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Weather watchmen for absentee owners

New business will check on your boat in Florida and alert you to potentially damaging storms

New business will check on your boat in Florida and alert you to potentially damaging storms

Steve Snider saw a small spike in phone messages as Hurricane Dean churned through the Caribbean, but the marine surveyor doubts that his phone will ring off the hook until a hurricane bears down on Florida.

Then he’ll start getting panicky phone calls from absentee owners, the ones who keep their boat in Florida but live in Michigan, Ohio, New England or elsewhere during hurricane season. They will plead with him to find time to secure their yacht for the onslaught of winds and seas. Snider says his staff of marine surveyors and boat captains do their best, but last-minute arrangements are seldom easy.

Sometimes they are impossible because of the crush of work before a hurricane. He advises boaters to contract his services early.

“The owners of vessels seem to be complacent right now because we haven’t had a hurricane [in Florida] since Wilma,” says Snider, partner in BoatWatch, a Pompano Beach, Fla., yacht-caretaking service.

BoatWatch’s inspectors look in on boats on a regular schedule to check their lines, make sure all their systems are working properly and report irregularities or maintenance needs to the owner.

The company also helps owners develop a hurricane plan for their boat, and assigns on-call captains or surveyors to implement that plan for an owner when a storm is three or four days away. Snider says the plan could be as simple as doubling up on lines and fenders, but he advises moving the boat out of a storm’s path where possible — the best protection — or at least off the dock and up a protected canal.

“The forecasters are pretty accurate at predicting where a storm is going to hit,” he says. “If you leave three days ahead of it, you should be able to get the boat to a place of safety.” Moving the boat could cost $2,000 to $3,000 but, “That’s nothing compared to the beating a yacht takes in a hurricane,” he says.

If moving the boat out of the area isn’t in the budget, Snider says the next-best option is to anchor it in a local hurricane hole and raft it up with other boats its size. A Miami River marina rafted a passel of boats across the river’s protected headwaters during Hurricane Wilma, and the boats sustained virtually no damage, he says. If all the boats in the raft are secured with doubled-up lines, are properly anchored and have plenty of fenders deployed between hulls, they protect each other. “These are things that need to be done way ahead of a hurricane,” he says.

Snider, 55, a semi-retired marine dealer from Rockford, Ill., runs BoatWatch on Florida’s east coast out of Pompano Beach. Partner Bill Carlson operates the west coast Florida business from MarcoIsland.

Hurricane-related yacht losses have been so high in Florida and the Gulf states over the past five years that insurers are insisting absentee owners have a hurricane plan and a local representative to implement it, but Snider says many yacht owners don’t declare that they are absentee owners. Left unsecured, their boats become costly casualties when a hurricane strikes. “If this keeps up, insurance is not going to be available in Florida,” Snider says.

BoatWatch’s routine inspections include checks of seacocks and lines, starting the engines, checking the air conditioning, bilge pumps, batteries, heads and other systems, and making sure the boat is ready for the owner to use — or move when a hurricane threatens. After each visit, the inspector e-mails a boat report and photo to the owner.

It gives busy or absentee owners peace of mind about their boat. As one client told Snider: “I don’t want to worry about hurricanes, and I want the boat to start every Saturday when I’m ready to go.”