The Seaworthy Top Ten

The Most Common Insurance Claims… And What you Can Do to Avoid Them

One of the tenets of Seaworthy is that we don’t write articles about claims involving beat-up, burned-out, stolen, sunk, or otherwise obliterated boats without also explaining how to prevent the same thing from happening to you. On these pages, you’ll find a brief summary with information (and pictures) to help you avoid becoming the subject of a future article. So, without further ado, here’s the Top Ten reasons people have to file claims with BoatU.S. Marine Insurance.

#10: Theft of Equipment

A boat in a marina is like a shopping mall to a thief; radios, GPS’s, propellers, autopilots, dinghies, even engines and outdrives are all conveniently available in one place. But, thieves don’t like to work (which is why they’re thieves) and will go to any boat that promises the largest return for the least amount of effort. Here’s the key to protecting your boat: By making a theft require time-consuming “work,” he or she (the thief) will likely go elsewhere. For example, outdrives are frequently stolen, but the addition of some hefty locking nuts on the outdrive (mcgard.com) means a thief will need hack saws (work) and will then look elsewhere. Other candidates for locks include props, outboards, and trailers.

Cabin locks (and sturdy hasps) are essential. Keep curtains closed and expensive items (and alcohol!) out of view. Many thefts take place in marinas and private storage facilities because thieves can rip-off many boats in a few hours. Select a facility that is well-lighted and has security cameras and a guard.

Winter layup is a favorite time for “shopping” since far less people are around. When possible, bring home electronics, small outboards and other valuable equipment and store them where they’ll be safe.

Note: Theft coverage only exists for equipment carried aboard which is considered normal for the safe operation or routine maintenance of the boat. Items such as fishing gear and other personal items are only covered if optional inexpensive Personal Effects coverage is added to the policy endorsement (call 800-283-2883). Check out the October, 2002 issue for more on preventing equipment theft.

#9 Claim: Theft of Boat (with chances of boat being stolen box.)

Surprised to see boat thefts in the top ten? The reason is that when a boat is stolen, the claim is for the entire value of the boat. Even if a boat is recovered, it’s frequently only be a shell. When thieves steal boats, they often strip everything of value, right down to steering wheels and cushions. One investigator notes that if they could find a way to steal the gel-coat, they would.

If a boat in a marina is like a shopping center to a thief, then a boat sitting on a trailer is like a box of thousand dollar bills on wheels; the majority of stolen boats—90%—were taken while on their trailer. Your best tool for foiling the bad guys is frustration. Anything you can do to increase the time or difficulty (work!) it takes to steal your boat will discourage theft. Install a coupler lock, remove the tires (don’t forget to remove the spare) and park your boat in a locked well-lighted area. See the October, 2002 issue for more on preventing boat theft.

#8: Lightning

Can you do anything to prevent your boat from being hit by lightning? Yes! No! It depends! So say the “experts.” The bottom line is there isn’t anything you can do if lightning takes a shine to your boat. There are many accounts in the claim files of boats equipped with lightning protectors that were damaged by lightning. Experts agree, however, that there are ways to mitigate the damage from lightning. A proper lightning bonding system will direct the strike to the water, hopefully before it can get into mischief aboard.

Most often, lightning strikes while the owner is away and the only signs of a strike are burned fuses and inoperable electronics. But if you think your boat might have been hit, now is the time to act to prevent more damage and there are two things you should do immediately. 1) Call BoatU.S. Claims. 2) Arrange for a short haul to look for damage to the boat’s hull or through-hull fittings (BoatU.S. will pay to have your boat short-hauled and the charge is not subject to a deductible). The July, 2005 issue has more on lightning.

#7: Grounding

One well-known quote notes: “If the depth of the water is less than your boat’s draft, you are aground.” It would seem simple then to avoid a grounding by making sure your boat stays in deep water. But it’s not that easy; sandbars shift, engines fail, and anchors drag. Should you ever run aground (and you probably will), don’t get angry and try to power off by shoving the throttle forward. You’ll probably get in deeper trouble, not deeper water. Remember that your engine intake can suck up the stuff you’re stuck in and your engine will start to overheat. If you can’t power off quickly, shut down and wait for the tide or call TowBoatU.S. (on the West Coast, Vessel Assist). If there is any chance the boat might drift further into shallow water, set an anchor.

