The coronavirus pandemic has scrambled a lot of things. Toilet-paper supply chains. Presidential campaigns. The brains of parents trying to work from home with kids doing remote learning at the same kitchen table.
One of the less-reported scramblings, though, has been patterns of boat traffic. All around the world, recreational boats have stopped moving to the places they usually move during spring and early summer. In Florida, there’s a pileup of yachts that usually head to the Bahamas and Mediterranean, both of which, as of this writing in early May, were closed to incoming cruisers. Along the southern East Coast, there’s a jam-up of owner-operated boats that would have returned north to states like Rhode Island, if not for the two-week quarantine that was in effect for all incoming boaters as of early May. In New York and New Jersey, there are boats sitting idle as marinas open and close in keeping with statewide quarantine orders, sometimes making it impossible for owners to get to their boat’s slip.
And now, to add to that problem, there’s the start of hurricane season—when, by contractual obligation, many boat owners have to be above a certain latitude or have access to a specific hurricane-hole marina in order for their boat’s insurance policy to remain valid.
“With everything going on, people aren’t thinking this way and this could really be a problem,” says Mike Carlson, the owner of 26 North Yachts in Fort Lauderdale. “People wouldn’t be pushed out of their regular marina. This is about people like snowbirds, or the boats that move seasonally to New England in the summer and Florida/Bahamas in the winter. I have friends who live in the Naples, Florida, area with big center consoles. They’ll trek them up to the Cape in New England in the summer. It’s those kinds of boats.”
Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. As of early May, most hurricane-hole marinas in Florida were already booked for the whole season, says John Jarvie, vice president of Oversea Yacht Insurance in Fort Lauderdale. In fact, he says, at least one major marina in that city had shut down its fuel dock to make room for yachts far larger than usual—the 150-foot-plus superyachts that, normally, would move over to the Mediterranean for the summer.
The presence of those additional big boats was forcing other boats to look elsewhere for dockage, which means captains were starting to turn their eyes to the north. What they found, all along the East Coast, was a hodgepodge of open and closed transient and fuel docks, as each state reopened marine services at a different pace in the pandemic. As a result of the situation, boat owners may have to change their hurricane-season plans to remain in compliance with insurance policies. In some cases, Jarvie says, insurers are making exceptions, such as giving owners until mid-July to move boats north of the Florida-Georgia line, or allowing boats to stay in Florida altogether at a premium policy cost. In other cases, he says, boat captains and owners are having to figure out new options in case a named storm takes shape and the boat’s usual hideout is inaccessible.
“If you’re required to be north of Florida and you were planning to go to Maine, there’s a lot of space between Florida and Maine where you can still be in compliance with your insurance policy,” Jarvie says. “You can be in Charleston or Cape Hatteras or wherever. But if you wait too long to start calling marinas in Savannah, you’re not going to have a lot of luck.”
One of the problems, Jarvie says, is that because of the way the insurance industry works, only so many boats will be allowed to remain in the south after June 1. Insurers will reach an overall cap on the amount of boat value that can even possibly be insured in a place like Florida during hurricane season. At that point, owners will have no choice but to move their boats elsewhere, no matter how the pandemic is forcing marinas to operate (or close) in other places.
“Owners need to review their insurance policy so they have a plan,” Carlson says. “Insurance companies are trying to figure all this stuff out. If a boat goes north, they may not even have enough fuel to get north if the fuel docks end up closed along the way. You have to make sure you have the coverage, and you have to make sure that you have a hurricane plan to ensure that coverage.”
Jarvie, whose agency works with multiple marine insurance providers, says the insurers are as eager as boat owners are to figure out solutions. The smartest move for owners to make, he says, is to sketch out a few options before calling the insurance agent. Don’t just ask questions. Try to offer answers that will minimize your own hassles while keeping your policy intact.
“Before you go and start asking your insurance broker to let you stay in Florida for hurricane season, tell him what your plan is,” Jarvie says. “Are you leaving it in a slip in a marina? Do you have a friend who lives upriver? The more the owner has thought these things out, the more the company wants to work with you right now.”
And don’t assume that anything will remain the same as it has been in years past, Carlson and Jarvie say. Even delivery captains who have moved boats for years may be unavailable as hurricane season gets underway, depending on where they live, whether the state has reopened from the pandemic, and what the status is of their own family’s health.
“The last thing anybody wants to happen is we’re all stuck not going north and there’s a hurricane coming,” Jarvie says. “Even if you think your original plan is going to work out, now is the time to have a Plan B.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue.