The smart buyer - Purchasing a storm-damaged boat

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Owners and insurance companies sell a wave of damaged boats soon after a major storm hits the coast. These boats can a bargain for those with the skills and resources to repair them, but they also can be the proverbial “hole in the water” waiting to be filled with money, sweat and lost hopes.

Determining the boat's condition before it was damaged will help you decide on an offer or bid.

Before you start bidding on that great deal, there are important things to consider. One of the first is the condition of the boat before the damage occurred. You might think the type of damage would be the first thing to consider, but having an idea of the condition of the boat prior to the loss is the most important thing. Think of it as if you were buying a used boat without damage. You want to know whether it has been well maintained or had any major defects. What are the engine hours? Are the sails in good condition?

Ask the same questions you would if you were looking at a boat without damage. You are, after all, looking to buy a used boat. It will be enough work to fix the damage without having to completely restore the boat, as well. This approach also will help you establish the preloss value. Knowing it will help you come up with a realistic bid or offer.

Consider the damage

Once you have determined the preloss condition and value, the next step is to take a close look at the damage and what it will take to repair. This is something you want to overestimate, not underestimate. Consider what work you can do yourself and what you will have to contract out, as well as the parts and supplies that will be needed. In most cases, you will not have detailed information available to get a really good idea of all the damage, so assume the worst. You also need to consider storage, transportation, insurance and other costs associated with the repair work. These add up quickly.

It’s also important to understand the types of damage that can occur to a boat in a storm. There are several types, and some are easier to fix than others.

• Submersion: Submersion generally causes the most damage. The problem with submersion is that every part of the boat is affected. Equipment and electronics that have been submerged are likely to be ruined. An engine sometimes can be saved if it is attended to, or “pickled,” right away, but this is rarely the case with storm damage. Boats often sit for days or weeks before anyone can get to them and do any sort of preservation work. Often it is simply too late to prevent real damage. Submersion also can leave hidden damage that may not be discovered for months or years.

In general, I recommend staying away from boats that have been submerged, but there are exceptions to all rules. Submersion in fresh water is better than salt, and partial submersion is better than full. Submersion longer than a day or so often will damage any woodwork and soak deep enough into the wiring to require replacement. Because so much of what cannot be seen has been affected, problems can continue long after a boat has dried out. With a submerged boat, be ready for a total refit.

• Dock rash: This is one of the most common types of damage. As the name suggests, it is caused by rubbing up against docks, pilings and other boats. Although the damage can be straightforward to fix, it can require the removal of interior components to gain access. It will also often require the replacement of rubrails and toerails. This type of repair requires good fiberglassing skills, as the repairer must match the preloss shape and finish.

Care has to be taken to make sure there is no hidden damage, as well. A vessel pounding against a dock or other hard object can “echo” these forces to other parts of the boat. These transferred forces can result in damage in the way of broken bonds on bulkheads, damaged hull/deck joints and other structural failures. Look the boat over carefully in areas opposite and away from the damaged areas. Water damage is also likely in the area of the dock damage, where rain and seawater can enter. This can harm equipment and fixtures near the damaged area.

Groundings: This is common and typically will cause damage to the underwater fittings and gear. Check for bent rudders and propeller shafts, as well as damaged props and keels. Check for fiberglass damage, particularly at the turn of the bilge or on the chine. Even if it appears that the damage is mainly on the outside of the boat, a careful inspection inside is required. Check the steering system, as forces on rudders can easily damage parts inside the boat. Carefully inspect stringers, frames and bulkhead bonding, as pounding on the bottom can cause inside structural failures not noticed from the outside. If the hull is cored, be sure to look for “dents” or unfair spots, as these can indicate a fractured or compressed core.

Wind damage: Often first noted as shredded canvas and sails, wind damage also can include structural damage. I have inspected more than one sailboat that was dismasted at the dock by a roller furling sail that came open during a storm. The mast falling on the deck or other boats can cause serious damage to cabin tops and decks. Bimini tops and other canvas coming loose also can cause damage. I have seen flailing broken frames pound holes in fiberglass cabin tops. Wind-driven rain also can cause serious water damage inside a boat. Wind damage also can include boats blown off their stands or supports.

Salvage damage: This is damage done during the vessel recovery. The stresses and strains of pulling a boat off a beach or lifting and transporting it to a safe location can sometimes cause more damage than the storm. I know of one nearly new catamaran that had the bottom completely ripped out when the salvor pulled it across a reef. Very often after a storm, salvage crews have many boats to recover, and in their haste more damage can be done. Damage that salvage operations can cause includes cleats and bits ripped out, damaged rudders and running gear, and rig damage.

Of course, most storm-damaged boats will have some, if not all, of these types of problems. This is truly a case of buyer beware, so make sure you have as much information as possible. Go see the boat, if possible. Of course, be sure to get permission first.

Hire a surveyor or other expert, and take him or her along to offer an opinion. They know what to look for and can save you a lot of money by finding things you might not otherwise notice. If you cannot see the boat in person, this is even more reason to hire someone to look the boat over.

Your dream deal

Submerged boats typically have the most damage, especially if the engines were under water.

Now that you have a better idea about what to look for in a damaged boat, it is time to find that good deal. But where should you start looking? Contacting insurance companies directly can be frustrating. They are often flooded with calls after a storm and simply don’t have time to respond to every would-be boat buyer. A better approach is to contact local surveyors, salvage companies and local marine transportation companies. These people often will have information about auctions or sales details.

Also, keep an eye out in local papers for auction listings. There also are companies that specialize in selling damaged boats and equipment, and they can be found online. Depending on the size of the storm and the number of claims, some insurance companies will rent land to store damaged boats. Visiting these lots may get you more information, as well.

Before getting too excited and placing your bid, read the fine print. Most auctions require that the boat be moved, sometimes within days or hours of the auction’s close. This will not give you a lot of time to work out such details as where you are going to work on the boat or how you are going to get it there. Storage fees, if the boat is not moved, can sometimes be high, so don’t assume you have time to get the details worked out later.

There may be lots of boats auctioned on the same day, so transporters will be busy. Some transport companies and marinas may require you to have insurance on the boat, but getting insurance on a salvage boat may not be easy. Also, make sure you can get a clear title to the vessel. These are all things to find out about in advance, not after you have placed your bid.

Purchasing and restoring a storm-damaged boat can be a rewarding way to get a boat at a reduced cost, but it also can end up being a big mistake. Understand what you are getting into before you have to write the check. Bids often can be a binding legal contract, so having second thoughts may not be an option.

I live on my hurricane-salvaged boat, so it can be done, but there are many who wish they had not placed that bid. Take your time to get the facts; don’t let emotion take over for common sense. Set your top bid price and stick to it. No deal is so good you cannot walk away from it, and it can be very hard to walk away from a bad deal. n

Capt. Wayne Canning lives on his Irwin 40 in Wilmington N.C. A marine professional for more than 35 years, he is a full-time surveyor, delivery skipper and consultant/project manager on major repairs. Visit www.4ABetterBoat.com or www.projectboat.info.

May 2013 issue