Skip to main content

You likely have certain requirements in mind when shopping for a boat of any size or type, no matter whether it’s new or just new to you. This is particularly so when serious passagemaking is planned. Too often, though, your sound, logic-based plan gets set aside when you spot an irresistible beauty that makes your heart sing, regardless of what may be under the hood. The euphoria lasts until the shine wears off, and by then, it’s usually too late.

(Related Story: Expert Advice To Avoid Blunders That Cost Money...and Pride.)

I’ve done it (several times), many of you have done it, and without exception, we come to regret our ill-considered flings.

To help myself and others, I developed guidelines for designers and builders. Richard Thiel, the longtime editor-in-chief of our sister publication Power & Motoryacht, condensed and used these guidelines when evaluating boats. 

The first time he used what he dubbed the “Dawson Scale” at a major boat show, he found that fully half the 30 boats he reviewed scored 40 percent or less, and only eight of them scored 80 percent or better. If nothing else, these disappointing results underscored the importance of looking beyond the glitz, the glamor and the gelcoat.

As you shop the boat shows this winter, a checklist can assist you, too, in comparing boats to one another and to your own list of wants and needs.

Suitability. Is the boat appropriately designed, built and equipped to handle the waters you intend to cruise? For instance, a big, broad transom may not be the best choice if you’re regularly crossing bars or transiting treacherous inlets.

Accessibility. Can you easily get to vital locations within the hull and superstructure, particularly in the engine room? If you’ll need three arms, each 4 feet long, then keep looking.

Cleanability. Cleanliness is not only next to godliness, but it is next to impossible on some boats. Materials, colors and surface textures, as well as accessibility, figure into this.

Visibility. Those ultramodern window lines may look great from the outside, but if you can’t see out, then you’ll soon tire of the lack of a view. It’s especially a problem with narrow windshields that result from low, streamlined brows.

Serviceability. Do you have room to remove and replace parts, and even just to carry out routine maintenance such as adding coolant or changing the oil and filter? In an emergency, can you correct a problem without tools?

Habitability. Also known as livability, this characteristic addresses how comfortable you will be while living aboard for extended periods. Are the berths long enough to stretch out, and can you change the sheets without being a contortionist? Is there enough stowage for consumables, spares and personal effects?

Functionality. Imagine carrying out your daily tasks, both at anchor and at sea, as you walk through the boat. If the refrigerator backs up to a forward bulkhead, will it be safe to open the door during or after a rough passage?

Reliability. On a serious cruising boat, installing cheap equipment and scrimping on construction are not acceptable ways to save money. While overbuilding adds unnecessary weight, make sure things are adequate and durable.

Safety. It’s Boating Safety 101, but I’ve seen far too many boats with knife-sharp corners and no handrails, a dangerous combination that will lead to serious injuries. As you walk through the stationary boat at the show, look around and try to imagine it, and you, in a Force 5.

Simplicity. Complication is not your friend. The builder should not make something difficult to maintain when it can be easy. Things should not be complicated to operate when they can be obvious.

The best way to a happy voyage is to have a well-designed, well-built and well-found vessel under your feet—and if she’s pretty, too, so much the better. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.