How To Get A Better Marine Survey


Every time I post about structural issues or refits the subject of poor surveys of used boats comes up. Now I’m sure there are many reputable surveyors out there striving to do the best job they can, but on the other hand I am hearing a distressing number of stories about surveys that were sketchy at best.

And this is simply not good enough, since many boat buyers are trusting surveyors, rightly or wrongly, to make sure that the boat they buy is safe and that they won’t find a bunch of undisclosed defects after purchase that will eat them alive financially.

Further, given my belief that we have a major problem with keels that may fall off suddenly (that will probably only get worse as the afflicted boats age), the need for good surveying is probably more urgent than it has ever been.

Obviously, one area of effort that can improve this situation is to upgrade the qualifications required to call yourself a marine surveyor. I believe that progress has been made in recent years in this area, although I suspect that much more could be done. But that’s not what this post is about.

Rather, this is about a simple tip that may save you from getting a bad survey and then a suggestion for a small business start up that could help too:

John’s Rule of Surveyor Selection

Let’s start with the tip:

Do not even think about using a surveyor that the yacht broker recommends. Do not, do not, do not!

If you think about this for just a moment, the reason is blindingly obvious: Do you really think that the broker, who is trying to close the deal to sell you a boat, is going to send you to the best qualified most stringent surveyor out there?

In fact, ethically, since the broker’s fiduciary responsibility is to the seller, not the buyer, he or she should recommend the most half-assed, slipshod, unqualified surveyor on the planet.

But the crazy thing is that, as I understand it (admittedly anecdotally), buyers take the broker’s surveyor recommendation in many (most?) boat sale situations. This is simply nuts. It represents a huge conflict of interest since a surveyor that wants to get recommended by brokers will not have that happen if he or she blows up too many deals by finding a problem with the boat in play.

OK, if you can’t ask the broker to recommend a surveyor, who do you ask? Well, you could go to one of the surveyor certifying bodies and pick a member from their list. This option is certainly better than asking the broker, but what does it really tell you? You first need to figure out which of the certifying groups is doing a good job—no, I don’t have any idea—and even then what have you learnt about the surveyor’s due diligence and ethics? Not a lot.

And yes, you could ask your insurance company or insurance broker to recommend a surveyor, which might be the best option, but it’s also an option that’s rife with opportunities for conflict of interest too.

A Business Opportunity

So here’s my business idea for a better way:

An independent, for profit, web based registry of yacht surveyors that includes the ability for clients to review surveyors.

Surveyors would be able to join the service for free. In fact, the service provider would download the membership list from all the surveyor associations that publish them and set up a login for each surveyor and then send them an email inviting them to join (and upload a short resumé).

(And no, I don’t believe this would contravene any anti-spam legislation since the surveyor is being contacted in his or her professional capacity; however, a lawyer should check this.)

Sure, at first surveyors will resist, but with time, the good surveyors are going to realize that this web site is the best thing that ever happened to their business because it will reward them for being tough and diligent. The first time that’s ever happened in the history of the profession, I’m going to guess.

So how does the web business get paid? Like this:

  • Any buyer of survey services can leave a review of the providing surveyor for free (after setting up a free login) and even enter a new surveyor into the database.
  • But to see reviews other than his or her own, a member must pay a fee.
  • Said fee will also let the members see surveyors’ answers to reviews—yes, surveyors will be able to answer and their answer will always be shown with the review; it’s only fair.

Yes I know, crowd sourced reviews are anything but perfect. But before you write this idea off, think about the improvements in Intracoastal Waterway services, particularly marinas, that have come about as a result of Jeff and Karen Siegel’s Active Captain, as an example of the potential positive effects of such a service.

Priming The Pump

But wait, you ask. How is anyone going to know about this site?

Simple, if you want to set this site up, we at AAC will promote it with a post and provide a banner ad for six months for free! And that provides exposure to a quarter of a million boaters from all over the world each year.

It’s a Start

That’s the bare bones of the idea. But one thing I know after a lifetime of starting businesses, is that it will change and get refined in the crucible of the real world. In fact, let’s start that process now. If you have ideas to improve or expand on my basic idea, please leave a comment.

Please keep it positive. Just telling me my idea won’t work, without suggesting a better alternative, does not help solve what I believe is one of the most pressing problems facing recreational boating today.

One other thing, please don’t suggest that we set up this business, we have our hands well and truly full with AAC!

Like what you just read? Get lots more:

Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

57 comments… add one
  • Stewart Jun 18, 2014, 9:55 am

    That’s a very easy website to set-up, the issue isn’t the app though, it’s the reviews, something like trustpilot might be a better idea…

    • John Jun 18, 2014, 10:05 am

      Hi Stewart,

      Maybe I wasn’t clear. I agree, the technology is not the point, the concept is.

      Can’t say I like trustpilot much since they accept fees from the stores being reviewed. That just makes the conflict of interest issues worse.

      The whole point of my idea is that the surveyors don’t pay, the user does. This aligns interest and revenue, which is always a good idea, I think.

  • joec Jun 18, 2014, 10:06 am

    Thanks for picking up on one of my pet peeves. My experience with surveyors who do insurance surveys has been that they tend to be superficial, picking up on small items such as the need for a fire extinguisher port for the engine compartment (yes, a good idea), or having a GFI outlet on the 120vAC circuits. Standing rigging integrity, hull-to-deck integrity, rudder and keel integrity are overlooked.

    One aid to finding a good surveyor are past surveys. A number of surveyors now post name-redacted surveys on their web sites and this allows the potential customer to assess what the surveyor examines and the way the he/she documents the results.

    As for your idea of taking the first step. a great idea. I, for example, would be willing to recommend — in my experience — two very sound surveyors with commentary on their performance. Thus the core of the web presence would be recommendations and commentary by boat owners. On our Valiant web site while we do not provide a unique section on surveyors, when prospective buyers ask for recommendations, members do respond. You see similar actions on the DownEast Boat Forum.

