Inspecting Older Boats Runabouts And Center Cockpits

If you're considering buying a used boat or want to prevent problems on the one you have, these tips from the BoatUS Marine Insurance Claim Files and the BoatUS Consumer Protection Bureau can help.

Claim #0037465: An older 22-foot boat with a large 200-hp outboard was negotiating an inlet in Florida when the boat slammed into a large wave. The owner heard a sickening bang, then the engine stopped. His first reaction was that it was yet another problem with the *&#*@! engine. And it was a problem with the engine — the engine was gone along with the transom. The boat rolled over but remained afloat, leaving the owner clinging to the overturned hull until help arrived. Sometime later, he learned that the transom's plywood core, which gave the transom its strength to support a heavy engine, had rotted. In another claim (#0211546), the owner of a 20-foot center console was out fishing and noticed the boat settling lower into the water. When the bilge pump came on, the owner wisely donned a life jacket and then headed to the launch ramp. Once the boat was safely on its trailer, he found the previous owner had plumbed in a live well using a hardware store PVC valve, which had broken and allowed water to overflow into the bilge.

Trailered boat

A proper inspection of a boat — whether it's one you already own or one you're considering buying — is simply a matter of knowing where to look for the most common problems. Seaworthy, with its warehouse of Marine Insurance claim files, has teamed up with the BoatUS Consumer Protection Bureau, and its 10,000-complaint database, to make it easier to know where to focus. Because many of these issues involve rot, corrosion, or manufacturers' defects and are therefore not covered by insurance, finding them early can avoid expensive headaches later. Keep in mind that an inspection is no substitute for a marine survey; if you're buying a boat, hire a professional after you've conducted your own checkout. In this issue, we'll focus on runabouts, which have their own unique set of problems. Other types of boats will be discussed in future articles.

Hull and Deck


The most serious structural issues on runabouts and center consoles are soft transom cores. Water that gets into the transom, as noted above, can eventually compromise the hull's structural integrity. Professionals use the handle of a screwdriver or a small plastic hammer to tap on the transom to listen for signs of softness, which is something you can do as well. Start at any fitting below the waterline; a healthy ring means a solid core, while a dull thud often signals a soft spot. Stains around poorly bedded fittings, such as transducers or tie-downs, often indicate water slowly leaking out of the transom, another warning sign. If you suspect a problem, contact a professional. The repair is not a job for the average boat owner because it involves removing the affected core from between the fiberglass sandwich.

Decks and floors can also suffer from water intrusion. Leaking fittings, such as railings and cleats, will cause the deck core, either balsa, wood, or foam, to absorb water and delaminate. A delaminated deck feels soft underfoot. Floors often rot around seat bases, where water has leaked past the fittings. Mushiness and wobbly seats can indicate deteriorated plywood in the floor.

Regular inspections of transoms, decks, and floors can prevent a small fixable core leak from becoming a major repair.

Hull-to-Deck Joints

Recently, BoatUS Consumer Protection received a complaint about a leaking hull-to-deck joint on a 2004 center console. Whenever the boat was underway, water leaked in from the hull-to-deck joint. At first, the owner couldn't find the location of the leak, but after peering at the inside of the hull at the hull-to-deck joint, he saw daylight through a crack where several rivets had fallen out. It also appeared that the manufacturer had not used enough — or any — sealant in the joint.

Make a thorough inspection of the joint (where accessible), looking for signs of previous leaks as well as loose rivets and screws. Damage to the rubrail often results in damage to the hull-to-deck joint underneath it.

Gelcoat and Paint

Though not the most dire, among the largest shares of complaints received by Consumer Protection involve crazed and cracked gelcoat. Gelcoat is a very thin coating over fiberglass (to make it look glossy) and easily cracks wherever excessive flexing occurs, such as on unsupported decks or cabin roofs, or where the boat structure makes a sharp angle — at cockpit corners, for example. Though usually not serious, it can indicate that a "hard point" from an internal structure like a bulkhead is pushing from within and can reveal places in the hull or on deck that have weak supports. Gelcoat cracking in the hull can indicate minor collisions or trailering mishaps, though on lighter-built boats, they are often unavoidable. Crazing on a relatively new boat might call for a professional investigation. It's possible to re-gelcoat bad areas, but the cracking will almost certainly return unless the area is reinforced.

Sight along the hull for mismatched paint or gelcoat, which can signal a previous repair. Look for warps and dimples in the hull and topsides, which might indicate a structural problem. Blisters, unfortunately, are a common Consumer Protection complaint, and though unsightly, they rarely rise to the level of being unsafe.

