Fall is the favorite time of year for many people, and for boat owners, it comes with mixed feelings. True, it signals the end of the summer season. For PNW boaters, the fall doesn’t necessarily mean the end of boating, but it does mean other things begin to take priority, and the weather is not always good for cruising. Cold and rain are just around the corner (as are hot-buttered rum drinks and cozy sweaters).

For most boaters around the country, fall is all about next season’s boat shows, beginning on the East Coast with a show for New Englanders in Rhode Island, then the circuit works its way south to Florida that continues into early next year. The West Coast and the Midwest have their own show schedules.

Most boat and equipment manufacturers plan major announcements around the fall shows, with new models and products that promise to advance the boating experience to be better, safer, and more family friendly. The excitement is felt by everyone.

Most boaters I know look forward to attending at least one of the fall shows, even if that means a flight or two from another part of the country. If a builder will debut its latest 42-foot cruiser at the Ft. Lauderdale show late November, people will come from all over to see it in person. It has been that way for years.

Whatever your motivation, if one of these shows is on your calendar, I have some advice. If you are actively looking to purchase your next boat, don’t just show up at the show. Get your mind around your search well ahead of time and come prepared to get the most out of the show, despite having to endure potentially long lines and throngs of tire kickers that come to every show.

Even if you come seriously ready to put down a deposit, you can’t expect unlimited access during the show. You may have to set up an appointment before or after normal show hours, but even then, access will be limited as there are no doubt others also interested in the boat. The logistics of the show environment make it somewhat difficult for a broker to satisfy everyone’s needs during the show, so be prepared to flexibly work around these constraints. Don’t worry though, most brokers will bend over backwards to accommodate you and your family.

For the rest of us, we may have a short list of boats we are considering and hope to use the show to narrow the list down to one or two for future followup with the dealer or manufacturer. If that is your case, there is still a lot that can be done to prepare you during the congested show experience to get the most out of your time and effort.

For most all boats in the show, especially if they are new and exciting models, expect lines of people queuing up to get their chance to go aboard…as groups of four to eight people rotate their way through the boat. It is just not possible to allow individuals to tour a boat by themselves when there are dozens waiting their turn. Accept that.

(Below: The Seattle Yachts Fort Lauderdale team at last year's Palm Beach Boat Show.)

fort lauderdale team at palm beach show 

That doesn’t mean you should just waste the time in line, spending your time people watching or having small talk with your spouse. Take advantage of the “dock” time to look closely at the exterior of the boat and see if it fits what you’re looking for.

Watch the boarding process. How easy is it to get aboard? Many show layouts have boats side to on floating or fixed docks. How are the brokers managing people coming aboard? If the boat’s stern is at the dock, with its swim platform next to the dock, do people need assistance to get aboard? Are the brokers using small step stools on the swim platforms to help people transition from the dock onto the swim platform and then into the cockpit?

Is there a gate in the side deck into the cockpit or side deck? Spend the time to watch and understand the boat’s entry points given this dock situation. Will that work for you? I immediately think of an older person, often a woman and somewhat out of shape, needing help from one or two brokers on the boat to get her aboard given her unsteady balance.

Is that going to be a problem for you when you don’t have extra hands to assist the boarding process?

Can you envision bringing your dog on the boat? Most everyone assumes these days there is a transom door to get the dog on and off the dinghy. What about when you are at the dock? How would you do that? If there is a small side gate into the cockpit, you are in luck, if the docks you visit allow you to use this access and you can bring your boat close enough to the edge of the dock. Some younger dogs are more athletic than others when it comes to jumping through a small door from a dock that is three feet away. Mine have gone swimming more than once, no matter how tight I bring the boat into the dock.

(Below: Most boat shows won't allow pets inside so you'll have to gauge for yourself how your pet will do on board.)

dogs at boat show

And what to do when there is no gate of any kind, again something one can observe while standing in line? What if the high bulwarks on the side decks and cockpit mean you might have to lift your dog over this structure onto the boat, and conversely off the boat. (That is not easy with a 63-lb retriever mix with a torn ACL and leg brace, such as our Annie now.) Will there be another person to assist on the other side? And remember, the dog will be coming and going several times a day, no matter where your boat is anchored or moored.

Much of the same issues are relevant when dealing with a spouse who has arthritis and is not in the best physical shape. It has pained me at past boat shows to watch the difficulties of getting such a person on the boat, with the help of several people. How is that going to affect your boating experience, especially if they are not into the dream as you much as you are?

All these access issues can become problems later, so it is best to notice it now and discuss this with your broker. Perhaps he or she has found workarounds over the years that solve the issues.

As you inch your way closer in position in the line, does the boat have a wide side deck on the starboard side only, which indicates it is an asymmetrical deck layout? That is a very useful and meaningful compromise between interior space and deck functionality.