    • John Jun 18, 2014, 10:18 am

      Hi Joec,

      Good points, thanks. As you say, some of this kind of review does go on, but it’s spread very thinly over a huge number of sites. My thinking is that we need to focus the process.

  • Chris Jun 18, 2014, 10:08 am

    Not a bad idea, but seems like Angie’s List already does this.

    • John Jun 18, 2014, 10:16 am

      Hi Chris,

      Yes, there are many review sites, but I still thing a specialized site will have more impact that a few reviews of surveyors buried within millions at Angie’s. Again, look at Active Captain and the impact that site has had.

  • Victor Raymond Jun 18, 2014, 12:36 pm

    John, Your post put me in a grouchy mood because you are absolutely right. I have been burned by past surveys. In my humble opinion now, if you are serious cruiser in remote areas you need to be an expert in all areas marine so should be able to do your own surveys. Take days not hours to do it properly so you know what you are buying. Of course you could have another set of experienced eyes there to verify your observations and findings but you, the owner, the primary maintenance person and the one who has his life on the line should know every single detail of the boat. Without this understanding you are at the mercy of others who don’t necessarily have your interests at heart. Sorry to be so blunt but experience is not always a kind teacher.

    • John Jun 18, 2014, 3:50 pm

      Hi Victor,

      Me too as a member of the burned by survey club.

      And, as you say, now I could, like you, probably do a pretty good survey myself. The problem is that we both had to get burned to get to that point. And if we want to get more people offshore voyaging I think it’s a real priority to fix that.

  • David Jun 18, 2014, 1:00 pm

    To find a good surveyor, what’s worked well for me is to call around to the best local boatyards and ask them for recommendations for surveyors who are really good and thorough. Tell them specifically what kind of boat it is and ask for people who would know that type well. Old boats, new boats, racing boats, cruising boats, fiberglass, steel, aluminum, wood, etc – many surveyors can do them all, but they often end up having more experience in some types verses others. Even in the San Francisco Bay area, where there are lots of boats and surveyors, I ended up with a surprisingly small list of recommended surveyors. Like you say, the good ones are rare. Then I called each of them and asked about their services and pricing and availability. Pricing became a non-issue, as they were all very close. I chose the one I felt best about, who didn’t mind if I crawled through the boat with him, and seemed like he liked to share his knowledge (ie, answer my endless questions about the boat). He did a great job, very thorough, and we even had a good time crawling through the boat as he pointed out good things and things I should watch out for in the future as the boat aged.

    Funny thing, years later when I sold the boat, my broker recommended the same surveyor to the buyers, which tells you a lot about the broker. The surveyor said, “Oh yeah, I remember that boat. Lovely, and if she’s still owned by the same fanatical guy, I’m sure she’ll be fine.” He did find a few small things, but the deal went through fine.

    • John Jun 18, 2014, 3:51 pm

      Hi David,

      I think that’s a great recommendation.

    • Tim J Aug 16, 2016, 2:33 am

      I’d love to hear who that is. I’m looking for a good, impartial surveyor in SFBay for a boat I’m looking to buy. I also want to go through the boat with the surveyor. The old adage, “my fee is $50/hr, but if you watch it’s $75/hr and if you help, it’s $100/hr. I’d like to help. 🙂

      • John Aug 16, 2016, 9:17 am

        Hi Tim,

        I think that’s a very smart approach. Unfortunately I don’t know any surveyors on the west coast. Can anyone else help here?

  • Laurent Jun 18, 2014, 1:48 pm

    One possible solution would be to ask boat manufacturers to decide survey procedures and to certify surveyors for the boats they have built. I understand that the correct way of surveying composite hull integrity or stainless parts fatigue (rudder stock, rigging…) could be decided by boat manufacturers for their own boats, and that they could certify surveyor to execute corresponding procedures with appropriate equipment and standardized numeric data charts intended to finely describe in a standard way the structural integrity of hull, keel, rigging, rudder etc….
    I guess that, with that kind of approach, costs should stay reasonable and surveyors & boat builder would have some legal responsibilities about their conclusions concerning the structural soundness of boats.
    Point is that I am not certain that all boat manufacturer would be very motivated taking some parts and responsibilities in surveys that would make second-hand boat purchase somewhat safer, I guess that many of them consider they are in the business of building and selling new boats, and that helping buyers of second-hand boat as much as that might not be part of that business….

    • John Jun 18, 2014, 3:54 pm

      Hi Laurent,

      That’s an interesting idea. However, I fear, as you do, that there is little or no incentive for a builder to put any time and resources into the second hand market for their boats.

      My hope is that my plan would provide a framework that has incentives for all the participants and does not rely on altruism.

  • Eric Klem Jun 18, 2014, 2:03 pm

    Hi John,

    Unfortunately you are right that surveys often focus on the wrong things and miss big issues. Realistically, we are asking one person to be an expert in just about everything that there is in relation to boats which is asking a lot and something which can’t quickly be taught in a few training sessions. We would all like a surveyor to have offshore sailing experience and have worked as a boatbuilder for a while.

    It strikes me that insurance companies and owners are the two people with enough incentive that they might put a bit of money into finding a good surveyor. It seems like it would be tricky to get the insurance company involved as they would be scoring surveyors based on other people’s feedback which is not perfect and not quantitative. Your proposal of getting the buyer to pay for the service seems reasonable and you will have some buyers who cheap out but you can still probably get a good portion of them. The next key would be making people aware of it and the insurance companies might be good partners in this. I am surprised how many people find out what a survey is when they go to insure their boat and the insurance company asks for one.

