Buying a hurricane damaged boat can be a risky endeavor. Still, it can also present an exciting opportunity for the right person.
During the 2017 Caribbean hurricane season, one of the largest yacht charter areas in the world was decimated by two tremendously powerful hurricanes in quick succession, Irma and Maria. In the region of 3,000 charter and privately owned vessels in the US & British Virgin Islands, Antigua, St Martin, and Puerto Rico came to the market within a few months. A further 50,000 vessels were reported damaged in Florida, offering an opportunity to grab a relatively new motor or sailing boat at a seemingly bargain price for those who knew what they were getting themselves into… and for many who didn’t.
I’m a boatowner who was on the island of St Martin during Hurricanes Gonzalo (category 1) and Irma (category 5) with a boat in the yard, I’ve lived in the Caribbean in the yachting industry for the years following, and I’ve bought, restored and sailed a hurricane damaged 40′ ex charter catamaran. In the following paragraphs, please enjoy my take on buying hurricane damaged boats.
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What Happens to Boats During a Hurricane?
No two hurricanes are the same. They vary in strength, trajectory, the speed they pass over, and the geographical area of the earth affected. Gonzalo was a category 1 hurricane with winds of around 75 knots (138 km) an hour and lasted 3 hours; Irma was a category 5 and the largest, most powerful Atlantic storm in recorded history. Irma lasted 12 hours with sustained winds of around 155 knots (287 km) an hour. Within the hurricane itself, there were mini tornadoes of more concentrated power.
Whilst there are steps you can take to minimise the effects of a major storm on boats in the area that are recommended and approved by some marine insurers, for boat owners wanting to keep their vessels safe from these most significant storms, the only sure option is for the boat not to be there when the storm passes through.
A hurricane not only gives us excessive wind strengths that cause direct damage, but the winds also induce much higher wave heights which crash on the shoreline; the lowered barometric pressure causes the sea levels to rise, invariably accompanied by torrential rain. The slower a hurricane moves, the greater the overall impact as effects are sustained over a longer period:
- At 100km per hour, loose roof tiles, sidings and other materials will be displaced from buildings and can crash down on nearby cars or boats; boat canvas and sails not lashed down or securely stowed will be shredded. Boats moored will suffer excess forces and chafe on lines, cleats and dock fittings; anchored vessels may struggle to maintain a holding and can be swept ashore.
- At 200km per hour, roofing materials and anything unsecured will be blown and act as dangerous projectiles, trees can be uprooted and large limbs ripped off. The vibration levels in rigging and ropes cause intense fatigue in metals in a very short time, and materials already in poor condition will fail; masts will fall due to failure in the mast itself or the rigging wires or fittings. Falling masts, flailing roofing sheets and thrashing rigging wires chew up fibreglass, teak, aluminium and plexiglass. Boats ashore not correctly chocked and pegged to the ground may fall over or be blown over. Boats in the water not moored with adequate lines in a cat’s cradle arrangement will see failure in the lines themselves or the fittings securing them; there are few anchors/chains that can hold in these wind forces. Inflatable dinghies will be lifted and blown if not adequately secured.
- At 300km per hour, boats not adequately tied down will be lifted off the ground and overturned. I looked at a Lagoon 43 Powercat in Virgin Gorda that had been rolled several times over a distance of about 300 yards, ending up upside down in the shallows.
Gonzalo produced 5.7″ of rain in St Martin, and Irma more than 9″. These levels of rainfall cause flash flooding, which can wash away built structures and trees, sweeping them downhill and causing impact damage, heavy rain will also wash away the stands supporting boats in the boatyards. Boats topple over on top of their neighbours and neighbouring items, keel-to-hull joints are stressed, bolts can break, stands can punch holes through boat hulls and pierce internal structures such as fuel and water tanks. Masts smash against each other and break.
Hatches smashed by flying debris open the boat’s interior to the elements, and rainwater can soak cushions and wood cabinetry.
