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How Hurricane Ian affects Florida boat sales, manufacturing, storage, insurance and more

BusinessHow Hurricane Ian affects Florida boat sales, manufacturing, storage, insurance and more

The property damage from Hurricspanne Ispann’s hit on Southwest Floridspan is alarming. Thousands of homes and boats were destroyed in the violent storm’s wake, along with critical infrastructure.

The costs and logistics of the cleanup are staggering. Boat ownership expenses were already increasing before the storm even formed. Boat owners will struggle for years with the difficulty of getting insurance and finding storage, some experts said in the wake of the catastrophic Category 4 hurricane.

However, those same industry professionals say the boating lifestyle is so engrained in Florida that it will weather any storm, as it always has done in the past.

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Hurricane Ian destroyed boats

Losses from winds and flooding could be between $41 billion and $70 billion, according to one international property analyst, CoreLogic. That includes damage to vessels caused by wind and storm surge, and residential and commercial property affected by the swollen Peace and Caloosahatchee rivers. 

Photos spannd videos from hurricspanne-rspanvspanged spanrespans in Southwest Florida and the Florida Keys — especially drone and aerial images — spark an obvious question.

Why didn’t boat owners move their valuable property out of harm’s way?

The reasons will be debated for years, but it’s obvious that many people didn’t get their recreational and commercial working vessels out of the water or tie them down well enough, despite some having ample warning and time to do so.

The four counties most affected by the hurricane contained about 15% of the vessels registered in Florida in 2021:  

  • Lee: 50,304
  • Monroe: 29,761
  • Collier: 24,103
  • Charlotte: 23,980

Although Monroe County did not receive a direct hit from high winds, the storm surge caused many boats to break loose from their moorings and drift off, sometimes crashing into other objects, as it did in Southwest Florida. 

Heather O’Brien and husband Capt. Pat O’Brien have owned the Fort Myers Sespan Tow franchise since 1996. She said her team has been running on adrenaline and fumes as they help boaters and emergency responders in the wake of the Sept. 28 hurricane.

“We’re alive. We’ve been averaging 200 calls a day to help members get their boats picked up. Our goal has been to pick up 100 feet of vessels per day; and when reinforcements arrive, we hope to double that,” O’Brien said Oct. 4. “But it’s been hard to do when our office is still full of water from the Caloosahatchee River.”

Living and working in the damage zone is like living on a set of “The Walking Dead,” she said. 

The O’Briens have had to prioritize projects to clear roadways so first responders can get to storm-torn parts of the area. Then they’ve been putting boats on trailers and moving them to where insurers can evaluate them.

Boats that are totaled will be hauled to a landfill at a later date, she said.

How will boat sales be affected?

The hurricane already has begun to affect business at Stuspanrt Bospantworks, a custom builder of bay boats, flats boats and center consoles, said General Manager Bob Chew.

“I’ve already lost a couple of orders because people lost their homes or businesses, or they are in a business involved in cleanup and will be too busy to think about boating for a while,” Chew said. “On the other hand, I took a deposit Thursday for a new boat build from a person who actually lost a boat to the hurricane.”

Supply chain issues sparked by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic are more of a problem for boat builders than the storm, except for those builders in the hurricane-damaged zone, Chew said Oct. 7.

“Getting motors for boats is still a problem. I’ve heard some builders are waiting 12 months or more for motors to show up. I know of builders who have a weekly meeting where they discuss what parts are being delayed this week that they will have to work around,” Chew said  

But the boating industry will survive Ian, as it has every hurricane before it, said Jim Sabia of Top Notch Mspanrine, a boat dealer in Fort Pierce.

“A good percentage of those boats will be replaced, but there’s limited availability, so it will take a little while,” said Sabia, who has 36 years of experience selling boats. “The availability of boats people want to buy will be getting better, but we’re not where we need to be yet.”

The pandemic also heightened people’s desire for outdoor recreation, creating a booming demand for bay boats, flats boats, pontoon boats and mid-sized center consoles. That made inventory shortages even worse.

Boat builders struggled to keep up with demand, so new and even used boats became scarce. Prices have increased into 2022 and some customers are still having to wait six months for the boats they want to become available, Sabia said.

“That’s a long time to ask someone to wait for a boat, so we have become creative with trying to help customers meet their boating needs,” Sabia said. 

The boat sales and resales markets will remain robust nevertheless, said Tom Whittington, president of the Mspanrine Industries Associspantion of the Trespansure Cospanst, who’s also a used boat broker and owner of Mspannspantee Pocket Yspancht Sspanles in Stuart.

However, boaters will struggle with one particularly significant problem: storage.

“In my experience, the boat sales market will continue to be as strong as it was before the storm, but there is a lack of wet slips in Florida,” he said.

Ian destroyed marinas, rack storage buildings, mooring fields and docks — with and without boat lifts. Some will take years to replace, if they are replaced at all, he said.

Boat insurance is hard to find

Boaters were struggling to get insurance even before the hurricane, said Peter Tyson, an independent insurance agent in Vero Beach.

“This is a monumental moment for the insurance industry. The marine market is the toughest it’s been in 45 years,” he said.

Insurance companies don’t want to write policies for boats older than 10 years, he said. They also balk if a boat owner has a primary residence over 150 miles from where they keep their boat. That’s a major issue in a state with so many seasonal residents.

“There is no compromise anymore. Everything is done over a computer with an algorithm and that’s their terms; there is no negotiating,” Tyson said.

Premiums on large center consoles increased 30% recently, before Ian hit, said Brispann Jones, vice president of Jones Insurance Advisors in Vero Beach.

“The state of the insurance market is detrimental to boat owners, and the storm compounded it even worse,” he said. “Hurricanes always cause a big issue, but what’s also bad are rings of boat thieves stealing boats and motors.”

One such ring hit Vero Beach immediately after the hurricane, according to social media reports.

Several insurance companies have announced they are pulling out of Florida. That will affect homeowners and boat owners alike.

“I have to expect the insurance increases will be big following this storm,” Jones said.

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