Boat theft increases in summer

Owners urged to take precautions to protect watercraft

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Summer is the season for boat thieves.

Last year, 224 boats were stolen in Washington, the fourth-most after Florida, California and Texas. All those are states with more coastal miles and more people.

Clark County has had its share of stolen boats, but rarely do officials find a pirated vessel.

In 2010, marine sheriff's deputies patrolling the Columbia River responded to a report from the U.S. Coast Guard of a sailboat drifting near the BNSF Railway Bridge. The Coast Guard and Clark County Sheriff's Office deputies secured the 46-foot vessel, valued at $500,000. Deputy Fred Neiman Jr. found a man hiding below deck, who eventually admitted to stealing the sailboat from its moorage in North Portland Harbor with plans to sail it out of the area. The man was booked at the Multnomah County Jail and charged with felony theft and possession of stolen property.

Boat thieves are a lot like car thieves, said Deputy David Nelson of Clark County Marine Patrol. A boat thief could drive a boat far away from local marinas or they might just strip a vessel of the parts they want, run the it ashore and abandon it.

As with car thieves, pricey items, such as wakeboards, waterskis and major electronics left unsecured, can be easy targets for a thief.

"If someone sees a laptop in a car, they have to break the window to get it. With a boat, they can basically walk by and grab it," Nelson said.

A boat doesn't even have to be in the water to get stolen.

When a homeowner leaves a boat attached to a tow hitch in a driveway, it can be unhitched and attached to any other rig with a tow hitch. A personal watercraft, the type most often stolen, may be snatched from an unlocked garage. Although they weigh about 600 pounds, Nelson said a thief could still get one into a truck bed.

When deputies report a stolen boat, the boat's hull identification number, a 12-character serial number that identifies the boat, is entered into the National Crime Information Center. It acts much like a car's vehicle identification number. When deputies do patrols and check these numbers, they'll know if the person with the boat is the registered owner. When the thief tries to pawn off a motor or take the vessel to a marina or a boat repair shop, the HIN will show up as stolen.

"If you are a victim, do everything you can to help us get your property back to you," Nelson said. "We're out here on almost on a daily basis on the Columbia and have extra staffing during the summer."

First step, document everything. Take pictures of the boat, every number, identifying marker and valuable, to help investigating agencies recover stolen property.

Boat owners will also want to engrave their driver's license number on the engine, depth sounder, compass stereo, ship-to-shore radio and on any other expensive boat equipment.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau and Northwest Insurance Council also recommend taking the following actions to protect your boat from theft:

• When docking your watercraft, lock and secure it to the dock with a steel cable.

• Remove expensive equipment when you're not using the boat.

• Lock detachable motors to the boat.

• Keep title or registration papers somewhere safe and not in the boat when it is docked.

• Disable the boat by shutting off fuel lines or removing batteries.

• Use a trailer hitch lock after parking a boat on its trailer.

• Install a kill switch in the ignition system.