More from the Yacht Claims Desk
by Guy Matthews
My perch at the yacht claims desk provides a view of yachting in the new millennium unfiltered by newspeak or puffery. The parade of claims which marine insurance capos deem "fortuitous" becomes commingled with a greater mass of claims whose likelihood is considered by knowledgeable mariners to be "probable." The yachting world's increasing inclination toward conspicuous consumption becomes more evident, with claim size seemingly growing exponentially both as the insured yachts become more expensive and as the costs of yacht ownership multiply. The melding of the old and new in a variety of claims with continually increasing costs and a changing clientele provides a snapshot of the changing face of yachting.
The perception from the yacht claims desks, hopefully wrong, is that both the Caribbean "shoestringer" of popular lore and the hardy cruiser who sailed the family yacht on the dream voyage to the islands are in danger of becoming no more than a faint memory of the island chain's colorful past. The colorful, familiar duo is slowly being replaced by modern affluent yachtsmen who cause the cost of boating to soar - in part due to an expectation that the island chain is Fort Lauderdale. Such changes pass for progress in the new millennium.
Nevertheless, some things never change, as illustrated in the following anecdotes direct from recent experiences.
Claims from the 2004 hurricane season will provide fodder for sundowner sessions for years to come; few of these will be as entertaining as the actions of the owner who drove 200 miles to his sport-fisherman docked north of Fort Lauderdale to set the flying bridge, cockpit, and bimini enclosures in place to protect his vessel from Hurricane Frances. This clueless owner joined another Hurricane Frances claimant who rushed to his boat to put the sail covers on before the onset of hurricane-force winds. (Really, folks. I'm not making up this stuff.)
The claims desk finished out a bad year for insurers with a low six-figure claim occurring when newlyweds, on a 45-foot sloop on Leg One of an idyllic voyage to the Spanish Main, finally got across the Gulf Stream after the easterlies eased during a prolonged Miami weather wait which consumed much of December. Happy to have the Gulf Stream behind them, the sloop's owners soon anchored in the famed Honeymoon Harbor on the northwest tip of Gun Cay. The anchorage, open to the north and west, failed to deliver connubial bliss when the festal reverie was disturbed as the sloop was rudely blown hard aground by the norther whose approach had caused the earlier easing of the easterlies at Miami. The captain-groom piously attested that the weather front had not been forecasted, much in the same manner as multiple claimants in grounding incidents reported that they were in the middle of the channel when they ran out of water.
Every year without fail the claims desk handles a claim for a boat dragging anchor and humping on the shore of St. Martin's Orient Bay - which, paradoxically, is one of the most popular and inhospitable anchorages that can be found along the Caribbean island chain. The poor holding conditions, inadequate swinging room, and congestion have caused multiple yachts to come to harm in the years since the nude beach was established. Nevertheless, the bay continues to attract that inquisitive breed of libertine yachtsman who is more concerned with sighting the beach's famed pink-nose dolphin than with exercising good seamanship.
In my early years on the claims desk, I expected to see many more claims arising from the increasing horde of bareboat charterers than from local professional boatmen. I had long been a follower of the old Caribbean veteran's advice: "Never follow a bareboat anywhere." In my south Texas skeptic's logic, it seemed that anyone who wore red and green shoelaces to identify port and starboard would be likely to produce a prodigious number of claims.
Wrong! To my surprise I learned that many of the various charter companies' professional crews are as dangerous to the insurers' profit as is a full-fledged hurricane churning westward at 16 degrees north. Our files are replete with five-and six-figure losses on charter boats being operated by professional crews who managed to impale the yacht on the rocks in broad daylight, or ground atop reefs charted before Francis Drake was a cabin boy. The local sailors hired by the charter companies might have seawater in their veins, but fatigue coupled with an uncharacteristic ignoring of island time have produced a terrible claim experience for the charter company insurers. Apparently the bareboat charterers are not inattentive and bored by their surroundings, as overconfident locals sometimes are.
However, before the current resident on the claims desk becomes too haughty, it is only fair to acknowledge the multiple times that the occupant has left the red to port while returning. In a boating career spanning more decades than I want to recall, the writer has surely grounded more times than most. In the not-too-distant past my bride and I cut the entrance to Frazier's Hog Cay too short on a falling tide, only to see the depth-sounder ominously display a depth of two feet as the boat came to a dead stop. The lapse of common sea sense, in someone who surely knew better, had been influenced by the vision of a pitcher of perfect Bloody Marys, calm water, and a moonlight evening at anchor. Such visions have led many mariners astray. Our punishment for this lapse was to have the boat spend the night lying on its side with the depth-sounder transducer out of the water, to the amusement of the grizzled patrons at the anchorage's open-air bar.
A lifetime ago, on our first entrance to Trinidad after a truly miserable passage from Grenada, with the Chaguaramas Customs dock in sight and visions of another pitcher of perfect Bloody Marys in mind, I cut the last green too short, a la Texas waterway navigation, mistaking the local fishermen trying to wave us off as friendly locals welcoming us to Trinidad. The analog depth sounder unwound like the altimeter on a falling F-16, and before I could touch the throttle, we collided with what seemed to be the side of a mountain. The microwave, television set, various gear items, and our improving humor were unceremoniously displaced in an instantaneous stop.
Such experiences cause the claims desk occupant to exhibit more than a scintilla of sympathy for the unfortunate who present claims in the "probable" category.
The claim list, seemingly endless, continues to grow, but belies the fact that for every incident that results in a claim crossing the claims desk, the times are virtually incalculable when boaters have committed the really stupid act or have been exposed to the truly fortuitous situation and escaped unscathed, something for which the insurers and yachtsmen can be ever thankful.
Such is Caribbean cruising - now, and hopefully in the future.
Copyright© 2005 Compass Publishing