Marine crime and vessel security in Australia by John Neeves

If you read accounts of Australian marine theft in the glossy media or have checked the websites for vessel security systems you would be forgiven for thinking we were in the middle of a rampant crime wave. You might even be tempted to rush off and buy one of those sophisticated electronic vessel surveillance systems.
Reality is slightly different from the hype.
In NSW, for which complete data is easily available, there were in 2009 almost 223,000 registered vessels of which approximately 27,000 were kept on the water (6,000 were in marinas). Queensland figures are similar with 236,000 vessels registered in 2010 of which slightly less than 210,000 were under 6m in length. Queensland has approximately 30,000 more smaller vessels than NSW.
The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research have provided data for the period July 2009 – June 2010 showing that thefts reported to the NSW police from vessels was 968 and theft of vessels 619. This data of theft covers all vessels, on a trailer in a backyard, in the water etc. There is no reason to think that marine theft in Queensland, or anywhere else in Australia, would be markedly different in its pattern to NSW.
Speaking with both insurers and NSW Water Police theft of vessels is primarily smaller craft, those on trailers, and this is supported in that in 2010 only one yacht was reported stolen in 2010 from Broken Bay/Pittwater (where there are slightly less than 4,000 swing moorings – more than Sydney Harbour).
The theft of vessels in NSW, in particular those kept on their trailers (the RTA quote 175,000 registered boat trailers), is of the order of 1 in 300. If left unattended and unsecured (as many are) they are easy to remove and hide before the theft is reported.
Most vessels that are stolen are not recovered (they are ‘re-birthed’, sometimes in another State or possibly, much less often, stuffed into a container for export, a stolen jet ski was found in Israel still displaying its NSW registration). Jet skis were, or are, a particular problem, re-birthing was easy as one manufacturer used an easily replaceable flywheel (for which there had been unhealthily high sales) holding the unique engine number.
Trailer boats are vulnerable, especially quality models like this. Easily removed and hidden and unless uniquely marked – easy to disguise.Police suggest most theft from vessels is primarily opportunistic and the high risk period is school holidays. This is not to say marine criminals are young but school holidays is when many, especially people with light fingers, get out on or near the water. This opportunistic crime would typically be food, outboards, fishing tackle – and anything that might be considered to be desirable or easily disposed of (rods, cameras etc). Very often the cost to repair the damage caused on breaking in is greater than the value of the stolen items.
Organised crime of theft from vessels is rare (there are easier and more lucrative pickings) but highly focussed – new electronics, marine or domestic – eg chart plotters, flat screen TVs. Anything even a few years old is fairly safe and shunned by the professional – electronic technology is advancing too quickly, five year old electronics has minimal re-sale value. A key pointer to higher technology on vessels – digital TV and satellite communication aerials.
It is worthy of note that though much crime is focussed at items that are not specifically marine, flat screen TVs, they are sometime marine specific – being 12v.
There have also been reports of theft of propellers from vessels in the water (a small folding prop is worth $3,000). Modern anchors (a small stainless steel model is worth in excess of $1,000) are also being stolen.
Recently dinghies with outboards are being reported stolen having been tied to the transom when the owners are asleep on board.
Sadly high tech communications aerials on the outside indicate, to the thief, a well-equipped yacht on the inside.The only market for props, anchors and outboards is definitely the marine public. Given that much theft is then on-sold to the boating public, anyone buying good equipment at low prices is almost certainly encouraging marine theft. Sadly – as someone once told me, one would never buy a second hand outboard motor in a pub for $500, but $50?
Marine crime is therefore focussed in two areas – theft of small vessels, primarily those on trailers, and theft from vessels, opportunistically (which means any vessel easily accessed, on a trailer or in the water) and those with modern and expensive electronic equipment. There is overlap and crimes are committed outside these defined areas – but security systems for the key areas cover crimes ‘outside the boxes’ as well.

