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Expert Insight: The Smart Whys of a Mechanical Survey

You’ve come to the point where it is time to reward yourself. After browsing the Internet, reading boating magazines, and talking with friends and spending time on their boats, you’ve made a decision to put an offer in on a boat. Pretty soon, you’ll need a surveyor.

There are several hundred surveyors in the country accredited through SAMS or NAMS, the two leading societies whose members have demonstrated their knowledge and abilities through testing and experience. Governing societies rate their abilities in a profession where people’s lives depend on the surveyors. My advice, admittedly biased, is to hire only an accredited surveyor with proven credentials. Surveying is a profession, not a job. There is no one telling us what to do, but people rely on our opinion. There are judgment calls that have to be made on behalf of the client whether it is a private individual or an insurance company requesting a condition and valuation (C & V) survey for insurance purposes, salvage operation, or claims investigation.

As a surveyor you are expected to have a general working knowledge of all kinds of boats and construction materials, power and sail, and a working knowledge of the various systems on the vessel and the ability to recognize deficiencies in either through observation, testing, or both, and make informed decisions to best advise the client. It is unrealistic to think that a surveyor fully understands everything being surveyed to the fullest extent, or that, given the limited amount of time the survey takes, to assume that all exceptions have been identified. There will always be a missed exception, but a good surveyor should be able to identify the large issues and what is missed should be minor in nature.

Not all engine rooms are this easy to get around, but your surveyor should have a thorough look at all components. If a surveyor can’t get to it, will you be able to fix it when it fails?

The best surveys are conducted with the least number of people on the boat. People unrelated to the actual survey are a distraction, take up room, and absorb time that should be devoted to the client and survey. A good survey requires focus and concentration. Each interruption in the survey process is generally when something is missed. I developed a simple formula years ago; each additional unnecessary person onboard is going to cost about 30 minutes in wasted time. This sounds inhospitable, but ask yourself, Do you want bystanders in the operating room with you when you are on the table? That’s a little dramatic but makes the point. Fewer people onboard beyond those necessary produces a better survey.

Surveying yachts and handling marine claims is not a typical profession. We could be said to be in the dreams-and-aspiration business, dealing in a practical way with people’s fantasies. Boating is seldom a good investment. In boat ownership you measure your success by how little money you lose, and, if you want your money’s worth, you measure your success by how much pleasure and enjoyment you derive from the boat. With rare exception you are not going to make any profit when you sell it. If you don’t spend the money necessary to properly maintain the vessel, then you are going to lose on multiple fronts. The vessel will drop in value like a lead pig dropped in a five gallon bucket with hardly a splash. The fun is gone and the funds necessary to keep it operating safely and with predictability are going to become the equivalent of a blistered fiberglass hull or a source of delamination that in this case refers to the separation of you from your money.

Don’t forget the genset. On many boats today, systems require the genset’s power to run and they’re often neglected.

In order to maintain the vessel’s value you need to buy wisely: Name-brand vessels in good condition are the best bet. If she’s not new—and new vessels certainly have their issues as I have found surveying new builds in this country and Asia—then to make an informed decision on the condition and quality you need a good surveyor. In 33 years I have only been asked for a sample survey a few times on rare occasions. I have offered surveys on similar vessels if not a sistership, or a survey with multiple recommendations addressing various issues, to indicate the type of survey to expect. It is always a case of buyer beware. With boats, I find some potential buyers will spend from $50,000 to hundreds of thousands and into the millions without proper investigation, unlike they would do with necessities, such as a home or other investment. They are relying on the surveyor to advise and sort through the situation for them, give an independent evaluation and note the exceptions and define the good points. Considering the value of a good surveyor and the background necessary to advise clients, the service is a bargain.

Most buyers go through a yacht broker. Private sales are uncommon on midsize to larger yachts. Brokers are like surveyors, some are very knowledgeable and of value to facilitate the process, others less so. As a potential buyer it is up to you to investigate the surveyor’s background, obtain resumes and sample surveys, and have discussions on the aspects of the vessel that you are particularly interested in. If surveyors or brokers make comments like, “You really don’t need engine or mechanical surveys,” “These engines have low hours,” “Let’s see how it performs and let that guide us,” then you are already behind the eight ball.

Most people with heart problems find out their situation on the way to the hospital if they are that lucky. The cost of a mechanical survey is similar to a stress test: You are looking for exceptions—things out of ordinary that are potentially problematic. Personally I like to see them run up to full rpms and held on the high end to evaluate the condition based on performance and the instruments and see what happens. Not everyone agrees with that approach and there are circumstances where it is not appropriate such as older engines. Not any different than the routine stress test I had last week. In that case I was able to turn the proper RPMs on the treadmill for the designated amount of time necessary for the technician/surveyor to make certain determination. That is what the engine surveyor is going to do for you. In both cases the subject is connected to a computer with electrodes of some type. Young people have heart attacks, too. Don’t assume everything is OK when it can be properly evaluated for very little money in relation to the cost of the vessel or the cost to lead a healthy life. Get a good surveyor on both the hull and mechanical side. It might save your life and wallet. Simply put, treat the prospective purchase the same way you would treat your health or some legal matter, get an older surveyor and a young doctor. The older surveyors have likely seen and been through it all before, the young doctor or surveyor is up on the latest technology on today’s more complex vessels. There are always exceptions, and, as a potential buyer it is up to you to find the one you feel comfortable with after your investigation, young or old.

Eve Marine Surveyors, 912-355-5911.

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