    One small idea that I have is that surveys should really follow a standardized form. Maybe there would be a form for each type of boat or something. A standard form would ensure that all surveyors look at everything and it could help make sure that proper emphasis is put on everything. It would also help people reading the surveys as I find it very confusing with the different language used.


    • John Jun 19, 2014, 7:35 am

      Hi Eric,

      I think that’s two great ideas: enlisting insurance companies to promote the site, and a standard survey form. Maybe the site could get a group of experienced surveyors with good customer ratings together to design such a form. And then once the good surveyors stated using said form, others would be pushed into adopting it to stay competitive—all good.

      • Emilios P. Jun 19, 2014, 9:26 am

        Hi all,
        I would trust a survey form created by John (and others as experienced as I read on this site) blindfolded…
        I could(would) give it to a surveyor and tell him “now you check out these items”.
        The various items to be surveyed would be in order of importance, a few minor items down the list I could check myself thus saving some money, but the really really important ones at the top would be checked by the pro…
        “Crowd sourcing” and collective brainstorming and copyrighted “Attainable Adventure cruising”…
        THAT would make me feel safer.

        • John Jun 20, 2014, 7:51 am

          Hi Emilios,

          Thanks for the vote of confidence. Unfortunately, I simply don’t have the band width to take on such a project. Just too much going on with this site and the Adventure 40. But check out Ross’s comment below.

  • richard s. (s/v lakota) Jun 18, 2014, 2:17 pm

    super important concern for sure even for a new boat…maybe especially for a new boat…should be consumately professional and not have a know-it-all attitude, nor a blase attitude either before or after, should accomodate all reasonable requests especially for the buyer to attend the work, and should have endless patience with the buyer including answering questions with answers thought to be obvious…i had a surveyor once who took exception to at least one of my questions to the point of telling me maybe i shouldn’t be blue water sailing if i questioned that particular matter (simply a word i didn’t know), but it was my first survey and i didn’t know much better…cheers, richard in tampa bay

    • John Jun 19, 2014, 7:31 am

      Hi Richard,

      Yes, I agree, the surveyor should welcome the participation and interest of the client. On the other hand, the client must realize that said participation will make the survey take longer and be willing to pay for that.

  • richard s. (s/v lakota) Jun 18, 2014, 2:28 pm

    p.s. that boat was in good shape just as that surveyor said (about 10 years old as i recall), but i soon found small glitches that i think he should have reported such as sail stitching in need of repair, battery bank on its last legs, some minor soft spots below the water line, standing rigging with only a few more years left of safe use…i survived and now have a major upgrade from that one…richard in tampa bay

  • DavidZ Jun 18, 2014, 3:26 pm

    I’m a surveyor. We do about 120 surveys in a years, mably for buyer and insurance big claim. We are spcialized in sy, manly aluminium or grp, almost new or old yachts from 8 to 18m manly. We normally do as standard ultrasound and infrared.
    Let me say few things: the buyers most of the time look at the plotter or they are scare about osmosis or grounding. So the first approach of a surveyor is to check the safety (keel, rudder, hull laminates, bulkheads, engine, steering a main electrical system, rigging). Today we have all the instruments and time to do a good check, but you need experience to know the boast and your tools. If a survey has a doubt, you have to stop the buyer, if he didn’t sign a really bad contract).
    Normally the best solution for a buyer is to survey the boat and make a sea trial, then negoziate the price if there are few item to discuss…but the brokers want a deposit first and you can get back your money only if you have huge structural problem. So always hard discussion.
    John I belive that many surveyor web list are old, the names of serius surveyors around the Wordl are few, and normally we works manly because the owner are happy. So make a list with location,qualify,experience and if you like a sample survey. The report, how is made is import. You have to make a report easy to undestand, quick, with photos, comment and price for main job, this report is manly valid for insurance.
    But customer should understand that a serius survey, a day or more, will cost money (standard price for a 40feet is about 800-1000€ including some traveling). Survey done at 300€ are not a professional job, but a lot of cistomer, spacially without sail experience prefers to save money with the survey. A big mistakes, but how to explain the quality? Not always easy.

    • John Jun 19, 2014, 7:29 am

      Hi Dave,

      Great to hear from a surveyor who is investing the time and in the technology to do it right. I think that you are absolutely right that in many cases the buyer gets a bad survey simply because they didn’t “ask” for a good one, or were not willing to pay for it.

      One of the things the site I’m proposing could do would be publish articles from surveyors, and others, to educate survey buyers on what a good survey is.

  • Dave Jun 18, 2014, 3:34 pm

    Surveyor. The very mention of the word often conjures up comparisons to used car salesmen buddies. Many years ago, when I could still get stuck behind an engine of a 1949 Chris Craft Commander (I think that’s what it was) I was a surveyor in the Wisconsin area. I learned from a crusty old salt who knew by looking if something was wrong. He taught me two principled things. 1) If you are confident in your survey, don’t bow to pressures to change it and 2) get your money before you hand over the survey. He taught me his secrets well and I’d like to think I did him justice for a bunch of years, using his wealth of knowledge and experience.
    Too many of today’s surveyors go to school. Meh. Maybe they have some experience. The last couple boats I had surveyed (insurance company would not acknowledge my ability) showed up o’rings that were bad and gelcoat scratches, but missed the over heating engines, leaking black water tank, and a litany of items longer than I care to put to paper. Did you know colored RV antifreeze in the bilge is an indication of failing keel bolts?

  • Niels Faerch Jun 18, 2014, 5:49 pm

    One other piece of advice, never, never, never use a surveyor who uses the title “Captain”. That is a guarantee of getting a gin soaked charlatan.

    • Dave Jun 18, 2014, 11:44 pm

      Niels, as a a gin soaked charlatan, I resent that implication. Just kidding – I prefer a good bourbon.

