A Second Pair of Eyes
A surveyor can uncover problems you don’t see before they turn serious.
Should you have your boat surveyed every couple of years?
Most folks hire a marine surveyor only when buying a boat, or if their insurance company requires it. But that’s probably not often enough: Periodic surveys should be part of your maintenance program. A qualified surveyor can discover what’s wrong with a boat, what needs fixing now before it gets worse, and what can wait. A survey isn’t cheap, but if it’s the stitch in time that saves nine, it’s worth the cost.
What can a surveyor tell you about the boat you own now? Maybe your underwater gear is showing more corrosion than is healthy, and he’ll suggest calling an expert in galvanic issues. Or maybe the cracks around your bowrail stanchion bases are more than just gelcoat crazing, and might be letting water infiltrate the deck core; moisture-meter readings can uncover the truth. Could it be time to replace some hoses in the engine room, or get a mechanic to locate the source of the oil in the bilge—you know, the oil you’ve been cleaning up for the past couple of seasons, saying you’d get to it someday soon? We all have blind spots when it comes to our boats, especially when repair costs are involved, but the surveyor won’t. He or she will bring aboard a second pair of eyes unencumbered by rose-colored glasses.
A survey as part of a maintenance program is different from the pre-purchase survey you want when you’re buying a boat. Ted Crosby, a surveyor in Plantation, Florida, spent 39 years as an insurance-company surveyor before hanging out his own shingle in 2010. “The pre-purchase survey is very detailed,” he says. “The surveyor looks for tiny spots of rust, snaps that don’t snap—the client wants the surveyor to find every single thing that’s wrong with the boat to use for price negotiation.” For maintenance purposes, you want a condition and valuation (C & V) survey, Crosby says, with more stress on condition.
Unlike a pre-purchase survey, a C & V survey doesn’t address cosmetics and doesn’t include a sea trial. It takes much less time than a pre-purchase survey, and, depending on the surveyor, should cost less. Some insurers require a C & V survey every five years to maintain coverage, so coordinate your maintenance plan with your insurance schedule and let one survey serve two purposes. But whether you want the survey to meet underwriters’ requirements or just serve as a maintenance guideline, be sure to explain your needs to the surveyor, advises Crosby. “Don’t pay for what you don’t want,” he says.
How Do I Find a Surveyor?
It seems every ex-boat captain claims to be a surveyor, and every boatyard and yacht broker has a list of “experts” who will “do a good job.” Some of them are excellent surveyors, but which ones? How do you find a skilled surveyor you can trust to be unbiased (i.e. not a shill for the boatyard) and qualified in your type of vessel? As is so often the case today, the search starts on the internet—specifically, on the Web site of one, or all, of three associations: NAMS, SAMS, or
BoatUS. Start with NAMS and SAMS.
Most experienced surveyors serious about the profession belong to either NAMS, the National Association of Marine Surveyors (www.namsglobal.org)—Crosby has been a certified member since 1979—or SAMS, the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (www.marinesurvey.org). Both are trade organizations, not government bodies, that certify (NAMS) or accredit (SAMS) surveyors through peer review; they do not issue licenses. (There is no surveyor’s license, by the way, although many surveyors have USCG captain’s licenses, business licenses, etc.) The requirements for full membership differ slightly between NAMS and SAMS, but basically they are equivalent: An applicant must have at least five years surveying experience, must submit past surveys for review, must agree to abide by the organization’s code of ethics, and must pass a comprehensive exam. Continuing education for qualified surveyors is required by both organizations.
NAMS is the older organization, incorporated in 1962 by a group of surveyors who had formerly been associated with Underwriters’ Laboratories Marine Department. Initially there were 84 members; today NAMS has certified surveyors in 32 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and 12 foreign countries. SAMS is a relative newcomer, founded in 1987 by 50 charter members for “a different purpose and outlook” from the existing professional surveyors’ organizations, according to the SAMS Web site. Today there are over 1,000 SAMS surveyors in the U.S. and 20 foreign countries. Both organizations’ Web sites have searchable lists of members; look for surveyors with specific yacht or small-craft credentials.
