CSI: Marina

A forensic investigator’s lessons learned about storm damage and boats
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Wolf investigates such critical details as how boats were tied to pilings before a storm.

Wolf investigates such critical details as how boats were tied to pilings before a storm.

When a hurricane hits and a boat is damaged, Carl Wolf often gets a call. Attorneys who represent marinas and boatyards, and sometimes boat owners, look to his company, Robson Forensic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., to determine responsibility for the damage and sometimes testify in court cases.

And while the word “forensic” brings to mind investigators solving a grisly murder on television, Wolf doesn’t usually get into blacklights and fingerprint dust. Instead, he takes an orderly, clinical approach to understanding three vital things: What happened before, during and after the storm.

His work in answering those three simple questions has taught him all kinds of lessons about the ways that storms can damage boats, as well as the ways that owners can look to protect their vessels and, if necessary, their future insurance claims.

The first thing Wolf looks for, he says, are records, including phone bills and emails that show communication between the boat owner and the marina. Prestorm photos, too, are key when trying to ascertain the actual truth, beyond what people claim to be true.

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of photos before and after the storm,” he says. “I’m talking photos by the marinas, the boat owners, the adjusters. If you have 100 photos, take another 100 photos.”

Because every storm is different, damage is rarely the same. In one case, Wolf says, proper lines were used, but they weren’t tied correctly. “In other cases, the lines were not tied up in tune with each other,” he says. “The first one snaps and an hour later the next one goes.”

Carl Wolf

Carl Wolf

In other cases, lines gave way because they chafed after being tied at angles that stressed them. He has seen cleat bases still secured to a dock, but with the wings broken off.

That is sometimes a case of wind pushing the boat against the lines until something finally gives. Other wind-caused damage includes boats that break free from moorings or private docks outside of a marina and drift into the facility, damaging docks and boats in the slips.

Windage can also cause problems. For example, a Bimini top that’s left up becomes a kite or sail and gets ripped off the boat. “Things the wind would grab during the storm itself would either damage the boat or fly off and damage other boats,” Wolf says.

Though he hasn’t seen moorings break away from their anchors, Wolf has encountered boats, moorings and anchors that “pulled the anchor over a considerable distance” during high winds and a strong surge.

In storms such as Florence or Harvey, where high water from the surge, rain or a combination causes the most problems, hydraulic pressure lifts docks up over pilings. Even if a boat is properly secured to the dock, if it floats over the piling, there’s going to be trouble.

In other situations, Wolf has seen storm surge pick up a boat with a broad, Carolina-style flare and crash it down on the piling, driving the piling through the boat’s deck.

With meteorologists predicting more storms with high rainfall totals, Wolf says, “water is going to become more of a focus because of storm surge and rain.”

During Irma, in the southern part of the Florida Keys, charter captains who kept their boats in the water but moved them into mangroves and “spider-tied” them to deal with the storm surge fared better than those who pulled their boats and put them on the trailers, Wolf says. “There were boats in the water that did fine, and there were some boats on land that did not do fine,” he says.

When a boat is stored on land during a storm, it should be blocked or stored according to the American Boat and Yacht Council TY-28 standard for lifting and shoring boats. That standard was updated in 2014 and gives instructions for how many stands to use, how far apart they should be, and what types of blocks should be used. “Yards are still using cinder blocks to block a boat. The problem is that if there’s any kind of movement, the blocks break into pieces, and the boat falls on its side,” Wolf says.

Crime scene: Hurricanes impact marinas in different ways, depending on wind speed, amount of rainfall and size of the storm surge.

Crime scene: Hurricanes impact marinas in different ways, depending on wind speed, amount of rainfall and size of the storm surge.

If there is one constant among the hurricanes Wolf has seen, it’s derelict or abandoned boats. “The problem with abandoned boats after hurricanes is that there are so many issues, and it depends on if a state has an abandoned boat policy or regulation,” he says. “The other problem is there are only so many resources after a hurricane, and what I’m talking about specifically is the availability of removal equipment like a barge or a crane.”

Wolf wouldn’t say whether he has been involved with a case of a boat owner deliberately sabotaging his boat prior to the arrival of a storm, in the hope of getting a fat check. But he does say that after a storm, more insurance companies are taking a closer look at a boat owner’s prestorm plan.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, Florida instituted regulations concerning marinas, hurricanes and boats. One of those requires a boat owner to take on some responsibility for storm damage to his boat. “Insurance adjusters are becoming more knowledgeable,” he says. “Many insurance companies are no longer writing blank checks to boat owners.” 

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.

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