Storm Damaged Boats—Part 1

atlantic highlands marina
BoatUS estimates that 15%, or 25,000, of all registered boats in New Jersey, like this one at Atlantic Highlands Marina, were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

It’s Christmas week and a storm front is moving through the Northeast with torrential rains and 60 mile-per-hour wind gusts, reminding me of my colleague Brett Becker’s story “Flooded Boats Can Offer Good Value.” With today’s storm and major storms like Hurricane Sandy becoming more destructive, more information seems to be needed on storm-damaged boats. I’ve written briefly on the topic before with my own “How to Get Rid of An Old Boat.”

I  contacted a marine surveyor acquaintance of mine, David Wiggin, who often ends up working for insurance companies on behalf of their clients in the aftermath of such storms. I met David years ago when I was the operations manager at a large boatyard. As a member of BoatUS’s Catastrophe response team or CAT, David has seen the worst that nature can dish out over the past twenty years. He just returned from six and a half weeks of surveying damage from Hurrican Sandy and said simply, “It was the worst damage I’ve ever seen, with thousands of boats a total loss.” Click here for a video of the BoatUS CAT Team in action after Hurricane Sandy.

Before you consider buying a storm-damaged boat, it’s worth knowing something about how insurance claims processes work after big weather events. I spoke to BoatUS’s D. Scott Croft, AVP of Public Relations, for some perspective.

“We estimate that there were over 65,000 boats total, both insured and uninsured, damaged in New York and New Jersey alone from Hurricane Sandy,” said Croft. “In a storm like this, a boat we insured may be under a pile of boats we don’t have policies for. Job one is to get all the boats out of the weeds or intersections and off to the repair yards to be evaluated. Often additional damage can happen when you’re salvaging a boat.”

BoatUS sells only marine insurance. Their CAT team of surveyors, claims administrators, and logistics, salvage and trucking people, is often involved in recovery and salvage beyond the immediate needs of their clients. For instance, they put together a salvage plan for all of the 400-plus boats damaged at Atlantic Highlands Marina in New Jersey.

“Many people don’t read the fine print on their policies and don’t understand the value of the policy until a catastrophe like this hits,” says Croft. “There is an agreed value on the policy but also a salvage value on the policy. The first is the maximum value to be paid for damage, but often there are costs associated with salvage that take away from the agreed value. We pride ourselves in handling the entire claims process, from emergency response to what happens after.”

To follow this saga of what happens to storm damaged boats, where the total loss boats go, and how you might purchase one, stay tuned for my future blogs.

Flooded Boats Can Offer Good Value

After each natural disaster that involves huge amounts of water, the airwaves, newspapers and Internet are flush with reports on how to spot flood-damaged cars for sale. And for good reason: You don’t want to own one.

You see, cars are built to keep nasty elements like water and mud and sand on the outside — unless you track it inside on your boots. What’s more, delicate and often porous materials and electronics systems don’t withstand water very well, and the cheap price just isn’t worth the trouble you could face if you were to buy a once-flooded car.

Sandy Damage
Sandy left these boats in a jumble at Somers Point, New Jersey. But once they’re sorted out, much of the damage is likely to be cosmetic. Boats are used to the water. Photo courtesy of BoatUS.

But if there’s one thing I’ve tried to be clear about, on this blog or in any other marine-related story I’ve written, it’s that boats are not cars and cars are not boats. And within that distinction lies an interesting shift in thinking about flood-damaged vehicles.

Whereas flood-damaged cars present myriad potential problems, flood-damaged boats present far fewer, and in many cases could spell opportunity. Here’s why.

Boats are built to get wet. They are far simpler in terms of their primary systems.  If you were to fill up a basic center-console or walkaround with muddy water, then drain it, you could probably get away with washing it with boat soap and a garden hose, letting it dry, and then be good to go. Boat wiring, engines, steering systems, upholstery, and construction materials are built to withstand the harsh marine environment. A Buick is not.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which was — no other way to characterize it — a miserable and unfortunate experience for everyone in the Mid-Atlantic states, you might be seeing some tremendously low prices on used boats. Odds are good that the prices on some of them will be the result of flood damage.

Google Earth shows how boats got lifted off their stands and swept together in a Staten Island boatyard.

Odds are also pretty good that any flood damaged boat can be satisfactorily repaired far more easily than any car. Once those boats are repaired, it’s not difficult to imagine that they’ll be as reliable as any other used model.

So even though you would automatically walk away from a flood-damaged car, a flood-damaged boat is another matter. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that any boat with significant flood damage can be fixed. I am suggesting that if you choose correctly, you could get a deal and not suffer from the same doomed future as people who buy water-damaged cars.

As near as I can tell, boats designed for saltwater environments, especially for fishing, are probably a safer bet than a plush runabout used primarily for day-cruising the Intracoastal. For example, center-consoles, walkarounds, and skiffs, which are designed to be, well, abused, might be good contenders for the used-boat buyer looking for an extraordinarily low price. Outboards are probably a better bet than inboards or stern drives.

I would add that the used-boat buyer in question should be handy with a wrench and somewhat versed in gelcoat repairs. So, as you pore through the ads on BoatTrader.com, remember that there could be some great deals to be had on flood-damaged boats, with few of the consequences you get with a flood-damaged car.

Brett Becker