Boat Inspection Trip Tips

Posted on Wednesday 18 August 2010

After reading a bit about what people think is or isn’t necessary when going to look at a boat… I decided to put together this post, which was originally written for the sailing forum. This was a collaborative effort between my friend, Maine Sail, and myself.

Please note: This article is about going to visit a boat to see if it is worth looking at further. It is not designed to replace a proper survey and sea trial. This type of trip is what you should do to see if it is worth making an offer on a boat and spending the money on a survey and sea trial. IMHO, you really need to have a survey done by a competent surveyor. YMMV.

When you’re going to look at a boat, as a possible future purchase, I would make some recommendations about what you should and shouldn’t do. I would ask that anyone else chime in with recommendations they have as well. I’ll edit this post to add the ones I think are most important.

Basic Inspection Kit

First, put together a kit of tools for your boat visit. The kit should include the following:

  • Small Notebook—reporters notebooks or pocket-sized Moleskines are excellent choices for this.
  • Pencil—preferably .5mm mechanical for making notes and sketches in notebook
  • Small tape recorder—preferably with a lapel mic with windscreen, to record your visit to the boat, as it is often easier to make notes by speaking than writing when looking at a boat
  • Digital camera—I prefer the small pocket sized Olympus Stylus SW series, as they are waterproof, shock proof and have a decent lens on them
  • Tape Measure—Preferably a 25-30′ tape
  • Small Flashlight—Preferably LED, like the Gerber Omnivore or Firecracker
  • Pocket Multitool—Get a good one, like the Leatherman Surge
  • Phenolic Resin Hammer—a small one will do
  • Small Magnet—preferably one with a lanyard attachment
  • Inspection Mirror—preferably one with a telescoping handle
  • Small Volt-Ohm multimeter—preferably digital with a rubber casing
  • Moisture Meter—see section below

Additional Supplies:

  • Clean White Rags
  • Awl
  • Waterless Hand Cleaner Wipes
  • Spray Cleaner (like Fantastic)
  • Burgundy Scotch Brite Pad

The Trip

First Impressions

Now, when you get to the boat, take some photos of the boat as you approach it… Turn on the tape recorder and speak clearly about your first impressions of the boat. Make sure you get your first impressions down. The human brain is a weird thing and often the first impressions are the best ones… and there’s usually a reason for them.

Systematically go through the boat from bow to stern, from top to bottom, recording what you find either on the tape recorder or as sketches and notes in the notebook, and document everything with photos using the digital camera if at all possible. If you have specific requirements, use the tape measure to take measurements.

Don’t forget to note the make and model of the various equipment and parts aboard the boat. Some pieces of equipment, like specific models of engines and such have known weaknesses and specific problems to be aware of.

The magnet is to be used to check stainless steel hardware. If the magnet sticks, it ain’t marine grade stainless. Austenitic stainless, which covers most marine grade stainless steel, is non-magnetic and includes 304 and 316 grades of stainless. The cheaper martensitic stainless is magnetic.

The flashlight and inspection mirror are used to look in nooks, crannies, deep unlit lockers, the bilge, engine compartment, etc. Looking in lockers and such can often tell you a lot about a boat’s true condition, since many people will spruce up and clean the interior of a boat for sale, but will often forget to do the same for the less visible spaces. A good example of what you may find is traces of a visible waterline in the higher lockers may indicate that the boat was sunk at some point.

Tapping the deck with the phenolic hammer near stanchion bases may give you an indication if the deck has started to delaminate or has a wet core. Most boats have a cored deck and stanchions are often places where the water intrusion can start due to the loads that they’re often subjected to. Caution: If you are not skilled with a phenolic hammer please DO NOT go pounding on an Awlgripped deck!! They are used for TAPPING not pounding.

Most manufacturers do not do a very good job of potting the fasteners or deck area around the stanchions or other deck hardware, especially on older boats, made when the water intrusion problems weren’t well understood.

Look for cracks in the gelcoat—most spider cracks are normal and often due to the gelcoat being laid too thickly. Parallel cracks in the gelcoat, which often indicates stressing of the fiberglass there. Star-shaped cracks in the gelcoat are usually the result of an impact.

Look for flat spots in the hull or places where the hull doesn’t follow a natural curve. These can often be indicators of previous damage or bad construction. Often, places where the hull isn’t following a fair curve are due to bulkheads being improperly glassed to the hull and causing a hard spot—which can cause the laminate to hinge along the hard spot and results in the laminate fatiguing prematurely there.