    • John Jun 19, 2014, 7:36 am

      Hi Niels,

      Funny you should mention that, I just finished writing a post…

  • pat synge Jun 18, 2014, 8:20 pm

    Erik Klem (above) makes these very relevant points:
    “Unfortunately you are right that surveys often focus on the wrong things and miss big issues. Realistically, we are asking one person to be an expert in just about everything that there is in relation to boats which is asking a lot and something which can’t quickly be taught in a few training sessions. We would all like a surveyor to have offshore sailing experience and have worked as a boatbuilder for a while.”

    From my perspective the most important training for surveyors is that they have considerable boat repair experience, preferably combined with some boatbuilding background. This hands on experience provides the knowledge of where things go worng and how to fix them. Extensive offshore sailing experience is a real bonus since those of us who have sailed offshore inevitably have a better understanding of the real need to have confidence in ones boat and the reponsibilities involved in giving advice.

    As John says: don’t automatically select the surveyor recommended by the broker – but please don’t automatically reject them either. Some brokers are honest and diligent and really want their clients to be happy. Yes, their business is selling boats but a good broker wants the purchaser to be happy with their purchase. Quite apart from anything else the buyer may well want to sell the boat a few years down the track and then buy another one. A good broker wants to establish a good repeat client base. I know brokers who fall into both camps but am lucky to work in a small comunity wher “word of mouth” is the single most important thing. Any broker who “does the wrong thing” will soon be out of business. Same for surveyors. But, in principle John is right. I actually ask the brokers not to recommend me: simply to hand out my card along with those of my colleagues.

    When contacting a surveyor ask whatever questions you feel you need to and if you aren’t satisfied go somewhere else. I’m happy to send out redacted reports on vessels similar to those that a prospective client is considering. Any surveyor who doesn’t want the client on the spot during the survey should be treated with caution. My policy is one of welcoming the client and I’m always happy to answer relevant questions. This can be extremely valuable for the client since there are many details that can be dicussed that realistically cannot be included in a formal report where you have to consider every word. However, I make it absolutely clear beforehand that if this turns into a full blown consultation I will charge extra and that this must not distract from the work being undertaken. You cannot conduct a good survey when talking all the time.

    Any good surveyor should be more than willing to send the prospective client details of what they do (and don’t ) do. I insist on it and will not accept instructions unless the client agrees to my terms and conditions. It’s important that they understand what the limitations of a standard survey are.
    I’m happy to undertake non-standard surveys, take special instructions and negotiate special terms and in some cases this is essential. Here in Tasmania we have many old timber boats and I may have to engage a shipwright to remove fastenings etc and, obviously, this can only be done with permission of the owner. It can get very complex. If I feel the need for NDT checks that I’m not expert in I may suggest engaging specialists. If I’m not confident about something I simply state it in my report. This is my reponsibility.

    What qualifications should a surveyor have?

    I don’t know how to answer this since I have no formal qualifications. I came to this work having sailed all my life (delivering yachts and motor boats and ocean cruising with my wife and children aboard) interspersed with many years of repairing, building and designing boats. This varied background, combined with an obsessive interest in boats, is probably my most valuable asset but don’t see how one could actually develop a formal training course that would encompass this. I have another string to my bow. I’m a keen phographer. I now take hundreds of photos during an inspection: literally.

    I examine these photos later, often zooming in on details. One uses a “different part of the mind” when reading images and it’s not uncommon that I have to return to the boat to re-check something I feel unceratin about after having reviewed the photos. I think I can confidently say that, nowadays, if the surveyor does not take plenty of photos they are not doing their job correctly. From my point of view it also provides a degree of protection inasmuch as I then have a record of having conducted a thorough inspection that can be checked against my report if ever required. I also include as many photos as relevant in my report. As they say: a picture is worth a thousand words.

    I’ll stop there for the moment.
    Today it’s a 1947 classic motor cruiser, tomorrow its a 10 year old Beneteau and then a steel fishing boat. Fun and games!

    • John Jun 19, 2014, 7:41 am

      Hi Pat,

      Thanks very much for a great in depth comment on what it takes to get, and do, a good survey. All great information, but the thing that really stood out for me is the wisdom of selecting a surveyor with sea time when having an offshore boat surveyed. And, as a fellow photographer, I absolutely agree about the wisdom of photographing everything as you go along.

  • Ross Hubbard Jun 19, 2014, 10:56 am


    I read your post on marine surveys and surveyors and think that it’s right on the money.

    I should know, I am a marine surveyor and have ranted about the marine survey business for the past 15 years that I’ve been involved as a full time surveyor. There are many things that are not right about the business and the associations.

    My pet peeve is mainly the ease of entry into some of the survey associations and the downright lack of any regulation or oversight. I was a bit reticent to say regulation as I’m very independent minded personally but too many lives are at risk, not to mention their money.

    For the past month I (with a small team) have been developing a website that will be the largest and most current marine surveyor listing / database on the Internet. It will allow users to find a marine surveyor quickly as well as find many articles and blog posts about boat buying, selling and inspecting.

    Although our business plan is a bit different than the one you proposed, I believe that your concept does have merit and I am trying to integrate several of your ideas onto the site. I am working on the rating system and how to make that fair for boaters and surveyors.

    Since you said that you’d like to see change, I’d like to know if you would be able to take a few moments to talk with me about our new site and get your opinion before we launch? I’d sure appreciate it if you would.

    Kind regards,

    Ross Hubbard
    Maritime Surveyors

    • John Jun 20, 2014, 7:50 am

      Hi Ross,

      That sounds great, and very like what I had envisioned.

      You say that “our business plan is a bit different than the one you proposed”. In your plan, how are you planning to raise revenue for the site?
      One thing that I think is vital is that there be no, or even the potential, conflict of interest, and to me that means that the surveyors should not be the source of revenue.

      I would be happy to discuss your plan with you, but, at least initially, would prefer to do that here where our readers can be part of those discussions and can add their considerable wisdom.

