Thursday, April 21, 2016

Test Drives for Sailors - Absolutely Essential or Waste of Time?

How do you go about buying a sailing dinghy when it's a design you have never sailed before?

Are you prepared to make a decision on what other people say, what you have read, watching videos of it, seeing other people sail it?

Is it good enough for you to know that it's a popular boat in the area where you live and that you will have plenty of other people to race with?

Or do you absolutely have to sail it first yourself to make sure you really like it?

Looking back on the sailing boats I have bought over the years. I realize I am very much in the camp of people who would answer with a very definite YES to the last question. I want to "kick the tires" and go for a "test drive" first before I buy.

Kicking the tires

But is that always easy to do?

Do you have a friend who will let you try out their boat? What if it's a singlehander? Does your friend trust you enough to let you blast around for an hour or so in their shiny new boat that set them back more than a few thousand bucks?

Can you walk into your local dinghy shop and ask the dealer to let you sail one of the boats in the showroom? Is he or she set up to let you do that?

I have been lucky. I have owned three classes of sailing dinghies - Laser, Sunfish and RS Aero (not counting the Optimists I bought for my kids) and I did have the chance to take a Laser, a Sunfish and an RS Aero for a test sail before I bought each one.

My first sail in a Laser was at Minorca Sailing. My wife and I went there on a two week holiday in 1981. First of all we learned to sail in a two person boat, and then I started taking out some of the singlehanders there. It must have been almost the last day of the holiday when I took a Laser out for the first time. I was hooked immediately. I went home and bought one, the first of four new Lasers which I have bought. And I still am a Laser sailor.

Some young dude trying a Laser at Minorca Sailing
(Not me)

When we moved from England to New Jersey in 1989 I discovered that the most popular singlehander in the North Jersey lakes area where we lived was a strange little boat called a Sunfish. The man across the road from us owned one and he encouraged me to take his Sunfish out for a sail one day. I must admit I wasn't impressed at first. It didn't seem to point very well. It didn't plane as well as a Laser. But it was good enough and it was what everybody else in our lake and the other nearby lakes was racing, so I bought one. No regrets. Had some amazing experiences on the Sunfish racing circuit including some memorable world championships in the Caribbean and South America.

The Sunfish IS comfy!
(Not me)

And then there is the RS Aero.

RS Aero in Barcelona
(Not me)

In many ways this was a tougher decision than it was to buy my first Laser or my first Sunfish. Back in 2014 and early 2015 when I was trying to decide whether or not to buy an RS Aero, there weren't any local established fleets. By buying when I did I would be one of the first RS Aero owners in New England, indeed in the country, so I didn't want to buy a boat that was just "good enough" as I felt about the Sunfish. It had to be a boat that offered a significantly better sailing experience than my current boat (a Laser) AND it had to be attractive enough that I could see a good probability that it would eventually take off and there would be local fleets to race with.

And so it was back to where it all started - Minorca Sailing. In the fall of 2014 Tillerwoman and I went on our (almost) annual vacation to Minorca Sailing and I had a chance to try out the RS Aero they had there. I wrote about the experience at....

RS Aero - First Impressions
RS Aero - Impressions in Light Winds
RS Aero - Impressions in Stronger Winds
RS Aero - Capsize Recovery

I gave the RS Aero a good workout in different wind strengths, with 7 and 9 rigs, and I made sure I could do capsize recoveries. In the end I decided that I would go ahead and buy an RS Aero if my two friends back home decided to do the same after their demo sails. But I probably wasn't crazy enough about it to buy it if I was going to be the only sailor in New England with an RS Aero. (I felt much the same about the RS 100 after trying one in Menorca a few years earlier.)

RS Aero at Minorca Sailing
(Not me)

And the rest is history. The three of us took delivery of RS Aeros in May of 2015. We raced RS Aeros all summer at our home club. We hosted a couple of RS Aero regattas at the club. Two of us sailed in the first RS Aero North Americans in the Columbia River Gorge. One sailed in the RS Aerocup in Barcelona.

RS Aeros at the Gorge
(Is me)

And now at the start of a new season we have lots of plans and ideas for growing RS Aero activity in New England and holding bigger regattas and going back to the Gorge again... and did I hear a rumor about an RS Aero regatta on Lake Garda in September?

Sailing on Lake Garda
(Not RS Aeros)

Buying an RS Aero has turned out to be an excellent decision for me.

But the whole process has got me thinking.

Does everybody need a test sail before buying a new class of sailing dinghy?

Is a quick 20 minute demo sail enough for some people to make a decision?

Or do some people need to sail the boat several times in different conditions before laying down their money?

I was surprised to discover from talking to a number of experienced sales professionals in the sailing industry that some of them are skeptical about the value of "demo sails."

Some of these pros (not all by any means) seem to feel that demo sails can be a big waste of time. They say that demo sails are often exploited by people who have no intention of buying the boat but just want to try out a new boat or have a ride around the harbor on a summer afternoon.

I have heard talk of charging for demo sails or of asking people to put down a deposit on a boat first.

I am not sure how to reconcile these opinions of the professionals with my own feeling that I need to sail a boat before I buy it. Is getting as many people as possible to try out a cool new boat a good sales strategy, or not?

What do you think?


Niels Heemskerk said...

I bought my first Laser in 1976 I think, I still lived in the Netherlands. At that time I had never stepped foot in one, I loved it and have been the owner of 3 of them. (Out of sailing now due to addiction to triathlons). At the point of my life I would want to sail a boat before buying.

Alden Smith said...

What next? buying clothes without trying them on for size?

I would want a sail in any yacht I was going to buy - and once on the water, I would take as long as I required to make an assessment. I think this is common sense. If a salesperson can't be bothered to facilitate a demo sail, then I would find one that could. I would be happy to pay a nominal fee to take the boat for a sail on the understanding that the fee was deducted from the sale price if I purchased.

Tillerman said...

I have heard that latter option discussed Alden.

From the dealers' point of view I do understand why they want to make sure they are spending time doing demos for people who are seriously interested in buying the boat if they like it. On the other hand I wonder how many people who are not really considering buying an RS Aero would fall in love with it if they tried it - and end up buying it.

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