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Love Your Boat? So Does Someone Else!

By badriance - Published December 10, 2009 - Viewed 16113 times

The International Association of Marine Investigators (IAMI) says that an average month sees 1,000 boats stolen in the United States. Fewer than 10% are ever recovered. Boats, unlike cars, are seldom built with security in mind and are often easy targets. Professional boat thieves operate much like their automotive counterparts; engines, outdrives, and electronics are stripped, leaving a bare hull, which is typically abandoned.


According to a 10-year study of BoatU.S. claim files, personal watercraft (PWC’s) are the most common target with a theft rate of 10 per 1,000 boats. PWC’s are easily transported (often on trailers) and sold. Not surprisingly, runabouts have the net highest rate of thefts at two per 1,000. Larger boats (and typically, slower boats), according to the study, are less likely to be stolen.


However, this is only part of the story. Theft of equipment from boats is far more common than theft of the boats themselves. Outboard engines are the most common big-ticket targets. However, thieves can and will take nearly anything from a boat. In one case an apparent safety-conscious thief took a long list of gear including fire extinguishers, flares, life vests and a first aid kid. Fishing gear is also a common item as are radios and GPSs.


Take this claim for instance:

It was a warm spring day in Sanford, Florida when a BoatU.S. member visited his boat in order to get it ready for the long summer season. This year however, there would be a delay getting into the water. Sometime during the off-season, someone had removed the engine assembly from his Suzuki 175 outboard motor, carefully replacing the cover so that the crime would go unnoticed for months.


What can you do to avoid being a victim? More than you might think. Law enforcement officials say that anything you do to increase the time or difficulty it takes to steal your boat will discourage theft. According to Todd Schwede of Todd and Associates, a company that specializes in boat theft recovery, nearly 90% of stolen boats are on their trailer when they are taken. To a thief, a boat sitting on an unprotected trailer is like a box of thousand dollar bills with wheels. Todd recommends a good coupler lock (about $30), not just a hitch lock, which can be easily defeated. Trailer wheel locks (about $90) are another good way to prevent trailer theft. Even removing a wheel and storing it in your car trunk is effective (remember to remove your trailer’s spare).


Where you store your boat is also important. While many boats are stolen from residences, many more are taken from boatyards, storage areas or parking lots. Todd recommends storing your boat in a locked area.


Private storage facilities, while seemingly safe, are actually a favorite target for thieves. If you store your boat at a storage facility, make sure that the gate doesn’t stay open all day -- thieves can readily blend in to the steady stream of people going in and out. Another mistake: Todd estimates that 80% of boat owners hide their keys on their boat. Thieves know this and they know where to look. Whether your boat is on a trailer or a dock, keep the keys somewhere else.


While these things will help prevent theft of your boat, what about engines and outdrives? Mark Feinman, engine specialist for the BoatU.S. Special Order Center, says that a knowledgeable person can remove an outdrive in 15 or 20 minutes, even less if there are two people working as a team. It’s generally a quiet operation that can be done without attracting attention. With new outdrives costing up to $6000, Mark suggests reversing the bolts holding the outdrive and replacing the nuts, which would only be accessible from the inside, with Nylok nuts. Foolproof? No, but it’s much more difficult for a thief to remove the outdrive. Alternately, one of the nuts can be replaced with a locking nut, such as those sold by Mcgard for about $20. For a higher level of security, consider an outdrive lock (about $250), which is a locking plate that prevents access to mounting bolts. These steel plates require a lot of work to remove. Thieves don’t like work (that’s why they’re thieves).


One BoatU.S. member reports arriving at his marina in Jacksonville, Florida for a daysail and found that his Honda outboard and the battery had been stolen. The motor was locked to the boat, the boat was in a secure fenced area with a locked gate, and marina personnel lived next to the area. No one saw anything suspicious.


Small outboard motors are typically attached to the transom of a boat with only two screw clamps. They’re so easily removed and so valuable, that outboards are frequently referred to as 2-stroke cash by thieves. These motors can be locked to your boat with a variety of locks ranging in price from about $20 to over $100. Unfortunately, a determined thief can usually defeat locks. Another BoatU.S. member, whose outboard was stolen from his inflatable dinghy, spray-painted the entire unit with orange paint in a random stripe pattern to make it easily identifiable. Apparently, the ploy worked since he’s had no problem since. As a side benefit, he says, it makes it easy to find his boat at the dinghy dock. However, the best prevention for small outboards is removal. Consider removing the engine anytime you won’t be using your boat for awhile. If it’s not there, they can’t take it.


Larger outboards present a different problem. Sometimes the engine is more valuable than the boat. Cutting the transom off to get the engine is not unheard of. However, a thief would rather not make that much noise and outboard locks, though expensive (up to $250), are the best deterrent, particularly if they are visible. The best ones are hardened and bolted through the transom making theft much harder.