Check mechanical systems to see if the parts that should move do, and that the parts that shouldn’t move don’t. If something sticks, like the tiller, and shouldn’t—it is probably an indicator of something wrong or about to go wrong. Excessive play is often an indicator of wear and that something may need to be repaired or replaced soon. If a cabin door or cabinet door doesn’t open or close smoothly, it may mean the hull and deck have changed shape and causing it to bind—this can often happen if a compression post has started to weaken.

The multimeter can be used to do some quick checks on the electrical system. If you don’t know how to use one, take a class at a local vocational/technical school and learn—you need to know how to trouble shoot electrical problems using one if you’re going to own a boat.

Go through the boat and open every locker if at all possible. Lift settee cushions. Look in the bilge. Photograph the rig. Get detailed photos of the chainplates, the rudder attachment points, the steering quadrant and other important pieces of equipment.

As for the pocket multitool… you’ll figure out why I included it in the kit… they’re just too damn useful not to have one around. I carry the Leatherman Surge with me almost 24/7, except when I know I’m going through airport or federal building security. The blades on it are just about long enough to qualify as a felony if carried in a federal facility.

Going Aloft

I generally won’t go aloft on a boat that I’m a complete stranger to, unless the rig is vouched for by someone I know and trust. Also, I doubt most owners would let you go up the rig given the liability issues if the rig should fail and you get injured. Finally, many boats are on the hard when up for sale, and going aloft on the hard is a really, really bad idea IMHO.

That is why I recommend taking photos of the rig from the ground. The amount of detail you can pull off of a 8-10 MP image nowadays is astounding, even if the camera only has a fairly short focal length lens.

Moisture Meters

Please note this section was actually written by my friend Maine Sail, and is an abridged version of an article off his boat work website. Any errors in this section are probably mine.

If you are in the market for a 10k+ vessel do yourself a favor and invest in a moisture meter. It will pay for its self the first time you use it and rule out a boat!!

Surveys run $600+, moisture meters are $169. If you found a boat you really loved but the surveyor came out and found moisture your out $600 if you do your own “checking” you can rule out many boats safely without a survey and with each boat you rule out die to severe moisture the meter costs less and less until it’s free!

Please do NOT listen to the naysayers like David Pascoe on this subject. He is a surveyor who DOES NOT want you to own a meter. He uses scare tactics and discuses how “difficult” it is to use one. That is complete BUNK! Using a meter, to a level where you can rule out a boat with severely wet decks, takes about a half hour to learn! More accurate and detailed use takes more time but that is not what you are after in this stage.

Trust me he and his cohorts WANT to survey three or four boats for you before you find one to buy. My buddy Eric surveyed five boats before finding one in salable condition. He spent over 2k in surveys. He could have ruled at least four of these boats out, if not all five, with about a half hours worth of reading and a $300 meter saving $1700.00….

I use an Electrophysics CT33 moisture meter. This is basically the SAME EXACT meter as the $325.00 J.R. Overseas GRP33. The only difference I know of are the graphics on the analog display. As long as you don’t mind ordering from a Canadian company you can save HUGE money. The current price for the CT33 is $169.00 plus shipping from Canada. Oh and don’t forget to order the calibration block @ $10.00..

So $169.00 – CT33 Moisture Meter + $10.00 – Calibration block + $9.00 – US Shipping = Total $188.00 Delivered


Electrophysics CT33 Moisture Meter Ordering Information (LINK)

If you want fancier analog graphics $325.00:


Maine Sail says: “when you DIY the tools are FREE!! There is NO excuse for anyone investing more than $10K in a new boat to NOT own a moisture meter..” I agree with him. Owning the right tools makes almost everything you do easier.

Specific Inspection Areas:

#1 Sails & Canvas—If the sails are on board find the UV cover or luff end of the head sail and scratch the threads with your fingernail. If they fail or break the sails need at a minimum re-stitching. If you can find the head board of the main sail, it sees lots of UV as it’s not folded into the sail when flaked do the same here. Do the same for any canvas..

#2 Driveline—On inboard powered boats grab the prop and wiggle it back and forth up and down. If there is any play the cutlass bearing is mostly shot and will need replacement.

#3 Driveline—Inspect the strut, prop shaft (if bronze) and prop for any signs of dezincification. This will appear as areas of discoloration more pinkish or coppery in color as opposed to the gold hue of bronze. A Scotch-brite pad is a good thing to add to the inspection kit as it will allow you to get down to bare bronze.

