Item posted: Sunday 21st November , 2010
After years spent chained to a desk in a well-paid but boring job at the Head Office of a major oil company, a friend of mine, Pete, took early retirement and was sent on his way with a sizeable golden handshake and a pension large enough to enable him to stop dreaming about owning a cruising boat and go out and buy one. But years of dreaming had made him reckless, and never having owned a boat larger than a sailing dinghy he rushed headlong into agreeing to buy, subject to survey, a forty-foot classic wooden motor yacht built by one of the top yacht builders on the Clyde.
The launch date on the builder’s plate suggested she was more vintage than classic, but with a newly painted white hull, acres of varnished mahogany in the wheelhouse and saloon, and enough gleaming brass deck stanchions, binnacles and ship’s bell to keep the makers of metal polish in business for a Millennium, she looked every inch a thoroughbred and Pete could hardly contain his excitement.
The boat was out of the water and on a cradle in a yard, where it had apparently been for a long time; the surveyor duly arrived, spent several hours over his inspection and submitted a written report, the finding of which, subject to a list of recommendations, was that the boat was sound. Pete bought it, but wanted a few alterations made which involved the removal of some of the original mahogany panelling that covered the inside of the fore cabin. However, when the boat builder prised it away he discovered that the hull had been invaded by rot and several planks needed replacing.
The estimate for the job was mega, and determined that he wasn’t going to pay for it Pete sued the surveyor, but he lost the case because of a ‘get out’ clause that is to be found in almost all small boat survey reports, ‘As far as can be ascertained’. The wording is sometimes changed slightly but the meaning is the same.
Pete’s experience sparked off a lively debate amongst his boating pals, with everyone agreeing that yacht surveyors were the lowest form of human life and it was grossly unfair that, having been paid a hefty fee to make sure that the boat was sound beyond reasonable doubt, a professional surveyor could, when it was alleged he had missed something vital, dodge his responsibility by hiding behind legal jargon. His supporters complained to anyone who would listen that in Pete’s case it was more of a cursory inspection than a professional survey and he should have been awarded substantial compensation.
Listening to the tale of woe the casual onlooker might well agree that his pals were right, that the surveyor had not acted in Pete’s best interest and he had been dealt a raw deal when the judge threw the case out of court. But, looked at realistically, was Pete expecting too much from his surveyor? Is not the clause ‘as far as can be ascertained’ a reasonable way for a surveyor to make a prospective boat purchaser aware that he, the surveyor, can hardly be expected to tear the inside of someone’s boat apart on behalf of his client. Nor, no matter how thorough or determined he is, can he be expected to reach every inch of the boat’s interior or shin up a mast to inspect its condition. Of course, to enable a surveyor to conduct an inspection that is as detailed as is humanly possible there is nothing to stop a prospective buyer, at his own expense, seeking the owner’s consent to have keel bolts drawn, masts un-stepped and displayed for scrutiny with the rigging, panelling removed and concealed compartments revealed, even if it involves taking out the engine or other fittings; but it would have to be done professionally and re-fitted exactly as it was originally, which could cost a great deal of money.
Is it worth it? There are rogues among yacht surveyors as there are rogues in every profession, but horrific disputes between the genuine ones and their clients are comparatively rare. In fifty years of boat owning it has been my experience that they act entirely in the interest of their clients, they are meticulous in their assessment of a boat within the constraints of what they can reach and inspect and what they can’t, and they use the clause ‘as far as can be ascertained’ not as a ‘get out’ but as an honest appraisal of their findings.
After a lifetime of living with leaks and bunging a mixture of putty and red lead into crumbling seams, an old sailing trawlerman friend once said to me that if he ever had a grudge against anyone he’d buy them a wooden boat! Maybe scores of yacht surveyors feel the same, but steel and aluminium boats also have their problems; carbon fibre has its weaknesses and spine-chilling stories about osmosis in fibreglass hulls are legion.
The pitfalls are limitless and it would be very unwise to buy a boat without first having had a condition survey. But unless you’ve got unlimited funds and can pay for the ultimate ‘down to the last screw, nut and bolt’ detailed survey on that smart boat that’s taken your fancy, you have no choice but to trust a yacht surveyor to use his professional judgement about its condition and be prepared to accept that the clause ‘as far as can be ascertained’ is a reasonable proviso.
Incidentally, not all the best surveyors have a string of letters after their name. The most effective form of advertising is a recommendation, and the names of competent surveyors soon get round on the grapevine.
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