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From Locks to Lockdown


Keeping the bad guys at bay.

Thieves making off with a trailerable boat are caught on a security camera in Norfolk, VA on December 28, 2012.

While no nationwide stolen vehicle registry exists as it does for autos, industry sources estimate that more than 12,000 boats worth more than $300 million were stolen in 2012. Boat thieves are the lowest of the low, true bilge rats of society. Anyone who’s walked down the dock to discover an empty slip, or arrived at the boatyard and found an empty space where the trailer was parked, can tell you that the theft of your boat is nothing short of heartbreaking. Fortunately, some simple precautions coupled with modern technology can keep your boat from becoming a victim, whether she’s moored at a distant marina or sitting on a trailer in your driveway.

Criminal Intent

To understand how best to combat boat theft in your neck of the woods, you first have to understand what you’re up against. What type of boat you own has a direct bearing on how likely it is that the thieves will target it. An analysis of BoatUS theft claims in 2012 showed that boats under 26 feet were three times more likely to get stolen than those over 26 feet. According to a National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) 2012 U.S. Watercraft Thefts and Recoveries report, PWCs are by far the number-one target, followed by runabouts, utility boats, cruisers, and sailboats, in that order. Nearly three times as many boats go missing in June as in December.

Where your boat is kept has an impact, as well. According to the NICB data, boats stored in the water at marinas are less likely to be stolen or burglarized than those kept on a trailer. Trailer boats, commonly parked in driveways or backyards, are prime targets for criminals since they’re often shielded from view, and they come complete with wheels for a fast getaway.

Theft from your boat is even more common than theft of the boat itself. Electronics, gear like binoculars and fishing tackle, and even outdrives and outboard motors are all targets. Some thieves “specialize” in stealing specific boat parts, like lower units or propellers. Common as these crimes are, it’s impossible to know exactly how many take place nationally because they’re lumped in with other property thefts in crime statistics.

An Ounce of Prevention

Nationwide, recovery rates on boats are only about 40 percent, and most that are recovered have been stripped of anything of value. That means that preventing a theft from happening at all is far preferable to detecting a theft in progress. For many boaters, especially those living in rural areas, basic crime prevention and a dose of common sense are enough to keep criminals at bay. Others will need to take some added precautions. The simplest precaution is also one of the most effective — a lock and key.

The Master Lock and Steel Shield are much more effective — but they cost more.

Well-designed, solid, purpose-specific locks can go a long way toward discouraging thieves. If possible, lock your trailer to something solid, such as a tree or metal fence post, just like you’d lock up your bike. Removable outboards can be chained to the boat’s tow eye, or a through-bolted cleat. A purpose-built outboard lock makes it nearly impossible to loosen the mounting brackets. The nuts on through-bolted outboard motors and stern drive lower units can be removed and replaced with locking nuts similar to the locking lug nuts used on expensive automotive wheels. Gear that’s susceptible to theft can be left in a locked cabin or taken home. And binnacle-mounted electronics can be removed and safely stowed under lock and key.

What about those items that aren’t so easily removed or locked down, but might remain a target? In many cases, locks have been designed specifically for them. Trailer tongue locks, like those offered by Master Lock, Reese, and Steal Shield, will keep a thief from attaching a vehicle to the trailer. Some work by preventing the coupler mechanism from opening or closing, some lock the coupler over a ball and secure a flat surface to the bottom of the tongue, and some completely enclose the tongue and coupler. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for: Inexpensive models in the $10-to-$20 range that merely lock through the latch can be removed with minimal tools and time, while more expensive, heavier-duty models that encase the coupler mechanism cost two to three times more but are far more difficult to defeat. If you have a removable tongue, you can remove it, but some thieves carry trailer tongues with them. One alternative is to find a way to lock the tongue to the trailer; another is a wheel lock like those made by Trimax or The Club.

Expensive propellers attract thieves; propeller locks can discourage them. Some propeller locks, like those made by McGard, work on the same principle as locking nuts and replace the prop nut. Others, such as those made by SecureProp and BSafe, secure and cover the prop nut to prevent tampering.

Boats kept in the water can also be “locked” by installing a kill switch. Placed in a hidden location, a kill switch will render the ignition inoperable until it’s triggered. While this won’t stop anyone from rummaging through your boat and removing items, it is an effective way to prevent someone from starting your boat up and driving it away.

