You buy insurance for your boat for good reason: sometimes trouble comes your way and you can’t avoid it. When it happens often enough, or at the wrong time, though, the rates you pay are likely to rise and sometimes you’ll need to find to another insurer. All of that’s a hassle that takes you away from your number-one mission, which is to cast off your dock lines and maximize time spent enjoying your boat.
In our research for this article, we asked the folks at NBOA Marine Insurance for input. Here are five fundamentals to keep you on a steady course toward that goal.
Avoid what you can and can't see
Seamanship 101: don’t run aground. Don’t smack into stuff. The most-common insurance claim in the United States occurs after a captain has done this to his or her boat.
It’s true that you can’t see everything below the waterline, but if you maintain an awareness of what you might hit given the weather, time of day, where you are and any unusual local conditions, you’re much less likely to have an accident. What’s the secret?
- Navigate: Being proactive about learning the waters and where the skinny spots are is fundamental. Consult available charts, and consult with locals who are in the know. Plan where you are going and know the times of low tides or if the reservoir or lake is below normal levels.
- Keep watch: Don’t run into or over buoys, crab pots, or other floats that can damage your boat and wrap their lines around the propshaft. By maintaining a good lookout, you’re also more likely to see debris of all sorts in the water. Disturbances in the surface of the water will also provide you with clues as to what’s beneath.
- Proceed with caution: As simple as it sounds, don’t forget to slow down and take your time unless you’re confident you’re in open waters. This applies especially when you’re transiting a lake that you know is lower than usual due to drought conditions or a river in spring that you know may be carrying logs, deadheads and other debris. Talk with friends who have been on the water recently, or marina personnel who are often first to learn about what people are seeing, or running into, when they’re cruising in nearby waters.
- Drive sober. Besides being illegal, driving a boat while under the influence of alcohol and other drugs reduces your ability to manage the three points above and increases the chances that bad stuff will happen to you, your passengers, and your boat.
Maintain your boat to avoid a tow
People often need a tow—and end up with an insurance claim—because they didn’t handle the basics. Boat Maintenance 101 starts with making sure you have a full tank of good fuel and have checked or replaced essentials like oil and filters on a regular basis. Batteries should be in good condition and kept charged. If you take care of the basics, and keep a good set of tools onboard, you’ll be able to maximize your enjoyment of your boat and avoid the majority of problems that require calling for a tow. Keep in mind that sometimes your claim may be denied if the company determines that normal wear and tear had taken place and you hadn’t properly maintained your boat or engine. While most insurance policies cover towing, double check that it’s in your policy.
Don't collide with boats or docks
Most collisions take place in the harbor, and when your fiberglass hull hits the dock, a piling, or another fiberglass hull, an insurance claim can easily follow. We talked with Michelle Ainslie, customer service chief at NBOA Marine Insurance, who said that many collisions take place when you’re boat is tied in its slip or moored safely, and another boat operator loses control and runs into your boat. Although you may be able to re-locate your boat to a slip with less nearby traffic or put out fenders in sensitive locations, there’s only so much you can do to protect your boat when you’re not aboard. However, you can certainly take steps to make sure your boat doesn’t inadvertently deliver the blow.
Our advice is that you practice maneuvering your boat in open water until you fully understand its abilities and limitations, how it will operate in forward and reverse, and how it responds to gusts of wind or a strong current. Once you’ve mastered the basics, try this near a small buoy, circling it, maneuvering closer or farther away, or holding position in the wind. Remember to keep your propellers well clear of the buoy’s anchor line (For more on this, read “How to Dock a Boat: Our 10 Top Tips”).
Be prepared for high winds and storms
No plan is foolproof where Mother Nature is involved, but you should have a well-thought-out plan for high winds and approaching storms. At the dock, on the mooring, even on the trailer, you should have extra lines and chafing gear ready, and perhaps a secondary place you can store your boat if a real storm is brewing. On a trailer, this might mean getting a forecast of the expected wind directions and placing your boat in the lee of a building, out of the wind and flying debris. If your boat is in the water, can you move it to a more protected place, or haul it out? Know your options and make your plans before a storm approaches, so you can move or pull your boat without a big scramble. (For more on high-winds planning, read our story on hurricane preparation).
Read your insurance policy: FAQ
Are you insured to go there? Many claims result from owners taking their boats outside the region in which they’re insured to operate. According to NBOA’s customer service lead, Michelle Ainslie, who works with several insurers, there are typically regional coverage breaks at 27 and 32 feet. Going outside your coverage area is not a good idea if you want your insurance available!
Did you take advantage of a discount by agreeing to a “lay-up period”? If you live where boating is seasonal, you can often get a discount on your rates by agreeing that you won’t use your boat during certain months of the year. If that’s the case, don’t forget to revisit your policy if you decide to extend your season; otherwise, an early- or late-season claim might go unpaid.
Are you insured for cash value or agreed value? This is a fundamental distinction in insurance that becomes significant in the relatively rare instance of theft, fire, sinking or other circumstance when your boat becomes a total loss. Agreed value means you have a policy that will pay you a pre-determined amount that you’ve decided would be enough to replace the boat. If instead you are insured for the cash value of the boat, you may not end up with enough to buy the replacement and get back onto the water.
If I had a claim and my company will no longer insure me, what should I do? Says Michelle Ainslie, “If a customer has a couple of claims, we may have to move them to an insurer who will take the higher risk.” Like many agencies, she said, they’re also happy to review your policy and answer any other questions without requiring a quote request.
FAQ provided by NBOA Marine Insurance, which is the largest agency for boat insurance in the U.S. and specializes in boats 28 to 65 feet owned by U.S. residents