The day after Hurricane Irma has passed a neighbor at my marina in Florida shared a story about boatyard “gouging” that made me wonder how widespread this behavior might be. Florida outlaws charging “an amount that grossly exceeds the average price” for goods and services before and during a state of emergency.
My neighbor had asked the owner of a nearby boatyard whether his 36-foot boat could be hauled in advance of Irma. He was told no problem as long as he paid $500 up front and another $1,000 when the boat was in the slings. This had to be at least five times the normal rate. The yard owner reportedly said, "You may think that this is gouging, but that's the deal."
By the way, there was plenty of room, and the travelift was not all that much busier than normal. The individual did not expect "a deal" but $1,500 for something that usually costs under $300 sickened him.
Personally, I can see charging more for a hurricane haul-out. There are overtime staffing costs and other expenses associated with that. I even think that doubling the cost is alright, but four to five times normal is gouging. I ran this scenario by a local lawyer and former prosecutor, and he confirmed that this scenario probably qualified as gouging under Florida law.
This muddies the water a little bit: The boatyard in question has a hurricane program that charges members $1,000 a year for a guaranteed hurricane haul, blocking and strap-down. If no hurricane comes, the member receives credit for $500 worth of work at the yard. You can see how the yard owner might not want to be seen offering too good a deal to latecomers.
I sought a reality check from my friend Steve Zimmerman, owner of four boatyards in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Zimmerman says he charges the same flat rate, hurricane or not. Consequently, he loses money during hurricane emergencies. “If you charge more, you lose good will because you’re perceived as overcharging,” Zimmerman says, which is why I love the guy.
To see what the community thinks, I posted my story to the Trawler Living and Cruising page on Facebook, and it sparked lively commentary. Most people agreed with me, something I’m not all that used too.
“I own a marine business in Jacksonville. And have spent a week prepping boats for the storm, selling dock line at cost and giving out fire hose for chafe guard. I have busted my butt to keep boats floating and profited nothing. If a Jacksonville marina is price gouging I really REALLY want to know,” writes Eric Weatherly.
Says Ron Rico, “Law of unintended consequences. Insurance companies are now covering half or more of the cost to haul during a named storm, so yards know that and can turn around and charge double/triple. The ones who lose are desperate owners without hull insurance.”
But some commenters were critical of my boat-owning neighbor for his failure to plan ahead, and others defended the yard owner, citing the law of supply and demand.
“If a yard owner has room for three more boats and those of us who didn't negotiate a hurricane haul-out in advance (like me) call to be hauled at the last minute, we can expect to pay three to five times a 'normal' rate. The laws of supply and demand don't get repealed in a hurricane,” writes Eric Wendell.
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