  • Steve D'Antonio Jun 20, 2014, 12:58 pm

    Your topic strikes a chord with me. I’ve worked in the marine industry for 26-years, as a mechanic, electrician, boat yard and custom boat building shop manager, technical journalist and now consultant to those buying and having boats built.

    In that time I’ve encountered, and worked alongside hundreds of surveyors and read hundreds of survey reports. To be blunt, while many are well meaning, the majority lack the necessary experience in the boat building trades, many have never actually worked on, built or repaired boats, and as a result they lack the necessary confidence to effectively critique a vessel, its systems and most importantly its design.

    Not long ago I was aboard a vessel carrying out an inspection for a client. A surveyor was aboard as well, a nice fellow who actually had experience, he’d managed a boat yard. He encountered me unscrewing the electrical panel and asked what I was doing. I explained I wanted to check for problems, loose wires, burned components etc. He shook his head and said “they taught us in surveyors’ school never to take anything apart and don’t turn anything on”, he was a graduate of a professional surveying school. He may have been exaggerating, but it is a quote. I think that characterizes the depth with which many surveyors approach a vessel’s systems, complete the checklist and move on. I’ve also heard surveyors boast about how many surveys they complete in a week, one claimed he completed fourteen. How thorough could they have been? There are exceptions, of course, but they are just that, exceptions.

    I’ve also heard surveyors say, on more than one occasion, “I’m working for the boat, not the buyer”. I believe that’s yet another flaw in their approach. Surveyors must be unbiased, however, they have an obligation to be an advocate for their client. I could go on, I have countless similar examples and have heard the tales of woe regarding surveyors from many of my clients.

    Your admonition regarding the recommendation of surveyors by brokers strikes yet another chord. I encounter this on a routine basis. Brokerage organizations allow this, provided they recommend a selection of surveyors. I agree, if ever there was a textbook example of conflict of interest, this must surely be it. My guidance for lecture attendees, readers and clients, ask the broker to recommend three surveyors, and be sure to use none of them.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I do not compete with surveyors, so I have no monetary reason the take issue with them. Among other services, I do provide a pre-purchase inspection program, however, it’s not a survey and I’m not a surveyor, nor do I wish to be, my review of a vessel is through the eyes of a mechanic, electrician and boat builder. Good, competent, curious surveyors play a necessary and important role, one I welcome and one I encourage my clients to take advantage of.

    The rule of thumb is you can’t be an expert at anything until you’ve done it for a decade. Given my druthers, among other things, I’d make it mandatory for surveyor candidates to have worked in the marine trades (not as a surveyor), mechanic, boat builder, electrician, FRP tech, carpenter, etc. full time, for no less than ten years. That would weed out the folks who have retired from another career and the “I just want to work around boats” crowd. People’s lives depend on their skills, surveyors need to be experts and then some.

    Your idea for an online clearing house, while not without its flaws, would certainly improve the odds for for those seeking squared away surveyors.

    • John Jun 20, 2014, 4:08 pm

      Hi Steve,

      Welcome here and thanks for your clearly argued and insightful comments. I particularly like you statement that “you can’t be an expert at anything until you’ve done it for a decade”.

      Also thanks for your approval of my tip and the review site idea, your endorsement can only help.

      (For those of you that don’t know Steve: there are few people (maybe none) better qualified to opine on this matter.)

    • Matt Jun 21, 2014, 8:34 am

      Welcome, Steve, and thanks for chiming in. Yours is a voice that carries considerable weight on this topic and it’s interesting to hear confirmation of some of these problems.

      Interesting that you’d mention the “you can’t be an expert at anything until you’ve done it for a decade” rule. Experience is certainly important but there’s a pretty substantial difference, I think, between someone with ten years of experience and someone who’s repeated the same one year of experience ten times. I’ve met tradespeople in both categories and there is a tremendous gap in expertise between them; unfortunately it’s impossible to tell from a CV alone which is which.

      As much as I like the idea of requiring surveyors to have diverse previous experience in the field, I’m not sure how one could get any trade association to bite on the idea. Regulated professional associations, like the College of Physicians & Surgeons or Professional Engineers Ontario, have a strong public safety rationale, historical inertia and the force of law to back up their enforcement of extensive training and experience requirements. With surveyors it’s more like the Wild West, just hang out your shingle and go. Maybe take a few evening courses and join an industry group or three for extra street cred. For any of those industry groups to start insisting on higher standards would mean kicking out a large fraction of their membership, which seems unlikely.

  • RDE Jun 20, 2014, 2:26 pm

    Hi Steve,
    I’d have to add that the problem buyers face in trying to find a truly qualified and uncompromised surveyor is not limited to the marine industry. I now live in a location where the main industry is building third home palaces for billionaires. I have yet to encounter an architect who has hands-on experience building something on the scale of the homes they design. Their design fees frequently exceed a half million dollars for a single project, and often they charge extra for project management. Invariably that function is delegated to a junior member of the firm who has just graduated from school. Is it any wonder that simple rules of structural adequacy and ice damming under snow load are commonly ignored, quarter million dollar rock facades fall off, windows crack because California architects don’t understand that logs shrink and on and on?

    When the criteria is image creation rather than functionality, the buyer gets what they pay for.

    How the situation is structured determines how people perform. In the marine survey industry the role of the surveyor is frequently conflicted as John pointed out in his lead article. If the surveyor wants to maximize his income or even remain in business he needs a continual flow of new business, and references from brokers are the best way to achieve that without busting the budget for advertising and promotion. As soon as you become dependent upon helping the sales effort you stop being an objective analyst.

