Navigating The Asphalt Ocean

What you need to know if you transport your boat overland.

By Charles Fort

Photo of a boat being transport on a large flatbed truckPhoto: Joule Yacht Transport

Last year, Steffen Schmidt wanted to move his Beneteau 373 Oceanus from Seattle, Washington to Wickford Cove, Rhode Island. He hired a boat transport company to handle everything and assumed the move would go as well as it did four years earlier when he'd shipped the boat from Rhode Island to Washington. But this time was different; the boat's prop and cutlass bearing were damaged where it rested on one of the trailer struts and the mast was gashed and mangled.

Schmidt called the trucking company, hoping they would send an insurance adjuster to inspect the damage. After all, their advertisement claimed, "Insured for $1,250,000, which assures that your investment will be protected while it's on our trailers." His first surprise came when the company said that they handle claims of less than $100,000 "in house," and wouldn't even give him their insurance carrier's name. The second surprise was how they handled in — house claims. Instead of asking Schmidt to get estimates, the company began trying to negotiate the claim and wanted to fix the mast themselves, even though it was obvious it would have to be replaced. Schmidt eventually hired a marine surveyor who, with Beneteau's input, helped get a repair quote from a local yard. The cost to repair his boat would be over $25,000, several times more than the transport cost, and the boat would be out of commission for weeks.

Every spring and fall, thousands of boats are transported by truck across a state or across the country. Before you ship your boat, you need to know how to find a reliable shipper, how to prepare your boat properly, and what to do if something goes wrong.

Finding A Shipper

Transportation service providers (TSPs), or shippers, are state licensed and are issued an Operating Authority document by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation (DOT). In addition, TSPs must obtain vehicle insurance and drivers must have commercial driver's licenses, which include testing requirements for drugs and alcohol. Equally important, they should have liability and cargo insurance to protect your boat. Ask to see the DOT or state documents and copies of the cargo insurance; reluctance to provide this information is reason enough to look elsewhere. DOT makes it easy to check up on the status of commercial carriers' licenses, their motor carrier insurance data, and their safety ratings (see sidebar). Had Schmidt known, he could have checked the DOT website and found his TSP failed a much higher percentage of truck inspections than average — an indication of sloppy maintenance and a red flag.

Choose a TSP that specializes in boat transport, not one that carries boats simply to fill their empty trucks. The transporter needs to know how the boat must be supported, balanced, and secured, and they need experience working with state permit agencies because most larger boats exceed width restrictions and may be over the maximum height restriction.

All transportation agreements should be in writing, with complete information about costs, taxes, tariffs, scheduling, security, and pickup and delivery locations, as well as rules about refunds for cancellations or delays. Make sure you read the shipper's contract and if you don't understand something, ask. Consult with an attorney if you're still unclear.

Prepare Your Boat Properly

The most important thing to know about preparing your boat is that it's usually not the job of the transport company. Unless they've agreed otherwise — and most don't — their job is simply to ship the boat from one point to another without damaging it. Smacking a low bridge at 60 mph will certainly damage a boat, but the Marine Insurance claim files and Consumer Protection databases show that the most common cause of damage is due to improper or incomplete preparation. Consider that your boat may be traveling down the highway in hurricane-force winds and experience road vibration for days. Your best bet is to use a boatyard experienced in preparing boats for transport. For larger boats, consider hiring a marine surveyor to supervise the preparations and coordinate with another one at the boat's destination to supervise the off-loading and recommissioning.

Dana Holland, a senior BoatUS Marine Insurance claims adjuster, says, "The prepping of the boat is critical." She has handled a lot of claims that resulted from damage during transport, so she knows what can go wrong. "When you hire someone to prep your boat for transport, get a contract in writing that specifies what they do," she recommends. So what should they do?

Photo of a large boat with pulpits and stanchions removedLarger boats will likely need pulpits and stanchions removed. (Photo: Joule Yacht Transport)

Canvas, frames, mast spreaders and lights, and other equipment on the masts should be removed. Stays and halyards should be removed or secured tightly to the mast — pallet wrap works well — and the entire mast wrapped in padding, such as carpet. Note that if the stays are left on, they may mark up the mast and it may be better to remove them, especially for a painted mast. On large powerboats, the flybridge will have to be taken off and may even be shipped separately. Bow and stern rails as well as stanchions may have to be removed if the boat is particularly tall.

