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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 From what I learned in Irma, seamanship has been replaced by insurance in too many instances.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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