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How to Prevent Boat Theft

Chris Riley by Chris Riley Updated on October 27, 2021. In nauticalknowhow

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In 2018 there are nearly 4,500 boats reported stolen in the US. That may seem insignificant compared to cars stolen, but it’s still a remarkably high number. Thousands of boats missing every single year. And only about one in 10 stolen boats are ever recovered. How does someone even get away with a boat? You have few options for moving a boat anywhere without being noticed. But it still happens and part of the reason is boaters who do not keep their boats secure.

Boat Owners Need to Take Charge

For whatever reason, many boaters seem to look at their boats as being safe. They’re large, they only work on water, they’re fine. But as we can see, that’s not the case. There are steps you can take to ensure your boat stays safe and secure. And they don’t have to take a lot of time or money, either.

Never leave your boat unattended. This seems like a no-brainer but think back to the last time you were docked somewhere. Ever see another vessel with the keys in it? People do this constantly. They fuel up and run into the store to grab a drink or something and leave the boat there. It’s just like leaving your car running in the gas station parking lot. Is it likely someone will steal it? Maybe not. But did you just make it really easy for someone? Absolutely.

What kind of boat is most often targeted? Well, any boat can be stolen. Huge yachts and even safety boats are stolen sometimes. But statistics show that the most vulnerable boats meet these criteria.

  • Less than 26 feet
  • Trailerable
  • Runabout
  • Outboard

75% of stolen boats are under 26 feet. Sailboats and trawlers are the least stolen type of boat. No one wants to escape under the power of the wind, after all. People like boats that are fast, easy to maneuver, and can be removed easily from the water. If they can get it on a trailer, they can go anywhere. That means you need to lock your trailer up.

How to Lock a Boat Trailer

It may come as a surprise to you that a number of people don’t lock their trailers. With a boat sitting on it they’re often just parked and left places for extended periods. Perhaps the feeling that it’s so big and can’t go anywhere is behind this. But remember, all someone needs is a truck and a hitch on it. If you can tow your boat, so can anyone else. Putting it on a trailer just makes it easy for them. You need to lock your boat trailer up.
There are several ways to secure a trailer.

  • Coupler Locks: These are also called hitch and tongue locks. This is arguably the best kind of lock for a trailer because it prevents anyone for attaching the trailer to their tow vehicle. The tongue coupler is secured and the trailer cannot be towed. A trailer hitch lock is easily seen also. Alternately, a removable tongue hitch can also prevent theft.
  • Wheel Locks: These are like the boots that get put on your car if you have too many parking tickets. They lock the wheels in place and prevent someone from driving it away. Make sure it’s a good quality one that you can’t saw off or pull off with a pry bar. As an alternative, you can always take a wheel with you. Obviously this isn’t something you’d do for overnight parking. But if the trailer and boat are going to be stored in one spot for a while, removing a wheel almost guarantees no one is taking your trailer.
  • Ground Anchors: These are metal plates or small poles/hooks/boxes installed in the ground itself. They have to be bolted to the ground or otherwise strongly secured. The trailer can then be chained to it so it can’t be moved. If you want to order one of these online, make sure you know exactly what you’re ordering. There are other kinds of ground anchors meant to temporarily secure boats. These can help keep a canoe or kayak on the beach. These aren’t meant to be security features, however. They will not prevent theft. You need a heavy duty version that bolts to the ground if you want a secure anchor.
  • Traditional Chain and Padlock: Not the most secure method but an old school one that can still prevent thefts. Loop a chain through the wheels and around the frame. This prevents the trailer from being moved. Bolt cutters will make short work of this, but a thief has to waste time doing it and it may deter them. We recommend these only as secondary security measures. Use them with a coupler lock or wheel locks. The visual will help deter would-be thieves and the other, strong lock will keep your boat trailer secure.
  • Parking Tricks: How and where you park a trailer can go a long way to keeping it safe. Obviously at home in a well lit and secure place is best. But that will not always be an option. You may need to develop a few tricks to make it hard to take your trailer away. With your towing vehicle secure in place, back your trailer up to something immovable. A tree or a wall/fence make for good options. This keeps your boat and trailer secure.

Steps to Keep Your Boat Safe

Aside from locking that trailer up, there are a few more ideas to keep your boat where you left it.

