It Takes A Thief

How safe is your boat?

July 2009 Feature
Let's just get it out in the open: I'm a thief. And not one of those good-looking, wisecracking crooks you get in movies like Ocean's 11, either. I'm just a regular guy who likes stealing boats, and I must say, yours looks very appealing. In fact, I'm planning on making off with your `toon tonight. 
Why am I telling you this? Let's just say I want to give you a sporting chance. I've lifted so many boats over the years without going through much of a hassle that it's getting boring. I mean, once you've made a few hundred grand in this line of work, you either keep doing it because you love it, or you quit to enjoy your "pension." I love what I do, but you need to make things more of a challenge for me. How much fun would The Italian Job have been if Edward Norton just kept his gold under his bed? 
So here are a few tips for you if you want to have a fighting chance at keeping your `toon. Yeah, yeah, it's your pride and joy, family fun, blah blah blah. Just clam up and listen and maybe you'll get through tonight okay. 

The Obvious
Lock it up. Yes, I know you have a Wal Mart padlock with a flimsy chain working hard to protect your boat from people like me, but most thieves are guys looking for an easy mark, and discount stuff like this screams "take me!" Go with something admittedly more expensive, but much, much more effective. I recommend the UMAX 100 Universal Trailer Lock ($79.95; available at And for even more security, add a TRIMAX chain or cable secured to an impossible-to-break anchor point. Trust me, I see a setup like this and I'm likely to keep on walking. 
Another approach that might deter thieves is a wheel boot, much like the one cops use on cars parked illegally. The Dania Boot ( takes just seconds to install on your trailer and costs under $100. 
Now, this won't stop a determined thief, one who might choose to just remove the entire wheel, replace it with one of his own, and drive off. But if you use locking lug nuts, like ones you can get from McGard (, that's another obstacle in the way of someone like me. You can get a set of four for under $10, so forgo McDonald's for a couple meals and get McGard instead. You get less weight gain and more property protection this way. 
Another way to deter me is by blocking in your boat between a car and a wall. This means I'd have to hotwire the car just to get started on stealing the boat. Sure, there's added profit if I can unload the car as well, but it's just too much work overall, and I like to be in and out fast. It's hard for people to spot me at work if I'm only there for a couple of minutes. 
Speaking of people spotting me, don't try to hide your boat. You may succeed at fooling one or two bad guys, but eventually someone will find it, and then they'll have a virtually unlimited amount of time to get past whatever security measures you're using. Keep your `toon out in the open, where as many people pass by as possible. If you can park it where there is 24-hour surveillance, all the better. 

Marina Countermeasures
In general, boats in the water are safe. Insurance agencies report that boat thefts occur on trailers by a huge margin over boats taken from the water. The numbers show that of boats taken from the water, two out of three are recovered in the first 24 hours. Trailered boats, on the other hand, only get found at a rate of one in 10. 
But don't think that just because you parked your boat at the marina you're protected from me. It's often an easy task to get under your mooring cover and once inside, I'll find the spare key you have hidden. From there it's clear sailing for me. 
The thing that scares me most about trying to steal a boat in a marina is other boaters. If there are liveaboards nearby, my efforts to make off with one of their "neighbors'" boats will attract a lot of unwanted attention. The best security against thieves are eyeballs. But you can't rely on them alone to keep your pride and joy safe.
If you'll be away for a good period of time, disconnect the spark plug wires. This might foil a hotwire specialist like me. Definitely install a hidden fuel shut-off valve and ignition cutoff switch. Locking battery switches are generally worthless. if I crank them hard enough, they just break. 

The Aftermath
Assuming I do make off with your boat, don't count on your hull identification number (HIN) to protect you. The HIN is there for manufacturer recalls, not tracing stolen property, and I can take your pontoon to any number of my buddies who are good with fiberglass and change it. And yes, there is a second set of hidden numbers, usually somewhere on the bow where the fiberglass is exposed. Oops, I know where they are, which means I can take them off, too. Worthless. 
The only way I know of to permanently stamp a boat with ironclad identification is by using microchip technology, such as
what you get from DataDots
( These things are smaller than a grain of sand, and can be applied with a boat's gel coat or a motor's paint. This goes without saying, but "smaller than a grain of sand" equals "nearly invisible to the naked eye," and if I can't find it, I can't do anything about it. The only option I have is to completely refinish the boat, and that's a hassle I'm not usually interested in dealing with. 
If you're not into that whole "new technology" thing, at least engrave your driver's license number onto everything. These numbers are stored in a nationwide database, and if thieves see you've done this, they may just move on to an easier score. 

Growing Profession
In these tough economic times, I'm in a booming industry. There are over 10,000 boats reported stolen each year, but that number is low because many thefts go unreported. Law enforcement professionals consider boat theft to be a "victimless crime." Sure, you lost a boat, but no one was hurt. The insurance company writes you a check and everyone's happy, right? Tell that to the people who deal with rising insurance premiums.
So do your worst to keep me at bay. I've been around the block a few times, but if you implement these countermeasures, I'll be more likely to pass your boat in favor of working on another. And if everyone started being smart about boat security? I might have to move on to an easier line of work, like stealing bikes from teenagers.
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