Marine Surveyors

What they know can save you!

August 2010 Feature Gary Kramer

According to one definition, `a pig in a poke' means an offering or deal that is foolishly accepted without being examined first. In other words, what you get is not necessarily what you think you are getting.

To avoid that situation, houses being sold are usually subject to a variety of inspections and some buyers hire their own home inspectors. Their job is to find undetected flaws that aren't necessarily apparent that can turn out to be costly, unsafe or downright dangerous.

Similarly, a boat survey serves the same purpose for a boat owner or buyer. By providing a detailed inspection of the boat, an owner or buyer can make a more informed decision about buying, selling, insuring or repairing a boat.

There are basically four types of surveys. The one done when a boat is being sold is a pre-purchase survey. The others are insurance surveys, a condition/valuation survey and a damage survey. Each is done for a different reason so the procedures followed and the focus and extent of the inspections vary accordingly.

Bill Burke lives in central Kentucky and does about 75 houseboat surveys a year. He thinks he probably does more houseboat surveys a year than anyone else in the country. At the recent National Houseboat Expo, he presented his "Seven Deadly Sins of Houseboating" seminar to standing room-only crowds. Burke believes a major benefit of any survey is "to help prevent the three worst things that happen on a houseboat other than loss of life-sinking, hard grounding or fire."

Before You Buy

The pre-purchase survey is done to determine the general condition and value of the vessel and to discover any flaws that might not be easily determined that could result in a significant expense to fix or even put the new owner's safety in jeopardy. Buyers, especially first-time buyers, are frequently very anxious. These surveys, according to Burke, are very helpful because they can "educate the buyer and let him make a more informed buying decision. It gives them the information they need that they would not necessarily get from the boat's owner. It is not done to tear apart a boat."

He likes to have the buyer aboard when he is doing these surveys. "They can ask 1,000 questions," he says, "and I can explain things to them and tell them how to do this and that and they can get a hands-on feel for the boat."

Insurance Questions

An insurance survey differs because its purpose is to help the insurance company determine whether the boat is an acceptable risk. These are generally required every five and 10 years; the hull also needs to be inspected.

Insurance companies also ask for damage surveys. These inspections assess the extent of damage, estimate the cost of repairs and sometimes try to establish the cause of the damage.

Lending institutions also request surveys. They may ask for a condition/valuation survey during the loan process to help determine the fair market value of a boat. Burke says those surveys are not technically the same as an appraisal, but rather a way of providing a ball park figure although comparable boat values are examined and considered in the report.

To perform any of these surveys, Burke brings 10 years of experience surveying boats, a knowledge of a variety of safety, state and federal rules, codes and standards, a membership in a professional marine surveyors' organization known as SAMS (Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors, Inc), personal experience as a houseboater, and a tool box with over $2,500 worth of equipment.

Tool Box

Included are multiple flashlights, a digital camera, flexible mirrors, a volt meter, a GFI (Ground Fault Interrupter) receptacle and circuit tester, a moisture tester, and an ultrasonic thickness gauge to determine hull thickness. He also has the ability to perform a spectrographic engine oil analysis.

The main interview for this article took place on Lake Cumberland on a 1998, 16- by 90-foot houseboat owned by Fred and Gloria Nicolosi. Bill was performing a 10-year insurance survey on this boat so as he moved through his inspections of the boat, he talked about that survey in particular as well as surveying in general.           

Part of the process involved recording the serial numbers from all the equipment on the boat and part of the survey involved examining individual items as well as complete systems.

He started in the engine compartments and because the engine's serial numbers were not easily seen, he had to break out a flexible mirror and flashlight to read the numbers. He also carries a flexible fiber optic tool that helps him see things in difficult places. While he was there, he inspected all the hoses, electrical fittings and condition of the spark arrestor. He checked to see if the batteries were secured and did a visual survey of the entire area looking for loose items, combustibles or anything else that could be a problem.

"I see a lot of unsecured batteries," he says. "If they break loose and the terminals come in contact with an aluminum fuel tank, it can cause a spark or an arc."