Photo of large sailboat being transported on a flatbed truck with the mast well protectedThis mast is well-protected and secured for travel. (Photo: Joule Yacht Transport)

Remove loose items from lockers and secure all locker doors; the boat may experience rough roads and sudden stops. All hatches must be securely dogged down and taped over from the outside to keep rain out. Keep in mind that your boat may be going down the road stern-first and will be subjected to unusual winds. Windshields may have to be removed. Dinghies must be removed from davits and transported below or shipped separately if they won't fit. Expensive electronics should be removed and shipped separately or securely stowed inside the boat with all access locked. Holland says, "Attend the preparation if you can and take lots of pictures of the boat — bow to stern and top to bottom, including the mast and hull supports — to show there was no prior damage. Set your camera to show the date."

Photo of radar arch removed before transport of boatThis radar arch was too high to make it under a bridge. It's the owner's job to remove anything that might be too high. (Photo: Joule Yacht Transport)

Shippers usually provide a "condition of cargo" form that is filled out after loading that specifies any existing damage and notes the overall condition of the boat. Make sure the driver or a representative of the TSP signs it. Expect your boat to arrive dirty, especially if it's a long cross-country trip. Many TSPs recommend against shrinkwrapping boats because it can be torn off and cause damage at high speeds. For freshwater boats, thoroughly inspect your boat for zebra mussels or other invasive species. Your boat may be checked for them at weigh stations, which could cause delays. If a Southern boat is being transported during winter months, it should be winterized completely, because it may experience much colder temperatures than normal. Water and fuel tanks should be drained and battery cables should be disconnected. Be sure to settle up with the boatyard that prepares your boat before the truck arrives so there won't be any delays; boatyards typically won't allow a boat to be loaded until their services are paid for, especially those going cross-country.

Usually, a TSP will require a deposit up front, which is often necessary to get permits and escorts. Full payment is due at delivery and shippers will probably not release the boat until they're paid, so make arrangements to have a certified check at the drop-off point if you won't be there. Some shippers will allow you to make a wire transfer. If you can't be there for the drop off, make sure someone you trust can make a thorough inspection. Emailing or sending them a disc of the pictures you took makes it easier to spot problems. Keep in mind that delivery dates are approximate and weather, traffic, or road construction issues can cause unforeseen delays. You may need to coordinate a new schedule at the drop-off point.

What To Do If Something Goes Wrong

If you hired a marine surveyor to supervise the loading, arrangements should be made for a local surveyor to check over the boat on arrival. If you wait for the boatyard to inspect the boat as they're reassembling it, you won't be able to document any problems before the driver leaves — if you can't make it, try to get someone from the boatyard or a knowledgeable friend to be there at the delivery. Whoever does the inspection should go over the boat inside and out, make a detailed report, and have the driver sign it. The driver may have his own condition report but make sure he gets a copy of yours and that you get a copy of his. Most TSPs require the shipping to be paid even if there is damage. Since smaller claims are usually handled without involving their insurance company, you may need to hire a marine surveyor to prepare an estimate and protect your interest. If you find the shipper reluctant to fix your boat, the DOT will investigate complaints about carriers.

If you are insured with BoatUS Marine Insurance, damage while shipping is covered. Holland says that if you find damage after shipping, call BoatUS Insurance immediately and file a claim. The pictures that you took may prove invaluable in settling the claim. BoatUS Insurance will then file a claim against the shipper or their insurance carrier. But keep in mind that if you are moving from one cruising area to another, you must notify BoatUS Insurance before you launch your boat.

Steffen Schmidt's story had a happy ending. When he called BoatUS Consumer Protection about the damage to his Beneteau, they learned that he was insured through the BoatUS Marine Insurance program and helped him open a claim. After sending a marine surveyor to inspect and estimate the damage, Marine Insurance paid for the repairs and filed a claim against the shipper's insurance. Instead of dealing with a prolonged negotiation and legal fees, Schmidt got to enjoy his boat in a new cruising ground. 

— Published: October 2013

Seaworthy, the damage-avoidance newsletter, is brought to you by the BoatUS Marine Insurance Program. For an insurance quote, please call 1-800-283-2883 or apply online at


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Be Wary Of Online Shopping

Finding a transporter online may seem like a great way to save money, but beware. BoatUS Consumer Protection has received numerous complaints from members who used bid-type clearinghouses to find transportation service providers (TSPs). For a fee, the websites allow you to enter your information and receive bids from several TSPs. In theory, you simply pick the best price and make the arrangements with the shipper. Unfortunately, the websites don't verify or validate the claims about experience, insurance coverage, and licensure made by trucking companies that are bidding for your business. They also won't help if you have problems with the shipper. Some members who posted negative reviews on one site found their comments had been deleted. If you decide to use such a service, use the same diligence you would if you called a shipper directly. Verify their status with the DOT, and get copies of their cargo insurance. Don't forget to search the Consumer Protection database as well to see if we have any record of complaints against the shipper you are considering.

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