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18Talkin’ Boats with marine surveyor Jonathan Klopman

Jonathan Klopman has been a marine surveyor for more than 20 years. While he continues to perform prepurchase surveys, the bulk of his work involves damage surveys and accident investigations. He specializes in failure analysis of metals, wood and composites.

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"If you've got something broken, I'll tell you how it got that way," says Klopman, 51, who founded his surveying company in 1990.

Klopman, who is based in Marblehead, Mass., also is a member of the BoatU.S. Marine Insurance Catastrophe Field Team that recovers and assesses hurricane-damaged boats. He has served as an expert witness in court cases and provides litigation support.

Klopman has owned both power- and sailboats, including a Shields, an International 110 and a 1959 24-foot mahogany cruiser. Since 1999, he has owned a 1970 20-foot Bertram Bahia Mar. He is a regular speaker at The Landing School in Maine and helps teach a course in accident reconstruction for the American Boat and Yacht Council.

Q: Describe what you do with the BoatU.S. Marine Insurance Catastrophe Field Team.

A: I'm a field surveyor. I find and identify the [hurricane-damaged] boats and determine the extent of the damage. At the beginning stages, it can be hide-and-seek. It is not unusual to find a boat - sunk, in the woods, you name it - two miles from the marina where it is supposed to be. It's stressful; there's a lot of pressure to get your work done, to get the resources you need on site [cranes , barges, workboats] in an area that has been destroyed.

Q: Has your experience inspecting hurricane-damaged boats helped in your day-to-day surveying?

A: Without question. Boats that are all torn up give you a much better appreciation for the ones that can "take it." You can imagine the number of cleats I've seen torn out of decks, as well as poor rigging that fails in the middle of a storm. In many cases, the failure is due to a poor installation. The whole topic of failure analysis is of critical importance to understanding any structure. I'm constantly looking into what failed, in what order, what initiated the failure and how could it have been prevented.

Q: What are some of the common problems you find when surveying a boat?

The tools of the trade.

A: On smaller powerboats, we're seeing failures of transoms and stringer grids. This is fairly standard stuff. A lot of this stuff in a prepurchase survey with powerboats and sailboats is long-term wear-and-tear - the decks, fittings and systems that eventually go south. It's very rare that in a prepurchase job there's a dramatic failure. More often than not, my surveys are death by a thousand cuts, a whole bunch of things that have been let go over time. I rarely see dramatic structural issues. It's common to find poor decks and transoms or poor bedding, which over the years has led to a deterioration of the core. It's not like you're going to put your foot through the deck, but it's going to be expensive to fix.

Q: What do you cover in a survey?

A: The survey experience really should be test-running everything and trying to get a good idea of how the boat is constructed. Most people really don't know how the boat is put together. You need to get that idea to the client.

Q: What advice can you give prospective boat buyers about choosing a surveyor?

A: If you're shopping around for a boat, ask [the surveyor] for a sample survey. You can tell from that right away. If you see a description about an issue and it's four sentences long, that's a good sign. What is the problem? What is the potential hazard? Is it degenerative? What is it going to take to correct the problem? All these questions should be answered and not just with boilerplate responses.

Q: How many of the problems you see are the result of inadequate maintenance, low-quality parts, poor installation, etc.?

A: Deck issues almost invariably are poor installation. I think it would be a little cold to expect boat owners to rebed hardware. Crummy initial attention to detail is pretty common throughout the industry. If you have stress cracks in the gelcoat at all these fittings all over the boat, that's one man with one drill that's failing to do something. The sad thing is that one guy is going to build the next boat exactly the same. We have to realize that our industry is not Ford Motor Co. We don't have standards set in stone - production line procedures. But as far as how many problems are a result of poor maintenance vs. poor construction, I think it's a mix. I can't really pin it on any one thing.

Q: What are the some of the things owners can do to keep their boats in good condition?

