Car dealers know that getting a shopper to test drive will often "seal the deal," so they encourage it. Boat dealers tend to be stingier about offering test drives since it takes a lot more planning and effort to get a boat ready and in the water. However, boat shoppers legitimately interested in buying should ask about a test drive, if not on "the boat," on one similar to the one they are considering. For used boats, especially those already at a dock, a test drive can provide hands-on information and verify if everything is working as promised by the current owner.
Buyers should also request an introduction session when taking delivery of the boat. More dealers and builders are offering these sessions because they know an operator, new or even experienced, will have a better and safer experience knowing the ropes of the new boat. Greater familiarity with the basic controls and operating systems, standard and optional equipment, location of stowage and other features leads to quick enjoyment and a rudimentary knowledge of how the boat works. Dealer personnel (or the used boat seller) should be available for these "shake downs;" if not, find an experienced operator to handle the assignment the first time setting out.
Overall, boating has a good safety record, but there are three important things boaters can do to dramatically improve safety on the water:
- Wear lifevests (personal flotation devices) ... drownings are by far the primary cause of death on the water and this simple step prevents most of them. While it's especially important for children to wear lifevests, adults won't be able to help them if they are also at risk.
- Designate a driver ... if alcohol is going to be available on board, designate at least one person who understands the operation of the boat to abstain. The Coast Guard indicates upwards of 70% of boating accidents are linked to alcohol misuse.
- Check safe carrying capacity ... Capacities listed on a plate located near the boat's helm will indicate how many people and how much gear (overall weight) can be safely aboard. Overloading leads to capsizing that literally guarantee fatalities.
Gaining boating instruction is recommended by those who are active boaters because they know it enhances their enjoyment of being on the water. Basic boating courses are available from most states and several national boating safety organizations, in-person, in print or on-line. Some allow on-line study and testing and will issue a safety certificate as evidence of completion of their course. Instruction in sophisticated systems such as electronics, and navigation skills for those venturing offshore, is also widely available. Search the web for offerings, check with local dealers or consult the Yellow Pages for groups or firms that offer instruction.