South Florida attorney Bruce Marx posted a message on his Facebook page last April, asking friends for the email addresses of local dockmasters. “It’s time that a marina community watch be established,” he wrote. In that post, Marx’s anger didn’t show, but he was boiling at his keyboard. Thieves had stolen a Garmin chartplotter off his 31-foot Contender. They’d struck while the boat was at a dock in Miami. “I’d had it for a little over a week,” he says of the plotter. “I was shocked, irritated and mad all at the same time.”
And he was far from alone. Theft of helm electronics and outboard engines is skyrocketing, especially in Florida. CNBC analyzed Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission records last year and found a nearly 20 percent rise in outboard thefts from 2015 to 2016 alone.
One victim of outboard theft was Marx’s friend Scott Baxter. The diesel mechanic has a 22-foot Pathfinder that thieves hit, taking his Yamahas with just 200 hours on them. Baxter got new engines, only to be enraged when thieves struck again. His second set of engines had only about 10 hours on them.
When Baxter saw Marx’s Facebook post, he felt energized. Marx had intended to start an email list, but Baxter ramped up the idea and created a Facebook group. The men—both without a lot of social media know-how—called their page the South Florida Marina & Boat Watch Group. They invited all the boaters they knew to join. And those boaters invited their friends. And so on. “It grew fairly quickly,” Marx says of the group’s membership. “We’re now at 10,000-plus. We knew it was going to catch on, but we didn’t know it was going to catch on that quickly.”
The group, Marx says, includes members of law enforcement who not only look to photos and information that members post as evidence in cases that the officers are working, but who also supply the group with information to be posted for community assistance in chasing down leads. Marx, Baxter and other friends moderate all incoming posts before they go live, making sure that the group’s members stay on topic.
The approach is working. One of the members saw a video that another person had posted on a private Facebook page. The video showed a guy trying to steal a boat. The group member reposted that video to the South Florida Marina & Boat Watch Group page, looking for information about the thief. “Within a day,” Marx says, “they knew who this guy was and they got him arrested.”
Marx and Baxter are not asking for money, and they’re not allowing advertisements in their social-media space. They’re also not admitting people to the group who are from outside of South Florida; the idea is for local residents and law enforcement to get to know one another and work together. “Two days ago, somebody posted that there were some Jet Skis floating in the canal,” Baxter says. “I called a friend who lives there. He went and took some pictures. Within an hour, we had the pictures up and it was reported to the police department. This is the kind of thing we’re trying to build up.”
Both men say they’d love to see more boat owners coming together on these issues, joining forces regionally to stop local thieves. “You can start this all over again in other locations,” Marx says. “It really is a simple idea. It takes a lot of personal time and effort—somebody needs to be ready to do that—but if you want to make a change, you roll up your sleeves and do it.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue.