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  1. Outdoors

Hey, boat buyers, make a list and check it twice

We test drove Shearwater's new 25-foot LTZ Bay Boat at GT Marine, a new boat dealership in Clearwater. (Jim Damaske | Times)

Like many first-time boat buyers, I spent months — make that years — researching different makes and models. I settled on a 17-foot center console, with a new, fuel-efficient engine that was supposed to represent the latest in technology.

Everything went well at first, until I got caught by a later-summer squall as I was heading home from Anclote Key and nearly took a wave over the transom. Back at the ramp, my fishing buddy, a little shaken by the experience, channeled Chief Brody from the movie Jaws and offered this advice, "I think you need a bigger boat."

In retrospect, I realize now that I had made a rookie mistake. The boat looked good on the showroom floor, but it really didn't suit my needs. I had tried to save a couple of bucks but in the end I wound up buying a larger boat and took a beating on my initial investment.

So if you head over to the Tampa Bay Boat Show at the Florida State Fairgrounds this weekend, make sure you bring a pad and paper. But before you go, you've got a little homework.

A good strategy is for any first-time boat buyer is a slight variation on the pros-cons list. On one side of the paper, write "need" and the other "don't need." For example, one "need" might be fuel economy and a "don't need" could be speed.

If you just plan on cruising around the bay at 30 mph, going from sand bar to tiki hut, you don't need excessive power. But if you plan to run out and back to the Middle Grounds to catch kingfish, regardless of conditions, and make it back in time for the weigh in, you want a boat with two or three high-powered engines.

Many boaters try to get the best of both worlds. The bay boat, a cross between an inshore and offshore craft that is primarily designed for fishing, will give you a lot of bang for your buck. They start around $40,000, but luxury models with all the bells and whistles, such as the Shearwater (pictured), can cost well over $100,000.

But Shearwater isn't the only manufacturer offering lean fishing machines at this weekend's Tampa Bay Boat Show. You'll find everything from wakeboard boats to flats skiffs at this year's show, which runs Friday through Sunday.

Before you head to the fairgrounds, have a game plan. Are you a shopper who just wants to look around and dream of owning a boat? Or are you a buyer who wants to slap down cash and hit the water before kingfish season?

If you want to fish, the center-console boat is the most versatile. There is plenty of room to move around while you are fighting a fish, and they tend to be bare bones, so a little blood on the deck won't ruin the finish.

But fishing boats can run anywhere from $20,000 to $200,000, so set a budget. It is just like buying a car. You may want a Lexus but can only afford a Toyota. How much do you want to spend? Do you plan to pay for the boat in one lump sum or through monthly payments?

Answer those questions before you settle on a specific model. Once you decide on what you want, check the used boat ads for resale value. If you buy the boat now, what will it sell for in two or three years?

Another factor to consider is storage. Do you plan to trailer your boat? If so, will you keep it in your garage? On the side of your house? In a boat yard? If you store your boat away from home, that will add to your monthly expense.

Don't forget about insurance. You will pay more to insure a performance, or "go fast," boat than a fishing boat.

If you are a first-time boat buyer, sign up for a safe boating class. Florida law requires that any person who operates a vessel with a motor of 10 horsepower or greater must successfully complete a National Association of State Boating Law Administrators approved course.

One of the most valuable lessons you will learn is to file a float plan with a trusted friend or relative. Let them know in writing where you're going and when you plan to be back. That way authorities know where to begin a search if you run into trouble.

And before you head out, take the time to know your boat. Don't overload it with people or gear (check the capacity plate). Make sure the safety equipment — flares, fire extinguisher, horn, signaling mirror — is on board and in working order.

And if the seas start getting rough, put on a personal flotation device. State records show that more than 80 percent of boating-related deaths could have been avoided if the victims were wearing PFDs.