In many areas around the country, spring is about renewal, and time for the local boat shows. While some of the larger shows, such as the Palm Beach Boat Show, have corporate and manufacturer presence, most of the booths one finds at the local shows are manned by local dealers, who share what inventory they have, or the products they sell and/or service. People find these events a great way to get answers, see what’s new, and prepare to get back on the water.

I always find it interesting to work a spring show, particularly if I am stationed on one of the boats. It is fascinating to watch people as they walk through the boat. Most do a quick look around before they step onto the next one, repeating the cycle until they have “done” the show. Then it is time for a late lunch or a drink to end the fun day.

Less common are the people who are really focused as they move about the boat. You can see it in their faces. They are tuned in to the moment, perhaps looking for subtle details that are on their list to watch out for. It might be a centerline overhead handrail to see if she can reach, or a galley counter that is situated just so, to lean against when the boat is moving at all angles.

The rest of the folks have their wide-angle vision on, taking it all in. They are looking without really seeing, if you know what I mean. They aren’t paying attention to things that would be important if they were seriously considering this boat.

I am not making any judgements here. Many come to the spring shows simply to ease back into boating mode, and to step aboard as many boats as possible to see what is new or different.

If there is one piece of advice I might offer those looking for a potential new boat: focus ahead of time on the things to check out as you go from boat to boat. Things that are important to you. The “boat show shuffle” may be a relaxed way to take it all in, but not for the serious buyer.


Get Aboard

I have mentioned many times the importance of boarding access when it comes to looking at boats. During a boat show, with all the frenetic activity going on, one might miss that some boats are just not easy to get aboard. Stand on the dock and watch how other people get on and off the boat. How about when you have your dog with you? Or young kids?

How about getting onto the boat from the swim platform? Is there something to grab to assist in the boarding?

Older sailboat designs, such as the distinctive canoe stern sailboats like Valiant, or those from Pacific Seacraft and Hans Christian, do not have dedicated places to board, and often carry a set of teak folding steps that must be rigged to get on and off the boat. Is this something you want to deal with long term? Newer boats, such as those from Jeanneau, Beneteau, and Hanse, are considerably more boarding friendly.

(Below: Boarding a Hanse has become easier and safer.)

boarding a hanse sailboat

Many sailboats have midship lifeline gates with a special step plate to provide firm footing when stepping aboard. That is great for athletic people, not so for old people and those with mobility issues if that first step is a big one. A center cockpit sailboat like a Hallberg-Rassy comes to mind that requires a healthy step up onto the boat, which is not a big deal if there is something solid to grab onto, such as a thick stainless steel bimini frame.

Many trawlers and cruising motorboats have side gates and doors to assist getting aboard, as well as easily accessed swim platforms. Notice them as you walk the show.


On Deck

Once on the boat, how easy is it to move about? The covered side decks of many trawler yachts are about as easy as one can expect, and some of the newer sailboat designs provide wide side decks with all standing rigging out of the way. They will be easy to live with all season long. Compare that to sailboats where moving around the deck involves negotiating around standing rigging, tracks, and deck hardware. I love sailboats that sail well, but I am also wary of such land mine-rich deck layouts. I want to be able to adjust sails, set a whisker pole, or even make it safely to the bow to anchor late in the day when visibility is reduced. Deck obstacles jump out at me during a boat show because I am “in the zone” to notice them every time I step aboard a new boat.

Seriously, if you must dodge, duck, and zigzag moving from bow to stern to avoid tripping while at the dock, imagine how much fun that will be when you are sailing along, heeled over in wind and seas. No thank you!

If it is a cruising sailboat, has the builder made provision for a dodger, or will it conflict with visibility and proper operation of winches mounted on the cabin top? If one can only crank a winch part way to raise the main halyard once a dodger is installed, that will make for a very unhappy sailor!

(It amazes me that builders and designers don’t allow for a dodger on a boat clearly intended for cruising. The same is true about safely carrying a dinghy. It is always an afterthought. This is true on both sailboats and powerboats.)

(Below: Tartan does an excellent job of incorporating a dodger into their design.)

dodger on tartan sailboat

Is there enough storage for deck gear, fenders, and lines? How about the gas tank for the outboard?

Are there adequate attachment points for fenders along the side decks? (Sounds like a silly question, I know, but you will be surprised how often there are not.)


Down Below

Once inside the boat, it is highly unlikely you’ll have the opportunity to move or lift furniture or get behind cushions to have a better look. You also won’t be able to gain access to the raw water seacock, stuffing box, or the water pump to the freshwater system. Raising floorboards is typically verboten during a boat show, as it impedes the flow of traffic.

