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October 08, 2010

Don't You Ever Do That!

Saving less experienced readers by making their boating mistakes for them

I started driving boats by myself (both power and sail, if truth be told) at the ripe age of 10. I have been doing it professionally almost as long. Today, I drive somewhere north of 100 new boats each year - from tiny to mammoth.

In addition to reporting to you, our readers (hopefully ­objectively), the pros and cons of all those boats, I feel responsible for contributing to your safety by incorporating test parameters that a boat owner may only accomplish by accident. My job is to determine whether such inadvertent maneuvers will cause the boat to be forgiving or cause the driver and passengers harm. Following are just some of the sea-trial questions I ask and information I glean to help you out.

Performance
Helmsmen rarely want to turn the wheel hard over at cruising speed or faster. But someday you may need to, and what will the result be? Will the boat lean into the turn and transfer the centrifugal inertia down through your feet rather than toward the outside of the turn? Does it bleed off speed quickly? Does the stern slide at a certain point to prevent a chine from digging in and tossing you across the boat? In other words, will you and your passengers find it easy to stay in the boat, or will you feel like you're being thrown overboard?

Likewise, with the wheel turned hard over and the boat completely stopped, what happens when you suddenly give it full throttle? Hopefully, the boat will lean into the turn but not so far that the gunwale goes underwater. What about reverse? Some outboard boats turn well in one direction in reverse but when you try to turn the opposite direction, they lock into what I call quarter steer, where the stern corner just keeps plowing on without the boat turning at all.

Always remember that a high-speed ride in rough water is much harder on the passengers than the driver. When you launch the boat off a wave and go airborne, does the landing compress the disks in your back, or is the design of the hull bottom such that you land softly and controllably? When the boat travels down-sea in large waves, does it track straight and true with little wheel adjustment needed, or does it dig in its bow and swerve? Does it push the water down and out, away from the bows, or does it curl up and back at the helm? How responsive is the boat when you put the throttle forward at cruising speed? I count this characteristic as much more important than top speed, especially when coming into a rough inlet where you may need to react to waves instantly.

kill switchSpeaking of top speed, certainly everyone today wants to be able to go fast. But we all want reasonable fuel efficiency and range too! While I love fast boats, I always want to find out how a vessel handles at the upper end of the speed curve. I've experienced boats that run rock solid at 80 or 90 mph, while others get truly squirrelly at 60 mph. Does the boat chine-walk or have any other idiosyncrasies? Does the steering become overly sensitive? Interestingly, some boats ride much more smoothly in rough seas at a higher speed than a slow one. It takes moxie to determine if that is the case for a given boat.

How about dryness? Counter to common logic, I always try to get spray flying. At what point or in what wind does spray happen? Is it worse upwind, downwind or abeam? And when running abeam of the wind, does lifting the upwind side with the trim tabs alleviate much of the spray and make the ride smoother, or does it have any effect? Is there a speed at which the boat can outrun the spray?

How a boat rolls can make or break a purchase decision. Many things combine to make a boat more or less stable drifting or at slow speeds in a beam sea. Generally, the shallower the deadrise angle at the transom, the steadier the boat is beam-to the waves. Roll moment (the length of the arc the boat scribes when rolling) and transition (whether it changes roll direction gently or with a snap) can mean the difference between your passengers being able to work comfortably, lose their balance - or worse.

Fishability
Most fishing boats work just fine for their purpose. Things I look for include a reasonable reach from the rail to the water to make reviving and releasing fish safe. Sufficient rod holders are a plus. Can the tip of the rod extend out past the outboard engines on boats so powered? Drains in fish boxes that don't leave a pool of blood and guts near the outlet make for much less work.

Safety in all aspects plays a large role in all of Sport Fishing's boat profiles. For example, make sure the rail meets your leg at a high-enough point to keep you from being flipped overboard when you hit a wave as you fight your fish.

Today, most boats are well built and do the job for which they were designed very capably. I also want to know the following: Do the ergonomics of the helm let you drive comfortably, or will you be exhausted from trying to "fit" throughout the whole day? Handholds are always important, as is a boarding ladder that can be deployed from the water. If you happen to fall overboard, a great dive ladder stored in the cabin isn't going to be very helpful.

Finally, I often hear "Why don't I ever see a bad boat profile?" We have very limited space for boat coverage. Many excellent boats come to market every year. Why on earth would we want to dedicate valuable editorial space to any boat that we'd prefer nobody ever even think about, let alone buy?