    I just completed a consultation for a client who asked me to review a survey to see if the boat merited further examination. The broker is pissed because the surveyor did too good a job and argues that he was over reliant on his moisture meter. I advised my client that money could fix the areas of deck core delamination, but he should run away from a boat with a keel hull flange showing proud on one side of the leading edge and high moisture readings alongside of the keel. He was in love with the boat, but his ardor cooled rapidly when I showed him the photo of Cheeki Rafiki upside down with the black area of possible long term delamination on one side of where the keel had been!

    • Eric Klem Jun 20, 2014, 3:17 pm

      Hi Richard,

      Your post made me think of a point which is worth noting and that is that it would be really helpful if you could get the brokers to buy into the website being discussed. I don’t know what the percentage of people using brokers and surveyors is but I suspect that it is high. Figuring out a way to get the brokers to recommend the site rather than specific surveyors could be a bit tricky as it may lead to more sales falling through. Just getting the insurance companies onboard would be a good start but getting the brokers would really help as well.

      The homes situation you describe is kind of scary and unfortunate. In most things, you either need well qualified people who have sufficient time to systematically check the design or you need regulations that force them to do the checks.


      • RDE Jun 20, 2014, 8:05 pm

        Hi Eric,
        Once the price on a palace reaches 1.5 million —– a low end tract house here in Jackson Hole—– I could care less if it is designed to ice dam and leak in the roof on the first snowfall. The architecture is an insult to my standards of quality and functionality, but I’m all in favor of anything that provides rice and beans for the people who mow the lawns and fix the roofs for the Wall Street banksters and oily Texans that have these things built.

        In residential construction the primary result of regulation is to ensure that all homes are built to the same dysfunctional model that constitutes the American Dream, rather than being designed and built to provide shelter and healthful living for generations to come.

        And I have to think that yacht brokers will always strive to make the sale because that pays the rent and alimony, rather than go out of their way to connect their buyer with the most experienced and honest surveyor. They will be about as enthusiastic about referring the mark—er future yacht owner— to John’s list as mortgage lenders were about changing the fraudulent MERS system of title registration that allowed them to foreclose upon millions of homes that they didn’t have valid title to.

    • John Jun 20, 2014, 4:50 pm

      Hi Richard,

      Very good point about house surveys. Don’t get me started on the stuff the surveyor of our cabin here at Base Camp missed. And the most embarrassing thing is that I used a surveyor recommended by the real estate broker!

      Sounds like you saved your client from a very nasty mistake.

  • pat synge Jun 20, 2014, 7:54 pm

    Another consideration that hasn’t been discussed in any detail is the issue of surveyors’ fees and how this may influence the quality of the work they do.

    Many (most) surveyors charge “by the foot” which has always seemed to me a very strange way to do things. For example Ross Hubbard (see above) quotes “$16 – $18 / foot” on his website.

    Boats are not standard and a very fully equipped 35′ live aboard motor sailing ketch that has been poorly maintained will take considerably longer to inspect and report on than a well maintained 60′ racing yacht with minimal fitout. To charge by the foot is potentially unfair to the client even though it averages out, over time, for the surveyor.

    Understandably, people want an idea of how much it is going to cost to have their boat surveyed.

    First, it’s important to find out from the client exactly what they want. Many of my clients are extremely knowledgeable and experienced and may simply want an objective eye cast over their boat and an “insurance risk evaluation” report. A “tick the boxes” report. Some are completely ignorant and need every detail inspected, reported on in detail and then explained to them in words of one syllable. I’ve had clients who have engaged me to travel with them to overseas locations to spend days going through every detail with them in person. Just as boats vary dramatically so do clients’ requirements. This why I think it aberrant to quote “by the foot”.

    As I mentioned above, I send prospective clients a copy of my “terms and conditions” and insist that they agree to these before I accept their instructions. Some have unrealistic expectations and it’s important to make things clear. As well as clearly outlining what I do (and don’t do) I explain my fee structure and provide an estimate based on the description of the particular vessel and the client’s requirements. A 50 year old timber ketch that has sailed the world and then been neglected for the last decade will be quite different from a 5 year old FRP production boat that has spent most of its life in a marina. They may be the same length but the amount of work is going to be very different and the cost of the survey should be too.

    I have a base fee that covers my fixed overheads and then charge for the time involved and the potential liability. If the inspection takes longer than anticipated (and therefore might cost more than I had estimated) this is almost always due to unforeseen problems stemming from issues that were not disclosed by the vendor. So, I contact my client to discuss this and ask for permission to proceed. Some may decide to withdraw their offer at this stage while others ask me to proceed knowing that the problems I discover will either be fixed or the asking price adjusted to take this into account. Sometimes my original client will withdraw and the boat’s owner will engage me to continue because they want/need to know what is wrong with their boat. This is fair to the client (no surprises) and I can then devote the time required to do the job needed knowing that I am not losing time/money by doing so.

    If I simply charged “by the foot” I might be tempted just to get the job over and done with. Perhaps this is one reason why many surveyors cut corners? Or maybe they are just greedy and/or incompetent!

  • RDE Jun 20, 2014, 8:16 pm

    Excellent points, Pat

    • John Jun 21, 2014, 11:20 am

      Hear, hear!

  • John Jun 21, 2014, 11:20 am

    Hi All,

    Funny how great things sometimes happen, but not at all in the way one envisioned. I’m still enthusiastic about my surveyor rating web site idea, but even if that never happens, just reading this comment stream will help any potential buyer select the right surveyor and then read the report with a good understanding of what it does, and does not represent.

    A sincere thank you to all of you.

  • ChrisW Jun 23, 2014, 1:51 pm

    John, I’m late on this one, but I have a few observations.

    First, I had a very thorough survey (11 legitimate hours on a 40 foot boat — it cost me $1100) done by the retired head of QC for a very major yacht builder. He had started with them as an apprentice and had worked in each shop within the company. He was recommended by three different reliable sources. After the purchase, we ended up with $12000 in damage from things he didn’t spot involving the drive train — items I would have seen had I not left it to him.