Besides carefully studying charts and tide tables, a depthsounder is your best defense against grounding. But unless you know how to use it, a depthsounder’s usefulness will be limited to confirming that you are indeed aground. Make sure you know whether the sounder is showing actual depth, depth beneath the transducer, or depth beneath the keel.

And finally, one skipper (Claim #932882) let a guest take the wheel and went below after telling him to “Keep in the middle of the channel!” A few minutes later the boat ran aground, injuring the skipper and damaging the boat. The guest interpreted the middle of the channel as “the middle of the river”—right where the shallows were. Don’t leave an inexperienced guest alone at the helm! For more on running aground, see the January, 2002 and April, 2001 issue.

# 6: Collisions

With ever-increasing crowds, collisions, not surprisingly, are on the rise. Collisions with docks and pilings and other stationary objects are also common, but it’s collisions with other boats are more serious. (Note: technically a collision is between two vessels, while an allision is between a vessel and a fixed object, but for our purposes, collision means both.) A substantial number of collisions are in crowded marina fairways. These collisions tend to occur because of a combination of three factors: inattention, blind spots, and too much speed. Motoring down a crowded fairway is the wrong time for the skipper to be distracted with stowing fenders, fixing lunch, or entering waypoints. Good visibility is also critical; sails should be secured so they don’t cause a blind spot, and too many people up front on the foredeck or cabin top is a bad idea.

More advice: stay to the right (pass port to port), slow down, and drive defensively. Maintain just enough speed to be able to maneuver.

Out in the open, collisions are harder to understand. How can two boats hit each other in fine weather with plenty of visibility and time to avoid? Inattention plays a part, but misunderstandings of the Rules of the Road are also common. Without digging into them, it’s fair to say that in the end, both skippers should do whatever is necessary to avoid a collision, and make obvious course changes early. How do you know if you may be on a collision course? Take bearings on a target and if the bearings stay the same over time, you’re on a collision course. Finally, when the boat’s on autopilot, be especially vigilant. See the October, 1999 issue for more information.

#5: Wind and Weather

Hurricanes don’t occur everywhere (thank goodness), but every body of water experiences occasional bouts of violent weather. Winter storms that pound Puget Sound can last for days. Squall lines can be fierce, especially on the Great Lakes. Thunderstorms can happen anywhere. Most of the advice that pertains to hurricanes is the same for these other storms: minimize windage, tie your boat securely, guard against chafe, and keep your boat in a place that is well protected.

See the October, 2002 and 2003 issues of Seaworthy for more information.

#4: Fire and Explosion

These types of claims are probably the most feared and for good reason. Explosions are sudden and horrific. Fires will often spread quickly, forcing a crew off of a boat in minutes. At marinas, other boats are sometimes destroyed. With any explosion or fire, injuries are always a possiblity.

When Seaworthy analyzed why boats catch fire in July 2003, the number one cause was found to be DC wiring faults, with the most common fault being chafed wires. Wires that aren’t properly supported or protected whenever they pass through bulkheads can chafe through, short, and cause an especially nasty fire. These fires are hard to put out because the source remains hot and will re-ignite. The solution is cut power by turning the battery switch to OFF.

The study found that AC shore power inlets were another prime area for fires. Corrosion causes increased resistance at inlet connections and the resistance, in turn, causes a lot of heat. Enough heat to start a fire. Check shore power inlets periodically for blackened or burned ends.

Fires can also be caused by corroded exhaust manifolds that block cooling water and cause engines to severely overheat. Manifolds need to be inspected every few years to keep cooling water flowing. Manifolds that can’t be cleaned-out will need to be replaced.

The last major cause of fires is fuel leaks. Leaks from fuel tanks, fittings, and hoses are the most common. If you can smell raw gas, something’s really wrong. Get everyone off the boat and have it checked immediately.

And finally, make sure you have the proper number of working fire extinguishers aboard.

Each issue of Seaworthy from July, 2003 to July, 2004 has specific information on preventing fires aboard; a synopsis can be found on the Seaworthy website (www.boatus.com/seaworthy).