One of the advantages of locks and kill switches is that they don’t require power, so they can be used on both trailer boats and boats that don’t have shore power. More advanced electronic systems, including some of those in the following sections, can draw down your batteries over time.

Finally, take some advice from a pro. Dan Rutherford of Ocean Marine Specialties is a member of the International Association of Marine Investigators (IAMI), an organization made up of surveyors and law enforcement officials who specialize in investigating boat theft and fraud. He offers a word to the wise: “If you are like the thousands of boaters that leave your cabin and or ignition key ‘hidden’ in the dorade box, or cockpit winch coaming box, we all (and that includes the thieves) know it is there.”

Stealth Solutions

Even though there’s a lock on your home’s front door, if it’s a tempting target, you probably have a security system as well. Larger, more expensive boats deserve an additional layer of protection. Modern technology provides a number of ways to digitally control what does or does not happen on your boat — even when you’re not there.

More sophisticated systems like GOST employ infrared beams and video cameras.

The most basic and inexpensive of these systems, like those made by Aqualarm, MarineGuard, and Sure Action, are just like many home alarms: When triggered, a series of sensors set off an audible alarm. A mix of wired and/or wireless sensors can be employed depending on your needs for the system, which costs a few hundred dollars. Slightly more advanced systems take the price range up a couple of hundred dollars more and employ GPS positioning and/or GPS-based trackers. The Spot HUG, for example, creates a virtual perimeter around your boat. If the boat moves through this perimeter, the HUG sends an unauthorized-movement alert to their asset monitoring center (along with the boat’s GPS coordinates), which then notifies the authorities. Global Tracking, SkyEye International Tracking, Blackline, and GOST (Global Ocean Security Technologies) all offer GPS trackers that use a combination of GSM cell networks or satellite communications and websites or text messaging to give position updates in near real time. Several of these systems also require a small monthly monitoring and/or activation fee.

If you own an expensive yacht or performance boat, it may be worth considering a more advanced security system from the likes of Boatwarden, Siren Marine, or GOST. These employ one or more of the measures used by simpler systems, along with GSM cell and satellite communications coupled with web and app (for cell phone or tablet) accessibility, 24/7. They can also incorporate much more advanced systems like motion-activated video cameras, detectors that are activated if a canvas snap is opened, and/or dedicated monitors of all major boat systems. These don’t just deter theft; SMS text messages sent from your phone can turn on or off pumps, lights, climate control, and battery switches. That makes it possible for you to monitor bilge water level, battery charge levels, and the like. If someone boards your boat, you can flip on the lights; if someone takes it off the dock, you can shut down the powerplants; and if there’s an issue not related to theft (such as high bilge water), you still get an alert.

Total Lockdown

When it comes to large expensive boats and yachts, deterring thieves is the main goal even of these sophisticated systems. “Theft deterrence is huge,” said Brian Kane, director of research and development for GOST, “because it’s a lot easier to clean dirty boot marks off the deck than it is to try to recover and repair a stolen boat.” And Kane should know — when it comes to complete deterrence, GOST produces some of the most advanced systems available for marine use. This is real James Bond stuff: A “GOST Cloak” which super-heats triethylene glycol to fill a cabin with a nontoxic smoke screen in a matter of seconds to confuse a potential thief; infrared detection beams; acoustic barriers; strobe lights; and real-time video or night vision camera streaming to your phone, tablet, or computer are just a few of the high-tech systems they offer. Naturally, as the level of technology rises, so does cost. The basic alarm and tracking system can be had for around $1,000; their most sophisticated systems run to over $20,000.

The first and best deterrent is to make your boat a less desirable target. Anything that will increase the time to steal it will cause most thieves to move on. Parking a trailerable boat in a well-lit or well-secured area, installing locks, and removing valuables cost almost nothing and will go a long way toward discouraging theft. Whether or not you should invest in one of the higher-tech options depends on what type of boat you own, how much it’s worth, and where you store it. But one thing is for sure: You need to know your boat is protected from theft, because few things are worse than walking down the dock and discovering that some dirty bilge rat has just stolen your pride and joy.

Lenny Rudow

New Boats, Fishing & Electronics Editor, BoatUS Magazine