Skip to main content

Sage advice for the next big storm

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, having a reliable, financially sound insurer and choosing the right marina have taken on added importance.

Does your marina take a pre-emptive approach to storms?

From all that we’re hearing, weather-induced misfortune isn’t going to diminish anytime soon. Common sense tells us that insurance rates will rise, and Mike Pellerin, who heads insurance underwriting at BoatUS, says this isn’t just because of Sandy. Weather patterns around the world are changing, which, of course, you know unless you live in a defunct missile silo.

Growing numbers of tornadoes, tidal waves and droughts will inflict yet more damage on boats, and we will collectively be asked to pay for this. Weather patterns can have unexpected consequences, too. Pellerin points out that drought conditions have accounted for a 50 percent increase in groundings in the Great Lakes.

In addition to the weather, there is the economy to consider. Hard times see people becoming more desperate financially, and “mysterious” sinkings, boat fires and disappearances become more common. The finest forensic surveyors and most responsive district attorneys notwithstanding, we all end up paying for these acts.

If there's one thing Rives Potts, of Brewer Pilots Point, learned from Hurricane Sandy it's that tall pilings save docks and boats.

Although we can’t do much about the economy, we can do something about mitigating the risk to our boats. This includes knowing what to look for when choosing a marina, understanding the fine print in your insurance policy and learning how to prepare for a storm.

Measure up the marina

Brewer Yacht Yard Group owns 22 marinas from Maine to New York — that’s a lot of collective experience in the marina business ( Local managers run the yards autonomously, but Jack Brewer owns all of them and has developed helpful synergies in terms of financial resources and corporate expertise that directly benefit his customers.

It’s reasonable to suppose that a well-run marina should be capable of minimizing storm damage to your boat by virtue of its infrastructure design, personnel and hauling facilities, as well as repairing your boat if it is damaged. It’s also reasonable to suppose that higher-end marinas, such as those Brewer operates, should have the financial means to make ongoing capital improvements to their properties, including docks and mooring fields, and to their service and repair facilities.

“Most of our yards contract their work themselves, but in some situations, like post-Sandy, we’re able to send repair work to the Brewer yard that is best qualified to handle it at that time,” says Lynn Oliver, Brewer’s marketing director. “Whether the customer needs sail or power expertise, fiberglass repair, rigging, painting or mechanical work, we can source all of that within the Brewer network.”

The Brewer group also has been able to take in new slip customers from damaged marinas that may not be reopening for the next season, Oliver says. “We’re happy to have the extra business, but one of our objectives is to keep as many people boating as possible,” she says. “Our size also allows us to respond quickly when repairs are needed to our own facilities, such as ordering new docks for our Plymouth and Salem [Mass.] locations, which were damaged in Sandy. Customers count on us to keep the yards open and operating. That’s why all of our locations have backup communication systems, and many have generators. We can be in touch with boat owners before, during and after storms.”

Insurer BoatUS dispatches Catastrophe Field Teams to assess damage after major storms.

To better serve customers and stay ahead of technical developments, the Brewer organization spends a lot of effort on training and certifying its technicians to American Boat and Yacht Council standards. The goal is to have ABYC Master Technicians certified in three or more expertise areas at every location. “We have over 100 mechanics, so we bring the trainers to us for three- to four-day classroom and on-the-job training and certification at our facilities,” Oliver says.

Additionally, Brewer works with a number of independent surveyors and can recommend them to customers working on insurance issues, as well as with boat buyers and sellers.

Regarding the risk that insurers take on, there is a common perception among people in the industry that insurance companies are not always discriminating about either the people or the boats they insure, one marina owner, who asked not to be identified, told me. “We see the gambit at our yard,” he told me. “It is amazing that some owners are insured at all, considering their lack of capability and experience. The same holds true of the boats themselves — how the boat is moored, whether it has a bow eye, does it have a double bridle, how is it protected against chafing, how big is the mooring anchor, the chain scope and condition, is the mooring protected by a jetty or at the leeward end of a long fetch.” This veteran told me he was amazed at how quickly adjusters will total a boat, cut a check and move on. Maybe, he noted, that lack of risk differentiation and damage-appraisal approach will change after Sandy.

