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Salvage Nightmare

The sunken boat nightmare; a true story, unfortunately.

 Here is a story most people can relate to regarding “you get what you pay for”.

Recently, a houseboat owner on Dale Hollow Lake in TN. had the misfortune of his boat sinking in the slip on a cold February night. The boat, and older steel hulled 57 footer, slipped beneath the surface taking with it the slip’s finger piers on either side, finally coming to rest sideways under the neighboring boats in 30’+ of water. The marina manager tried to contact the vessel owner, but it was the weekend and the owner was out of town and unavailable by phone. The marina keeps insurance records on all the slip holders, so he called the boat owner’s insurance company to alert them the boat had sunk, was leaking fluids and in the process of causing more dock damage. The insurance company responded by coming up with the contact info for a diver from a nearby county that dabbles in raising sunk boats now and then when he is not at his real job. The insurance company authorizes the diver to recover the boat, in an attempt to minimize any further cost associated with the vessel sinking, even though no one has been able to speak with the boat owner yet at that point. The diver shows up and gets a contract signed by the insurance company to raise the boat and begins the work. At this point, other than some odd circumstances relating to the authorization of the work, all seems to be going OK.

The diver begins his work and gets airbags on the houseboat and suspends it in the water, but realizes he does not have enough equipment to fully float the boat. He then tows the partially sunk boat to the marina’s launching ramp with the marina’s jon boat. The assumption here is they can put the bow of the houseboat on the ramp and put all of his liftbags on the stern to get the deck above water and pump the boat out. After 4 hours of pumping, the diver decides he does not have adequate equipment to lift the boat high enough to successfully pump it out and re-float the houseboat. At this point the diver makes the decision to deflate the airbags and sink the houseboat on the marina’s launch ramp, remove his equipment, present his bill of $6,000.00 to the insurance company and head to the house saying “there ya go” to the marina manager!


On Monday, the owner of the boat finally receives the message the boat sank over the weekend and the diver had the boat to the ramp on airbags. The owner immediately made the 4 hour trip to the lake to deal with the issue. When he got to the marina, the diver had already left with his equipment and the boat was now sitting on the lake bottom, on the launch ramp. He was not aware of who attempted to raise the boat, what the cost was, or what was going to happen next. The marina wants the boat off of their ramp, as it is blocking boat launching. The boat is still leaking oil, as the diver did not have any oil spill containment equipment. The insurance company has notified the owner his policy did not have enough recovery cost coverage to pay for the diver’s services, so the balance would come out of his settlement, even though he never approved the diver to begin with. The houseboat is sitting sunk on the ramp of a marina that does not have the capability to haul the boat out of the water to begin with and the road leading to the marina is such that a large truck and houseboat trailer cannot get down it to get the boat out of the water even if this diver had managed to get it to float.

The boat owner now has to go back and start from scratch. He calls the next closest marina, which has the ability to haul the boat out and do the repairs. They suggest he call MARINE ASSIST to get the boat raised properly and towed to their marina where it can be removed from the water. At this point, I was given the owners contact info and the process starts….. the right way. I call the insurance company on the boat owner’s behalf and start unraveling the mess created by the diver that thought he was a marine salvage company. At this point, the owner has told the diver he obviously was unprepared, under equipped and therefore abandoned the job, at which point the diver informs the owner of the boat he has 30 days to complete the work! Wrong! He is lucky to have 30 hours when pollution of the water is an issue, not to mention blocking a public launch ramp. The diver then says he would be willing to “walk away” from the job for a discounted fee of $4,500.00. The boat owner informs him to take it up with the insurance company, as they were the ones to hire him and that another professional marine salvage company would clean up the mess.

So let’s discuss how things are supposed to work.

First of all, an insurance company cannot (or is typically not supposed to) hire a contractor on your behalf, unless you have specifically waived that right in your policy. The reason is because there is a serious conflict of interest surrounding the issue. It is in the insurance company’s best interest to get the job done, no matter what the job, as inexpensively as possible. This is not always in the isured’s best interest. An insurance company is there to cover your loss, not dictate how your remedy should come about. Always remember the item being worked on belongs to you, not the insurance company. You have the final say of how, where and when service and repairs will happen, as you will end up still owning the boat when the work is done, unless it is a total loss. Whether or not you are fully covered for any particular event is in the policy you accepted and paid for.

 When you own a boat, you own it until title is transferred to another person, period. If you sell a boat and hand the buyer an open title, you are still responsible for that boat until the transfer is complete. If the buyer does not title it for 2 years, you can still be held responsible for that boat and whatever happens to it. With that being said, no one else can authorize work on your boat but you. The only exception to that is when you sign a slip agreement at a marina, you may sign away some of that right in the case of an “emergency”. Check you slipholder agreement to see of there is a clause regarding this. Basically, if your boat becomes a danger to other boats or property, the marina may have the right to take action on your behalf, depending on the slip agreement. The other exception to this is for marine salvage, and that is all subject to salvage laws.

Just because someone is a diver/fireman/EMT/weekend warrior, etc. and owns a couple airbags, that does not mean they are a marine salvor. I run up against this all the time and it is bothersome.