The sea level rose 3 metres during Hurricane Irma. Boats in the boatyards which would typically have been clear of the water, tried to float, vast volumes of water washed between the sea and the lagoon sweeping away or dislodging docks, containers and vessels with it. On the coastal side, waves smashed over waterside buildings and sea walls, and boats anchored or moored in marinas were washed over the top of the retaining walls and were found many metres inland.
Boats moored or at anchor with inadequate bilge pumping arrangements to cope with rain and waves washing through smashed hatches sank with the sheer volume of water inside.
Here is a video I took in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
Whilst nature’s impacts of a hurricane can barely be imagined, it’s even harder to think that those who have just suffered through such a significant life event will selfishly pillage others as their first thought when the storm has barely passed. I witnessed hundreds of people pushing carts to rob stores before the full strength of the wind had abated, stealing electrical and electronic items when there wasn’t even any electricity to run them. I also saw men cutting holes in the decks of boats to remove engines and generators.
In the British Virgin Islands, where there was the biggest concentration of charter boats, the large charter companies quickly earmarked vessels with the least damage that would be saved and ripped good parts from those more damaged vessels they had no intention of recovering. Masts had already been ordered from the mast manufacturers even before the storm hit, leaving a considerable lead time for others after the storm was over.
What Types of Damage are Caused to Boats by Hurricanes?
- Impact Damage & Delamination – from smashing against docks, boats, and things; may be minor or structural.
- Flooding damage – salt water or fresh water, depending on the circumstances; can affect engines/generators, electronics, woodwork, batteries & electrics, latches and catches and mattresses/cushions.
- Dismasting – sailing boat masts are particularly vulnerable.
- Electrolysis – with many overturned and sunk boats piled together, batteries, inverters, and shore power cables will be underwater. Stray current can quickly cause pitting from electrolysis in exposed, un-earthed metal objects in contact with the water.
- Marine Growth – barnacles grow on submerged structures very quickly, and their burrowing action can cause grooves and staining in fibreglass and scars on metals.
Long Term Damage
Beyond the immediate and obvious damage directly caused by the hurricane, there may be longer-term damage that can go unseen. The longer a hurricane boat is left uncared for, the more deterioration will occur in the vessel’s state.
The longer a boat is left fully or partially submerged, the more marine growth can occur and the greater the waterlogging of interior components. Saltwater is highly corrosive, and metal objects will start to rust, affecting the part and irreversibly staining woodwork, canvas and other furnishings. Waterlogged wood will begin to rot, notably with fresh water too, and plywood bulkheads that have been glassed in are an area of concern.
Missing and smashed hatches allow rainwater to keep coming in, exacerbating damage to wood, electrics, fixtures and fittings.
Exposed fibreglass fibres will wick water into the laminate over time and cause delamination over a far larger area than may be immediately evident. The same is true of electrical cables.
Just the experience of having been through a hurricane can cause unseen damage to a vessel. Boat fittings can be subjected to stresses far greater than those they were ever designed for, and the vibration levels, from the wind, in fixings and rigging cause metal fatigue which is not evident.
These longer-term aspects can result in future unexpected failure of a component.
What Types of Boats Become Available After a Hurricane?
Anyone who keeps their boat in a hurricane zone during hurricane season is either insured or a fool. All big charter companies have comprehensive insurance policies covering named storms, and some insurers will cover private vessels under certain conditions.
It’s a well-known fact that anything fibreglass can be repaired… it just depends on whether those repairs are economically worth doing. Wood and steel, whilst less desirable as hull materials, are also less easy to repair. Depending on the level of damage, a hurricane damaged boat can be:
- A complete write-off – smashed up and sunk with no hope of repair (see below section on Salvage Title)
- A constructive wite-off – not economical to be repaired under the contracted insurance value (see below section on Salvage Title)
- Repairable – repair costs fall within the insured value.
Most boats sold off after a hurricane in the Caribbean are charter vessels coming out of a charter fleet – expect monohull sailing boats, sailing and motor catamarans. Many privately owned boats will move out of the hurricane zone, leaving smaller numbers of sailing boats and catamarans with private insurance. In Florida, most damaged boats are power boats and trawlers in boatyards or marinas; the purpose-built storage sheds do a good job securing smaller vessels.