  • Mark the Boat: Make sure you put your boat’s hull identification number on everything. Your boat should already have this on the transom providing it was made after 1972. Put the hull number on every single thing on your boat that has value. Engrave it on the trailer, on the radio, anything you’d be upset to see stolen. Engrave your driver’s license number on the trailer and boat as well. Do so in a discreet place that someone won’t see unless they know to look.
  • Keep Inventory: Make sure you have a record of everything on your boat. Back up a paper inventory with some images. You can tell cell phone pictures and save them on a computer. Include any serial numbers or ID numbers. You’ll want to do this for all your gear. Radio, fishing gear, anchor, binoculars. If there’s a chance someone could steal it and you’d be upset by losing it, keep an inventory. Keep it at home along with a copy of your registration.
  • Invest in Security: Just like a car or a house, you may want a security system. There are a number of alarm systems you can look into that are designed for boats. Just make sure it’s designed for boat security. You wouldn’t want an alarm system that can’t handle wet conditions.
  • Protect It: Motion sensors are a great tool for scaring off thieves. You can mount these on the boat or a trailer. There are solar powered ones that you don’t need to wire up at all. A light is often all it takes to scare off a would-be thief. Video surveillance also a great idea. Even if these don’t deter a would-be thief, you may get a look at the thief and their vehicle.
  • Lock it Down: Ignition locks are available as well as things like outboard motor locks. These prevent any bad guys from using the outboard motors without a key. Cable locks are also available. These look like small boxes with a length of metal cable that can be attached anywhere. Weave them through the steering wheel, around the motor, etc. If the cable is not unlocked and someone tries to remove it, it sets off a piercing alarm.
  • Store It: If you’re not using your boat for the season, try dry stack storage. Most marinas offer this service and if your boat is stashed on a shelf, no one is likely to walk away with it. A full boat cover can help protect your boat from being stolen also. A locked garage storage facility is also a good plan.
  • Track It: There are a number of tools available to help you track a stolen boat. GPS transponders and others that can be secured and hidden in the vessel. There are also apps and Boat Watch programs. These can help law enforcement track a boat and alert other boaters who may be able to keep an eye out. This will make your boat harder to hide.

Does Boat Insurance Cover Stolen Boats?

Boat insurance can cover you in the case of theft. Sometimes you only get liability coverage. You’ll need to be clear on your specific policy, however. There are cases when this may not pan out. For instance, if your boat is stolen after you leave the keys in the ignition, that may prevent you from filing a claim.

Another thing to remember is that many insurance policies don’t cover boat equipment. So the boat and permanent fixtures will be covered. Your fuel tanks, the motor, the cleats, the sails, those will be covered. But you may need to get specific coverage for a few things like your VHF radio, your fishing equipment, and so on. You may have limited coverage for such items and you will need to clearly understand what is and is covered before you take on any insurance company.

Some boaters who suffer break ins may lose personal items. This can be anything from prescription medications to a wallet to a cell phone. It is extremely unlikely that your insurance will ever cover things of this nature, the sorts of items that are incidental to you being on the boat.

If your boat is not recovered, most insurance policies offer an “actual cash value” amount for it on a claim. That means the depreciated value of the boat. Some policies will have an “agreed amount value.” That means you and your insurer have it in writing what you will receive if the boat is stolen and that amount can never change. This kind of coverage is usually only for newer boats and it will cost more.

Secure the Inside of the Boat

Losing your boat can be devastating. But even if you secure the boat itself, the job may not be done. Many boaters leave a lot of valuable gear on board. As we’ve seen, insurance may not cover all of those valuables. VHF radios, EPIRBs and other electronics are easy targets. Not to mention simple personal items and really anything that isn’t secured.

A lockbox or secure locker on board can be a good idea. You don’t need to keep your valuables with you all the time and transport them in and out of the boat. Small padlocks can be fixed to your cupboards and drawers. Use these if you plan to leave the boat for any extended period of time.

The Bottom Line

Someone once said that all a lock does is keep an honest person honest. If a thief wants your boat, they will do their damnedest to get it. No security measure is 100% foolproof. That’s why it’s best to double and triple down on things. Use several locks on your trailer as well as your boat. Make use of tracking apps and GPS devices. Make sure you have an accurate inventory and up to date insurance.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, they say. Never leave your boat unattended with keys inside. Never leave unsecured valuables inside. And do your best to ensure no one can steal your boat unless they put in an awful lot of effort. It’s the best you can do sometimes.

About Chris

Outdoors, I’m in my element, especially in the water. I know the importance of being geared up for anything. I do the deep digital dive, researching gear, boats and knowhow and love keeping my readership at the helm of their passions.

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