If you are buying your first yacht you’ll want to make sure you don’t end up buying a headache. Well, at least more than the usual one anyway!
As part of the process you will want a full marine survey - just to make sure you aren’t buying a money pit. You’d also be sensible to take your prospective purchase for a spin, ideally in the company of your surveyor or at least some knowledgeable friends.
If the owner or owner’s representative is reluctant to take you out for a sea trial after you’ve shown serious interest it should probably ring some alarm bells. But as it’s not your boat yet it’s only reasonable (and probably preferable) that you don’t take her off the dock or bring her back alongside. That said, you need to be organised and vigilant if you are going to get the most from a sea trial. It’s not a jolly - this is serious.
Come armed with a camera, a smart phone will suffice and, ideally, the ability to also take video. Also, bring a notebook and pen to help jog your memory later. If you intend to climb the rig it’s worth bringing along at least one trusted friend and a good bosun’s chair or climbing harness as a minimum, although the latter is probably available closeby. We’d recommend the rig ascent is done alongside! Rust in swage fittings or moss or mould on deck or on sail covers is a sure sign of poor care or no recent use.
Before you leave the berth, you should check the deck and hull for damage or leaks, bubbles or chips. Check cleats after lines are thrown off. A pre-departure check to include all lockers, bilges, engine compartment, lazarettes, anchor locker, deck fittings and rigging is prudent. Take photos as necessary.
Before starting, and when disconnected from the shore power, check battery voltage and after engine start check for smoke and, if appropriate, check for water exiting the exhaust. Make a note of the engine data (tachometer, oil pressure, etc) immediately after start and then, as you slowly increase revs on departure, make notes of engine data and any extra smoke or noises / vibration. Check the engine compartment for leaks, vibrations and strange noises. Assessing things like oil pressure, etc can only really be done in comparison with the user’s manual, so make sure you bring that with you or have access to it.
Whilst underway check all instruments are working and ask to run any boat systems that can’t be run in port. Check water pumps, bilges, etc and hot water supply. Check that the heads all work and, where appropriate, exercise sea cocks. Get the boards up and check the bilges and inspect the keel bolts. Look for hairline cracks in the gelcoat or movement. Check bulkheads for movement, especially once sails are up and you are underway.
Once sails are up you can turn your attention to sails and running and standing rigging. Is the mast stable or panting? Are shrouds overly slack? Is the masthead inverting? Look at tracks and winches. Do they all work and are they in good serviceable condition? Ask to take the helm and get a feel for the boat. How does the rudder feel? Does she sail equally well on both tacks?
Spend time below whilst she’s under sail. Check the steering and quadrant. Look in the bilges. It’s quite possible the next time you see her she’ll be yours, so this is when you want to find problems - not then!
When back alongside, check the windlass and ground gear. Inspect the sail wardrobe and take a good look at the mainsail, luff track and boom / gooseneck. If there is a mast track for the spinnaker pole check it, and the butt hoist, and look for popped rivets or damage to the track itself. Check the boot on the mast and look below again for water ingress, especially near the chainplates, mast and in the bilges and engine bay.
The main thing is probably to make sure you get a feel for the boat and how she handles. You are going to be sailing her for a while - and living on her too perhaps. She is unlikely to be perfect, but now is your chance to unearth any deal breakers.
When all's said and done, and post survey, there will come a time when a decision has to be made. At least, after the sea trial, you’ve done pretty much all you can to eliminate any nasty surprises! Good luck.