Yacht insurance details need attention

Yacht insurance for long-distance voyaging is expensive, increasingly so these days. But it’s comforting to know that payment of the annual premium provides a measure of protection from massive costs arising from a catastrophic, unforeseen event. After all, that’s what insurance is for, isn’t it?

Well, maybe.

Recently our American friends Bob and Marsha were enjoying the brisk sail north, up the leeward side of St. Vincent, on their 48-foot ketch Crusader, on passage for St. Lucia. Bob had anticipated the notorious acceleration zone off the northern tip of the island and had trimmed the sails accordingly. As the boat heeled farther to port and the spray began to fly in the rising wind, their guests looked nervously at Bob on the helm, clearly reveling in the conditions.

“Relax and enjoy; everything’s fine,” he said. “Nothing will happen.”

When Mary and I on our boat Alacazam met up with them some weeks later in St. Lucia, Marsha told me that seconds after Bob’s words of comfort, she heard a crack followed by a loud bang. The keel-stepped mast buckled about 3 feet above the gooseneck, then snapped and went over the leeward side. It was clearly apparent that the starboard cap-shroud chain plate had failed, taking with it a large chunk of the teak-laid deck as it did so.

Luckily, no one was injured, but the jagged end of the mast and the two sets of spreaders were digging chunks out of the side of the fiberglass hull, such that holing and subsequent sinking rapidly became a real possibility. To save his boat and reduce the risk to his crew, Bob set about cutting the spar free. After a deal of frenzied but ordered activity, the bulk of the mast together with the standing and running rigging, forestay, furling gear, mainsail, and jib were cut free and on their way to the bottom, leaving a shaken but much relieved crew free to motor the remaining 40-odd miles to Rodney Bay Marina in St. Lucia.

Fortunately, Crusader had a separately stayed mizzenmast. Had it had a triatic backstay, then the mizzenmast would probably have followed the mainmast over the side, with possibly serious consequences for the four crew in the center cockpit.

On arrival in St. Lucia, Bob informed his insurers of the event and was told to get a surveyor’s report and an estimate of the cost of the repair. This he did, and submitted both without delay.

Crusader is a substantially constructed vessel, the thickness of the fiberglass hull probably saving it from the malevolent attention of the broken spar. It is a Dawn 48, designed by German Frers and built in Hong Kong by the Kong Halvorsen Yard in 1984. The chain plates are 5 feet long and half an inch thick, through-bolted at regular intervals to a main bulkhead. The builders had clearly considered them indestructible, since it was only possible to get to them at all by taking a crowbar to the elegant teak interior. Significantly, the chain plate had not failed at a bolthole &mdash where the cross-sectional area is lower and the tensile stress proportionately higher &mdash but midway between a pair of bolt holes about a foot below the deck.

The surveyor discovered the reason for this. At the point of failure, the chain plate had been butt-welded together, and this weld had failed, aided unseen and unsuspected by crevice corrosion and electrolysis through water seeping through the deck fitting. More crowbar activity on the port side of the saloon revealed that this chain plate had also been butt-welded, and a hairline crack was clearly visible. The surveyor, under contract to Crusader’s insurers, correctly reported his findings in the form of a written report.

Bob and Marsha, now living aboard in Rodney Bay Marina, employed a local shipwright to repair the deck and the mangled stanchions and teak toe rail, while awaiting instruction from the insurance broker to proceed with the remainder of the repairs.

When the reply from the insurers arrived, it said, to Bob and Marsha’s consternation, “The underwriters deny responsibility, and are taking the position that the incident was not covered under the policy.”

Although the faulty weld clearly fell under the contract’s definition of a latent defect, the waters were considerably muddied by a distinction drawn between latent defect and faulty design and construction, along with specific exclusions. Clearly there are enough hooks in these clauses upon which the insurers can hang a number of reasons for disallowing Crusader’s claim.

Bob is a retired Washington, D.C., lawyer, so I’m sure his insurers can expect a pretty spirited reaction to their rejection of his claim, but in the meantime, he is looking somewhat glumly at a bill for the thick end of $40,000.

I wonder how many other voyagers believe their policy substantially covers them for all risks when it clearly does not? And how many of us, when in the market for insurance, fire off our boat details and voyaging intentions to half a dozen brokers and then contract with the one offering the lowest annual premium, naively trusting that the terms and conditions of the policy will meet our expectations? Irrespective of the cost of the premium, a policy that doesn’t perform as expected cannot represent value for money.

Without naming Crusader’s insurers, they have clearly set up shop to provide insurance for American-registered bluewater yachts, with many owners to my knowledge cheerfully sailing in the West Indies in the deluded belief of being fully covered.

Dick McClary is sailor and freelance writer based in Plymouth, England.

By Ocean Navigator