Thursday, February 8, 2024

Boat Insurance! What is it good for? (hopefully... nothing)

With January drawing near, it was time to get serious about renewing Minerva's insurance policy.

When we started out in 2020 in the USA with Minerva we had Geico. It was about $1,000 a year and included a generous tow package.

St. Martin as seen from the canopy tour

In December 2022 when we started preparing to leave the USA, we called Geico to order the additional Bahamas rider. That's when we found out that not only would they not issue approval for leaving the USA, they also intended to cancel us when our policy renewed in May on Minerva's 40th birthday year. So it was time to shop for a new policy that would carry us to the Bahamas and beyond into the Caribbean.

We found two companies that would insure Minerva. Both of them were priced ridiculously, but only one of which was requiring an out-of-water survey before signing us on. Having just spent 8 months on the hard enduring a Maine winter and significant boat repairs, we picked the insurance company that didn't require the survey because we wanted to finally go sailing instead of suffering additional delays. We paid more, but we didn't have to stop and deal with any surveyors in Florida, negating any possible savings. With our wallet $6000 lighter we pushed off the shores of the USA and into turquoise tropical waters.

Typical bounty from a morning shore run to the French side of St Martin

We followed their guidelines about where to spend hurricane season. We chose Curacao and watched the storms pass by well North of us while we sweated out the season in superheated tropical safety. We also gained some epic experience crossing the Caribbean Sea, and at the end of the season did it again in reverse to end back up in St Croix USVI.  We knew they would insist on a survey the next time around.

Then they sent us a bill for $7000. Same coverage. No claims. Survey required. I think it was the automated way the broker sent it to me without preamble, along with a $700 broker fee without even trying to shop it at all that really kicked my rage machine into motion. Time to shop it around again. Now that a survey was mandatory all the competitors were on equal footing. 

Let's talk about the survey. When you buy a boat, it's a good idea to hire a reputable, independent surveyor. They go over every system carefully, thump every inch of the hull and deck, flip every switch, examine the color of the engine exhaust and the stitching on the sails. A pre-purchase survey is an excellent way to be sure you are getting what you are paying for.

An insurance survey is different. The surveyor looks to make sure that you're maintaining the vessel, that it is seaworthy, and it is vaguely worth what the insurance company thinks it is worth. It's sort of a reality check between the boat owner and the insurance company. They generally don't go turning on the engine or thumping every inch of the hull and most boat yards offer a quick-haul option so the surveyor can quickly look over the bottom.

Grocery run to provision for a week of expected high winds

We've been with Minerva for a few years now and take pride in her care. We don't feel the survey is necessary because we know every inch of our vessel. We have our own perpetual list of repairs and improvements and are always working on some project to better our boat, but they don't know us and how fastidious we are about her maintenance or improvements.

As soon as we landed in St. Croix, we started shopping for a surveyor. We unanimously rejected the first surveyor the moment he swindled us on some boat parts at the local chandlery and set an appointment with one in St. Martin.

Chloe the super sailor dog in Philipsburg

On his way out to view Minerva in the lagoon the surveyor informed Lance he was condemning the rigging, sight unseen, because it is 9 years old. He said as a matter of practice all rigging should be replaced every 10 years. Our friends with French, German, Dutch and Canadian flagged vessels were horrified that this is a normal way of doing business for American vessels. "What, they don't think that you would maintain her on your own? Don't they think that you want the best for your vessel too?"

Yeah... Sigh.

The quick haul took about an hour, while the surveyor was doing his thing we scraped some sea life off the bottom, and Minerva was back in the water in no time. That's $1000 for the survey and $500 for the haul out, and $5000 for the insurance policy, and we're good to go for another year.

Now for those of you who are quick with math, that's $6500 that in no way actually improves our vessel. That same $6500 would be a solid start on new rigging, or one whole new sail maybe two, or a new dinghy, dinghy motor AND a new life raft. In other words, things that actually matter to Minerva.

Quick Haul - it's always unnerving to see your boat mid-air but the guys at Bobby's Mega Yard made it look easy

Boat insurance companies also include a territorial clause. It goes by different names but the basic gist of it is that they don't want you in a hurricane zone during hurricane season, and ignoring this map and schedule makes it possible for them to deny claims. Different companies have different maps and slightly different calendars. For our first international policy, anything South of Latitude 12'40" was acceptable. That opened up Grenada and the ABC Islands and they excluded most of the East coast of the USA. A different policy says anything North of Florida is acceptable but you have to get way South, like Trinidad, for hurricane season. Having lived through a couple of storm seasons on the East coast of the USA, ducking and dodging hurricanes, some well outside of their anticipated date range, this all seems rather arbitrary to me.

It's for these reasons many boaters choose to self-insure. Prudent mariners maintain their vessels and keep a constant weather eye. One day we may choose to skip buying insurance too. Because, more than anything, I hate being told where to go, when I can't be there, and which repairs should be prioritized.

Sidewalk crepes on the main drag in Marigot

On the other hand, floating in the lagoon of St. Martin we are surrounded by evidence of storm damage; half-floating boats, destroyed buildings left behind in the wake of Irma/Marie more than 6 years ago - a sobering daily reminder of the worst of the worst and the tedious claw back to the life "before".

Maybe when we have more miles under the hull I will feel confident to take the path of the self-insured. As annoyed as I am, for now though, I'll write the check and start making plans for hurricane season hideouts.