(UPDATE: The comments and observations of Todd Schwede of Todd & Associates regarding the removal of the sunken houseboat’s engines and sealing of engine room vents were misattributed. They should have been attributed to dock residents, other witnesses along the docks and salvage personnel. We regret the error.)
By the time I arrived in mid-afternoon at the dock, the 55-foot engine-less houseboat had a 45-degree list, half-submerged after sinking in its slip. Vessel Assist spent more than eight hours dewatering the boat, with hours left to go.
For nearly two years, the vessel’s owners operated it as a short-term vacation rental, or “boat & breakfast.” The day it sank, occupants hosted a party of 20-30 young revelers who, it’s speculated, may have congregated on one side, causing the boat to become unbalanced. Because the engine room vents were only 6 to 8 inches above the waterline, water rushed in, and the boat sank within 15 minutes. Prompt action by the marina staff (disconnecting power cords, severing the boat’s lines and assisting in evacuation) resulted in everyone’s safe escape.
Like most accidents, this one was preventable, had responsible parties balanced the weight load and prevented too many guests gathering on one side. The boat’s owners should have sealed the engine vents when they removed the engines years ago, eliminating a pathway for water to enter, according to dock residents, witnesses along the docks and salvage personnel.
As more owners offset boat ownership expenses, offering short-term vacation rentals to minimally screened “guests” (with unknown levels of boating knowledge), investigators like Schwede see increasing accident numbers arising from boat operation and safety ignorance, along with willful misuse.
Following the houseboat’s sinking, I searched online for overnight boat rentals. Most listings portrayed boats as equivalent to “condos on the water.” Yet, as any experienced boat owner knows, boats are not condos or houses and have complex operational systems and stability issues foreign to land-based dwellings. If short-term renters meet with the boat’s owner or representative, at most they receive a brief walkthrough with basic cursory explanations on staying aboard. Many receive boat keys via a lockbox and minimal operating instructions.
“They (owners) give their asset to a stranger with no idea of his background or boating knowledge, and off they go,” Schwede observed.
What could possibly go wrong? Worse yet, what if the weekend renter with zero or marginal boating experience decides to take the boat out for a run, authorized or not, and something bad happens? If the owner, as often happens, “economized” his insurance coverage and neglected to add a commercial endorsement, he might find himself on the hook for damages and his insurance canceled.
Schwede recalled the misadventure of a boat chartered for the day, with the sole restriction that it must not be removed from U.S. waters. Pursuing a report from the owner, Schwede discovered the sailboat had been abandoned on the Rosarito Beach surfline, necessitating an international salvage operation.
Despite providing the guest with comprehensive instructions for critical marine systems operation plus contact information to reach him with questions, the owner returned to his boat only to find the guest had departed, leaving a note stating he tried filling the water tank three times, but was unsuccessful — never contacting the owner for help. The owner discovered the “missing” water had gone into the bilge and the guest had “helpfully” turned off the automatic bilge pumps. Fortunately, the boat’s mechanical systems escaped with only minor damage.
Things can also go terribly wrong when a seemingly knowledgeable guest is allowed to stay aboard without the boat owner present. Before renting or lending your boat, know and prepare your guests — and buy the proper insurance.
(photo by Capt. Nicole Sours Larson)