Insuring Firefly, our 1978-50 ft. Gulfstar ketch-rigged sailboat, was without a doubt the best thing we ever did. For the first 2 and ½ years we owned her, however, we professed that we were “self-insured”; which is a roundabout way of saying that we didn’t carry any insurance.
We purchased the boat for a very good price in 2012, because: 1) she was an old boat, made in 1978. 2) She was a “Captain-chartered” boat for most of her life, meaning that she wasn’t set up for extended cruising and 3) she had seen some neglect over the previous 6 years, spending lots of time idle at the dock or on blocks in a yard, and even a short period on the bottom for several hours when she partially sank at the dock.
Carrie and I spent the year after our purchase in St. Thomas, VI outfitting the boat to allow us to live aboard full time and safely sail the boat back to the States where we could adequately finish a refit before sailing her to the Western Caribbean for an extended period of time.
Consequently we didn’t feel compelled to acquire insurance in that time, but in the weeks and days before leaving the country, sailing from Fort Myers Beach, Florida for the 3-day transit to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, we had something of an epiphany. We realized that we had invested a great deal of our money, but also a great deal of our time and energy enhancing the efficacy of Firefly, and consequently its value. I should note that we provided probably 90% of the labor in making the repairs, installations and upgrades. I’ll also note that this boat that is our one-and-only home since we own no property or vehicle on land. Doh!! We need insurance!
So we arranged for a survey, obtained some quotes and began the painful process of binding insurance for our sailboat. We tried to look at the stiff annual premiums that we would likely pay for years to come as an investment, a “safety net” against the unthinkable catastrophe that we all hope will never happen, but could happen, without any warning, at any time.
A boat Surveyor works much like an Appraiser for a house you would buy, inspecting the fitness and “seaworthiness” of a boat’s structure, fitting, wiring, rigging, decks, engine, etc. and listing any items that must be repaired or replaced to bring the boat up to standards set in the industry. Then, usually for insurance purposes, the surveyor also assigns a value to the vessel based on his/her findings and research of comparable vessels of similar age and design in the market, again much like a house. The difference is our survey was conducted 2 ½ years after we purchased it, kind of like when you refinance your house after making improvements.
Our big surprise came when the Insurer demanded that we provide proof of the difference between the purchase price and the surveyed value of the boat in upgrades and repairs to justify whether they would consent to insure the boat for the surveyed value. After several discussions about the necessity of such an exercise we gave up and deluged the insurer with receipts, invoices and other records of the many upgrades and improvements we performed on Firefly. We were ready to create our own invoice for the hours of labor Carrie and I provided to help justify the increased value of the boat, however they said “OK, we’ll insure you” and we bound insurance on Firefly December 1st, 2014.
We now had something that brought peace-of-mind in knowing that, if the worst scenario possible did happen, we would be covered financially, however we consciously didn’t change anything about the way we went about our daily life aboard or how we would safely and carefully operate Firefly to reach the next anchorage.
On January 18th, 2015, the unthinkable happened. Firefly hit a reef near El Porvenir in the San Blas islands, Panama. Within a period of about 6 hours, the boat we had purchased with a portion of our retirement funds; the one we spent 2 ½ years of labor and money on to fulfill our dream cruise to the western Caribbean; our home, with all the material things that we owned and loved aboard, was gone.
After the Panamanian rescue personnel evacuated us off the boat and helped us find a place to sleep that night, we hardly slept at all. I lay in bed reliving those few horrifying hours over and over again. The next morning, as we looked out on Firefly on her side further up on the reef, we didn’t know what to do. There were no facilities available within 100 miles to even remove Firefly from the reef, much less repair her.
We were contemplating taking the first flight out we could get on to return to the US, although we had no home to return to. It seemed like we were still in shock. Then someone asked if we were insured, and suddenly we realized there was work to be done. We had temporarily forgotten that we now had insurance. We had completed the last item on the list of 10 survey deficiencies only 2 weeks prior.
Our friends dinghied us off of El Porvenir and on to their lovely sailboat, and took us to a beautiful anchorage in another island group about 5 miles away. They helped us with a cell phone to use and a way to connect to the Internet. The next day was a US holiday and we were unable to reach anyone, so the following day we started what would become a long, laborious, and sometimes agonizing process of submitting our insurance claim for approval and payment.
An adjuster was assigned to us to oversee the submittal of our claim. Another surveyor who worked in that area was flown in; he viewed the boat and interviewed us to provide confirmation of the events that we experienced, acknowledging that Firefly was a “total loss” and that recovery and repair would not be feasible. After returning to the US we submitted the final paperwork and then began the long, long wait for payment of our insurance claim.
On April 3rd our insurance payment was finally received, almost 11 weeks after the accident. We will now be able to put together our lives and rebuild our home once again. Where would we be today if we hadn’t taken the effort to insure Firefly before we left the country?