#4 Rudder—Grab the rudder and move it from side to side and fore and aft. If there is significant play the bearings or bushings may be past prime.

#5 Rudder—Move the rudder by hand from full port to full starboard. If you feel any difference in resistance it could be a bent shaft or steering gear issues.

#6 Steering—Inspect the entire steering gear assembly and look for excess play or “meat hooks” on the steering cable. Make sure the wheel brake works. A broken wheel brake, or one that does not have adequate locking to prevent you from turning the rudder by hand, means the rudder was allowed to move freely at the dock or mooring. This is BAD and adds to unnecessary premature wear and tear on the entire steering system.

#7 Steering—Inspect the rudder stuffing box. You are looking for signs of drips or leaks. They will usually run from the top of the rudder packing gland down and will be green in color if it has a bronze rudder packing gland.

#8 Rudder—Look for any rust colored drips emanating from the rudder. This is a good sign of water intrusion.

#9 Keel—Look for any signs of water seepage or discoloration stains along the keel to hull joint. Leaking keel joints lead to crevice corrosion of the keel bolts and can be a bad situation.

#10 Keel—Look in the bilge for any signs of un-sealed screw holes, possibly left over from a float switch or bilge pump, with brownish rust stains around them. This could mean the boat has a plywood laminated keel stub that has been moisture saturated. If the stub has wood and it’s wet the keel bolts will likely be suffering from a good deal of crevice corrosion.

#11 Keel—Look at the keel bolts and make sure they are no circular stress cracks emanating outward from the backing plates. This is another sign of a rotting and compressing keel stub. Solid fiberglass does not compress enough to create circular stress cracks.

#12 Bulkheads—Using a Awl (please be courteous and do this in an inconspicuous area that can not be seen) poke the areas around the chain plates lightly. If the wood is rotten the Awl will sink in. Do the same around the bottoms of the bulkheads where they meet the bilge.

#13 Glassed in Bulkheads—Inspect all tabbing and make sure NONE of it is peeling or broken free from either the hull or the bulkheads. Do your best to look at the entire mating surface and this will usually require the flashlight and inspection mirror. If you notice any discoloration of the wood lightly poke at it with the Awl. Look for any signs of the teak veneer bubbling or lifting. This is always a red flag for moisture in the bulkheads.

#14 Screwed in Bulkheads—Many production boats used bulkheads that are screwed in place. Make sure the screws are entering at a 90 degree angle to the wood. Screw heads that are cocked or off the 90 degree angle, and if there are more than just the occasional one, are a good indication the bulkhead has been over stressed and has moved. Awl same as above and PLEASE be polite about your use of the Awl!

#15 Deck (Under-side)Do your best to remove anything that will get you to the backing plates of deck hardware. Please do not dismantle the boat! This is only for areas of easy access. If you can unzip a headliner for example, and the zipper does not stick, visually inspect deck penetrations for any signs of “coffee drips”.  Any brownish drips or brownish-colored stains dripping from through-bolted hardware or any holes on the underside of the deck are signs of a seriously deteriorating rotting deck. If you see “coffee drips” in more than one location walk away and find another boat..

#16 Seacocks—Visually inspect the “balls” from outside with a flashlight and look for any signs of corrosion. If they have handles that turn like your hose spigot at home know that they will need to be replaced because they are gate valves. Real seacocks should have handles that turn only vertically to be in-line with the valve and horizontally to be in-line with the hull only. Turn the handles and visually make sure the balls are opening and closing from outside the boat and make sure they turn freely.

#17 Seacocks—Check for a UL Marine rated listing and dezincification (coppery pinkish coloring)

#18 Seacock Backing Blocks—Poke these with the Awl. If they are soft they are wet and will need replacement. The Awl should not “sink in” under light pressure. On many boats, the backing blocks were plywood and in many cases, not epoxy coated—IMHO all plywood backing blocks should be replaced with fiberglass backing blocks.

#19 Hoses—Visually inspect hoses, including exhaust hoses, for any signs of dry rot, cracking or reinforcement wire bleed or break through. If you see rust spots mid hose this is a good sign that the reinforcing wire is rusting inside the hose. Check for double hose clamps at all bellow water fittings. Also check to make sure there is no clear, un-reinforced hose that leads to any through hull fitting.

#20 Seacocks—Check for a UL Marine rated listing and dezincification (coppery pinkish coloring).

#21 Engine—Check the oil and make sure it was recently changed and that it is clean and not black. An owner that puts a boat away, or lists one for sale, with dirty oil, is also an owner that does not maintain the vessel to a good standard!