There is another arsenal of products in the fight against theft -- electronic deterrents. These run the gamut from simple to sophisticated, with price tags from reasonable to second mortgage. At the lower end of the scale is a simple battery or fuel cutoff switch designed to prevent a thief from stealing your boat while it’s on the water, or to give him a headache when he tries to launch it. A hidden ignition cutoff switch is effective for boats stored in a slip. If it can’t be started, it’s unlikely a thief will row it out of the marina. An alternative is to wire a siren directly from the battery to the battery switch with its own in-line on-off switch (include a fuse). With the switch on, as soon as the battery is turned on, the siren sounds. The next step in anti-theft protection is electronic detection systems. These can range from single motion detectors costing about $40 to a GPS/cellular tracking system that will call and tell you if your boat has left a “geofence,” a specified area out of which you don’t want your boat going. Geofence alarms are not cheap. The unit is over $500 with an additional monthly subscription fee. The system also can’t transmit once your vessel gets out of cellular range. For high-tech prevention rather than after-the-theft location, systems are available that will monitor such things as door switches, shock wave detectors, glass breakage detectors and proximity switches. The system can also be interfaced with pressure sensors that are epoxied under the deck to detect footsteps and can even monitor sensor “snaps” that replace canvas snaps and will trigger if an enclosure or cover is opened. The cost of such a system can vary enormously depending on the number and type of sensors, but a complete system with door switches, several types of sensors and sirens can run for about $1,000 for a 40-foot boat. The most sophisticated (and expensive) anti-theft systems use a GPS-embedded satellite transceiver along with myriad other sensors to provide a complete management and tracking system. These systems provide more than just security and are typically priced out of the range of most recreational boaters. Whichever system you use, be sure to use any warning decals to let potential thieves know that your boat is not an easy target.


A product called Datadots could be the future of boat recovery. Essentially tiny microfilm dots, Datadots contain a unique number that is registered in a database available to law enforcement agencies. Hundreds of “dots”, about the size of a pinhead, are painted on whatever you want to protect with an adhesive containing an ultraviolet trace. These can then be detected with a special light and magnifier. Until more law enforcement agencies are willing to obtain the detection devices, however, this system has limited applications.


Valuable Tips for Making Your Boat Less Vulnerable:


  v     Look at your boat through the eyes of a thief. How hard would it be to steal the boat? What would you have to do to break in? Is there equipment that isn’t protected?  
  v     Use locks on props, outboards, and outdrives. Buy good quality hardened steel locks that aren’t easily defeated.  
  v     Whenever possible, store equipment at home. If you have a small outboard engine, it’s much safer in your garage than hanging on your boat’s transom. The more stuff you take off, the less attractive your boat will be to a thief.  
  v     If you have curtains, keep them drawn to keep prying eyes off valuables. If you can’t be sure to store alcoholic beverages and valuables where they won’t be seen.  
  v     Consider upgrading cabin doors or hatch boards with locks that are harder to defeat. Stainless steel hasps or bars can be fitted that are much harder to break into than what manufacturers typically offer.  
  v     Most boats are stolen while on their trailer. Don’t make it easy for a thief to hook up and take off. If possible, park your trailer away from the road. If you must leave your boat in the driveway, don’t leave the hitch facing the street. Chain your trailer to a tree or a sturdy post. If not, remove one or more tires and store them inside along with the lug nuts. Not only does this make it impossible to pull the trailer; it prolongs tire life and reduces the chances of a flat. Consider removing the license plate and lights as well; the last thing a thief wants is a traffic stop. Simply locking the hitch to removing the coupler is not always enough; some thieves carry coupler devices that can be quickly attached to the trailer.  
  v     Make sure there is good lighting where you keep your boat. Would a burglar feel threatened?  
  v     Don’t leave your keys in a cockpit locker. This is a common practice and thieves know it. Hide keys below or, better yet, take them home.  
  v     Invest in an alarm system. You don’t have to spend a lot of money -- even simple alarms can scare off a thief.  
  v     Another worthwhile deterrent: Install a fuel or electrical cutoff device. These are simple, relatively cheap and will often thwart a theft.  
  v     Avoid having a “For Sale” sign on your boat. This gives thieves an excuse to snoop around without drawing suspicion.  
  v     If you have anti-theft device warning stickers, place them where they can be easily seen. Often thieves will pass up a boat that appears to be well guarded.  
  v     Use chains and locks to secure dinghies and small boats. Painting your dinghy in unusual colors or patterns makes it less likely to be stolen -- thieves don’t want to risk possessing anything easily identifiable.  
  v     Visit your boat frequently or make arrangements with other boat owners to check on each other’s boats.  

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