Sights and sounds of customers' questions, and the proud dealer showing his wares, creating the energy of deals being made, and families imagining themselves cruising down the waterway with the wind in their hair. But as the shows wind down, it becomes decision time.
I would like to concentrate on perhaps the most difficult choice; but potentially the choice offering the best value--- that being the purchase of a used boat. Mostly this will pertain to outboard powered vessels, but some of the information works across the board. Also this is intended for both first time buyers/boaters , and experienced folks who've already perhaps bought and sold some boats. So let's get started!
Perhaps the most important thing to understand when contemplating used boats is, aside from a few exceptions , likely 50 to 75% of your boating dollar is buying the motor. That guy hanging off the back, doing the work, is one amazing piece of engineering, and most folks don't get any kind of breakdown of these costs when those in the business talk about "boat, motor, trailer" packages.
I cannot begin to say how many broken spirited (potential) boaters that I've had to inform that their used boat they just bought will require thousands of dollars to rebuild a damaged outboard; or worse, tell them that given the value, condition, and quality of their purchase, it simply isn't worth putting that kind of money into a blown motor. This happens every spring, it's frustrating for all parties, and is quite simply, completely avoidable. Outboard motors are amazing machines, but by their design, they can fool the uneducated ,and even some mechanically savvy folks. By the time I see these unfortunate buyers, the sequence of events had gone something like this:
They saw a neat looking, center console while driving through the country and stopped to check it out. The seller seems like a nice enough guy, and your gut tells you he/she isn't trying to take advantage of you. You looked the boat over meticulously , and the guy even started the outboard using a water hose (flush adapter) , and the motor fired right up, sounded great! You make the deal, and on your first trip to the lake, the motor starts right up for you also BUT, when you shift into a gear, the motor stalls out. You restart, over and over, and the same result occurs. It sounds OK, probably just a fouled plug, or the idle needs turned up, you bring it to a technician, and you get one depressing phone call soon thereafter. It seems your motor has a "scored" piston/cylinder, it needs to be completely torn down, machined, and new piston(s), rings, seals, and all other parts required for a full rebuild. But it started and ran ,you say-it can't be blown up! Well, actually, yes, it can be blown and still run (albeit poorly), and no , turning up the idle isn't going to help the stalling issue, because one or more of the engine's pistons is damaged, cannot make compression, and thus can do no work.
Lesson one: running an outboard in neutral, on a garden hose tells one little to nothing concerning the condition/ health of said motor. The ONLY ways to measure the compression of internal combustion motors is either a compression test (this used to be the standard test, but most sharp techs today know some outboards can have scored cylinders and pass compression testing) OR a cylinder leak down test. That involves holding the rotating assembly to top dead center of the cylinder being tested, pumping in a given amount of compressed air, and watching gauges that show how much of that air leaks off-meaning piston rings have failed, a head gasket has failed, or a piston and cylinder wall is damaged and no longer have clearance to maintain compression; if said cylinder cannot retain about 90% of the pressure put in. Be weary if the seller makes a big deal about how good the compression numbers are. It may be fine, but again, this test is not 100% definitive. Plus there are plenty of other very expensive assemblies on the machine.
You are rolling the dice if you buy any boat without a thorough on water test. It should be said, in fairness to the roadside seller; there is an extremely high probability he/she doesn't know this information about the motor he's run for years, either. In fact, he may have already increased the idle speed to compensate the stalling issue, thinking he solved the problem. But be very weary if said seller won't allow a real test run. They may know their little secret will show itself once the outboard is loaded , or shifted into a gear; causing the motor to work.
Here is about how a shakedown test run on the water should go, more or less. (Technology in autos and marine motors is today pretty complex, so no one rule applies to all outboards; so we'll try to set some wider rules of thumb).
If the outboard is in proper state of repair, these things should happen:
The motor should start within a few seconds of engaging the starter motor. EFIs , Carb motors, DFIs, and even 4 strokes were never designed to need endless minutes of grinding on a starter. If this isn't the case, there are 2 possibilities: something is malfunctioning on the outboard, OR the owner doesn't understand his machine well enough to start it properly--an extremely common scenario!
Next, given enough time to warm up, an outboard should never stall when put into gear, period. It is that simple. Can one adjust the idle up (this can't be done with newer fuel injected motors because the computer controls that function) to solve the problem? Maybe. But think about it. Did some outboard gremlin crawl into your motor and start turning screws and cams, knocking the motor out of idle balance? These settings are mechanical, they don't change unless some human changes them.
If all good so far, the outboard should get the boat on plane in a reasonable amount of time, without prolonged "plowing", or running with the bow (front) straight up in the air, struggling to get the boat up onto it's planing attitude. No odd noises or excessive smoke, or bucking or missing should occur.
And the gauge you should be watching is the tachometer. This measurement of the outboard crankshaft amount of revolutions in ratio to throttle needs is THE most vital information you'll need to learn. For instance, the "idle speed" for outboards is mostly measured with the boat on the water, running in forward gear, with no throttle applied. The RPMs as they're referred to; typically range from 600 to 800. There is no spec for a motor idling out of the water, running in neutral. Again ,that worthless hose pipe demonstration comes into play.
As for high to full throttle RPMs, and this spec is fairly universal (until one gets into insane high performance outboards turning in excess of 10,000 revs!) so with the boat trimmed correctly and loaded within allowable spec; it should fall between 5 to 6000 RPM. Four stroke and 2 stroke outboards max out around this amount. If the motor is way off this spec, it could, and often does mean, the motor isn't propped correctly. But it could also mean the motor isn't healthy if prop pitch is correct. Outboard motors above 25 hp do NOT come with props. Outboards (and inboard/outboards) require the motors to be run at full throttle on water to determine the correct prop for the application. And while propping is a science in itself, just remember, the outboard could be sold and rigged for any of a thousand boat configurations, so it goes to reason that manufacturers are not going to sell the motor with some educated guess for a prop. The prop fit is the job of the selling dealer and to a degree; the boat builder; and there are calculations needed to be made with the boat running full throttle on water to determine correct prop pitch. AGAIN the zero value of that pesky water hose neutral running outboard "demo", comes into play for you, the potential buyer.
With all this being said, after the on water test, the next logical step should then be to take the rig to a good tech, tell him/her all the data mentioned above that you've quietly and wisely collected; and have the boat , or least the motor(s) inspected for current and future service required, and the costs thereof. If you have done your homework and paid attention on the test run; by passing your information to the tech, you'll save some serious money on the inspection (he likely doesn't need to test run it again if your data is within spec.) And said tech should be able to advise concerning the cost vs. return on investment should you end up purchasing. But remember cost, the value, and peace of mind you'll have with this boat purchase ONLY works if you (or your trusted tech if necessary) follow the order of actions, and put the boat on water, and have a tech survey the rig.
Unfortunately, too many of my clients reverse the order; they purchase, test run, and then have us tell them the whats, the whys, and the how much to repair they'll require to safely use a boat that will often then leave a bitter taste in their mouth every time they use it.Thus we have a prime example of a first time buyer who quickly becomes a last time boater. It needn't happen that way.