Meet The BoatUS CAT Team: Mike McCook

After a hurricane, tornado, flood, marina fire, or blizzard, his job is to coordinate the daunting job of salvaging boats.

Mike McCookMcCook at the BoatUS Hurricane Ike CAT Headquarters.

Mike McCook said they had only been airborne for maybe a half-hour when the worst — the absolute worst — thing that can go wrong in a small airplane went wrong: Smoke started pouring out of the plane's only engine. The pilot calmly said "Uh-oh" and started looking for a place to land. They were over the jungle in Honduras and McCook, an independent marine surveyor from Maryland, had been on the way to an island to salvage a stranded sailboat. A self-described "non-jungle person," McCook could only see thick, green forest for hundreds of miles in every direction. After a few anxious minutes, the pilot banked the plane sharply and headed down. McCook said it wasn't until they were just above the treetops that he finally spotted what the pilot had seen — a narrow logging road.

There is a lot more to McCook's jungle saga — his stories seldom end quickly — but he eventually reached the stranded sailboat and worked successfully with local fishermen to get it refloated. Carroll Robertson, the senior vice president of Claims at BoatUS, says that's typical of McCook. "He always — always — gets the boat, which is why after 30 years of working with salvors to recover thousands of boats, he is the obvious choice to be the salvage coordinator for the BoatUS CAT [Catastrophe] team." After a hurricane, tornado, flood, marina fire, or blizzard, his job is to coordinate the daunting job of salvaging boats. She calls him a wizard.

Salvaging boat after Hurricane IsabelCranes as well as crane operators must be certified (many aren't) before they will be considered for a salvage job. McCook also says a crane operator must also have the right types of straps and spreader bars to lift a boat without causing further damage. The boat shown here was salvaged after Hurricane Isabel.

Whatever you call him, McCook has an impressive bag of tricks. When Hurricane Ike's 12-foot surge left the 58-foot Narcosis wedged high-and-dry between two homes, it fell on McCook and fellow BoatUS CAT team member Dave Wiggin, a marine surveyor from Massachusetts, to find a way to get the 58,000-pound boat back to open water. As with many post-hurricane salvage jobs, the recovery effort was even more complicated than it originally appeared. For one thing, the size of the equipment that would be needed meant obtaining permits from federal, state and local governments. And because the homeowners were already antsy about the massive gatecrasher on their lawn, the permits would have to be obtained quickly, a word not often associated with the permitting process. The size of the crane and other equipment that would be needed to salvage a yacht that size presented a second problem — how to transport them over roads and bridges. The solution was to load them onto a barge. And finally, since barges ferrying giant cranes tend to draw a lot of water, they'd have to find a way to get the barge close to shore.

Narcosis salvageThe Narcosis.

Like McCook's jungle story, this one also has a happy ending. McCook and Wiggin got the permits and moved the equipment into place. Narcosis was gradually positioned closer to the water's edge and was lifted by the crane onto the barge. After many, many days of planning, the massive job was over; start-to-finish, the hands-on work was completed in a day.

Alabama tornado boat damageTornados often occur in parts of the country where marine salvors, if any, are lacking in experience and are not up to complex jobs. In this case — a houseboat in Alabama — McCook had to bring in a more experienced salvor from another state.

The biggest challenge for McCook in these situations is determining which salvor is best suited for the job. Every salvor he interviews promises to get the job done quickly, at a reasonable price and without doing further damage to the boat. Some salvors do have the knowledge and equipment to get the job done, but with others, mistakes are more liable to be made — boats that are sunk are destroyed in the process of getting them to the surface; boats get dropped by cranes; or after days or even weeks of effort, boats remain unsalvaged.

Another longtime CAT surveyor, Jonathan Klopman, a marine surveyor from Massachusetts, says McCook has an "uncanny ability" to sense which salvors can deliver and which can't. Klopman speculates that the reason is because McCook has been salvaging boats since Hurricane Alicia back in 1983, which is before many of the salvors he deals with were born. "There is something to be said for experience," Klopman says.

Bohemia River snowstorm-damaged boatsMajor damage from snowstorms, like this one on the Bohemia River in Maryland, typically involve covered sheds that collapse. Salvage operations may be complicated by weather and ice, which make it difficult to position a crane.

McCook is quick to point out that he no longer salvages boats himself, "I'm not up to swimming under the boat with cables and airbags these days, but I've done it often enough that I know what works, or what is liable to work, or what definitely won't work." He recalls a 60-foot powerboat that was sunk in 85 feet of water in Green Bay, Wisconsin. McCook got out the yellow pages and contacted the only marine salvor, who proceeded to explain what he would do to get the boat back to the surface. After listening politely, McCook decided that the approach wasn't likely to get the boat back to the surface, at least not in one piece. He got the phone book out again and found an "ice recovery salvage expert." Intrigued, McCook called him and learned that he specializes in salvaging fishermen's trucks that fell through the ice. The more the guy talked, the more McCook became convinced that he could get the job done, even though he'd never salvaged a boat. McCook took a chance and in a few days the boat was floating back at the dock.

Helicopter used for boat salvageHelicopters are expensive and are only used when all else fails. A boat that is going to be lifted by a helicopter must first be readied by salvors so that it can be raised quickly and easily. If a boat can't be lifted on the first attempt, the pilot will simply let go of the cable and leave. The boat shown here was lifted out of an environmentally sensitive area in Massachusetts after Hurricane Bob.

In his almost 30 years of working with the BoatUS CAT Team, no one has ever accused Mike McCook of being a worrier. After all, worry never fixed anything. When asked who on the BoatUS CAT team might someday succeed him, McCook said it's not going to be a problem. David Wiggin, Jonathan Klopman and several others on the BoatUS CAT teams have more than 20 years of salvage experience. And there are more than 10 others who have been working with salvors for at least a dozen years.

All of this experience came in handy after Hurricane Irene swept up the East Coast last year, damaging thousands of boats from North Carolina to Maine. Instead of the CAT team working out of a single office, they were scattered among 23 locations up and down the East Coast. Unlike previous operations, there weren't meetings every night or long discussions about how to get the various boats salvaged; each CAT team member worked independently with local salvors.

After only three weeks, 80 percent of the boats were recovered. It seems that there really is something to be said for experience. 

— Published: July 2012