When buying a brand new yacht you can expect a demonstration sail or sea trial, providing the dealer has that model of boat available. However, it’s important not to fall into the temptation of sitting back and just enjoying the sail. You will have a limited amount of time to gain an impression as to whether the boat will behave as expected and suit your requirements when underway. And all the time you’ll be accompanied by an experienced salesman whose commission depends on reassuring you the boat is exactly what you want. For powerboaters, see: how to conduct the perfect powerboat sea trial.

Test sails and sea trials

Make sure you use the limited time on a boat demo sail to good effect.

On the other hand, if you’re planning to buy a second-hand boat it’s important to realise that you’re unlikely to have any opportunity to sail the vessel on which you make an offer, apart from a sea trial, which is only a quick outing to check that all the equipment is operating correctly. Nevertheless, there are ways in which astute buyers can gain information about specific models of yacht – and in many cases even sail one – before starting the search for a boat.

How to test sail a brand new yacht

There are four major areas you should concentrate on when taking a brand new yacht for a test sail:

1. On deck

Is the deck gear laid out so that it’s easy to operate in key manoeuvres? It’s only through actually tacking, reefing and easing the mainsheet for a gust – or to bear away around an obstruction – that you will get a feel for how well the boat is set up. If there’s time, do each manoeuvre a few times as it gets easier the more familiar you become with the particular boat. If you don't have much experience of different deck gear set-ups, see: Easier sail handling: 5 steps to a better deck layout.

Close quarters manoeuvres during sea trials

New boat sales people can easily give a misleading impression of how easy a boat is to handle in a tight space, so sea trials can be very helpful.

2. Under way

Is the cockpit comfortable with the boat well heeled and would you feel safe and secure there on a rough day? What about the helm position? Do you have a reasonably good view forward when steering, or is it badly compromised by an overly large spray hood or genoa?

One interesting test is to set the boat up sailing efficiently on a close hauled course and then try to bear away from the wind without releasing the sheets. Traditional designs with narrow sterns and small rudders tend not to be good at this, but their well balanced hull shape means that even in strong gusts the boat will tend to continue in a straight line, without rounding up into the wind. However, on a wide beam yacht with a broad transom, if the rudder stalls readily without the boat appreciably changing course this will suggest you’re sailing close to the edge of control. For a more in-depth look at how the rudder and rigging affect sailing performance, see steering in strong winds.

3. Below decks

You should have already identified that the general layout suits your needs, but it’s important to get an impression of how well the interior works at sea. A disappointingly large number of boats lack enough decent hand-holds in the interior – can you and your family get around safely when the boat is well heeled and bouncing over waves? Similarly, without high fiddles on the edges of galley worktops, the navigation table, saloon table and so on, then items are all too liable to slide into a mess on the floor.

Can the heads be used with the boat well heeled? A large compartment looks great at boat shows and in a marina, but that’s not much consolation if there’s no way to brace yourself in position at sea. Are there any decent sea berths? Even if you have no intention of sailing on overnight passages, on a wet, lumpy day sometimes the only way to prevent a seasick crew member becoming hypothermic is to put them in a secure bunk. as

4. Close quarters handling

How easy it is to handle the boat in close quarters? This is a key question for many buyers. During a new-boat demo sail the dealer will nearly always make a point of showing how easy the boat is to manoeuvre. However, it’s important to realise that marina berthing is a major element of their job, so it would be surprising if they made a hash of it, whatever the boat or, within reason, however challenging the conditions.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the boat may handle in a very different way to the boats to which you’ve been accustomed in the past. For instance, many recent boats with sail drives do not turn sharply when forward power is applied with the helm hard over. However, they also tend to steer in reverse far more reliably than their forebears, which often obviates the need to turn around in a tight space. To brush up on your manoeuvring technique, see: 12 common boat manoeuvring errors.

Used boat trials

Sea trials are not a part of the normal procedure for buying a used boat, however, there are other ways to lean whether a particular model of boat will be suitable for you.

How to test sail a second-hand yacht

When buying a used boat, whether through a broker or directly from a private owner, you’re very unlikely to have any opportunity to try the boat out to see if you like it – that’s research you need to do in advance of searching for a boat. Nevertheless, it’s not unusual to make an offer contingent on a satisfactory survey and sea trial. It’s important to understand that this is not an opportunity to check out whether the boat is one that suits your needs – instead it’s for a surveyor and/or marine engineer to check all aspects of the boat that can’t be properly assessed while tied to the dock.

So how do you get to figure out which used boat will suit your needs best? Fortunately there are a number of legitimate ways of doing this, so there’s no need to be an old salt who has sailed dozens of different designs to be sure of choosing the right boat.

It’s certainly worth checking whether any sea schools or charter companies operate boats of models that you’re considering. A weekend spent on board can be a very worthwhile investment that will give you a much better insight than any quick demo sail could provide. In the case of a sea school boat you can also question the instructor about his or her experience of the vessel, which may be extensive.

Owners’ associations are also often very helpful – many owners are happy to chat at length about their pride and joy and will also be happy to answer specific questions. If you’re lucky and get on well with an owner that has ample spare time you may be able to visit a boat of the model that you’re contemplating buying, and potentially even have a short sail.

Similarly, if you join a sailing or yacht club you’ll be able to talk to – and potentially even sail with – owners (or indeed former owners) of a wide range of different craft. You can again garner a lot of useful info from this, although it’s important to distinguish between owners with strong opinions who spend most of their time in a boat yard, or enjoying afternoon tea on board, from those whose knowledge is primarily informed through time at sea.

However, your first move should be to check out whether there are any reviews or tests of the boats that you are considering amongst the hundreds published on boats.com. Don't miss our feature on how to inspect a second-hand boat before buying or Boat surveys: an essential guide.

Seller's guide to arranging a sea trial

For brokerage sales, the sea trial should only go ahead once an offer price is agreed upon and a deposit has been paid by the potential buyer. This is to deter time-wasters and joy-riders. Owners may benefit from reading the following list of tips, however, if there is a broker involved, most of this can be covered by them.

Top tips for successful sea trials

  1. If your boat is stored out of the water or has not been used recently, take your own test ride first to make sure everything is operating correctly.

  2. Keep the additional “riders” to a minimum.

  3. Choose a protected location, unless the buyer specifically requests open water.

  4. Give the buyer a chance to look things over before getting underway.

  5. Offer the buyer a chance to steer, assuming he or she has demonstrated boating experience.

  6. Show off the boat’s best features, but don’t highlight any known negative aspects.

  7. Answer all questions positively and honestly.

Unless other arrangements are made up front, the seller should expect to cover any expenses associated with a sea trial. And at all times, remember that you are in charge. If you do turn over command, remain close by in case of an emergency.

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Written by: Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.