As a marine industry veteran who recently went through the process of becoming a marine surveyor, I will never claim to be an expert in this huge topic—and I don’t think anyone else should either. That said, here’s how getting the most out of a marine survey looks from an enthusiastic student who will always be working to figure it all out.
Ask 10 surveyors a question, and you’ll get 11 different answers. To be a smart consumer of marine survey services it helps to understand the surveyors themselves, and to realize that your boat is just one of a huge range of boats in the world. Remember that there are no licenses or specific requirements needed to become a marine surveyor. Theoretically, you could call yourself a surveyor tomorrow and get started, limited only by your ability to attract customers and the willingness of insurance and finance companies to accept your reports. However, there are surveying organizations that take on the task of screening, accrediting, policing, and continuing to educate their members.
SAMS (Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors) & NAMS (National Association of Marine Surveyors) are the two most well-know organizations in the US. SAMS, which was started in 1987, has close to 1,000 members worldwide. NAMS was started in 1962 and has about 300 members. SAMS offers members a “Surveyor Associate” (SA) level for the first 3-5 years of their membership, and then offers an upgrade to “Accredited Marine Surveyor” (AMS) once an SA completes surveying requirements and passes a rather lengthy exam. The most common AMS designation is “Yachts & Small Craft,” but those with the “Engines” designation are another key group in the recreational market. NAMS has a similar set of three levels; from Apprentice, to Associate, to Certified Marine Surveyor (CMS), with “Yachts & Small Craft” also as their designation for those in the recreational market.
For those just starting in surveying, there is a well-known six-week yacht and small craft survey program at the Chapman school in Florida, which is closely aligned with SAMS. And ABYC plays a vital role, offering short certification classes in different areas of small craft technology not only for surveyors, but for anyone in the marine industry.
Even with these organizations involved, there’s no clear path for new surveyors to join a firm, as accountants or lawyers might do. Most surveyors work independently, perhaps because many have been in the marine industry in some other capacity, and shift to surveying as they near retirement. It’s also too easy for an assistant surveyor to go off on his or her own and become the competition once they’ve been trained. Then there’s always the threat of being sued, and Errors & Omissions insurance is difficult for new surveyors to obtain—making experienced surveyors less likely to take on assistants.
Thus most surveyors operate independently, and that creates inconsistency in the field. Surveying can be a very solitary profession, and when most surveyors go back to their offices to write reports, there isn’t a colleague in the next cubicle or a boss down the hall to consult with. Emails to colleagues, and surveyors’ forums like the SAMS “Boatpokers” group are a huge help in bridging that gap, but surveying remains mostly an individual endeavor, rather than a team sport.
Another factor to keep in mind is that surveyors come from different backgrounds within the marine world. Some have been in the Navy or Coast Guard, others have worked for boatbuilders or repair yards, and some have been professional captains. Some have experience working on engines or other systems, while others have more experience with composites and structural issues. And one surveyor may be more comfortable with powerboats while another has more personal and work experience on sailboats.
Along with the huge range of backgrounds and experience among the surveyors, we have an even greater range of “yachts & small craft” to which surveying is applied. Let’s throw a little math at it, just for fun.
Say we have:
- Two general categories – sailboats & powerboats
- Two general hull types – monohulls & multihulls
- Seven different hull construction approaches – traditional wood, cold-molded wood, aluminum, steel, solid fiberglass, cored fiberglass, and advanced composites
- Two different engine types – gas & diesel (but here comes electric)
- Six different engine/transmission configurations – inboards, outboards, sterndrives, pod drives, saildrives, and jet drives
Multiply those all together, and you have 336 different combinations. Now, some of those are a little ridiculous—you won’t find many traditional wood sailboats with pod drives installed. But we can all agree that there are many different types of boats out there, and all the other systems on those boats add even more variables to the mix.
The key lesson for boat owners is that surveyors come from a variety of backgrounds and all have types of boats with which they are more or less familiar. Some of the veterans have managed to become familiar with an amazing number of boats and boat types, but as one who has also spent time in the boatbuilding industry reading surveyors' reports, I’ve seen cases where the surveyor really should not have been surveying the type of boat in the report. Sailboats are not just powerboats with masts and sails added to them, and vice-versa. In my own case, I can usually “feel” if something’s not right or has been modified on a racing sailboat, but at the other extreme, I’m not into the details of sportfishing and would not take an assignment on a large sportfishing boat at this point. I think I could do an average survey on one, but who wants an average survey?
As a consumer, this means that it pays to look around a bit. Check surveyors’ websites to get a feel for their backgrounds and areas of familiarity. Find out whether they have already surveyed the make and model boat you’re considering, or similar boats. Ask what they would look for in the boat you need surveyed. It’s also common to ask for a sample report to get a feel for their approach, and if one surveyor is too busy and declines the survey, ask them who they would recommend in the area. The key is to find a good match between the surveyor and the particular boat to be surveyed.
For more information, read our other articles on surveying:
Surveyor: the Sleuth on your Side
Survey it Yourself, From Stem to Stern
Editor's Note: This article was published in April 2020 and was last updated in May 2021.