How to Identify a Stolen Yacht

The danger of buying a stolen boat by mistake and then loosing it once authorities identify it is something widely ignored or underestimated by many boat-buyers. However, with the number of boat thefts increasing in past years, the issue demands more attention. In this article, I try to give some hints how to smell it if there is something fishy about a second-hand boat.

Sailing boats and yachts are expensive, luxury items that are not evenly distributed over the World. They tend to cluster a lot in the United States and Europe, where the biggest communities of wealthy people live. However, there are new markets arising in the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Asia and it is getting increasingly hard to keep an eye on boat-trade on a global scale.

This is one of the factors favoring an increase of yacht thefts. In the US, thousands and thousands of yachts get stolen every year, often repainted, refurbished and sold in a different state. In Europe, the market for stolen boats is similarly booming, however, behaving slightly differently: In a news program of the BBC in 2006, a French coast guard officer explained, that the majority of stolen yachts from the Mediterranean coasts of Europe gets sailed over to Northern Africa or the Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.

There they are sold to rich people who care little about where their yachts are from and why they sell for often less than half the normal price. One can easily imagine that similar trade-routes exist between North America and Europe, and I advice anyone in either region buying a yacht that originates from the other to take extra care about the origin of the boat.

But what is the reason for the high number of yacht thefts on either side of the Atlantic Ocean? Yacht theft is extremely profitable. The effort is relatively small compared to – for example - car theft where you need keys, a distribution network luck to get around patrols and border controls. In a marina, in the worst case, thieves just need to cut a rope, set sail and head off.

Stealing Yachts: More profitable than cars

To make things worse: depending on the country, but generally after three nautical miles off the coast, yachts enter international waters and thus neither the coastguard of the country of origin, nor any other legal authority has the right to stop and control suspicious yachts.

Both government authorities and big insurance companies are increasingly alarmed about the situation and measures against theft include tighter coast guard control, clearance certificates at ports and marinas and an increasing collaboration with boat owners and yachting associations. Insurance companies often give rewards to people who find stolen boats and so the number of professional bounty hunters specializing on yacht retrieval is increasing in the United States.

From the perspective of the boat owner, the response to thieves is clear: be careful, get an insurance, lock and secure your boat. From the perspective of the potential buyer who got offered a potentially stolen boat, the situation is more challenging. How can you tell a boat was stolen? The following guidelines might serve you as a checklist to clarify doubts about a deal:

1.) There are several websites that will allow you to list stolen yachts or check whether a used boat that was offered to you has been reported as stolen. Some list boat type and technical details as well as features that will allow you to identify the vessel. They will also tell you where and when a particular boat was stolen. Beating global trade of boats by global means should be your first step.

2.) Your best bet to tell a fishy boat is the HIN or “Hull Identification Number”. It is the serial number of the vessel and appears molded into the hull and given in the boat certificates. Altering the HIN is easily done, one can mold in a new one, slightly alter the old one or paint over it to make it less readable. Pay attention to the HIN of any boat you are interested in. If it looks vaguely odd, take a closer look: Were individual numbers painted over? A “6” changed into a “8”? Check the HIN and registration number of the boat with the responsible State Titling Agency.

3.) You find the HIN in bad shape? Ask questions, reconstruct the story of the boat and its record of owners and double-check. If previous owners or dealers are not available, take this as another warning sign. Think of the circumstances under which the boat was offered to you. Does the current owner use an established marina? Is he known in the area? For how long did he own the yacht? Do the value of the yacht and the financial background of the current owner match? Is there a plausible reason for selling the boat? Can you call or meet people from the current owner’s yacht club or marina to get “references”?

Of course you shouldn’t interrogate the seller like you were a policeman. But you are probably talking big money here and both sides should have a keen interest in taking some time to do the business properly. There should be enough opportunities to check the questions outlined above without being too invasive.

4.) Back to the serial numbers: The HIN is normally not the only think on board of a big yacht that bears a number that can be verified. If there are expensive pieces of equipment, such as a motor, communication technology or luxury, custom-made pieces of furniture, you could check serial numbers or item numbers with the manufacturers. This can help a great deal to verify the owner record of a boat and is common practice with professional bounty hunters. Engine numbers might even be given in the papers of the boat itself. The same thing applies as for the HIN: check if they look strange, if they were altered or made unreadable.

5.) Does the boat itself look suspicious? If boats are stolen, thieves normally get rid of all personal possessions on board to extinguish all traces back to the legitimate owner. Before any attempts to sell them, they often get freshly painted – again in order to remove traceable features. If a boat looks unused, empty and cleaner than a boat in use normally does, you should take this as a warning sign. Ask where the painting work was done and check the invoices with much care.

6.) Registration and ownership: Check the registration number of the boat with the relevant State Titling Agency. Check for how long the yacht has been in you State, or, if outside the US, in the country where you want to buy the boat. Be careful with boats that have recently been brought to the area in which they are offered.

There are States that don’t have a titling policy – boats coming from one of these States should ring alarm-bells in your mind and be treated with extra caution. Some States re-assign Hull Identification Numbers and registration numbers to boats that underwent significant repairs and refurbishment.

Always keep in mind that the vast majority of all people who buy a stolen boat don’t become aware of this until their boat is identified by bounty hunters, authorities or marina staff. If your boat is identified as a stolen one, you will almost certainly loose it without any right to claim compensation. Therefore, I strongly emphasize that you should take enough time to go through as many details about the boat’s history and records as possible. Big decisions require much care.


Further Reading

Back to "boats"

How to Protect your Boat from Theft

How to Choose a Sailboat

A Database of Stolen Yachts from the UK

Another Database of Stolen Boats and Gear