A: Preventative maintenance is an obvious one. I see a lot of repairs that say exactly the same thing - all sorts of mechanical failures that could have easily been prevented. This means you have to take your boat to the boatyard or learn how to do it yourself. Take a class that teaches how to change filters, belts and all of that stuff. You can add a tremendous amount of life to your engine by doing that. If you are doing any installations or modifications to your boat, bedding hardware is important. People tend to be a little fast and loose whenever they drill into their decks. That's extremely common. I see used boats with large areas of the deck deteriorated because someone did not know how to bed hardware.

Q: What are some differences in boatbuilding today compared to 10 or 15 years ago?

A: We've gone through several phases. Production boatbuilding has tried to cut some of the labor hours in assembly. The question has been: how do we turn semicustom work into production work and crank it out? One of the biggest changes has been the adoption of methacrylates, such as Plexus. Manufacturers are gluing assemblies in place with methacrylates where they would have had to grind the surface and bond it with fiberglass in the past, or mechanically bond it with fasteners. It has gotten to where [on] most production sailboats the hull-to-deck joint - the inward-turning flange - is adhesively bonded. A lot of powerboat manufacturers are engineering an entire grid system out of fiberglass and bonding that into the hull.

Q: Are there drawbacks to these high-tech adhesives?

A: The material itself is wonderful. However, there are still human beings laying that down. If you don't have a wide enough flange, if the person laying the bead doesn't lay it wide enough because this stuff is extremely expensive - there are many opportunities to mess that up. And finding that problem is a nightmare. When we go higher tech, our inspection capabilities become really taxed.

Q: Why should a person in the market for a used boat hire a surveyor?

A: Construction techniques over the years have changed dramatically, so it takes specialized knowledge [to determine a boat's condition]. Obviously, it's a big investment. A proper marine survey will help you figure out what you're really in for as far as regular maintenance, upgrades, as well as are you going to put your foot through the deck? Most people want to know, 'Am I buying a hole in the water? What am I going to be getting involved with?' Plenty of times we'll add all the numbers up and figure out this boat is just going to be a money pit over the next five years. That is what [a survey] should be about - what are you getting into?

Q: What are the sorts of things that even professionals occasionally miss?

A: It's a matter of how far you dig into the systems of a boat. How much disassembly do you do? How much test running can you really do in the Northeast in the winter? There are many times when I will refuse to do a survey in the winter because I can't tell my client anything that I need to tell them about the boat. I tell them to wait till spring. Also, if you are unable to access an area, you may not recognize a problem until after the boat is in service. So the question is: Are you being paid to disassemble all of this?

Q: What part of a boat or system is consistently the most difficult to access?

A: [Fuel] tanks, more and more, are getting difficult to access because they are designed into the boat and stuffed away tight. So actually inspecting the tank means you have to be able to inspect the areas that you just can't get to. The tanks will blow out and pit where they sit on a wooden member and you can't even see that. And a lot of times these trawlers come to mind. The entire tank may be closed off by insulation. You literally cannot see the tank.

Q: Describe the qualities that go into your idea of a well-constructed boat?

A: For the average production boat, I would rather not have experimental construction. I tend to be more old-school. I don't believe that boats should be "twice as thick" or grossly overbuilt, but I do believe in old-school handwork - hand-laid, rolled-out fiberglass. It just tends to be a lot more predictable. Any subsequent defects are a lot more minor than the ones we talked about with the glued construction methods. For the average production boat for the average person, there are a lot of old-school techniques that produce a predictable boat. A great example would be the good old-fashioned Catalinas. I used to be a real snob when I was a kid, but you know what, they figured out how to build a decent boat and it's very rare that we see a bad one.

Q: Will we continue to see a return to the bigger-and-faster-is-better trend when the economy turns around or do you think fuel efficiency, reliability and "the journey" are going to get greater emphasis?

A: I don't know where it's going to go. I think people are beginning to see the problem with foot fever and it's more common to see downsizing. People don't necessarily want a boat that's cheaper, they want one that is smaller and of better quality. If the economy teaches people to be more quality-conscious rather than size-conscious, that's a great thing all around.

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.