Remember that charter companies were fully insured for their losses, they already have new boats and masts/rigging on order, and they will keep and fix those boats which are the least damaged; they already have repair facilities and expertise on-island to do this. The more damaged boats are scavenged for their parts and then shipped away to clear up the sailing area for future chartering. This includes heavily damaged and sunk vessels.
After Irma, salvage companies were gifted the damaged boats to haul away in exchange for the salvage title.
About Salvage Title
A salvage title on a vessel refers to a legal designation given to a boat or watercraft that has been severely damaged, often due to accidents, natural disasters (such as hurricanes), or other catastrophic events. When a vessel sustains significant damage, and the cost to repair it exceeds a certain percentage of its pre-damaged value, the boat may be deemed a “total loss.”
Once a boat is declared a total loss, the insurance company or the relevant authorities issue a salvage title. This title serves as a warning to potential buyers that the vessel has undergone significant damage and has been written off as uneconomical to repair by the insurance company.
The term “salvage title” is primarily used in North America, particularly in the United States and Canada. A similar concept exists in Europe, but different names often refer to it and vary by country. In many European countries, a salvage title is called a “write-off” or a “total loss” title.
European countries typically have their own regulations and procedures regarding salvaged or written-off vehicles and vessels. The specific criteria for determining a write-off can vary between countries. They may depend on the percentage of the vessel’s pre-accident value that the repairs would cost.
Similar to North America, when a vehicle or vessel is declared a write-off in Europe, it can be sold at a significantly reduced price compared to similar units with a clean history. Buyers interested in purchasing a salvaged or written-off vehicle or vessel should exercise caution and perform thorough inspections to assess the extent of the damage and potential restoration costs.
Suppose you are considering purchasing a salvaged vessel in Europe. In that case, it’s essential to familiarise yourself with the regulations and terminology specific to the country in which you plan to purchase. Consulting with local authorities and experts can help you navigate the process and make an informed decision.
It’s essential for buyers interested in purchasing a boat with a salvage title to conduct thorough inspections and assessments to determine the full extent of the damage and evaluate whether the vessel can be safely and economically restored to a seaworthy condition. Additionally, insurance companies may have specific policies regarding insuring vessels with salvage titles, so potential buyers should consider this aspect before purchasing.
Should You Buy a Hurricane-Damaged Boat?
This is the biiiig question! Although the price of the vessel may seem like a steal, costs for storage, transportation, replacement gear, repair materials and skilled or even unskilled labour can quickly exceed the current market value of an undamaged boat.
Reasons for Buying a Hurricane Damaged Boat
One of the main reasons is the potential for a great deal. After a major hurricane, many boat owners are looking to offload their damaged vessels quickly, often at significantly reduced prices. This can appeal to buyers willing to invest time and money into repairing and restoring the boat.
A hurricane damaged boat also presents the chance to customise and personalise the vessel. Buyers can rebuild and modify the boat according to their specific preferences, which can be an exciting project for boaters who enjoy hands-on work and have the skills or resources to undertake the necessary repairs.
Reasons for Not Buying a Hurricane Damaged Boat
One of the main concerns is the extent of the damage. Depending on the hurricane’s severity and the vessel’s precise damage, the repairs required to restore the boat to a safe and seaworthy condition can be extensive and costly. Buyers must carefully evaluate the potential costs and consider whether it is worth investing time and money.
Even after a thorough inspection, hidden structural or mechanical issues may not be immediately apparent. This hidden damage can lead to additional expenses and frustrations down the line, making it a risky investment for those who are not prepared to handle unforeseen complications.
You may not be able to get insurance coverage for your hurricane-damaged boat, even following skilled repairs. Some insurers refuse to cover boats with salvage title, and finding one who will may prove difficult.
What Type of Person Buys a Hurricane Damaged Boat?
A successful hurricane damage project requires someone willing and with the time, resources, and expertise to take on the risks and challenges of restoring a damaged vessel.
They are often experienced boaters who understand boat maintenance, systems and repair well. They are also likely to have a network of contacts within the boating community who can provide guidance, advice, and assistance throughout the restoration process.