Plastic thru-hulls Plastic thru-hulls get brittle and crack, which can sink a boat. They should be replaced with Marelon or bronze.

Hull Fittings

A study by Seaworthy a few years ago found that 20 percent of runabout sinkings were caused by failed plastic fittings near the waterline. In one claim (#0105531), a plastic scupper fitting on a 23-foot fiberglass boat became brittle over time and broke; wave action at the dock was enough to fill the bilge, further forcing the fitting underwater until the boat finally sank. Check to make sure that thru-hull fittings are bronze or Marelon, not cheap plastic, which has a limited lifespan and deteriorates in sunlight. Also, look for live-well fittings that might have been improperly installed by a previous owner. They may be hardware store PVC and may not have been installed with a seacock, which is a necessity. Speaking of seacocks, they should operate smoothly. If they're jammed shut (or worse, jammed open), they need servicing or replacement.

Rusty or broken hose clamps must not be ignored. Hose clamp screws eventually rust, even on stainless steel clamps. Any indication of rust on the screws or clamps means a likely failure in the near future. Old hoses tend to swell, particularly where they attach to fittings. Swollen, cracked, or weeping hoses are past due for replacement.

Controls and Electrical System

Cables and Controls

At first glance, runabouts don't appear to have complicated systems like their larger counterparts. But while they may be simpler, any system that fails can be just as serious. Claim #0202658: A 21-foot ski boat was returning after a day of waterskiing when the operator made a sharp turn. The wheel jammed, causing the boat to narrowly miss a small fishing boat before running aground and damaging its hull and running gear. The investigating surveyor found the steering cable was severely rusted inside. The owner had recently tried to lubricate the cable, but once corrosion sets in, the only solution is to replace the cable. Tip: Take the cable in both hands (this goes for engine cables, too) and twist. If it sounds crunchy, it's deteriorated inside and needs to be replaced immediately.


Breaker panels are another potential trouble spot. The claim files show that sometimes a well-meaning do-it-yourselfer makes sloppy work of installing a new radio or other electronics. In one claim (#02001256), an owner's friend helped him install a new VHF in a 19-foot center console but didn't install a fuse in the positive wire. The wire chafed and shorted while the boat was being trailered, starting a fire in a storage compartment that severely damaged the boat. Check the inside of the breaker panel carefully, looking for chafed or melted wires, or wires that are loose or unsupported. Also look for wires that have been connected with anything other than a crimp connector. Twist connectors, typically used in a house, should never be used on a boat because they won't stand up to vibration, moisture, and pounding.

Don't forget to check the battery. Every battery needs an on/off switch and must be in a box with a cover on it, or at least have a cover over the positive terminal. An exposed positive lug can start a fire if something metallic, such as a loose wrench or clamp, shorts it to ground. Batteries also need to be tied down so they don't break loose in a seaway.

Engine and Fuel

Fuel Tanks

Consumer Protection receives many complaints about leaking aluminum fuel tanks. In some cases, owners reported the leaks appeared after only three or four years, which resulted in several manufacturers issuing recalls. In some cases, the tanks had been installed too close to bilge water. Worse, some had been installed on top of absorbent material that kept water in contact with the aluminum. Look for white powder on the aluminum, a sure sign of corrosion. Note that many boats lack even modest access to the tank, and some tanks are foamed into place, making it even more difficult to inspect or replace them. Don't forget to check the fuel hose from the tank to the engine and pay special attention to the primer bulb because it tends to get damaged easily.

Drivetrain and Prop

Engines are beyond the scope of this article, but you can still inspect the drivetrain and prop. Check for corrosion on the drive leg — usually seen as peeling paint and pitting on the aluminum. Missing or wasted anodes can lead to rapid corrosion.

Dings and bent blades in the prop mean lower fuel economy and more vibration with the potential for engine damage. A good prop shop can make the propeller as good as new for a reasonable price. Skegs should be straight and not chipped, though they can usually be repaired fairly inexpensively.

Do Some Research

BoatUS members have access to the Consumer Protection Database, which contains thousands of complaints. Before buying a boat, do a little homework and search the database by make and model:

It's also a good idea to check the USCG recall database: If a boat you're looking at (or your own boat) is listed in the database, call the manufacturer with the Hull Identification Number in hand and see if the recall has been addressed. There's no expiration on recalls, and if the work hasn't been completed yet, the manufacturer is obligated to do it. 

— Published: October 2012

Seaworthy, the damage-avoidance newsletter, is brought to you by the BoatUS Marine Insurance Program. For an insurance quote, please call 1-800-283-2883 or apply online at

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