Staying In ’Toon: A Closer Look At Claims

Boating Tips and Observations with Sky Smith

May 2020 Feature Scott “Sky” Smith

Owning a boat has its risks. In general, the biggest risk comes to the bank account. At least in my personal experience, owning a boat always seems to costs me money. Of course, so does a Harley, Cessna or anything else I own. There is a never-ending list of improvements and gadgets that I want to add. And if I don’t add things to the existing boat, there is always another boat around the corner I want to buy. New or used, the “risk” is there.

So think you can save money by not adding anything new to your boat? Sorry, doesn’t work that way. Even if you don’t add or change things on your boat, there will always be regular maintenance items that are the result of age or wear and tear. There are also a few fixed costs that boat owners cannot get away from. Slip or mooring fees and insurance are just a couple. No one but the owner pays these types of expenses. They are part of the risk of owning a boat.

Maintenance is necessary and vitally important to maintaining the value and safety of the boat. It is also something that can’t be covered by warranties or insurance. There are a few things that are covered under the warranty that may be construed as maintenance, but typically, warranties are good for defective manufacturing or assembly of your boat, motor and accessories. If it is a problem that results from regular use (wear and tear) or recommended service intervals, it is not going to be covered by a warranty. Sure, there is always the chance that your local dealer might include free oil changes or tune-ups for some limited amount of time, but that’s not a typical warranty. 

It is the same thing for insurance. If you remember insurance 101, insurance (often defined as the transfer of the risk of a potential loss, from one entity to another, in exchange for a reasonable fee) is sometimes expected to pay for these regular expenses. Well, let me remind you that wear and tear and maintenance are not covered by insurance.

Many people try to have regular maintenance items covered by insurance only to be disappointed when the claim is denied.  Items like frozen and cracked engine blocks, overheating damage, even the failure of the bellows will not be covered. The cause (poor service, lack of antifreeze, etc.) won’t necessarily be covered but the resulting sinking or fire may be. That’s the key. Let me try and clarify this again: the accident and the resulting damage should be covered, but the cause might not. An example could be the deteriorating bellows on a lower unit. If the bellows dries out and cracks it could leak and the boat could sink. The bellows would not be covered, but the damage that results from the sinking probably would.  Okay, seems pretty gray, which it is.

What claims are the most common? There are a few claims that keep popping up. One marine insurance claim department I contacted felt that about 80 percent of their claims are the result of hitting a submerged object.

Think about it. The more storms there are, the more rivers that flood, the more stuff is floating in the water and under the surface. Submerged objects will result in damage to lower units, propellers, keels, and hulls. Sometimes sinking does occur. If you think or know you hit something, make sure you check bilge area and monitor the bilge regularly to make sure there is not any damage that could result in submersion or, in other words, sinking.

Using information from marine insurance claim departments and organizations like Boat US, here are a few of the other common claims I discovered: 

Theft of assorted boat equipment and parts (portable or permanent). Items like out drives, electronics, outboard motors, and trailers are some of the most popular parts. Leaving the trailer unattended in the parking lot or the cockpit uncovered is an invitation for a thief. Check your policy, since many do not cover items stolen from your boat unless it was permanently attached or in a locked compartment. 

Grand theft boat. Snatching the whole boat is another big claim. While there are cases of theft from a slip or mooring, trailer-based boats are the ones that are usually turned in on a claim. Boats, like cars, are often stripped and the parts sold a piece at a time. Remember the phrase “the sum of the parts is worth more than the whole”? Well, that’s true with boat parts. Plus if you take all the parts off the boat, they’re harder to track down. 

Collision claims. Collisions with anything are bad. Collisions with pilings, docks, and other boats can be deadly. Collisions are not the same as hitting submerged items. Collisions are just that, colliding with something else either moving (another boat) or stationary (like a dock). You can help avoid collisions by watching where you’re going, learning the rules of the area and using your charts. 

Grounding or running aground. Most claims departments indicate that often more damage is caused by trying to accelerate through sand, mud or rocks than by just stopping and waiting for help. Using a tow service or an alternative method to get unstuck like air bags reduces the risk for further damage.

Now is a good time to repeat this: carry up-to-date marine charts and plan your cruising routes to avoid accidental grounding.

A few of the less common but still important claims mentioned include:

Lightning strikes. Being the one of the tallest things on the water during storms is bound to result in a lightning strike. Lightning usually “fries” the electronics, puts holes in fiberglass and starts fires. It is a hard thing to prevent. The best way to reduce the damage is to ground the boat so the current has a way to pass through to the ground. 

Damage from docks. Wind, weather, and hurricanes can cause chafing, damage to rub rails and hull joints and even rip cleats out of the decks. Get in a habit of moving the boat to a safe harbor or new neighborhood when bad weather is imminent. Learn to tie up securely and use high quality dock lines and fenders. Last year was bad for the hurricane states. The underwriters are already increasing rates and reducing or eliminating territories and coverages.

There are a few claims relating to fire and explosion. Often the cause is bad wiring, fuel leaks, overheated manifolds, and even bilge vents not being used or being blocked. These claims can be reduced or eliminated just by taking part in a good preventative maintenance plan. 

Occasionally there will be a boat that sinks from bad through-hull fittings, damaged sea cocks and the bilge pump being blocked and/or the backup bilge pump and warning system being inoperative. Occasionally a storm with lots of heavy rain or combined with a lightning strike can short the boat’s battery, preventing the bilge pumps from working.

Of course, the list above is not inclusive.
There are all sorts of variations along with different levels of each type of claim. Even if you take all the precautions, accidents do happen. Boat owners buy insurance to transfer the risk to the insurance company for those unexpected catastrophes, so make sure you have the right coverage for your vessel and you implement a preventative maintenance plan to help reduce potential claims.

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