Understand Your WHY
Ask yourself exactly why you want to do this and what will be your ideal outcome. This may be:
To restore the boat to its original condition and use it or sell it for a profit. This can be a difficult option for several reasons – firstly if the vessel has a salvage title, this will always be the case. It may be difficult to achieve market value or for a buyer to obtain insurance… both will affect your ability to make a sale. Secondly, the cost of skilled labour, replacement parts, storage and insurance can mount up very quickly. It can easily exceed the market value if not correctly anticipated and controlled.
To make sufficient repairs and/or alterations to use the vessel for living aboard or commercial purposes such as day chartering. In the aftermath of Irma, at least two new day charter businesses have sprung up using hurricane damaged boats to transport their guests. Pyratz and Captain SUP renovated dismasted catamarans, converting them to power-driven vessels for their day charter activities. Numerous other boats have been repaired to a greater or lesser degree. They are being used as liveaboard vessels around the Caribbean.
Just for fun… you’d better have a lot of time and deep pockets!
Assessing the Risks
One of the main financial risks associated with buying a hurricane damaged boat is the ability to forecast the real cost-saving opportunities. While it’s true that these boats are often sold at significantly lower prices compared to their undamaged counterparts, it is essential to weigh this seemingly great deal against the upcoming repair costs. The extent of damage caused by a hurricane can vary greatly, and it is not uncommon for repairs to exceed the estimated market value once complete, considering that it may always be deemed a salvaged vessel. It is crucial to have a thorough understanding of the boat’s condition and the estimated repair costs before making a decision.
Understanding insurance implications and limitations is another aspect to consider. Many marine insurance companies have specific policies regarding hurricane-damaged boats, and it is important to be aware of any limitations or exclusions that may apply. Some insurers may refuse coverage altogether, while others may only provide limited cover or require additional inspections and documentation. It is essential to consult with insurance professionals to understand the potential implications and costs associated with insuring a hurricane damaged boat, both during and after the repairs are complete.
Legal titles and available documentation should also be carefully considered. Paperwork may have been lost during the storm, and a buyer should ensure that there is a physical, legal title, salvage or otherwise, in place before closing on a transaction.
Hidden repair costs and unforeseen damages are common challenges when buying a hurricane damaged boat. While some damages may be visible upon inspection, others may only become apparent during the repair process. Structural issues, electrical problems, or water damage may not be immediately evident, and the cost of repairing these hidden damages can quickly add up. It is crucial to have a professional surveyor thoroughly inspect the boat and provide an accurate assessment of the potential repair costs.
Another difficulty with buying a hurricane damaged boat is the lack of boat history. Compared to purchasing a used boat with a known maintenance and repair history, storm damaged boats often come with limited or no records. This makes assessing the boat’s overall condition before the hurricane, and potential future issues challenging. Buyers should be prepared for surprises.
We have already discussed the need for an expert evaluation of the condition of the vessel to arrive at an approximate cost forecast for the repairs. The difficulty is that most surveyors are working at capacity immediately following a major storm, and scheduling a visit may be very hard! After Hurricane Irma, various marine industry workers were drafted in by insurance companies with little experience surveying boats simply because no one was available.
Whilst an experienced boater who has carried out a lot of maintenance and repairs may have a good idea of what he’s looking at, there’s no substitute for an impartial, experienced and qualified professional giving their opinion and an estimate of costs.
Professional experience is essential for evaluating a vessel’s structural integrity and safety, not only pre-purchase to identify any structural repairs but also during and following the repair to certify that it meets the minimum designed specification for the vessel as it was rolled out of the production shed.
Who Sells the Hurricane-Damaged Vessels?
Various parties will offer damaged boats for sale following the hurricane:
- Boat Owners who had no insurance cover or received a pay-out from their insurer may decide that completing the repairs is not something they want to undertake. They may or may not use a broker.
- Insurance companies often use Yacht Sales Brokers to achieve the best recovery value for a vessel that they have assumed the title of following an insurance pay-out.