Can you see details of the side decks from the dock? You will most likely not be in the same frame of mind when you are aboard and juggling position with a half-dozen other people to notice such details.

Do you see deck fills, midship cleats, and whether there is unobstructed passage along the side decks? (Sailboats with standing rigging in the center of the side deck come to mind, as do raised cleats on trawlers that will catch one’s feet at some point.)

Are the shorepower connections at the bow or in the cockpit, or both? Notice the lifelines and other handrails on the exterior. Will they help getting on and off the boat, or moving around on deck?

There is one major item that is too important to ignore. What about the dinghy? Is there a design feature that accommodates storing, launching, and retrieving the dinghy? Do not downplay its importance on a cruising boat. If the dinghy is an afterthought, whatever makeshift solution you later come up with will be a constant thorn in your side.

(Below: If you're going cruising, a boat with a davit can make a huge difference in easily going ashore.)

cruising yacht with davit  

Now it is our turn to get on the boat. Shoes come off to stay on the dock, a silly practice for those wearing boat shoes. I have seen some magnificent falls of people wearing socks on the slippery interior flooring of a new boat. You’re going on a boat wearing boat shoes, what’s the problem?

When you step aboard, is there something to grab onto? Whether stepping into a cockpit or onto a side deck, this is a big one for me. Anyone with balance issues will experience a split second of terror as they transition from the security of the dock to the reassuring surface of the cockpit or side deck. It is much better to have a hand on the boat when stepping aboard. Several popular builders have noticed the need for this and added beefy grab rails for anyone making this leap of faith so one has a firm hand on the boat throughout the boarding process.

The need for grab rails has also motivated several builders and owners to install staple rails on a boat’s swim platform. While it may be the ticket for secure stepping onto the boat from a dock, these staple rails will more than pay for themselves in the sense of security they provide every day when using the dinghy. Use them once and there will never be a question about their importance on a cruising powerboat, even if not a traditional trawler.

These next comments about viewing the interior must be read with the understanding that there will be numerous people milling around on the boat waiting for their turn to go inside. They may be chatting with the broker assigned to crowd control, or maybe they are just discussing the cockpit features. No matter, they are in queue to see the boat’s interior that is already crowded with people.

So, don’t expect any critical inspection beyond casual observation when going inside. But that is okay, as it will still provide information that can help you decide if this is a valid contender for your next cruising boat.

Remember, the goal is to weed out boats that won’t work for you, with saloon settees that are too short to sleep on, for example. The saloon/galley area that is just inside the cockpit is usually full of people during a show, so get beyond that as soon as possible and, on a trawler, go to the inside helm or pilothouse. How are the sight lines fore and aft? Is there enough helm real estate for your preferred electronics, as well as cell phone, binoculars, handheld VHF, and coffee cup?

What about seating for others near the helm? Can anyone else in the helm area participate with the cruise, or are they just along for the ride? Is there a place for them to follow progress in a chart book or cruising guide, with similar views out the windows as the person at the helm? Whether it is on a Ranger Tug or Endurance 64, cruising is a shared experience, and it is important for both people to share what goes on from day to day. That is hard if the other person is stuck at the saloon table on a small boat. Running a Downeast cruiser or tug yacht with side-by-side helm chairs and a chart table across from the navigation helm is fabulous and a favorite layout on that style cruising boat. Bring on the Great Loop!

(Below: Nimbus Boats are great for cruising. The captain has side decks, a helm door, and an aft docking station to make it easy.)

nimbus boats

Speaking of the Great Loop, if your plans include any lock systems, can the person at the wheel casually step outside to handle lock lines, perhaps with a midship cleat right outside the door?

It is very unlikely, in my experience, to expect to see even a quick glimpse of a trawler’s engine room during a boat show. Or more that a quick second or two of the en-suite head. If you think the boat is worth a serious second look after the obligatory three-minute interior boat show tour, make an appointment with a broker to schedule a personal tour or even a sea trial (usually the week after the show.)

If you happen to get lucky and get a glance of the engine room during a boat show fly-by, are there any details that indicate access to such things as the fuel filters?

I think you get the point here of how best to maximize your time at a boat show. You can begin to develop a relationship with the company’s team of brokers, and hopefully one person will strike you as the right person to help you find the right boat, whether it is this new one or not. It is the beginning of a process, and it should be a most enjoyable experience.

Thankfully, the boat manufacturers are all back in business, and while supply chain issues linger, now is a great time to upgrade to a new boat. Technology is helping create some truly remarkable boats that satisfy virtually anyone’s ideas of the ideal cruiser.

It is a great time to enter the cruising world.

See you at the shows.


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