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10 Signs Of Top Notch Boat Construction

Before you lay down your hard-earned cash for a new boat, be sure to check for these 10 signs of quality boat construction.

Whether you’re looking at a small center console like a 15-foot Whaler, a mid-sized boat like a Defiance or a big center console yacht like the Grady-White Canyon 456, one thing is for sure: you want to make sure you buy a high-quality boat. And while some things are easy to assess with your eyes, other aspects of boat construction often go unnoticed. You want to be dang sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck? Then the next time you check out a new fishing boat, be sure to look for these 10 signs of top-notch boat construction.

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Naturally, before you sign on the dotted line you’ll want to know that the new boat you’re considering was built with quality in mind.

High-Quality Hatches – Open every hatch on the boat, to see if it’s finished on both sides. Then check the hinges and make sure they’re as beefy as you’d like. Every hatch should swing up easily, with the help of a gas-assist strut when appropriate. Deduct points for spring-struts, which often get damaged when new crewmembers don’t understand how they work and try to force the hatch closed. As far as latches go, look for stainless-steel as opposed to plastic and ensure they dog down tightly. We also like raised lips and recessed gutters for those hatches to mate with, made more effective at preventing water intrusion with the addition of a gasket.

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These hatches – found on a Grady-White 336 center console – are a great example of quality in every way.

Anchor Locker Assessment – Many people buy a boat without ever looking in the anchor locker, which is a big mistake. Actually, merely swinging open the hatch and taking a quick peek is a mistake, too – whenever possible you should reach in with an arm holding a flashlight, then stuff your entire shoulder and head inside. It may be uncomfortable (tip: you can also use a mirror on a telescopic arm) but the view will be illuminating, since this is somewhere a builder never expects anyone to look. Accordingly, this area is almost always unfinished and leaves an exposed view of the hull-to-deck joint. Are chemical adhesive/sealants like Plexus or 5200 thoroughly gooped in around the seam? Good. Do you see screws poking through, instead of through-bolts? Decent, but not quite as good. Can you see any daylight coming through a gap in the joint? Bad. Do you see wires up here, leading to your running lights? If so, are they well-loomed and secured, or do they droop in such a way that the fluke of a Danforth might one day snag them?

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What type of pump will be relied upon, to get rid of the gory mess left behind after a successful day of fishing?

Fishbox Foibles – Did the builder install macerators, or diaphragm pumps to evacuate belowdecks fishboxes? Macerators tend to burn out a whole lot faster. Also look to make sure the hatch seals well (again, a gasket is helpful) and is either cored or insulated to help chill the catch. Speaking of insulation, be sure to knock against the liner and make sure there’s foam behind that fiberglass.

Under the Gunwales – Few fishboat builders bother to finish under the gunwales, because few buyers ever bother to lay down on the deck and look up underneath them. Use the opportunity to inspect backing plates (aluminum or phenolic plates are great, Starboard or similar polyboard is good, and plywood is better than nothing). You may also spot courtesy lights under there, so glance around and make sure the wires are well loomed and supported.

Help at the Helm – When it comes to helm stations, the key to checking for quality is often in looking from behind. Some helms tilt back and some are accessed from inside the console or cabin. Either way, here’s another spot where it’s critical to look at wires and wiring. Are they well loomed and supported? Are connections protected by heat-shrinks? Did the builder use Deutsch plug connectors, which are water- and shock-proof?

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You can tell a lot more about how well a boat is built looking behind the helm, as opposed to looking at it from in front.

Perusing the Bilge – As yet another place where the sun don’t shine, many builders do some cost-cutting in the bilge. The number of items you may or may not spot down here is virtually countless: can you see the back of the livewell, and did they insulate it with spray-in foam? Are the hoses double-clamped? Do all the through-hulls have seacocks? Are they easily accessible? Are there anti-siphon loops installed in the pump outlet hoses? Is the bilge itself gel-coated and fully finished so it will be easier to clean up? The list goes on and on – the important thing is that you get below deck level, and spend a lot of time down there looking around with a critical eye.

Watch the Welds – Welds on T-tops and rails can be another tell-tale sign of quality, or a lack thereof. Slap a hairy eyeball on ‘em to look for tiny bubbles and cracks or a lack of uniformity, which are signs of a sub-par job. Also look for uniform “feathering,” a pattern that looks more or less like a line of layered fish scales. It takes time and effort to make them neat, and indicates that the welds were done by a craftsman who cares about his or her work.

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Uniformity and neatness is an indication of care and effort, when it comes to the welds in a boat’s pipework.

Gaze at the Gel Coat – In good light, put your head right up against the hull and gaze down the side to look for ripples, waves, and defects in the gel coat work. A flaw or two in and of itself is no big deal, and most boats have some. They’re just cosmetic in nature. But attentive builders do their best to avoid them. When you see an abnormal amount, it’s an indication that the builder may have been doing a rushed job and failed to properly prep the mold, pulled the boat from the mold too soon, or otherwise failed to take proper care during its layup.

Find the Fittings – It may sound obvious – because it is – but we can’t fail to mention that as a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to take note of any plastic fittings and penalize the boat accordingly. Naturally, aluminum or stainless-steel is a whole lot better. ‘Nuff said.

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Thanks for the stainless! Way too many builders use plastic rodholders when they can get away with it. Worse yet, on low quality boats you’ll see plastic cleats, plastic grab rails, and plastic just about anything else.

Info Wars – Finally, do some research to discover major construction factors that you probably won’t be able to spot with the naked eye. Some critical items:

  • Is the boat (or are major components) vacuum-bagged, vacuum-infused, or vacuum-molded? This leads to a more exact resin-to-glass ratio, minimizing weight while maximizing strength.
  • Is the boat laid up with polyester resin, or vinylester? Vinylester is less common and more expensive but is also less water-permeable, more flexible, and has better secondary bonding characteristics.
  • What is the weight of the vinyls used in the seats? Everyone says “marine grade,” to the point that the term has essentially become meaningless. Vinyl is measured by the ounce per square yard, and there’s a huge difference in the longevity of 22-ounce vinyl versus 36-ounce vinyl. Award bonus points if it’s treated with anti-microbials and anti-fungals, to prevent mold and mildew growth.

Why didn’t we focus on the techy, cool-sounding stuff you see in all the marketing hype? You know, like the use Kevlar, honeycomb cores, and snazzy types of fiberglass weaves? Because while it can and does play an important role in making some very high-quality boats, all too often a builder will add in a strip of the fancy stuff here or there merely so they can put the buzz-words into their brochures. Whether you’re in a showroom or at the computer, no matter how much research you do it’s hard if not impossible to tell just how much of a difference its making in any particular build.

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Quality construction like the 24 Morgan

If you really want to find out the details, there are only two ways to be sure you get the straight scoop. First, you can go to the factory and see a boat in the different stages of boat construction. Secondly, you can establish a relationship with the dealer and/or builder, which includes some level of trust.

And truth be told, a trustworthy boat builder is probably a quality builder, in the first place.

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Lenny Rudow …has been a writer and editor in the marine field for over two decades, and has authored seven books. He is currently the Angler in Chief at Rudow's FishTalk Magazine, is Electronics and Fishing Editor for BoatUS Magazine, and is a contributing editor to several other publications. His writing has resulted in 45 BWI writing contest and two OWAA Excellence in Craft awards. Volunteer positions have included NMMA Innovations Award judging, serving as president of Boating Writers International, and serving as the president of the Maryland Freshwater Foundation. Rudow is an alumnus of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology, and The Sea School. He boats and fishes as often as possible on the Chesapeake Bay and in the Atlantic Ocean.