# 3: Sinking

The first rule of boating: Keep the water outside the boat! Sounds simple, but boats often come from the manufacturer with holes already in the hull. Leaking water intakes, drains, and transducer fittings can sink your boat. Many underwater holes are supposed to have a way to keep them closed when they’re not needed—seacocks. But seacocks must often remain open, so it falls to lesser fittings like hoses and clamps to keep the water out. Unfortunately, unlike beefy seacocks, these fittings may only last a few years before they get tired and fail. The solution? Check, squeeze, and tug on all fittings below the waterline at least once a season.

Something else to keep in mind: Inboard/outboard cutouts are often at least partially under water and only the outdrive’s bellows keeps the water on the outside. Most manufacturers specify inspection of bellows every year and most marine surveyors say that any bellows over five years old is living on borrowed time.

Fittings above the waterline, which typically don’t have seacocks, can sink boats too. Snow and heavy rain can force a fitting underwater. Water can then back up in to cockpits or even siphon back through discharges.

Many boats, even boats with self-draining cockpits, can be sunk by rainwater. You’d think a boat could shrug off a good rainstorm, but clogged scuppers can eventually (sometimes quickly) fill a boat with water. And a few manufacturers direct cockpit drains into the bilge, leaving the bilge pump to take care of hundreds of gallons of rainwater. Needless to say, this is a poor design and these boats should not be left in the water. A bilge pump should only be relied on to take care of nuisance water. Put another way, a constantly cycling bilge pump is a symptom of a larger problem. A leak, above or below the waterline, needs to be addressed immediately.

The April and July, 1999 issues of Seaworthy have more information about why boats sink at the dock and underway. The articles are also available on-line at www.boatus.com/seaworthy.

# 2 Claim: Striking Submerged Objects

The need to avoid floating logs and barely-submerged rocks is pretty obvious and a responsible skipper tries to do just that. But there are also times that require added vigilance. Typically just after major storms or extreme tides, lots of debris is washed into the water, some of which is difficult to see. Just after Hurricane Isabel, the Chesapeake Bay was full of small branches, partially submerged docks, trees, and even things like water heaters and dumpsters. This is obviously not the time to shove the throttle forward and hope for the best.

One thing you might be surprised to learn is that a Struck Submerged Object claim sometimes becomes a Sinking claim. Hitting a log or rock will almost certainly damage your prop and rudder, but it can also put a huge strain on struts and stuffing boxes and other underwater gear—enough to cause them to leak. If you hit something in the water, stop and check the bilge for leaks. And when you get back to the dock, check again, thoroughly. Any water might be indicating serious damage and a haulout (covered by insurance—notify BoatU.S. Marine Insurance first) is in order.

Tidal ranges can vary widely from area to area. Coming from the Chesapeake Bay, which has small tide ranges, a boater might encounter tides of 10 feet or more in North Carolina. Having the proper charts on board (and knowing how to use them) and keeping track of the tides can help you avoid an expensive bump.

# 1 Claim: Hurricane Damage

In 2002, an especially quiet year, hurricane claims only numbered in the dozens. But the past three years have been far different— there have been thousands of hurricane claims. This year the BoatU.S. Catastrophe team—the people who handle the claims—was the largest ever.

The time to begin hurricane preparation starts long before hurricane season. A well-thought out hurricane plan is critical. Where will you keep your boat? Boats hauled out do better than boats left in the water. Will there be space to haul your boat before a storm? Will you have to move to a more protected location? If so, plan your route in advance; drawbridges may not operate during evacuations. Bring home your trailerable boat early; evacuation traffic might prevent you from getting to your marina.

Once a warning is issued, you’ll need to remove anything that causes windage and tie your boat with extra lines. Will you have the extra ropes, chafe guard, anchors, and fenders? (Don’t count on them sill being on chandlery shelves.) Find out what your marina’s hurricane plan is before the season starts—does your dock contract call for you to take certain steps?

For more on hurricane preparation as well as a hurricane preparation worksheet, see the July, 2004 issue of Seaworthy. Also visit the Seaworthy hurricane website at boatus.com/seaworthy/hurricane.

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