    Second, I sold a 40 foot ketch and watched it surveyed by a surveyor who checks out yachts for transatlantic rallies and races and who was one of the racers. I sat in the marina office and watched while making myself available for answer questions. The surveyor never asked me anything, and was on the cellphone almost 25% of the billed time (3 hours, $440) setting up other surveys and arguing with a partner. In the end, the report included adverse condition findings on items not even on our boat (e.g., “corroded trim tab actuators”).

    Both of these people were referred with top notch ratings by the same Agency.

    When I called the man in charge of ranking surveyors, his response was edifying. (This is a guy I have know for decades.) He said, they almost never got adverse feedback on a survey associated with a sale that was successfully completed. Also they got loads of positive feedback when a surveyor spotted a deal breaker. In between, he said customers were silent. Therefore surveyor rankings were largely shaped by luck (the surveyor stumbled upon something) or by obvious defects. He also said for quite a time they didn’t even bother with rankings because the art of wet hull detection (he maintained it still was not a science) escaped most surveyors. He said they had had many a call about wet hull findings that led to cores being taken and nothing but dry glass found. His comments on insurance companies and banks were basic and raw. “Ignorance was bliss” was the politest.

    But notice he said “rankings” He said they would never rate surveyors because they didn’t couldn’t afford to be sued once a week.

    • Steve D'Antonio Jun 23, 2014, 2:14 pm

      Excellent comments and observations. The ‘he was on the phone much of the time’ one echoes my thoughts. Studies show that loss of train of thought, i.e. taking or making a phone call, can take 30 minutes to regain., something that can be ill-afforded during a survey. It’s also bad business and double dipping of sorts when one is on the clock.

      Regarding osmotic blistering, as the former manager of a boat yard that undertook osmosis repairs, and guaranteed them for 10 years, without a single claim, I can attest that analysis and repair are every bit an exact science, it’s just one that’s not well understood by most folks in the marine industry, including those carrying out repairs, evidenced by their abominable success record and pitiable warranty, typically one year. As an example, a Tramex moisture meter that reads 100 on the relative scale is equivalent to 1.5% moisture by weight, in other words “saturated” laminate doesn’t drip water, it doesn’t even feel wet, yet, it will, under the right circumstances, support osmosis. Each and every time I’ve conducted a lab analysis of a core, to confirm my meter’s readings, they were indeed confirmed. Moisture meters can very easily yield inaccurate results, particular when in the hands of an inexperienced individual, someone who has never carried out osmosis or wet core repairs. A moisture meter placed on a block of ice will read dry, and when placed on a sheet of metal it will read wet. “Dry” on the same Tramex scale is anything under about 10.
      Anyone who claims it’s a black art simply doesn’t understand it. It’s been studied and written about, with prevention, analysis and cures well detailed, in the marine industry trade press for two decades, starting with the 1987 U of RI study conducted Prof Thomas Rockett, using a grant from the USCG. I’ve written several articles and columns on the subject in an effort to educate both boat owners and the marine industry, sadly misinformation still reigns. My apologies for the rant, it’s a bone of contention between me and the industry and…surveyors.

      • John Jun 23, 2014, 2:27 pm

        Hi Steve,

        Very interesting and useful information about moisture meter readings, thank you. I have to admit that, up until your comment, I was under the impression that osmosis detection and repair was “more art than science” just because I had heard it said so often. Very good to hear that that’s not so.

      • ChrisW Jun 23, 2014, 2:35 pm

        Steve, the events described re hull wetness were in 1992 and 1996. Things are much changed since then, I agree, but the impact it had upon surveyor-builder-bank-and insurance company dialog was real.

        The drive train issues were missed because of extreme heat in the cramped engine compartment shortening the surveyors attention span. We should have delivered the boat to the survey site the day before, but…


      • pat synge Jun 24, 2014, 4:42 am

        I agree with Steve that moisture meters are valuable tools when it comes to “analysis and repair” but far less so when inspecting a boat in the “lift and hold” context that we surveyors are usually confronted with. I use one and do not deny that it is useful at times but I’ve learned over the years to treat the readings with a high degree of caution and I clearly state in my reports the limitations of this form of testing.

        Moisture in FRP does not mean a boat is suffering from (or ever going to suffer from ) osmosis blistering. Most FRP is permeable and absorbs moisture. If I stated that every boat that gave high moisture meter readings was likely to develop “osmosis” it would be extremely unfair to both my client (the prospective purchaser) and the vendor. It would simply be misleading.

        Nearly every polyester FRP hull I check shows up as having a high moisture content below the waterline for at least the first 24 hours after having been lifted out of the water and, in my experience, most of these do not then go on to develop blisters. And then there are all the boats with carbon fiber incorporate into the laminate: these also show up as being “saturated” (which is one reason why testing above the waterline is valuable). Any condensation on the inside does the same as, of course, does any moisture in the bilge or integral tanks.

        And so I repeat: moisture meters are valuable (essential) tools when used in the ‘osmosis’ repair situation. Useful, but far less so, when used in the normal ‘survey’ context.

        • John Jun 24, 2014, 8:15 am

          Hi Pat,

          That makes sense. The take away for me is that success is, as someone once said about golf, a lot more about what’s above the grip than it is about the tool!

  • Wallace Jul 1, 2014, 11:09 pm

    As a surveyor in Ontario I can tell you there are more than 250 surveyors in this province…. there are about seven that I personally would hire.
    Your best defence against a shoddy survey is education. I have a few articles on my website that may help. Sorry you’ll have to cut’n’paste as there is no way to insert a link here.




  • Wallace Jul 1, 2014, 11:41 pm

    Another article on my website …


  • Wallace Jul 2, 2014, 12:06 am

    Or how about this one …


    • Steve D'Antonio Jul 3, 2014, 5:41 pm

      Sadly, the myths and dock lore regarding osmosis and the osmotic blisters it causes are alive and well. In my experience some of the worst offenders are those in the marine industry itself.

