC Standard H-3.5) require that hatches be able to withstand a load of 300 pounds on any portion. Again, metal-framed hatches with thick Lexan (tm) have proven best. All hatches intended as exits must be at least 14 1/2 by 18 1/2 inches rectangular (270 square inches) and have provision for opening from the inside even when locked.

All windows must have appropriate safety glazing. This may be either safety glass or an appropriate plastic material. Sliding windows are acceptable as powerboat cabin side windows provided the tracks in which the glass slides are made of marine-grade materials. Avoid lightweight aluminum frames intended for recreational vehicles.

Step 5 - Engine and Machinery, Time 4:00
Engines should be readily accessible either through hatches or moveable furniture such as an engine box or companionway stair unit. When exposed, you should be able to work on all sides of the engine (or engines). Pay particular attention to engine mount access as these will need adjustment during the life of the boat. It must be possible to check the engine and transmission oil levels without being an acrobat. Oil drain plugs beneath the engine are usually not accessible. Thoughtful builders attach oil drain hoses before installing the engines.

The shaft coupling and the shaft log norm industry standard code (ABYC Standard E-3): Red wire should be used or all positive (+) mains, particularly those sections which are unfused. Negative mains (-), often called "ground wires" should be either white or black. If wires are not color coded, they should be labeled at each connection.

All wiring should be routed as neatly as possible, normally in multi-conductor cables or harnesses. Both individual conductors and multi-conductor cables should be supported throughout their length at intervals of 18 inches with non-metallic clamps or straps. Wiring should be routed as high out of the bilge as possible, particularly in areas where water will collect.

Batteries should be installed in an easily-accessible location as close to the engines as practical. This is to keep engine starter wiring as short as possible. Ventilation should be provided to carry explosive hydrogen gas up and out of the boat. If batteries are not contained in covered boxes, the terminals should be protected with non-conductive "boots."

All through-hull fittings on water intakes and drains should have sea valves. These can be either traditional bronze sea cocks or modern plastic ball valves, both of which can be closed with a quarter turn of the operating lever. Ordinary gate valves are not acceptable, especially on boats intended for salt water because their stems are subject to failure through corrosion.

Hoses attached to through-hull fittings should be double clamped with stainless-steel clamps. Be sure the small screw that tightens each clamp is stainless steel (test with a small magnet). Some screws are made of easily-corroded steel. These rust out, allowing the clamp to fail.

While in the bilge, take another look at the fiberglass layup. Pay particular attention to the manner in which bulkheads and engine stringers have been tabbed into the hull. All joints should be smooth with no rough strands of fiberglass showing. Print through of the woven roving is acceptable, perhaps even desirable, on the inside of the hull.


October, 1991
by David Brown


Day Cruising