You can work and plan your whole life for your dream boat, but on the day that you're ready to buy, how will you select the watercraft that's exactly right for you and your family? A few things to consider before you turn from boat-show browser to boat-buyer:
First ask yourself, do you like being on the water? It might sound like a ridiculous question, but there are those rare sorts who find out the hard way that they don't, the hard way being after they have bought a boat. If your own experience is mostly limited to big-ship excursions, then talk your way into a couple of outings with a friend or family member who owns the size and style of vessel you're considering, to see whether you really like the ride. You can also talk to one of the area's boating clubs or a boat-share like Freedom Boat Club (freedomboatclub.com) about activities they sponsor for prospective owners.
If you do like it, get sea (or lake) worthy before you put on your captain's hat. In Tennessee, only those who were born after 1989 are legally required to complete a Boat Safety Education course before taking the wheel of a power boat, but the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and other powers-that-matter strongly recommend you complete one. You and everyone else who will enjoy your boat will want to know the complete ins and outs of water safety before you bring it home. Complete safety info and watercraft "rules of the road" are available at twra.org and safeboatingcouncil.org.
Do you want your own boat so that you can slip out for pre-dawn forays for bass? Or will you be enjoying sunset cruises with a spouse, four kids, three grandparents, and a pet or two? Will you want to use your boat for both?
There are serious fishing boats that offer passenger comforts, and there are pontoon boats that are equally outfitted for fishermen. The most important thing is to know what size and style of boat are typically used for your envisioned purpose and what limits that boat has for other uses. No reputable dealership will ever purposely sell you a boat that's wrong for you, and the staff is experienced in asking the kinds of questions that will help you match your "dream boat" to a real-life make and model.
Now is also the time to consider the practical details that can make the difference between a pleasure cruise and a bad trip: Where will you be putting in your boat? How will you get the boat there? Can the car or truck you own tow the boat you're looking to buy? Are you comfortable towing it? If you live on the water, is your dock fitted for a boat this size? If not, what would it cost to expand it and what regulations govern that expansion? If you're dry-docking the boat, where is space available? If your answer is your garage, where does your car go? If one or both of those things is going to sit in the driveway, does your neighborhood association have rules about that?
As with home- or car-buying, there's what the item costs (the listed price) and what it really costs (registration, maintenance, repairs and service contracts, insurance, fuel, and more). Will you be paying to store the boat? To clean it? Are you looking at club fees and dues? Have you added up the cost of all the fun things you are going to do in this boat, from the money you'll spend on live bait to dinner at the marina to sun goggles for the dog? (He'll want his own personal flotation device, too.)
When looking for a new boat, browse any available boat-shows and the new inventory at local dealerships to get the range of prices for the size and style of boat you want.
You can find pre-owned inventory both at dealerships and through private channels like word-of-mouth or the classifieds. "Bluebook" values for used boats are available at nadaguides.com or through your boat dealer. If you do purchase your pre-owned boat through a dealership, ask about any available extended service contracts. If, instead, you hear about a hot deal on a boat from "Joe down the street," be sure to have it checked out by a certified vessel safety inspector before you hand over any cash.
We don't subscribe to the idea that if it has an engine it will give you trouble, but an inboard motor is naturally more complex than, say, a pair of oars, and before you power up your power vessel, you need to read about its rudimentary workings in the manufacturer's manual. You'll also want to know who can repair your engine well before it breaks: Ask your boat dealer about any manufacturer's certifications its service technicians may have.
Depending on the size of the boat and type of engine it has, certain equipment may be required to be on board when it is on the water in the state of Tennessee (downloadable chart available at twra.org). There's also a schedule of recommended routine boat maintenance at searayofknoxville.org, and Knoxville Power Squadron should also be able to put you in touch with an inspector or technician (visit the organization's website at kps-site.org).
Sidebar: Boat Types
Good bets for local waters
• Jon Boat: A sleek aluminum body, bench seating and an outboard motor gets you to the places where the fish are quietly, affordably, and without much fuss. Good for coves and inlets and for sneaking away by yourself.
• Fishing Boat: Loosely covers everything from a bass boat to a basic salt- or freshwater flats or bay boat up to a seriously rigged-out center console model. Look for live bait wells, outfits to hang your rod and reel, and a powerful outboard motor. Fun for the whole family if you want.
• Deck Boat: Fishing, cruising, sunning and skiing are all possible with this crowd-friendly model, a go-to choice for active families of varying interests. Manufacturers include Bayliner, Chaparral and Sea Ray.
• Bowrider: It shares many of the amenities of the deck boat, but with a V-shaped hull that gives it spacious front seating and an advantage in navigating choppier waters or putting on some speed. Manufacturers include Bayliner, Chaparral, MasterCraft, Sea Ray, Cobalt, and Regal.
• Pontoon Boat: The beloved flat-bottomed party boat has a reputation for slow, lazy cruises for a crowd, and while those are unmatched in a pontoon boat, newer, pricier models also have the speed and horsepower necessary for skiing and other water fun. Manufacturers include Bennington, Crest, and Cypress Clay.
• Cuddy Cabin Cruiser and Cabin Cruiser: You've got a place to store your gear. You've got a place to hang your rods and reels. You've got a swim platform. And you've also got a small living and sleeping area where the children can watch Disney DVDs in their life vests and a gallery where they can scatter goldfish crackers and spill their milk. They'll never know they left the marina. Manufacturers include Sea Ray, Regal, Cruisers, and Bay Liner.