      Wallace, you’ve made a credible effort in attempting to educate boat buyers and owners regarding osmotic blisters, however, I disagree with your assertion that there are no guarantees, especially where the cure (and preventive I’d add) are concerned. Guaranteed curative fixes can be carried out provided the boat owner is prepared to pay for it. I’ve carried out scores of such repairs and each carried a 10 year warranty, and none filed claims, albeit at a price. A 40 foot sailing vessel might coast $15-18k to permanently fix. The $3-5k repairs are purely cosmetic and a waste of money in my opinion, and potentially fraudulent if a seller is attempting to conceal the defect.
      Myth-buster #1: Bottoms don’t “dry” it simply isn’t possible to get water to evaporate out of a fiberglass substrate any more than you could get a wet sponge to dry after swathing it in cling wrap. Furthermore, the chemicals that are created in the osmotic process are acetic acid (this is why burst osmotic blisters smell like vinegar) and glycol, neither of which evaporate at atmospheric pressure, so even if you could get the water to evaporate, and achieve low moisture meter readings, the real catalysts in the process remain behind. The acetic acid, by the way, attecks and “corrodes” the resin, leaving behind seemingly un-wet out areas, called “fiber whiting” that are often mistaken by pro’s for laminating defects.

      The only sure way to cure osmotic blistering is to peel off the affected laminate and replace it with the same schedule of fabric reinforcement and VE resin (I eschew epoxy for such repairs, it’s unnecessary and extremely difficult to wet out and fair). When boat owners tell me the yard peeled the bottom of gelcoat (alone) and is now storing the boat indoors to “dry”, I cringe, it simply doesn’t work, evidenced by the absent or short warranties associated with such repairs.
      Prevention is also well-understood and attainable, vinyl ester skin coats have essentially done away with the problem. Myth Buster 2: Simply rolling on VE resin is not a skin coat, it must be used with fabric to create the necessary exothermic reaction for the VE molecular structure to cross link. Rolling on free resin doesn’t achieve this effect. High solid content epoxy barrier coat is a moisture barrier, provided it’s applied with the proper thickness, typically 10 mils.
      Myth Buster #3: It’s simply not true that osmotic blisters have many causes. Osmotic blisters occur when water migrates through FRP laminate and encounters water soluble materials or WSMs, which frequently consist of starch based fabric binding and sizing agents. When it encounters these WSMs it interacts with them, creating osmotic pressure, which in turn creates the blister. If water migrates into a resin matrix that has no WSMs, there’s nothing to interact with, and no blisters occur, however, moisture readings may still be elevated, which is why, as you say, high moisture readings are not a predictor of blisters. And, to assert that osmosis does not occur in FRP structures because there is no water on the other side of the membrane is a dramatic oversimplification, the membrane is not the hull as a whole, it’s the structure within, and water is on both sides of the “membrane”, the resin matrix, because it is migrating through the structure. And, osmosis does occur from within via standing bilge water. There are other types of blisters, but only one type of osmotic blister. The science behind the cause and prevention were figured out in the 60’s by the hot tub industry, the marine industry then had to re-learn them again, but learn them we did, the information simply, and regrettably, hasn’t been well disseminated.

      While most moisture meters use a relative scale, and while it’s not scientific, there are conversion charts that calibrate readings on those scales to water measured as a percent of weight. For instance, on the Tramex relative scale, 100 is equivalent to 1.5% water by weight (not much considering it’s deemed “saturated”). The most accurate determination of water content is, as you point out, through the use of a lab analysis.

  • Wallace Jul 3, 2014, 6:05 pm

    Steve thanks for your comments. We agree to disagree.

    Osmosis – Osmosis is the net movement of water across a selectively permeable membrane driven by a difference in solute concentrations on the two sides of the membrane.

    None of the scientific definitions of osmosis can be distorted enough to fit the issue in an FRP boat. Much like “electrolysis”, the use of catchy but inappropriate terms just confuses the issue.

  • Ernest E Vogelsinger May 8, 2019, 5:11 pm

    Wow, being really late here. 5 years…
    John, as for your idea of a surveyor database, has something been done until now? I tried to google-find the website that Ross announced above but didn’t have any luck by now. And most surveyor listings and associations pertain to the North American (i.e. US and CAN) market, and don’t offer any help for us poor Europeans 😉

    I will be buying my own “retirement boat” in 2-3 years from now, and I am planning a 3-step approach to the survey. (1) I’ll be doing a hopefully thoroughly (though still amateurish) pre-survey on my own. (2) If I still like it I’ll be hiring a surveyor and hope to find a good one, and task him for a two-level approach: first, find anything that should stop me from considering to buying the boat in question – I’d calculate up to a day’s work for this. (3) If the boat passes he should find any issue that wouldn’t be a show stopper but I’d like to know everything that might occur in the near future, or that should be amended or changed in his opinion. That’s a second day of work that he will be tasked only if the boat passes (2).

    • Ernest E Vogelsinger May 8, 2019, 5:39 pm

      I have to correct myself – this site contains an obviously valid global list of surveyors and a search engine on it:

    • John May 9, 2019, 7:31 am

      Hi Ernest,

      One guy showed some interest, but never followed through. That said, I still think it could be a nice little business for someone. How about you? You have the computer skills and it’s a business, like AAC, that can be run from anywhere.

      Sounds like you have a good survey plan. I’m thinking about a series of articles that may help.

      • Ernest E Vogelsinger May 9, 2019, 3:56 pm

        Actually I have already considered this after I found this article by chance (I actually thought I had read and listed them all – but AAC is just way too broad to find all and everything…)
        I will give it some more thoughts and maybe contact you “offline” (i.e. by email).

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