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'Gone in 60 Seconds'- Keeping Your Boat Secure

By: Captain Bill Jennings

Boat thief being arrested

As I listened to Phil bragging to me and a group of fellow boaters, I became more concerned.

He was describing how he had stolen millions of dollars in boats and marine parts. Considering the high cost of outboard motors and how easily one or two guys can remove your boat engine, it was no surprise that he claimed the average value of each theft was $18,000.

Phil was a convicted felon. He was speaking at a marine surveyor’s convention.

Insurance companies report that marine thefts are at the top of their list in payout amounts and only one boat in ten is ever recovered.

Most such crimes are committed by amateurs, yet the police admit that they only open a full investigation if a theft ring is suspected. And they won’t investigate at all if you can’t provide them with a Hull Identification Number. An HIN number is the equivalent to a VIN number for cars. The HIN for your boat is etched into the starboard side of every boat’s transom.

Here’s an interesting ditty about HINs. In addition to the one on your transom, there is a second location with the same number. NMMA have requested this of manufacturers, specifically to help identify stolen boats. You see, this second location is hidden, but boat builders will give the location to police. This policy is designed to counter thieves changing the HIN on a boat that they have stolen.

hull identification number (HIN)
A hull identification number (HIN)

Here are some facts that could reduce the likelihood of your boat being stolen. The boats most likely to be stolen are a runabout or small cruiser under 28' in length, using an outboard or sterndrive, and made by a recognized manufacturer. Nearly three quarters of boats stolen, fit within these parameters. There is more. If you keep your boat either on a trailer, or at a dock or in a slip, your boat falls within the locations where 90% of boats are stolen. Boats on trailers are most frequently stolen while on a trailer at the owner's home. Anyone with a hitch can hook up a trailer.

Interestingly, professional boat thieves rarely steal a complete boat for which they do not already have a buyer. They advertise popular models at a great price and when a person responds, they then steal a matching boat, alter identification numbers and paperwork, then deliver it to their mark -- all in one quick sequence. The remainder of stolen boats are usually stripped of everything valuable - engines, electronics, anchors, biminis, anything valuable and then abandoned. Stripped parts are resold to unsuspecting boaters and shops.

For the most part, boaters are a trusting bunch. It's always surprising to see how many boaters will leave their boat unattended, with keys in the ignition and valuables lying on a seat. Others will tell you that they don't lock their boat because where they keep it seems safe. Don't be naïve.

The first line of boat theft defense is anything that will make it tougher for a thief to steal. Remove all portable valuables from your vessel and place them in a carry box. You can take the box with you on all your boat trips. Never leave keys or ownership papers on board your boat. A simple lock can be effective prevention.

Using cable or chain, lock your boat to the dock or your trailer to a tree. When you leave your boat and trailer for an extended periods, remove the license plate and install a disconnect on the lights. Over the winter, I place my trailer on blocks and remove the wheels on one side. A personal engraver can engrave your name and driver's license on key boat parts. Of course, proper insurance is an important part of any theft protection plan.

Depending on the value of your boat, you may want to install some high-tech solutions. Products like Siren Marine and Blue Guard Innovations use a monitoring system to keep tabs on your boat's operation (battery, fuel, power, etc). They can also track your boat using GPS.

More comprehensive options from companies like BRNKL do more than simply monitor your boat. BRNKL uses cameras and has a full spectrum of anti-theft features with the ability to set off sirens/strobe lights in response to motion/door/laser sensor events. It's also the only system currently being used to protect government vessels. If they can protect the Navy's ships, they can deter marina thieves.

Owners whose stolen boat is recovered will need to provide the police with the proper ownership identification. Be sure to take photos of your boat, ownership papers and HIN number, and keep it stored securely.

Phil is no longer in the marine theft business. He makes his money today by offering good advice to owners like you and me.

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