Another result of having an unprepared owner’s boat directly upwind could be that your boat will be damaged or sunk if it breaks its mooring.

An obvious question when choosing a marina is whether it can keep your boat safe in hurricane conditions, not just whether you’ll get splinters walking the docks barefoot or whether the water pressure is high enough to hose off your boat.

“With Sandy, we worked our tails off to haul as many boats as we could and get them up on stands,” Oliver says. “Usually that’s where you want your boat in a storm, but the surge in a couple of locations was so high that the boats were carried off their stands. Our crews did the best they could to predict the storm’s actions and respond when conditions changed.”

What do yards such as Brewer’s do to minimize damage in the future, as storms increase in severity? “After Jack Brewer purchases a yard, he upgrades it,” Oliver says. “The facility’s design and construction, its people, the docks, the hardware that holds them together, the pilings, seawalls are all improved as needed. We are able to rely on the local knowledge of our yard managers who have been through this before and know to some degree, Sandy aside, what to expect. That helps us decide how to prepare each location, both in advance and in the face of extraordinary weather.”

Brewer Pilots Point uses heavy galvanized pipe hoops to fasten floating docks to pilings.

When a storm is imminent, Brewer facilities send emails to customers about preparations they should make and what the marina is doing. “We are not only concerned about property, but owners who may be confused or unaware of just what is coming and how to stay safe,” Oliver says. “There are times when we tell customers they will not be allowed out to their boats or in the yard for safety reasons.”

Most of the preparation is done in advance, and not just to the facilities. The veterans of fall gales can ride around a mooring field and tell which boats are going to make it and which aren’t. They look at the cleats and chocks and see if they are radiused or have hard corners, if there is a fair lead to the anchor, how heavy is the mooring line, and so on. “It’s scary,” one guy told me, “how little people know about the basics.”

Fortunately, BoatUS, through its Seaworthy publication, has published volumes on storm preparations, how to tie off to mooring buoys and other common-sense precautions.

Read the policy

A marina’s insurance rates are based on the facility’s ability to withstand wind and surge. “Make sure you understand your insurance policy — what you are insured for and what you’re not,” Brewer says. “Making assumptions can be painful, and this goes for the boat owner as well as the marina. The policies are getting stricter, and policyholders do not do their due diligence. There is no trickery involved. It’s just that the policy owner — a boat owner or a marina owner — often doesn’t read the policy as closely as he should.”

For example, he says, floating docks typically aren’t included in the policy. “As we have learned, a single nor’easter can wipe you out,” Brewer says. “A lot of marinas do not have flood insurance, so any damage caused by rising water is not covered. With Sandy, water came higher than anyone had ever seen, and we had a lot of electrical damage.”

Rives Potts, vice president of Brewer Yacht Yards and general manager of Brewer Pilots Point in Westbrook, Conn., expands on storm surge with regard to floating docks. “We’ve been making our pilings longer for some time now, and when they’re longer they also have to be stronger and go deeper into the mud to withstand the additional bending moments,” he says. “We used to have 35-foot pilings, but in the last 15 years a lot of us have gone to 45-footers. Here in Pilots Point, we had a couple of big boats with lots of sail area, and the float got within 5 feet of the top of the piling. In a case like this, it makes sense to reduce the lever-arm forces at the piling base by running a line from the top of the piling against the wind forces and put it under strain, when you can find something to tie it off to.”

Brewer says his yards have been upgrading to greenheart pilings, which are three to five times stronger than domestic wood, according to the supplier. That tidbit got my curiosity up, and a quick check online indicates that this is a pretty special wood. It doesn’t need to be chemically treated to resist rot, it’s borer-resistant and fireproof, and it outlasts treated wood by a factor of three.

Bellingham Marine's Unifloat wave attenuators act as floating breakwaters to reduce wave action.

Greenheart comes from the bebeeru tree, which only grows in British Guyana and is said to have 80 percent of the strength of steel. “We also use batter piles, which are piles driven at an angle to each other to create a triangle and bolted at the top,” Brewer says. “I’ve never seen one of the greenheart or batter pilings fail.”

