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Owner’s View: Lesson learned from Irma: Insurance doesn’t replace skill

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By Peter Herm

Hurricane Irma taught me some new lessons. I learned there are basically two types of preparation strategies: one counting on insurance; the other relying on seamanship. From what I learned in Irma, seamanship has been replaced by insurance in too many instances. This is not comforting. Our U.S. boat is in South Florida to prepare for a Bahamas season. With Irma approaching, the temporary crew had other obligations, so I got the job of babysitting the boat. Fortunately, my genius captain was prescient enough to book a dock five miles inland very early. The boat and I – and a supply of cold beer – survived unscathed, thanks to generators, a plan and preparation. But the current state of hurricane preparation on many big boats is scary. We were very, very lucky.

In a hurricane, it is not just the preparation of your boat that matters, but the preparation and planning of the boats around you. You may be lashed down with oversized lines, with all hatches taped, canvas and antennae removed, and all decks clear, but if that 150-foot boat upwind of you is not prepared, you are doomed. If the yard or marina has not done their job properly, no amount of Spectra line is going to save your boat. Whatever surrounding boats and the marina do not secure properly is a deadly projectile coming your way if the wind is right.

Once I had our boat lashed down with over 1,000 feet of oversized lines and the boat was stripped and sealed, I decided to inspect my many neighbors’ levels of preparation. Due north of us was a very shiny, 140-foot Dutch boat of some repute. It was rafted starboard side to another large boat. However, it had absolutely no lines off its port side, and one line was tied to a cleat the size of my fist. I found the adjacent boat’s captain to ask if the captain of the Dutch boat was aboard his vessel and when did he plan to do his hurricane preparation? He said the Dutch boat’s captain and crew would not be returning. I got the number for the departed captain and called him to ask about his plan. The answer was shocking: “We used all the line we had and I took pictures for the insurance company.”

I decided my only hope of not having this 400-ton barge coming down on my little boat was to secure it myself. I asked if I could actually tie his boat down correctly? The reply: “Sure, knock yourself out.” The adjacent captain saved the day with his extra lines.

The next scary example was a beautiful 120 foot-boat on which the crew were busily preparing as diligently as they could. I asked if the 5/8-inch bowline was really sufficient? They acknowledged, with disgust, that it was a joke, but said the owner had declined to pay the hurricane price markup for the lines they actually needed. That owner was counting on insurance rather than preparation. I loaned them some spare lines for our mutual benefit.

To make matters worse, the marina moored their work floats in our vicinity with the remains of scaffolding on top of them. This included 2×12 wooden planks, known in hurricanes as missiles. The floats were tied together with quarter-inch poly line that might have held them in a 20-mph breeze, but certainly not gales of 100-plus. The yard workers said it was the best they could do, mentioned insurance and left. Fortunately, my neighboring captain and I knew this was destruction-in-waiting for our boats, so we took on the four-hour project of semi-securing the floats and piles of lumber ourselves. 
My neighboring captain was a true professional. He never mentioned the word “insurance,” and he and his crew worked two solid days preparing properly. I even learned from him and taped down our radar scanners.  I was not smart enough to remove my anemometer as he had. It broke, so I have no idea what our wind speeds were. But I stayed up watching our neighbors’ still-flying American flag as my rough wind gauge – until it shredded. I guess insurance will replace it.

South Florida dodged a big bullet. My boat will not be around for the next hurricane season. The neighbors are too dangerous and the insurance adjusters must be too lenient. I have never made a boat insurance claim, and don’t plan to have my cavalier neighbors cause me to start. Bow west and high tide only.

Peter Herm is the pen name for a veteran yacht owner who is an entrepreneur based on the East Coast of the U.S. Comments are welcome below.

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2 thoughts on “Owner’s View: Lesson learned from Irma: Insurance doesn’t replace skill

  1. Fred Brodsky

    Absolutely correct that each Captain/Owner must be prepared for the worst and not damage his neighbors. For those of us who live on canals off the ICW, we need to ensure that all of us are secure and protected. Great lesson for all of us. There will be more violent storms in our future, now is the time to plan and have spare and properly sized lines and fenders in reserve. Survey your docks for cleats that are properly sized and secure as well as pilings that may have been loosened. The best time to prepare for a storm is after hurricane season.

  2. Melvyn Miller

    It is comforting to know that Peter is among the very small number of crewed yacht owners capable of preparing a yacht for a hurricane, but we are all complicit in the current state of things. We pay, directly or indirectly, the insurance premiums that finance the payouts for unprepared yachts, marinas, and boat yards.

    We occasionally hire captains, and often hire crew, who have very little hurricane preparation experience or education, and use marinas and yards that prioritize operational considerations to the detriment of the reduction of hurricane damage. We provide the cash flow that defines the yachting business, so what we see is our creation.

    We are far too polite to advise other owners or their crew when we observe equipment and procedures that indicates a high probability of heavy weather problems

    South Florida is problematic, as are the Carolinas, so the boats on our program are almost never below Hatteras during the hurricane season. However, we have found it necessary to undergo hurricane preparation as far north as Prince Edward Island. In those instances, local yards, marinas and owners watched with amazement as we employed techniques and gear that Peter would find appropriate, explaining that we are a Florida boat and follow a conservative hurricane plan, even though our hull and liability coverage would easily cover any damage.

    Perhaps the owners and crew who depend upon insurance, for the relatively few years that they are part of our community, are more rational than those of us who believe that protecting the vessel is a measure of seamanship, in which case we shall not be missed when we pass from the scene.

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