Why a Survey?

by Phil Peterson, NAMS-CMS

Publisher’s Note: I hear way too many stories about used boats which are uninsurable, need expensive repairs, or might be better off recycled. I asked Phil, one of the most experienced surveyors I know, to write this article. Make sure your surveyor is truly independent.//Capt. Thom Burns.

The question comes up when you are ready to purchase a boat: Why do I need a prepurchase survey? I've been around boats, I've sailed with friends. Why should I have to spend more money to have it surveyed?

A good marine surveyor will provide an objective opinion on the physical condition of the boat you are considering, and inspect the boat for compliance with federal and industry standards. The survey is a general inspection only, and likely excludes machinery and transmission, which is best inspected by a qualified marine mechanic who has the specialized tools and background to evaluate this equipment.

In addition, an insurance company will require a survey if the vessel is more than 10 - 15 years old, and every 3 - 5 years there after. Boats over 25 years old may require more frequent surveys.

Insurance companies may require a survey on newer boats, too. Financial institutions also require a survey to document the collateral for their loan.

There are three sets of standards that are used by the surveyor when inspecting a recreational boat. The federal requirements are required by law, and include basic standards including the number of fire extinguishers and blowers for gasoline engines, life preservers or other lifesaving devices, as well as navigational equipment.

The other voluntary standards are published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC). The NFPA standards are more concerned with preventing fires aboard the vessel, and include sections on fuel and electrical installations. ABYC standards include these areas, and also include safety issues, including the installation of equipment, design of the vessel for safety issues, and the installation of machinery. These requirements are not enforceable by law, but are required by insurance companies to determine that the boats they insure are acceptable insurance risks.
The surveyor will arrange to inspect the boat, obtain permission from the owner for the inspection, and set a time for the survey. Some surveyors like to have the buyer present at the time of survey, while others may work better by themselves to concentrate on inspection, and then meet with the buyer immediately afterwards to give a verbal report review and issues that need to be addressed. The inspection is followed by a written report documenting the general conditions of the hull and equipment, and recommendations for any repairs or changes to bring the boat into compliance with safety standards. It is not uncommon that the cost of any required repairs may well exceed the cost of the survey.

The physical inspection takes place out of the water to allow inspection of the bottom of the keel, hull, rudder and underwater running gear. It begins with a visual inspection of the hull, keel and rudder for general overall condition any obvious problems, such as blisters, cracks in the fiberglass, prior damage, etc. The hull and rudder are then sounded acoustically by tapping a plastic hammer over the surface to detect any delamination or possible water absorption. A clear, crisp sound is an indication of a healthy fiberglass boat. If the hull produces hollow sounds, there may be a void or delamination in the fiberglass. If the hull is cored, and there are areas that sound like a watermelon, the core may have absorbed water, and further intrusive testing may be recommended.

The third step on the hull inspection is to use a moisture meter to evaluate the moisture content of the hull. This is a non-intrusive method of finding any indications of potential problems with water absorption. The moisture meter is only an indicator of possible problems, and does not give definitive readings. Factors other than moisture may produce elevated readings, including metal or the contents in the bottom paint. However, when used in conjunction with acoustical sounding, it will help locate possible problems, and the surveyor may recommend taking core samples to further investigate areas of concern. Core samples are only conducted with the owner's permission, and after an agreement has been made regarding which party is responsible for repairing the holes made during the tests. The same process is then conducted on the deck.

Rigging is inspected as best possible. If the mast is removed, all areas are readily accessible for inspection. If the mast is stepped, the surveyor may go up the mast to visually inspect the mast and standing rigging, if qualified people are available to safely crank the surveyor up the mast in a bosun's chair. Otherwise, the inspection takes place from the deck only. Arrangements can be made prior to the survey to remove the rigging for a complete inspection.

The interior of the vessel is inspected for overall physical condition. Common problems found include bulkheads or partitions that may have become adrift, and, of course, water intrusion into the interior of the vessel, better known as water leaks, and subsequent water damage caused by the leaks. The surveyor may also comment on the general condition of the vessel. If it has had a high ratio of use to maintenance, the surveyor will include this in the report.

In addition, on board systems including electrical, fuel and propulsion systems are inspected to determine that they are properly installed to the applicable standards. In an insurance survey, they are visually inspected only. In a prepurchase survey, they would also be observed in operation during sea trials to better determine their general operating condition.

How to find a marine surveyor

Anyone can hang their shingle out as a marine surveyor. It is an unregulated industry and anyone can claim the title "marine surveyor."

However, there are several national organizations of marine surveyors that set standards for their members. The oldest group is the National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS), and was founded in 1962. It requires that members spend over half of their time as marine surveyors, and to avoid conflicts of interest, does not allow them to be employed in any other area of the marine industry, such as a repair facility or a yacht brokerage company. It has both fully certified members and apprentice members. NAMS requires members to have at least five years experience and pass an extensive written test to carry the designation "Certified Marine Surveyor". Certified NAMS surveyors carry the designation NAMS-CMS. The NAMS web site is http://www.nams-cms.org/.

A second national group is the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors, or "SAMS". SAMS was founded in the mid-1980's and also has both an "Accredited Marine Surveyor" title for members who have a minimum of five year's experience and who have passed a written test. Accredited SAMS members carry the designation "Accredited Marine Surveyor". SAMS also has an "SA" (Surveyor Associate) designation for members who have met the requirements for the AMS designation. The SAMS web site is http://www.marinesurvey.org/.

Both NAMS and SAMS also have continuing education requirements for their members.

Phil Peterson is a Certified Marine Surveyor, operating his business from Bayfield, Wisconsin. He also is a USCG licensed captain, and does yacht deliveries. He has been in the marine industry since 1973.