Having recently qualified as a small vessel (up to 24m) surveyor with the Institute of Marine Surveyors (IIMS) I’m delighted to be joining the ranks of the many experienced surveyors already practicing around the world. I’ve owned a range of boats over the past 30 years, sailed, crewed or repaired many more, and instructed a fair number of surveys during that time. However, it’s only since studying for my recent qualification that I’ve stopped to think seriously about the service I’ve received from those surveyors in various parts of the world, and revisited those surveys, comparing them to what I should now expect to produce for a client.
Marine Surveyor Memberships & Qualifications
No matter which country you’re living in, you may be surprised to learn that there is no requirement for a boat surveyor to have any qualifications whatsoever. Anyone can set themselves up as a ‘marine expert’ and offer to survey a vessel. What’s more, having produced a number of surveys, they can apply for membership of a Surveyors’ Association such as SAMS, NAMS or others which provides credibility to their claim. Organisations such as these aim to provide a framework for regulating standards within the industry, and some have developed their own training programmes which help to harmonise levels of competence, at least within their own association.
In reality, some will have been coached as an employee or apprentice within an existing surveying firm, many will already have studied for a university qualification in surveying or a related field such as vessel design or marine engineering, and others, like me, will have been background checked and approved to undertake a lengthy and intensive study programme to gain a qualification that instills a level of confidence when donning the marine expert’s hat. Despite this, I would never claim to be an expert in this enormous field.
With the title comes a level of responsibility that’s really quite significant – that of warranting a vessel as fit for the purpose with which it’s going to be used. As the survey of a house is designed to ensure that the house you’re living in, or going to live in, will shelter you from the elements and not collapse around your ears in the next storm, the survey of your boat is designed to ensure that it won’t break up in the next big sea. Both surveys are designed to help safeguard your life, as well as to protect the value of your investment. A good surveyor will let you know when the services of other professionals may be needed to further investigate potential issues; these may be electricians, fiberglass composite, paint coating or engine brand specialists.
It makes sense, therefore, that the surveyor you choose should know what they’re looking at and looking for and you should choose your man (or woman) accordingly. In this, there is absolutely no substitute for experience; someone who’s spent most of their life on commercial fishing boats will know little about luxury sailing boats, let alone cargo ships or cruise liners, and surveyors come from many different backgrounds. Each surveyor will have their own area(s) of expertise, although it’s arguable whether someone fresh out of university will have experience enough of anything without several years of work experience under their belt.
Take the time to seek out someone with experience in the type of vessel you need surveyed and then ask also about their background, and to see a sample report.
Is it enough that your surveyor has performed this service since university yet has never been a boat owner? Would you be content knowing the surveyor of your ‘lifetime’s goal liveaboard round the world sailing boat’ for you and your wife has only ever skippered large motor yachts over 40 metres belonging to someone else? These are questions you should definitely ask yourself before making a decision.
Ideally the surveyor you choose will have the type of background that gives him an in-depth knowledge of the type of vessel you need surveyed, and if he’s fair and honest he should confine himself only to these vessels.
If you have a large and complex vessel such as a modern superyacht, you may need to source a larger surveying firm where partners have a range of competences to cover your needs.
So what about price? Most small vessel surveyors charge by the foot, and within price bands that reflect the levels of complexity in vessel systems as the boat gets longer. There is also a different scale for different types of survey reflecting the level of detail required for each.
I have a bit of a problem with this in that I don’t feel the rates accurately consider the time involved, and with a fixed fee model such as this, there is a tendency to rush through the job to maximize the profit. Knowing as I do now, the amount of preparation time needed prior to a survey visit, the level and extent of the observations needed during the vessel inspection and possibly a sea trial, and the time to compile a professional report, I can tell you for certain that previous surveys I’ve paid for have had a mere cursory eye cast over things that should have been examined a whole lot more thoroughly.
It’s a reason why my prices are structured the way they are, to provide a fair hourly rate for the amount of time that needs to be applied in order to do a thorough job. If a client’s not happy with my rates then that’s fine, there are plenty of others who will cut corners to give you a lower price…and cut corners they will. My husband is happy to recount the time he instructed an insurance condition and valuation report for his 24’ wooden quarter tonne racer on a mooring buoy, to have the chap take photographs from the end of the dock and go away to write his report!
Does your insurance company recognise your surveyor for their purposes? Some insurance companies stipulate the memberships they prefer to see on a surveyor’s report; the American Institute of Marine Underwriters for example recommends SAMS, NAMS and Navtech USSA (US Surveyors Association) members. Imagine if you’d just bought your boat and the insurance company rejected your expensive pre-purchase survey! This is a rare occurrence but not beyond the realm of possibility; check with your preferred insurance company if you’re in any doubt.
Whether it’s the failure to send a detailed ‘scope of works’ for you to approve before agreeing the contract, the poor attention given to the wording of an email, the failure to remove his shoes on your treasured vessel, or the issue of a poorly formatted report containing someone else’s boat details, a lack of professionalism is the sure sign of a sloppy survey. However, a poor command of English and a lack of affinity with a keyboard aren’t the same and there’s many knowledgeable experts with English as a second language or who weren’t brought up with computers.
Go with your gut feeling after at least one good conversation or interview; ask for references and follow them up.
Interview Questions for a Marine Surveyor
Questions you should probably ask a shortlist of potential surveyors might include:
- What did you do before becoming a surveyor?
- How long have you been qualified and who did you train with?
- How many surveys do you carry out in a year?
- What areas do you consider are your specialities?
- Have you surveyed my particular model/brand of boat before?
- Can you provide me with 2 references? What work did you do for them and how long ago?
- Can you send me a sample report?
- Do you have liability and contractor’s insurance?
So there you have it; there’s a whole lot to choosing a surveyor for your boat and hopefully I’ve sparked the need to ask a few questions and expect some satisfactory answers. However, do remember that there are only so many ships on the sea, and only enough survey work for a finite number of boat surveyors in your local area. The likelihood is that you will only have a choice of four or five who live within a convenient commute; let’s hope you find someone you like who is qualified, experienced, has the right background and charges a fair price!
Steps to Instructing a Marine Survey
- Understand the type(s) of survey you need for your vessel
- List the marine surveyors in your geographic area
- Research the qualifications, background and competences of these surveyors and make a shortlist
- Contact each surveyor on your shortlist for an interview, either face to face, by telephone or video call
- Carry out your interviews and ask for references and a sample report; also speak to your peers
- Finalise your choice and ask for a formal proposal
- Evaluate the proposal before signing and don’t be afraid to go to your second choice, or start again if you’re not comfortable!