- Salvage Companies are handed the titles to vessels in exchange for lifting and clearing away wrecked and sunken boats. Many, like Certified Yacht Sales and Harbor Shoppers, sell their inventory under an auction process.
- Some Insurers may sell their assumed titles directly to eliminate broker commission.
- Boat Yards are also an excellent place to find vessels that may already be behind in their fees, and the owners hand over the title to the yard. There are lots of unfinished restoration projects languishing away in the boatyards of the Caribbean and Florida!
How Much Should You Pay for a Hurricane Damaged Vessel?
Purchasing a hurricane damaged boat may initially seem like a bargain. Still, it is crucial to consider the various costs outside the purchase price that will impact the final cost of your dream boat.
Assessing and Costing the Damage
Thoroughly assess the extent of the damage inflicted on the boat during the hurricane. This assessment will help determine the overall cost of repairs and whether it is financially viable to proceed with the purchase.
Engaging a professional marine surveyor can provide an accurate evaluation of the damage, including structural, electrical, and mechanical issues. Once you have a list of the required repairs, you can approach skilled tradespeople for quotes and contact the brand dealers to estimate the cost of replacing missing or damaged parts.
Location & Retrieval
Another factor to consider is the location of the hurricane damaged boat. The cost of retrieval and relocation can significantly add to the overall expenses if it is still partially submerged, in a remote or inaccessible area, or somewhere without skilled labour or parts availability. Transportation costs, such as hiring a specialised barge or arranging a crane, should be considered when calculating the required investment.
Costing the Repairs
It is crucial to estimate the cost of repairs accurately. This includes not only the visible damage but also allowing a contingency for potential hidden issues that may arise during the restoration process. Consulting with experienced boat repair professionals can provide valuable insights into the potential costs of returning the boat to its pre-hurricane condition.
Storage & Repair Facilities
Where will you store and repair your boat during the restoration process? Depending on the size and complexity of the repairs, renting a dedicated covered space or utilising a boatyard with the necessary equipment and expertise may be necessary. These facilities come with their own costs, which should be costed in advance and factored into the overall budget.
Your Budget – Be Realistic!
Before embarking on the purchase of a hurricane damaged boat, it is essential to know your budget. This should consider the purchase price, retrieval costs, repair expenses, and ongoing storage. Leave some room for unexpected expenses.
Timing is Everything
Timing plays a crucial role when buying a hurricane damaged boat. In the months following Irma, hundreds of boats came to the market. Some incredibly high prices were paid for boats with immense structural damage due to the initial excitement and the types of boats that came up for sale; other boats sold for next to nothing once the initial frenzy had subsided and/or when the boat model was less popular. Waiting for the initial buying buzz to pass can get you a better deal.
The availability of repair professionals, storage facilities, and necessary parts can vary depending on the time of year. However, following a hurricane may be especially difficult when yards are still clearing up from the aftermath. Every man and his dog is looking for a space. You may have to wait to start work which can impact the longer-term damage to the vessel if you still need to take steps to protect it, such as closing all hatches and hull openings and lifting it clear of the sea.
Know the Requirements for Restoring a Hurricane Damaged Boat
Whether you choose to undertake the restoration yourself or hire professionals, it is essential to ensure compliance with safety standards and regulations. Sourcing quality workmanship, materials, and parts is necessary to ensure the longevity and safety of the restored boat.
All new boats sold commercially must meet a minimum level of safety standards when they leave the factory. In Europe, this is signified by the CE Mark; in the US, it is the USCG Certification. Boat manufacturers must build professionally designed boats to ensure their seaworthiness. The manufacturing process must meet stringent checks at each stage to ensure that build quality and processes fulfil the designed strengths and tolerances. All components used, such as hatches, deck equipment, and electrical and electronic components, must be similarly marked/certified, and the fit-out of systems such as electrics and propane must meet separate standards.
Depending on the extent of the damage caused by the hurricane, you need to understand the requirements for restoring the vessel to its original condition so that the vessel continues to meet these original and designed standards. Before embarking on this restoration journey, it is important to assess whether you have the necessary skills and knowledge to undertake the project yourself or if it is better to hire professionals.