That can damage the tank and lead to serious problems. A 12-volt battery, he explains, has 10 times the amperage of a 120-volt circuit.

Another big problem he regularly sees is propane tanks stored below decks near the engines and gas tanks. That can also lead to a disastrous situation.

The fire extinguishers got inspected as did the carbon monoxide detectors, GFI receptacles and their circuitry. He says it is helpful for a surveyor to understand how the boats are built and wired, pointing out that many houseboats have all their GFI circuits running down one side of the boat. The older the boat, the greater likelihood there is that somebody has done some improper and dangerous wiring. He often finds the wrong kind of wire and the wrong kind of connectors.

Treasure Hunt  

He slowly moved through the boat, peeking and crawling in here and there, looking for clues and signs that everything was not as it should be. When his eye caught a discoloration on a ceiling panel in the salon, he asked the owner about the leak that caused it and he explained how and when the leak was stopped.

To verify the leak had been fixed, Burke used his moisture meter and the reading showed no moisture present. "I don't have X-ray vision," Burke laughs, "but I need to understand what might be behind a surface so the moisture meter is invaluable. It gives me an indication where trouble is brewing."

He used another tool, an ultrasonic thickness gauge, on the hull at the crown of the bow. Most beaching wear occurs there so that is a good place to measure the hull's thickness.

By the time he was done he had inspected the engine and generator installations, fuel systems, hot water heaters, plumbing, freshwater tanks and pumps, holding tanks, Purasan sanitation system, inverter installation, breaker panel, 120-volt AC wiring and 12-volt DC system.

The houseboat he was working on belonged to the original owner and had been consistently and conscientiously well-maintained. Even so, Burke still found a few items that needed to be corrected.

Surveying steel hull boats requires extra diligence. Burke says he will only do a survey on a steel hulled boat if it is out of the water.

"I have heard the fairy tale too often that the boat has a new hull or it was just serviced," he says.

"Just serviced" can mean many things. Sometimes, boats just get a "bib and diaper" job where repairs are only done on the bow and stern. That can leave plenty of rust in the other areas. He recommends that anyone buying a steel hulled boat that has allegedly been re-hulled or worked on ask to see the receipt for the work to prove when and how much was actually done.

Burke has photos of some of the worst equipment, repairs and situations he has found in his career. He refers to them as the "wall of shame." He also has a long list of stories about those and other things he has discovered that could have led to big problems and serious danger.  All those are serious reminders that the practice of Caveat Emptor is alive and well in the marine marketplace, especially when sales are between private parties.

Who To Call?

Marine surveyors generally belong to one of two professional organizations, SAMS (Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors, Inc.) or NAMSGlobal, which is the National Association of Marine Surveyors. Some surveyors have credentials issued by other organizations but SAMS and NAMSGlobal are by far the best known.

Both groups require that their members have experience and competency testing is mandatory for full certification. They also require on going education for continued membership. Each has different levels of membership based on experience and testing and each has categories of specialization for surveyors. Houseboaters, for instance, need a surveyor with a specialization in Yachts and Small Craft. NAMS has been in existence longer, but SAMS now has over 1,000 members while NAMS lists about 400. By going to each organization's website, people can find surveyors in their geographic area that have the specialization desired.

Downing Nightingale was a charter member of SAMS and a former president of that organization and he says that what is really important is to find the person who has the most experience. Generally, he says, "that experience follows the nature of the local boats." The recommendation from both groups is to use their websites to locate the surveyors in your area and then call them all and ask about their experience and background.

Ask them about what they know about your type of boat. Then ask them what they know about things like the ABYC (American Boat and Yacht Council) Standards and Technical Information Reports for Small Craft; Code of Federal Regulations, Title 33-Navigation and Navigable Waters; and the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) 302: Fire Protection Standard.

What they know about all those things and a whole lot more that you probably don't could eventually save you a lot of heartaches, money or maybe even your life.





Bill Burke

Northwood Marine Services, LLC





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