Marine insurance: what’s covered?

Dec 15, 2017 General Interest

Owners of insured vessels are confident of cover if the boat gets stolen, catches fire on its trailer or gets banged up in the pre-start of a particularly intense Wednesday night race. But what about some of the more obscure mishaps? Sarah Ell finds out. Photos supplied.

As director of Mariner Insurance, one of New Zealand’s only specialised marine insurers, Aaron Mortimer’s seen some pretty wayout claims in his time – and says people might be surprised by what their insurance policy will pay out on.

Many of the claims he handles are for the usual things – “hitting other boats, hitting rocks… coming into an unfamiliar bay or even a bay you’re familiar with and just being a bit careless. Also, it’s not so much theft of boats but theft of items from boats or trailers. Someone comes along with a sharp knife and cuts through your covers and rips out the electronics, or they kick in the companionway hatch and steal the lifejackets and other safety equipment. Sometimes boats will get completely cleaned out, and all that is left is the actual hull.”

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But then there are the doozies. For example, one unfortunate owner’s trailer boat was hit by a visitor while he was manoeuvring in his sloping driveway. The trailer broke free of its chocks and the entire package took off down the drive towards the neighbour’s house. It’s wild ride was eventually curtailed by the neighbour’s garage door, which got stoved in, damaging the car inside.

“It’s the kind of thing that would take a great deal of organising if you were staging it, but these things do happen,” Mortimer says.

Fortunately, though it took a bit of juggling, this is a situation which insurance could sort out: the owner’s insurance covered the damage to the actual boat and engine (the trailer survived unharmed). The neighbour’s insurers fixed their client’s garage and the car. (The guy who caused the whole shebang, fortunately for him, got off scot-free.)

“On the face of it, our responsibility was to fix his boat, but if he had been found legally liable – through his ownership of the boat – for causing the damage because his boat hadn’t been secured properly on the driveway, for example, the third party
aspect of his marine insurance would have paid out for that other damage.”

Mortimer says boat owners might be surprised to find what their policy covers. An infestation of rats have made a nest in your forward cabin? Your insurance might pay out for repairs. Accidentally switched the shore power off when you had a freezer full of stinky pilchards? Your insurance might cover the clean-up and deodorising job.

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Mortimer has worked on one of these cases, and reports that getting rid of the smell of the rotting bait was “worse than a meth contamination”, requiring carpet and interior furnishings to be replaced, to the tune of $15,000.

Speaking of meth, we’ve all heard of rental houses being contaminated with P, but anecdotal reports suggest it’s becoming an issue with boats, too.

“We are hearing that boats are being used not necessarily for the manufacture but the consumption of methamphetamine. It’s often not the owners, but maybe friends or even their sons and daughters, who might be on the boat using meth without their parents knowing,” he says.

He adds that trailer boats with covers are also at risk from meth users, who want a hidden spot to use drugs. “It used to be people breaking in to them to sniff glue, and now it seems to be meth use.”

Buying a second-hand boat then discovering it has been used for smoking P can be an expensive business. Mariner is
introducing a new benefit to its policies: if you buy a secondhand boat and find it has been contaminated with meth within
the first six months, you will get a pay-out of $5,000 towards clean-up costs.

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Another benefit Mariner is adding to its policies in 2018 is cover for vet bills if your dog or cat gets injured aboard. And while some owners enjoy cruising with their cat or dog, not all animals are as welcome aboard. Vermin infestations are another
big insurance issue, as rats and possums can do a lot of damage to a boat’s interior if they decide to move in.

“It’s especially a problem with trailer boats, where they might chew through the covers, but also moored boats, where people might leave hatches or covers open and the rats can get in,” Mortimer says. “Once you’ve got a family of rats in your boat, they can eat into the squabs and make a terrible mess.

“I often speak to people who says these things have happened to their boats, and I say ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ Often they didn’t know that sort of thing was covered by their insurance and they could claim for it.”

Mortimer says there are a few traps for the unwary when it comes to relying on electronic navigation systems. He knows of one client who brought some second-hand boat electronics in from the United States, including a depth sounder.

“He installed it and all was hunky dory until he went out for a cruise and didn’t realise it was calibrated to read in feet, not
metres. He ended up with rather less water under him than he had hoped, and ended up hitting the bottom.”

Other boo-boos include relying on electronics for navigation and not spending enough time looking out the window, and
getting the scale wrong when using a smartphone or other device with a small screen, and not being able to see hazards nearby.

“We had one person who put the navigation cursor on top of a rock on the chart, then they handed over to someone else
to drive, who assumed that was the way point they were aiming for. We call that a GPS-assisted grounding.”

In terms of protecting your pride-and-joy, you also need to be doing your bit to make sure your boat isn’t stolen. Just trusting to luck or parking it somewhere you think is safe isn’t enough. “Most of the trailer boat claims we get are around
security,” Mortimer says. “There are a number of recognised security devices on the market now – an old padlock and a bit of chain doesn’t really cut it anymore.”

And it’s worth knowing that if your boat does get stolen, your insurance policy may cover the paying out of a reward, for
information that leads to the boat being recovered.

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Mortimer says a useful tip for buyers of second-hand boats is to record details of the electronics they come with, in case they get stolen.

“For the insurance company to pay out on these things, you have to be able to prove the loss. Take a photo of them, even just with your phone, and write down the serial numbers.”

If you have bought the gear yourself, keep details and  receipts. Also, make a copy of instruction books for the boat and keep the originals at home, with the serial numbers written on them. “That will give us the make and model and we can work out exactly what you had, rather than you having to say ‘I think I had one of those’. Photographs are good, too.”

Mortimer says it’s good to take photos and record details for dinghies and outboards, too, as these are also often-stolen items. “It also means when you report it to police it’s really useful if you as the owner or us as the insurer has that image,
and it someone finds it we can get it back to you as well.”

Towing hiccups

It pays to be vigilant with towing limits for trailer boats.

If something goes wrong and you have egregiously exceeded the towing limit on your vehicle or trailer, your insurance company may be less than sympathetic.

“In general, we rely on the manufacturer’s towing limits, as the manufacturer will know the capabilities of the vehicle,” says Mortimer. “But some vehicles have after-market tow-bars fitted, and you do get some situations where you have a back-yard tow-bar fitted that can’t handle a load.”

To be safe, check the sticker on the tow-bar (for factory tow-bars) or the handbook of the car to check the recommended towing weight for a braked or unbraked trailer.

While there is no legal requirement to not exceed towing weights, the New Zealand Transport Agency recommends following these limits. By law, every light vehicle and trailer combination must be capable of stopping within a distance of 7m from a speed of 30km/h, which means that the maximum allowable weight of an unbraked trailer is limited by the weight and braking ability of the vehicle being used to tow it.

The NZTA also records that on average, seven people a year are killed and 45 seriously injured in crashes involving a light vehicle towing a trailer, including boat trailers.

Contact mariner insurance at 0800 466 467or email