You can also check the BoatUS Web site (www.boatus.com) for a nationwide list of surveyors approved by that association’s insurance underwriters. Most are NAMS or SAMS members; those who are not are carefully screened, says Scott Croft, director of public relations for BoatUS. “To get on our BoatUS Directory of Marine Surveyors, those surveyors that aren’t members of SAMS or NAMS must go through a rigorous vetting process, where a committee looks at credentials, work samples, and other factors,” he continues. BoatUS underwriters will accept insurance surveys from any NAMS or SAMS member with yacht and small-craft qualification, but “we don’t include all members of SAMS or NAMS [in our directory] as they must individually opt in to appear,” adds Croft.
Do Your Due Diligence
Choosing the right surveyor for your particular needs takes more than just reading his acronyms, says surveyor Joe Lobley (www.jblmarinesurveyors.com) of Waldoboro, Maine. Lobley served 10 years as engineer and captain aboard commercial fishing boats and yachts before joining SAMS as a Surveyor Associate. After five years, he met the requirements and passed the exams for full SAMS accreditation; today Lobley is president of SAMS.
“We tell our [SAMS] surveyors, ‘Let the person who owns the boat hire you; don’t hire yourself,’” says Lobley. He advises a boat owner to be clear about what he wants from the survey, and to ask questions about the surveyor’s qualifications and areas of particular expertise. Don’t let the surveyor qualify himself by telling you how great he is. Take the time to check him out—do your due diligence. And ask about the details, like how long will it take to get the written survey report? “It should be ready within a week,” says Lobley.
Finally, know what the surveyor won’t do. Surveyors don’t take things apart. Most are not mechanics, and won’t run compression checks on the engines or pull oil samples for analysis—hire a certified mechanic for that. (You can take an oil sample yourself; many testing labs offer kits. Google it.) Surveyors don’t do repairs either, but should be able to estimate repair costs. If a surveyor works for a boatyard, be sure your insurance company will accept his survey; many, including Boat-US, will not, for conflict-of-interest reasons.
If a surveyor can find even half of your boat’s minor issues before they fester into real wallet-busters—or worse, become dangerous—he has earned his fee. What’s more, if you follow the surveyor on his, or her, voyage through your boat, you’ll probably learn plenty about how to keep things shipshape in the future. Make periodic surveys a part of your maintenance plan, and when you find a good surveyor, make friends with him—you’ll want to hire him again when you buy another boat.
To Tap, or Not to Tap?
If you’ve ever watched a surveyor at work, you’ve probably seen him going over every square inch of the hull with a small plastic hammer, tap-tap-tapping away in search of something amiss. But is the hammer necessary in the 21st century? Hasn’t it been superseded by the moisture meter? Or is there a better way altogether?
When a surveyor applies hammer to hull (technically called “percussion testing”), he’s listening for a change in tone, just like you do when you tap your wall to find a stud underneath. A dull “thud” can mean water intrusion into the core, from osmosis or via poorly bedded fittings, delamination due to imperfect manufacturing or repair, or maybe just a bulkhead or stringer on the other side. It takes an educated ear to make sense of percussion testing.
Most surveyors today also carry a moisture meter, an instrument invented to measure the moisture content of wood, but one that also works on fiberglass laminates, with one big limitation: The surveyor has to know how to interpret his meter’s readings. “I have two moisture meters,” says Joe Lobley, adding that each requires a good deal of experience and practice to use accurately. Lobley also says he hasn’t put away his hammer yet and still percussion-tests every hull along with doing meter readings.
There are some very valid reasons for this. At a recent SAMS continuing education class, held at a salvage yard, some 20 surveyors were able to check a variety of meters by destructive means. After taking numerous readings on derelict vessels, the surveyors cut plugs out to visually inspect the laminates. Often, areas that read ‘dry’ on a given meter were actually soaking wet, so wet that water literally ran out around the hole saw.
Of course, some of the meters were consistently more accurate, maybe because their signals probed deeper into the laminates, reaching past the outer skins. But still, the most accurate “meter” of the entire lot seemed to be the hammer, when used by a skilled surveyor with excellent hearing.
“Younger guys use moisture meters,” says Ted Crosby. “Older surveyors use hammers.” Maybe the old guys have the right idea.