Docked boats in most peril of sinking

On the Water

September 10, 2006|By Annie Linskey

Though the world's most famous shipwrecks happened at sea, boats are four times more likely to sink at the dock than when they are under way, according to BoatU.S., a marine insurance company.

"You expect a boat [at a dock] to be able to float in almost any condition, but some of these smaller boats can't," said Chuck Fort, who wrote a study published this summer on why motorboats sink.

Almost half of the boats that sank while tied to a dock went down after the cockpit filled with rain or snow, according to the study. Twenty percent sank because of failing underwater fittings and, surprisingly, 10 percent went down after above-water fittings corroded.

"A majority of the sinkings at the dock probably could be prevented," Fort said.

Boat sinkings on the open water were harder to prevent. A third went down after water came over the transom and swamped the boat, according to the study. Twenty percent went down because of faulty plumbing that allowed the craft to take on water. Twelve percent of the accidents were caused by the hull hitting a submerged object, the most famous example being the Titanic.

For the study, published in the summer issue of in BoatU.S.'s magazine, Seaworthy, Fort looked only at insurance claims for outboard motorboats. Results from his research on the reasons sailboats and other motorboats sink will be published in coming issues.

Those who have been around boats didn't find the data on boats sinking at the dock surprising.

"Boats do sink at slips," said Tim Newell, a vice president for development at Coastal Properties Management Inc. who has worked in the marine industry for more than 20 years. "And they do tend to sink at night," he said, because marina staff members are home after hours.

After heavy rain or as snow is melting, the cockpit scupper - or drain - can become clogged and prevent excess water from flowing out of the boat, Newell said.

It is better to have a boat that is used a lot and "abused" than one that is neglected, Newell said. The owner of an abused boat will at least know what the problem areas are.

Newell said he has seen instances in which owners left their boats hooked up to marina power cables for weeks on end without checking on them. If something interrupts the power supply, he said, the battery powering the automatic bilge pump can go out and boats can fill with water and sink.

"One of the worst calls you can make is: `Hey Mr. Boat Owner, it is Saturday morning and your boat has sunk,'" Newell said.

Fred Hecklinger, who has inspected boats for insurance companies since 1980, placed the blame for most sunken boats squarely on the shoulders of the owners.

"You don't park a convertible out with the top down," he said. "Everything in this world needs to be looked after."

Hecklinger said he often sees boats with corroded valves or fittings. He recalled inspecting a boat with a bronze valve that was below the waterline. The valve crumbled in his hand and water immediately rushed into the boat.

He said he stuffed the hole with a rag and ran to find the boat's owner. Together they had it hauled out of the water before it sank.

Nobody thanked him for finding a weak spot. "Many people, when something like that happened, they think it is my fault," he said.

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