The tidal ranges in the Northeast often require the use of floating docks, and the hardware used to fasten the docks to pilings is crucial — often it’s the weak link. “At one time we used chains draped over the pilings at the end of each floating dock,” Potts says. “There were two problems with this. First, the chains, eyebolts and shackles rust quickly in a saltwater environment, which means they just as quickly lose strength.”

The other problem is the chains. “[They] have slack in them, and this allows too much movement between the dock and the piling,” he says. “The dock, and the considerable weight of the boats tied to it, is able to surge back and forth. This amplifies the strain on the pilings. What we do now is have heavy galvanized pipe hoops attached to the docks like a big horseshoe with the piling inside. This is both stronger and more corrosion-resistant than chains, and there’s less movement and, therefore, less surge and strain to the dock system.”

Technology plays an increasing role in marina design. “We’ve built wave attenuators of wood and steel that do a good job of reducing wave height and the associated surge,” Brewer says. “To work properly, they have to extend down far enough below the surface and have sufficient mass and width to absorb wave energy.”

Of course, the best wave attenuator is a seawall or jetty, but government regulations have become so extensive that getting permission to extend a breakwater to the sea floor is very difficult.

The choice of materials used to build floating docks, usually concrete or wood, may lead to counterintuitive results. Wooden docks are more flexible, and they are not as solid underfoot, particularly if they aren’t wide enough or ballasted. But in some conditions, a concrete dock may fail before a wooden dock because they are too stiff, being improperly engineered to match the application.

“Our marina in Plymouth is exposed to a long fetch to the Northeast,” Brewer says. “With the waves bouncing off the seawall nearby, the concrete docks have been broken up twice.”

To solve this problem, Brewer has ordered more substantial concrete docks with fewer moving parts. “The new dock will be 360 feet long with six 60-foot units,” he says. “Each unit will have two very large pilings supporting them — 60-foot, 36-inch-diameter steel pilings driven 20 feet into the mud and with 10 feet of water at low tide. The 60-foot floats will be 14 feet wide, draw 6 feet and weigh 60 tons each. They are replacing the 14-ton units used previously.

He says the outside dock will serve “double duty” as a face pier and wave attenuator. “If permitting were easier, we would also have a wave attenuator 100 feet out, but that costs more, and in any event it is very difficult to get the permits,” Brewer says. “We think this will be a good system.”

This new facility is evidence that Brewer spends a lot in capital expenditures, with an organized plan to replace docks, finger hoops, electrical systems and other components on an ongoing basis. Every year the yard replaces components incrementally so nothing is more than a few years old.

The company also takes precautions when hauling boats in advance of a storm — or routinely in the fall for winter. “Anyone can haul a boat, but it has to be blocked securely,” Potts says. “We put a 30-footer on three sets of blocks. Most of our yards use 12-by-12s so they have a lot of surface area. In the Northeast we have freezing and thawing, and if you have an uneven balance, blocks can sink in and boats tip over. We use chains to secure the Brownell stands.”

A boat on land with the mast up adds enormous leverage from the wind, which puts a lot of pressure on the stands. “When the ground is freezing and thawing, we tighten the stands on a regular basis, as the wind pushes the leeward stands into the ground,” Potts says. “The guys are always out in the yards checking boats — it’s just part of the job.”

“For all the planning and engineering we do, the most important role in running a good yard and protecting its safety is really that of the managers and crews,” Brewer says. “I couldn’t be prouder of our people and their dedication to what they do.”

This isn’t to imply that there are no other yards that do as good a job; it’s meant to give you an idea of some of the things to look for at your marina.

Insurance considerations

The Coast Guard's Hurricane Sandy Pollution Response Unified Command focused on environmental threats after the storm.

There are several variables that are taken into account when insuring a boat, from operator experience to the boat’s location. “We start with a base rate, and if you can show enough experience and have taken a boating safety course, you are eligible for a discount off your policy premium,” says Mike Pellerin, BoatUS vice president of marine insurance ( “Consideration may also be given if you have a Coast Guard license, prior Coast Guard service or have taken more advanced training, like the Chapman’s course.”

He says BoatUS looks closely at applicants who may be getting in over their head with a new-boat purchase. “We have seen experienced boat owners who want to go from a 24-foot center console to a 60-foot cruiser, and we declined to cover them because they only had experience in smaller boats,” Pellerin says.