#22 Engine—If you’ve checked everything else, and are a VERY SERIOUS BUYER, remove the engine/heat exchanger zinc and make sure there actually is one and that it is in good condition. DO NOT do this with the boat in the water and the seacock open and do not do this if you are tire kicking this vessel. Ideally this should be left to the surveyor, but most don’t do this!

#23 Engine—Using a clean white rag run it under the engine any where you can reach. If you find a drip record it in the notebook and jot down its location. Turn the rag to a clean spot and continue. Many owners will spot clean an engine to hide oil leaks. The rag trick usually finds them.

#24 Engine—Wiggle the engine and visually inspect the motor mounts for dry rot or oil degradation. Make sure the motor mounts are still working and not cracked, brittle or rotting.

#25 Engine / Fuel—If the boat is equipped with a fuel/water separator device such as a Racor. Use an empty Coke bottle to crack the petcock and drain off just a touch of fuel. If it is laden with sediment or all you get is water this is a bad sign. Do NOT drain the entire bowl just a quick crack of this petcock will show you what you need to know and won’t require the owner re-bleeding the engine. Be polite and clean up ANY fuel drip with the spray cleaner you brought. Even ONE drop is being impolite and rude diesel stinks!!!

#26 Winches—Rotate the winches and make sure they rotate freely and smoothly. Wiggle them side to side, especially if they are aluminum. There should be NO play in the drum. Any play in an aluminum winch is a good sign that the bearing mating surfaces are worn or corroded due to dissimilar metals corrosion. DO NOT overlook this, winches are big $$$$$$$!

#27 Block/Sheaves—Make sure all blocks and sheaves rotate freely and are not frozen.

#28 Running Rigging—Look for any signs of chafe and wear especially halyards. Scratch the surface of the lines jacket with your fingernail and if threads give way or break it is time for new running rigging.

#29 Portlights—Look for any visible signs of leaking—drips, mold, mildew staining, etc.

#30 Lifelines—Look for rust/corrosion at the fittings and between the white jacket of the wire and the swaged fitting.  Lifelines shouldn’t be replaced with vinyl-covered stainless, but with either bare stainless steel wire rope or a new high-tech fiber-based line, like dyneema or spectra.

Warning Signs:

If the boat owner doesn’t want/allow you to do this… it may be that they are hiding something. A boat owner who is proud of how well kept and maintained his boat is should have no problem allowing you fairly complete access to the boat and its systems.

Walk the Docks:

Once you’ve gone over the boat with a fine tooth comb… walk the docks and talk to the other marina residents. They can often give you a lot of information about the boat.

  • Was it used regularly or was it a dock queen?
  • Did the owner come out to check the lines and fenders before and after a storm?
  • Did the owner have regular maintenance done to the boat?
  • How long has it been for sale?

All this stuff can often be discovered just by being friendly and talking to other people at the boat’s marina.

When you get home:

Put everything aside for a day…and then come back and look at it… this gives your subconscious mind a chance to process what you’ve seen and things that you may have not realized on the initial trip may jump out at you.

If you get a hunch about some equipment or part on the boat, look at your photos and notes about them and see if you can figure out what your subconscious is trying to tell you.

Don’t forget to do a bit of research on the various pieces of equipment you saw on the boat to find what specific problems are common to them.

What to do next:

If you really like what you saw and didn’t come across any glaring warning signs, it is probably time to make the offer. When you make your offer, ask for maintenance records, and make the offer subject to survey and sea trial.

Remember, if you’re married or have a significant other… GET THEIR INPUT. If you don’t, you probably will regret it in the long run.

I hope this helps.

4 Comments for 'Boat Inspection Trip Tips'

    February 2, 2011 | 12:28 pm

    […] Trip Tips post I wrote, which is in the Boat Buying Forum as a sticky and also available on my blog. If not, they're probably a good place to start. The post was written to help sailors eliminate […]

    April 13, 2011 | 2:51 am

    What do you mean “When you make your offer, ask for maintenance records”. Do you get the records before the offer? What if you make the offer and find something you don’t like. What are you looking for in the records? How would you know if the records are complete?

    March 20, 2012 | 7:16 pm

    […] […]

    May 7, 2012 | 7:22 pm

    […] have done a pre-trip inspection with Dale and gone over the boat with a fine-toothed comb. My Boat Inspection Trip Tips checklist would have helped enormously and would probably have caught the issues with the rigging and the […]

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