Skip to main content

Sinking: Prepare For The Worst At Sea

In the March 2015 issue, Stacey Stepanovich and her husband Mike wrote about their most terrifying experience at sea - hitting a reef and sinking in the Bahamas. In this month's web extra read what Stacey learned in the wake of the disaster and how you can prepare better than they did.
Stacys World at anchor

In the March 2015 issue, Stacey Stepanovich and her husband Mike wrote about their most terrifying experience at sea - hitting a reef and sinking in the Bahamas. In this month's web extra read what Stacey learned in the wake of the disaster and how you can prepare better than they did.

Any number of factors can lead to a boat sinking, from a leaking thru-hull to a navigational error that leaves you hard aground.While no one believes it can happen to them, knowing what to expect can help prevent that sinking feeling from lingering, should the worst occur.

Towing versus Salvage

Knowing whether or not towing assistance or a salvage operation is needed can save valuable time, money and a lot of frustration.Prepaid marine assistance services usually include help in the event of breakdowns, soft groundings or running out of fuel.Soft groundings are typically when a boat can be safely floated using only dock lines and a single towboat. On the other hand, groundings that require salvage involve imminent danger to the boat, damage to the marine environment or both.Salvage also requires the use of sophisticated equipment such as pumps, floatation pillows, oil containment boom, diving gear and patching materials.

While it is not necessary for the work to be conducted, it is common for salvage operators to request that the captain sign a salvage contract.There are several standard forms used in the industry, most common being the U.S. Open Form Salvage Contract.Because it is difficult to gauge the overall cost of a salvage operation until it is complete, the open form does not specify the amount for the award.

Proper Insurance Coverage

Admiralty and Maritime Law provide for significant rewards to the captains who risk their lives and their boats to rescue those in peril at sea.The salvage operator can make a claim for payment based on a number of factors including the value of the boat that was salvaged, environmental mitigation, risk involved and experience in the industry.The best way to avoid being stuck with a massive salvage bill is to make sure your boat is adequately insured.Without proper coverage, the boat owner is responsible for all costs associated with the grounding from the wreck removal to environmental damages. 

Environmental cleanup and mitigation can add up quickly, especially in sensitive marine areas.Basic boat insurance coverage only covers accidents and injuries.Appropriate coverage covers the cost of salvage equal to the value of the boat, plus repairs.Liability coverage should specifically cover wreck removal up to the limit of liability, typically $300,000.

Check to see if the insurance company has an adjuster who specializes in marine claims.You don’t want your adjuster Googling “What is a rudder?” while your boat is in the yard waiting for repairs.The extent of the damage to the boat can be impacted greatly by the insurance company’s ability to act quickly.Even if a boat was only partially submerged for a brief time, it may have sustained significant damage.Engines breached with salt water need to be flushed with fresh water immediately.Without a quick “pickle,” the boat may be a total loss before damages to the hull and electrical systems are even taken into account. 

Minimizing the Loss

Many insurance policies can be voided unless every effort was made to minimize the damage to the vessel.Once all passengers are safe and the authorities have been notified there are a couple actions that can buy time while help is on the way.

If hard aground, attempting to back off is instinctual, but not always the best move.It is better to set an anchor in the direction of the wind and waves in order to prevent being pushed farther into the shallows.Depending on the extent of the damage, the anchor can later be used to “kedge” off into deeper waters.

Extra bilge pumps only matter if the leak can be plugged before the electrical systems and the engines are submerged.Check your bilges to determine the size and origin of the leaks.If possible, try to plug the hole from the outside using life jackets, blankets, pillows and tarps.Kaypok, the fibrous material inside old life jackets, is considered “salvor’s gold” because of its ability to expand and plug holes and gashes.

Total Constructive Loss

Placing a value on your boat and your belongings can seem like a hypothetical exercise.When buying insurance, weigh the pros and cons of higher premiums versus a higher boat value in the event of a total loss.Depending on the type of hull insurance, depreciation is a factor in determining the value of the boat.For actual value policies, have a survey addendum done if upgrades or restoration work have been completed since the last survey.

Recovery of personal items presents the owner with a whole new set of complications, especially if the boat is in foreign waters.Insurance may not cover the cost of retrieving personal items.If the boat is outside the US, it is highly recommended that the owner hire customs brokers, both in the U.S. and in the country where the salvage occurred.Navigating the complex world of international shipping is the last thing you want to do when trying to get your personal items back home.

No amount of preparation can adequately ready a boat owner for the nightmare scenario of a salvage operation or total loss.However, understanding salvage rights, your insurance policy and having a fast action plan to minimize the damage can go a long way to making recovery from an accident a little easier to bear.