A marine salvage company:

1) has the correct equipment for the job they undertake;

2) has experience in the field;

3) has proper insurance for salvage operations and pollution coverage;

4) can provide all the things necessary to do the COMPLETE job of salvaging a vessel;

5) works with a “no cure-no pay” contract, so they only get paid when successful;

6) performs the job effectively and with a complete plan to finish the job properly considering the ENTIRE PROCESS;

7) is available 24/7/365;

8) has approval from the Army Corps of Engineers to operate on these lakes

The reason we are in the boat towing business and available year round, 24 hours is so when there is a sunk or sinking boat on the lake, we are there, ready to respond. The two services go hand in hand. In my opinion, you cannot offer one of these services without the other. The insurance work is a big part of the profitability of the business model, so when a jackleg diver gets involved who has another job outside of the marine world and comes on to the lake with no insurance, inadequate tools, lack of experience and takes a couple “easy” boat salvage jobs away, it is not right, especially when they bite off too much and things like this happen. The same goes for these morons that send a gasboy in a pontoon out to tow in a stranded boat with no insurance, no experience, no license, etc. It hurts the viability of the company that IS actually doing business the right way and following the rules to provide ALL lake users the comfort of having us there WHENEVER you need us.

Think what you want of me and MARINE ASSIST, but still in the back of your mind, you always know we are here whenever you call and I will always do the right thing without question for all concerned to the best of my ability. If you have any doubt I do not know what I am doing in the towing and salvage field or think my advice and interpretation above in incorrect, I ask you to take a look at the pictures page of this website where you will find a link to photobucket.com and look over the hundreds of pictures of my resume. People have called me an “opportunist” due to the type of business I run. I am simply providing a legitimate, needed service. The real opportunists are these unprofessional types showing up now and then with minimal investment when there is an insurance claim and doing half-assed work at the expense of us all.

The story above has yet to be resolved, but at this point the boat owner is not responsible to pay the charges from the diver because the insurance company wrongly authorized the work without his consent. If he had hired the diver, he may still have not had to pay him because he failed to raise the boat. (BTW, this diver charged more than our bill, which ours included the towing to the haul out marina!)

In my opinion, the insurance company should not pay the diver a dime because he failed to provide a remedy to the claim and abandoned the job. We’ll see how it ends up.

Do I think this will stop this diver from attempting more scab work here on the lake, I doubt it. What I hope is to provide a glimpse into a situation I hope a boat owner never has to go through, but if you do, at least you will have read this and have a idea of how things can go andhow they should go.

 Captain Don Hunter

UPDATE: 2-15-2010

Friday, 2-12-10 arrived with temps in the mid-30's and falling. The water temp was 39 degrees. The houseboat was right where the diver left it, on the ramp sunk. We had to wait a few days to begin the work due to snow and ice making trailering the houseboat up a ramp on a trailer impossible.

This boat was a unique challenge because of the way the hull was built, and the fact the boat was sitting flat on a hard concrete ramp at an angle. We had to work from the stern forward, placing airbags under the hull. The problem was the stern 12' or so was an added on portion to the hull that would not support the stress of lifting the weight of the boat. We had to start under the hull at the end of the cabin, roughly 12' from the stern of the boat. This was a problem because we had to lift the entire weight of the boat, due to the bow being hard aground on the ramp. I estimate the boat weight at about 40,000 pounds. That is a lot of weight to have to lift over a useble hull length of about 40' or so.

After working until 7pm or so rigging airbags and slowing gaining ground, we were able to begin pumping the hull out using 3 gas powered pumps evacuating 45,000 gallons of water per hour. We started noticing progress at about 10pm. At that time the bow deck was still under water by about 4" up the sliding front doors. I decided to use my 4X4 dually to drag the boat's bow up the ramp to get the deck out of the water to slow the incoming water around the cabin. This was a manuever that had to be carefully monitored, because as you raise the bow, the lower the stern goes. You run the risk of sinking the stern again, even on airbags, and losing all the ground you gained by pumping for 3 hours. By midnight, we had the hull floating on it's own again.

The next morning we returned and prepped the boat for the 6 mile tow across the lake for haul-out. We removed all the airbags but 4 and repositioned them as a precaution during the tow. The tow took a total of 3 hours, round trip for the towboat. Boats being towed on airbags do not tow very quickly, due to the resistance, not to mention everything in the houseboat being waterlogged and heavy. I called the marina and they were waiting at the ramp with their houseboat trailer and heavy truck. The boat was removed from the water and I assume, will be deemed un-repairable.

In the end it took 44,000 pounds of air lift capacity to refloat this particular boat in this particular scenario. That is more then double what the diver told me he had on it when he gave up. You could make this boat neutrally bouyant in the water and move it around with about 10,000 pounds of lift, but actually getting to a point where it could be re-floated is another thing entirely. Without it floating on its own again, there was nothing you could do with it. Boats have to be floating at or very near their natural waterline in order to get them on a trailer and out of the water, unless you get extremely lucky.

So, another job completed successfully by MARINE ASSIST and crew.

Under tow, headed to the ramp.