But there are other things…

Imagine coming into the interior, totally soaked in foul weather gear, no matter whether on a sailboat or a powerboat. Unless the boat has a covered cockpit or some other protected space, where you can shed the foulies, you will drip water all over the interior as you take off whatever layers of soaked clothing. I often wonder about this, as being out in weather seems like a normal part of boating. Whether on a tug yacht, sailboat, or trawler, going below or stepping inside when it is pouring rain is definitely going to happen, and how can you avoid dripping on those expensive pillows your wife insists on bringing along. (If you attend a show on a rainy day, you’ll see how brokers would almost rather you pass them by, as a wet interior is unfortunately unavoidable when a steady stream of people comes aboard.)

Keep in mind that cruising is an all-weather event. In addition to the rain that comes in when a door is open, when a powerboat’s pilothouse doors are mounted at deck level, there is often nothing keeping the water from running through the door frame and into the boat. Having towels on the floor to deal with puddles of water coming in from the side decks is not a solution, especially when the sole is beautiful varnished teak and holly. Things can get slippery.


How About Spray?

For those looking at Downeast cruisers, tug yachts, or anything along the lobster boat theme, there is yet another angle to consider. When seated at the helm, there will be times you would love to have that big side window or door open for ventilation as you run along at 15 knots or more. It is delightful to have fresh breeze coming in, especially on a beautiful day. With the back door open as well, it is like riding in a convertible with the top down. Life at its best!

However, some of these boats are known to be wet when running at certain angles to the wind, causing spray to pummel that side of the boat. That makes it impossible to keep open a window or door, or even an overhead hatch, as it will soak everything, including you.

Many times we’d run in flat calm at 15 knots, yet I had to keep the boat buttoned up because of salt spray. During the summer that necessitated running the air conditioning, which also meant running the generator. That was not how I dreamed it would be…

There may not be anything you can do about it on some boats, so just be aware of this. A nice big overhead hatch may seem like a fine thing in your mind, but if you discover you can’t use it most of the time when running the boat, what is the point?

Speaking of spray, I am a big advocate of RainX. Huge fan. Wipers work up to a point, although they often streak across the windows unless they frequently spray fresh water on the window and the wiper blades fit perfectly flat on the window surface. Often, they don’t, so windshield wipers strike me as a somewhat imperfect solution on some cruising powerboats, when the helm is close to the water. I grew tired of being forced to look through narrow swipes of clear across a windshield. And most of my experiences were on boats with premium Exalto wiper systems.

(Below: YouTuber films a summer shower from his pilothouse boat, showing how effective RainX is.)

Long ago, I found that religiously applying RainX completely eliminates the need for wipers, to the point that I might dispense with them altogether. When Steve and I arrived in Bermuda after more than six days crossing 650+ miles of open ocean on our Willard 30, the windows were perfectly clear, and I mean absolutely crystal clear and clean. The side and other windows and ports (which were not treated) were filthy, slimy, and offered opaque visibility at best. Only a thorough wash down made them clean again.

Here is another important consideration for the power cruising crowd. As you walk through a trawler or other cruiser, stop for a second at the helm and look around. How is the visibility around you?

That might be important if you are short handed and need to back into a slip. It is hard to safely “back and fill” when you are blind.


Does the Layout Work?

Does the boat offer dedicated dining space, or will you be seated on settees at the saloon table? Some boats lend themselves to enjoying meals together in the pilothouse. That is great and I’ve had many fond memories of the crew together in the pilothouse at mealtime.

Unfortunately, on some boats, even big ones that cost millions, it is all but impossible to safely bring food, plates, glasses, cutlery, and drinks up to the pilothouse while under way. Steep steps up to that level require one hand on the boat to stay steady. Juggling one-handed food service is downright ridiculous to me. (The Fleming 55, by contrast, has a brilliant solution as it comes with a dumb waiter in the galley to fit all the above in a tray easily accessed from the flybridge, eliminating any balancing issues.)

(Below: The Fleming dumbwaiter sends drinks from the galley to the flybridge.)

dumbwaiter on fleming yacht 

Can you stretch out on the saloon settees when you want to sleep on them? I’m not talking about sleeping as on an overnight passage, although that may be true, but rather just a quiet afternoon and you feel like a nap. How about the watch berth in the pilothouse if it has one? While many boats in a show have signs asking people not to sit on furniture, perhaps a friendly broker will allow a quick moment to stretch out to answer the question.

As I mentioned, it is unlikely that you will have the opportunity to pull things apart inside the boat and its systems. Things are just too busy for such activity, however important. (And why you should make an appointment to follow up after the show if you are even slightly interested.)


One Last Thing

It is perfectly okay to go cruising on just about any boat. Be realistic and find a boat that fits most of your needs (and perhaps no more) and go cruising.

The worse thing you can do is rob yourself of fun and adventure because you’ve convinced yourself that the only boat perfect for your adventure remains out of reach, so your dream will never happen.