How To Prevent Your Boat From Being Stolen

By Todd Schwede

Love your boat? Here are some actions you can take to prevent someone else from making off with your pride and joy.

Boat and trailer theft caught on video cameraPhoto: Norfolk Police Department

So your boat's been in storage for the winter, and you're anxious to get out on the water. As someone who's been investigating stolen-boat thefts for more than 30 years, I can categorically state that no one is safe from boat theft, regardless of where your vessel is stored. The BoatUS Marine Insurance files are full of reports of boats that have been stolen from backyards, front yards, the street in front of the house, the brokerage or dealer lot, secured storage with video-surveillance equipment and barbed wire, and other typical areas that we believe are "safe." The good news is that after so many years investigating thefts, I can give you some concrete advice that can help you greatly decrease the chance that your claim ends up in my files.

By far the largest category of stolen vessels is in the range between 20 and 29 feet, typically on twin-or triple-axle trailers, and usually fitted with outboard motors. Center-console boats, bass boats, and "go-fast" boats all fall within this range of attractive theft. Some boats are stolen for the engines, equipment, and electronics, then stripped, or parted out, and many are stolen for the purpose of resale, criminal activity, or container export.

In this age of Internet-based purchases, many vessels have been targeted for a "quick flip," and the ownership documentation paperwork is processed through one of the nine or 10 states that do not issue titles. Several states don't even issue license plates for trailers. In this age of word processing, it's not uncommon to find good-looking, completely fabricated Manufacturing Certificates of Origin, authentic-looking bills of sale, and other documentation that to the untrained eye looks perfectly reasonable and is commonly proffered as proof of ownership. So if you only take away one thing from this article, it should be this: Thieves are lazy and looking for an easy score. Make your boat harder to steal, and the bad guys will go after someone else's.

The Boat And Trailer

Locks, locks, and more locks. Lock the engine to the vessel, lock a chain around the tires and wheels, lock the cabin, and under no circumstances store the keys in the boat! You may think you have a clever hiding place for your keys. Trust me, you don't.

Boat and trailer security points illustrationClick image to enlarge. (Illustration: ©2016 Mirto Art Studio)

Obtain a seriously beefy tongue lock, or better yet, have your trailer fitted with a removable tongue or hitch assembly. Then take the tongue off the trailer. Take it home; don't store it in the boat. Once fitted, the simple precaution of taking the removable tongue hitch off the trailer is by far the easiest way to disable the trailer for moving. If thieves can't hook it up, they can't take it. Removing the tires is even more effective, but a lot more work. If you can easily remove the trailer lights, you make it even harder on the bad guys (some owners have quick-mount lights that hang on the back of the boat and can be stored in the tow vehicle). Thieves like to work under cover of night and don't like attracting attention to themselves by dragging a trailer down the road without the required lights.

Storing

Again, make your vessel harder or riskier to steal, and thieves may look elsewhere. If you store your vessel at home or in a driveway or backyard, install automatic motion-activated spotlights that will act as a light sentry. Make sure the lights are hard to access from the ground. If disabling them is as easy as unscrewing a bulb, they're not going to be very effective.

If you keep your boat at home, park your trailer with the tongue facing the house or a tree to make it harder to hook up. Parking the tow vehicle in front of the boat makes it much harder to steal the boat.

There are many antitheft devices now available, ranging from electronic cell-phone alerts and electronic kill switches to active cellphone and satellite tracking systems. (See "Boat Theft-Prevention Systems")

A technology called microdots can be painted on outboard motors, outdrives, and inboard engines as well as on the boat. The size of a grain of sand, microdots are each etched with a unique identification code that is registered in a central database. While microdots may not prevent theft, they can help law enforcement identify your boat or equipment if recovered. Posting the warning sticker that comes with most kits may even be enough to deter theft. Antitheftdots.com is one company that sells microkits to consumers.

Common Sense

Any prevention scheme that you can think of to make your vessel less attractive while in storage is worth considering. A full boat cover, as an example, might hide your boat's unique graphics. Remember the same things that attracted you to the boat in terms of flashy graphics also attract thieves.

Powerboat before typical boat theft

Powerboat after typical boat theftBefore and after photos of a typical boat theft. It takes thieves only a short time to completely strip a boat.

Keep in mind that even in good, paid storage facilities with gates, keypad entry, and video surveillance, everyone with a gate code has access to your property. Video surveillance is notoriously bad at night, due to the low resolution, and many video surveillance systems re-record after 72 hours, effectively erasing the record of a previous theft — not much help if your boat is stolen during winter, when you're not visiting it. It's wise to ask questions about the security of a storage facility and review the contract. Many facilities now contractually indemnify themselves from any responsibility, relying on the boat owner's insurance company for coverage.

A "For Sale" sign on a boat in a public place can be a risky way to find a buyer. It's not uncommon for a thief to call the seller to ask for an inspection of the boat, all the while scoping out the availability and access for quick theft. Also, don't store your title and/or registration papers on the boat; you'll just make it that much easier to dispose of your boat if it's stolen.

Recovery

Most boats are not recovered, but you might get lucky. Record all the serial numbers you can locate, including the boat's hull identification number (HIN), which is almost always located on the upper right corner of the transom; the state registration number and registration certificate number; engine serial numbers; transom assembly numbers; outdrive numbers; and serial numbers for any electronics. Keep copies of your purchase documents, sales receipts, and invoices, which frequently have serial numbers and identification information. Frequently, after a boat is stolen, HINs are removed, altered, or covered up, and state registration numbers are changed. Should you be one of the few fortunate enough to have your vessel recovered, the police will need identifiers that confirm that the recovered property is yours. Take and store photographs of your boat from all sides — front, back, interior, helm station, engines, and serial numbers, and any other identifiers. Keep the photographs separate from the boat, download them from your phone and save them on secure storage device, or upload to the cloud. If your boat and property have been stolen, your insurance company will likely want proof of ownership, as well as photographs of documents, boat graphics, colors, upholstery style, canvas color, and other identifiers that may be unique to your particular vessel.

Not Just Trailers

While most boats are stolen on their trailers so they can be driven to a hiding place, a good percentage of stolen boats are taken with the vessel tied to its slip or, occasionally, from a dockside lift. Center-console boats in coastal regions everywhere in Florida and the Gulf states through Texas are attractive drug-smuggling and human-smuggling vessels. Our files contain reports of cases where thieves have lowered the boat on its lift behind the owner's back porch, then towed the vessel out of the residential area with another boat.

If you leave town, make sure your neighbors know you're away and that no one should be near your boat. A neighborhood watch-style warning sign might be helpful to post on your private dock.

Always lock your hoist or boat-lift control box, or kill the power at the breaker box. Remember, any deterrent is better than none. 

Todd Schwede has been a marine ­surveyor and certified insurance investigator in San Diego since 1984, specializing in marine accident, damage, and stolen-boat investigations.

— Published: October/November 2016


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