DIY restoration can be a cost-effective option for those with skills and experience in boat repairs. However, it would help if you were fully au fait with the standards applicable to your vessel. You should consult a marine surveyor during restoration to ensure you’re hitting the mark. Electrical systems, fuel systems, and structural integrity, in particular, must be thoroughly inspected and repaired to ensure they meet safety standards.
Hiring professionals for the restoration can provide peace of mind and ensure that the boat is restored to its original condition safely and efficiently. Professionals have the expertise and knowledge to navigate the complex regulations and safety standards that must be met. They also have access to specialised tools and equipment needed for the restoration process. However, It is essential to carefully research and choose reputable professionals who have experience restoring the types of damage particular to your vessel. Throughout the Caribbean are a host of skilled and unskilled tradesmen who claim to be able to do a job, ask around to make sure you choose the good ones, draw up a contract and make staged payments.
Sourcing quality materials and parts is another vital aspect of restoring a hurricane damaged boat. Ensuring that all materials used in the restoration are high quality and meet any CE or USCG standards is essential. This includes materials for repairing the hull, electrical systems, plumbing, and any other components that may have been damaged. Often the local dealer for your boat brand is your first port of call to source the original parts for your vessel. Once you have the parts list, you can go directly to manufacturers or search eBay for better prices.
The Buying Process
The boat buying process is pretty standard, whether you buy through a broker, an auction house, or an individual seller. You make a formal offer, it is accepted, and you sign a bill of sale and pay the purchase price and any associated fees. More info is given in the links.
You should obtain a clear title to the vessel and register it under your chosen flag state.
After the Sale
Securing Your Boat And Preventing Further Damage
The priority is to secure the boat properly. This may involve removing any remaining water, sealing leaks, and covering the boat with a tarp or shrink wrap to protect it from the elements. It is crucial to prevent additional water intrusion or exposure to harsh weather conditions.
Relocating the boat to a safe and secure location is your next step. Suppose the boat is still in a hurricane-prone area. In that case, move it to a more secure location, such as a boatyard with proper repair facilities. This will provide a controlled environment for restoration work and protect the boat from future storms.
Developing A Comprehensive Restoration Plan
Revisit the damage reports and create a detailed plan outlining the necessary repairs and restoration work. This plan should include a timeline, budget, and a list of required materials and services.
The first thing you need to do is clean the boat and clear it of any broken and unusable items; this will also give you an inventory of parts you can reuse.
Prioritising Repairs And Addressing Safety Concerns First
When prioritising repairs, address safety concerns first. Focus on fixing any structural damage, electrical issues, or other safety hazards that could pose a risk to the boat or its occupants. Once the safety concerns are addressed, proceed to cosmetic repairs and other non-essential improvements.
Choosing Reputable Repair Services And Suppliers
Choosing reputable repair services and suppliers is crucial to ensure the quality of the restoration work. Research and select professionals who have experience in repairing hurricane damage; check their credentials, read reviews, and ask for references. Similarly, source materials and supplies from reputable suppliers to ensure the durability and longevity of the repairs.
Managing The Project
Managing the restoration project is a significant undertaking. It involves coordinating the contractors, overseeing the progress, and ensuring the work is completed according to the plan and budget. Regular communication with the repair team is essential to stay updated on the progress and address any concerns or changes that may arise during the restoration process.
Consider engaging a marine surveyor to help with this aspect, ensuring at the same time that build standards are being met.
Insurance & Resale
Lastly, it is important to consider the boat’s insurance and potential resale value. Contact your insurance provider to discuss coverage options and any necessary adjustments to the policy. Remember that the boat’s resale value may be affected by its history of hurricane damage. Be prepared to disclose this information to potential buyers and adjust the asking price accordingly.
It’s a particular type of person that buys and restores a hurricane-damaged boat. If it’s your calling, be prepared to invest a significant chunk of your bank balance and of your life to achieve the end goal. You may make some money; you may very easily not. I hope this guide has helped you understand the processes and the pitfalls so you can make an informed decision.