Minimising the risk

So what to do to ensure you minimise the risk to your vessel?
Police and insurance companies all stress that anything of value should be removed from the vessel or, if this is unrealistic, at least removed from view. Equally do not leave the keys to your vessel under the equivalent of the flowerpot or doormat – you mock, but lots of people have a spare set of keys in a locker next to their helm.
Note all the serial numbers of your equipment and personalise them as much as possible, paint or engrave the equipment with some obvious mark, boat name, etc.
Engrave (professionally if it’s stainless), in large letters, the name of your vessel on your anchor. Lock as much of your equipment away, chain and padlock the outboard.
Do not leave your dinghy and outboard on the mooring when you go off for a day’s or weekend sail – you simply offer temptation to the less honest.
Stainless steel anchors are a ‘must have’ and expensive item for the modern vessel (and apparently the thief) – and easily removed. Do not leave your trailer with vessel unattended for any length of time on the roadside (even if nothing else insurers might reject your claim) storage is best on the driveway or back yard, preferably chained to something solid, ring bolt or one of those Australian 4WD ground anchors. Use a tow bar lock and (not or) wheel clamp.
If possible chain the vessel to the trailer, some vessels (like jet skis) are small enough to be manhandled (though this might need more than one man!) from the trailer so fixing it to the trailer adds an extra deterrent.
Digital TV aerials at the mast head might possibly indicate a new flat screen TV on the inside.Personalise your vessel as much as possible, a unique colour scheme, name the vessel anything that makes it difficult to disguise your unique property.
Datadot is a commercial addition or alternative for personalising your property (and there are other similar systems). The thief will be less interested in an outboard or flat screen TV that has been ‘Datadotted’ (and advertised on the exterior of the vessel that items have been thus marked) and advantageously the police have Datadot readers.
It’s all about making your property difficult to remove, making it easily identifiable as being ‘yours’ and very difficult to remove your personal ‘marks’. It’s easy – leave your new jet ski unsecured on the road outside your house (or dinghy and outboard on a mooring) and sadly do not be surprised if it disappears – again, too much temptation.
Electronic surveillance systems are now available from a number of suppliers Cobra, Blue Ray, MarinAlert and Yacht Sentinel are examples. Most insurance companies will reduce premiums for professional systems. They do not appear to value the simpler systems available from the electronic stores, Dick Smith etc (not to be discouraged … but the insurance companies might not offer financial benefits).
One insurance company is offering benefits to your excess if you buy their recommended system.
Removal of folding props is fiddly, two large box spanners, alan key, hammer to knock the pins out – and you finish with 13 separate pieces – some tiny, some heavy. They have become a target for crime, even located underwater. But they are worth a minimum of $3,000 and might take an hour’s work, or less.Frankly, boating is about individuality and to be dictated to by an insurance company that cannot show their recommended system is any better than any other ought to be a recipe for losing business.
If you have a security system, shop about when you renew your insurance. Some reduce premiums indicating they believe in the benefits, thus less money out of your pocket. For an expensive vessel the premium savings can pay for the system over only a few years. Some insurers only offer benefits if you claim (so if you never claim you never make a saving).
These surveillance systems all operate in a similar manner. They offer a range of sensors, pressure pads, GPS etc and changes in the system, batteries run flat, bilge water levels too high, intruder detection etc trigger an SMS message to a preselected mobile phone(s).
You can select commands from your mobile phone to switch the fridge off if battery levels are low etc. They require a SIM card but as the cost of the SMS message is relatively low (and hopefully infrequent) running costs are not massive.
Personally I find the devices try to achieve too much and reliance on an electronic system (and phone) to monitor bilge water and battery levels, rather than making a regular quick visit and making an actual check oneself looks to remove some of the pleasures of owning a boat.
These systems are primarily focussed at larger vessels, they cost around $1,000, and as larger vessels are very unlikely to be stolen the GPS function does not look too useful (just another part of the system to generate a false alarm when the GPS signal is degraded).
How many modern boats sink at their moorings or lose power? The complex surveillance systems might require professional installation, increasing their cost, but simpler systems are available and the Police give support to simple pressure alarms (rather than movement sensors – which might be triggered by birds or the wash of a fast moving vessel). Some of these systems cater for trailer boats.
Two dinghies, there were another four within 200 metres, left for the day on swing moorings. The outboards were not padlocked, and looked to be new. It is lovely to see that the boating public feel comfortable with marine crime – but a padlock attached to rigging wire joining outboard to mooring might reduce temptation.
Finally – back to basics. Thieves like unattended property.
Visit your vessel frequently – even if nothing else the Police have an uphill struggle if you tell them a break in occurred in the last four or five months rather than yesterday (when they can make fingerprint and DNA checks).
Know your neighbours, join (and take an active part in) Marine Watch. Report unusual activity, the Police would rather false alarms than an increased crime level. If you are broken into, even if the damage is minimal and the value of the theft low – tell the Police. If you are offered cheap equipment advise the Police.
Anyone getting away with minor crime might get greater ambitions. Using common sense our waters will remain the safest, in terms of theft, in the world.

Case History

Early in 2010, two French male backpackers living on a cheap, 24ft yacht on Pittwater were observed entering a motor yacht moored at The Basin. They stole food and were caught by the Police. The motor yacht owner preferred not to press charges and the Police had no ‘crime’.
The backpackers became known and when next observed with an outboard the Police checked.
Unknown to the Police the outboard was stolen from Palm Beach but there was a delay in reporting the theft. By the time the Police returned, the backpackers claimed to have returned the outboard to the person they said they had borrowed it from.
Later the backpackers broke into a number of yachts (at least two more) on Pittwater.
They had observed one specific yacht being stocked for a prolonged cruise. They gained entry through a 190mm x 330mm hatch (if you check it seems impossible). They removed a good few thousand dollars worth of food, drink and domestic items and similar portable items, GPS etc, from at least one other yacht.
The crime was reported the next day allowing finger prints and DNA samples to be taken. They had by this time fled up the coast in an attempt to hide in Lake Macquarie.
The Police identified their whereabouts (RTA demand names of vessels passing through the Swansea Bridge). Within days they were caught, charged, found guilty, fined and deported. Their crime will show up anytime they apply for an Australian visa.
Another success for the Police – but it would have been four or five cases of lower crime in 2010 if the first owner had pressed charges and if the owner of the outboard had reported the theft immediately!
If you think theft levels are high, we the boating public, must share some of the responsibility.