BoatUS also examines the loss history for boat types — express cruiser, trawler, and outboard fishing boat. It has a proprietary list of boat brands and models and may deny coverage for boats on that list without additional information, such as a recent survey.

The group also has a proactive element to its policies in the form of a haulout provision. BoatUS pays for half of the cost of hauling your boat if NOAA issues a hurricane watch or warning for your area, up to $1,000. “One of the Maryland marinas doesn’t leave it to the boat owner when it comes to storm hauling,” Pellerin says. “They tell them, ‘We are hauling your boat this afternoon,’ which is a smart move for the marina, the owner and, of course, for us.”

In addition to the operator’s background and the boat type, risk also is assessed on where the boat is kept. If you live in a hurricane-prone area — southern Atlantic states or the Gulf of Mexico, for example — the BoatUS deductible goes up to 5 percent of the agreed hull value or $1,000, whichever is greatest. However, if the boat owner takes steps to reduce risk, such as hauling the boat, lashing it to the ground and removing such items as canvas and sails, the deductible is reduced to 3 percent. Also geography-dependent is the way boats are moored.

Sandy brought with it an unprecedented storm surge in some areas of New Jersey and Long Island. N.Y. With Sandy’s 14-foot surge, docks floated off their pilings and wreaked havoc, and boats that usually would be safe high and dry in the marina parking lot floated off their blocks, in some instances suffering more damage than if they were left in the water.

BoatUS reported in its Seaworthy magazine that the No. 1 cause of boat damage by Sandy was docks that floated off their pilings. That is certainly something to consider when picking a marina.

Pellerin says one unusually foresighted boat owner chained his boat to augers drilled into the ground surrounding his boat, preventing it from blowing or floating off. There’s a fellow who ought to get an unusually deep discount from his insurance company. One enterprising company on Martha’s Vineyard (Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard) offers services ranging from $99-$299 a season whereby they either haul your boat when needed or make sure it’s tied properly to its buoy or slip.

Damaged boats

Ron Milardo runs Cooper Capital Specialty Salvage (, a salvage management firm in Old Saybrook, Conn. He expects to auction hundreds of boats that suffered the wrath of Sandy.

“New Jersey, Staten Island and Long Island are the worst-hit areas,” he says. “Some of the boats were already winterized and hauled. Had they left their drain plugs in, perhaps there would have been fewer totals. Many of these boats floated right off their stands and sank on land after their bilge pumps failed or the batteries wore down.”

BoatUS estimates that Sandy damaged 65,000 boats, and Milardo believes that about 20 percent of them will be totaled. A boat is totaled when the damage is about 80 percent of the declared value of the policy, he says, but there is no hard and fast rule. Many insurance companies would rather total a boat than have a customer who will never be pleased with its condition after repairs.

“There is always a lot of subjectivity in how to proceed for the appraiser,” Milardo says. “And there are other considerations determining a damaged boat’s value, such as the manufacturer not extending a hull warranty after the hull has been damaged or breached. Our business is finding buyers once the decision has been made to total.”

Another factor driving the salvage and used-boat markets is the economy. “Before 2008, when money was flush and used boats were not depreciating as quickly as they are now, they were more likely to be totaled, as the yards were too busy servicing clients and building boats,” Milardo says. “After Sandy, with so many boats damaged, builders and yards are coming from Maine, Florida — you name it — to find boats in sound shape to recondition and sell profitably. … Of course, this makes it harder for a boat owner or insurance company to get a boat repaired quickly.”

Milardo says there may be a second wave of totals if insurance companies have trouble getting boats repaired. “There will be a lot of culling of older boats, which will be good for the OEM boatbuilders, and fewer boats also means higher used-boat prices,” he says. “We are seeing very firm prices on the nicer newer boats that have not been badly damaged, but for the person who goes out and really does their homework, they will find something at an attractive price that suits them. On the other hand, if a substantial number of owners of totaled boats don’t get back into boating, that will be good for the other buyers as it will take some of the pressure off a rise in used-boat pricing.”

If Sandy’s power and the damage the storm inflicted are harbingers of things to come, it’s crucial to make intelligent decisions about your boat, your marina and your insurance policy.

March 2013 issue