To Ship or To Sail

Its early morning at the bustling Port Hueneme in California and a crane operator is carefully unloading a 72-foot, 42-ton Sunseeker Predator yacht from the weather deck of a European cargo ship. Clearing a stack of shipping containers the luxury yacht hangs suspended in the air, some 30-metres off the ground. Suddenly and inexplicably the crane gives way and the brand-new multi-million dollar yacht comes crashing down with spectacular force, smashing apart on the concrete dock below.

Anyone who has seen the pictures of the Sunseeker wreckage will appreciate that transporting boats can be a risky business. Indeed the internet is littered with examples of complications that have arisen during the delivery process, from vessels that are scratched or dented, to those ending up entirely underwater or in thousands of pieces upon the ground. In many cases it can be a legal nightmare to work out questions of liability and insurance. Talk to any skipper, shipper or marine insurance surveyor working at the docks and they’ll no doubt be able to tell you a good horror story or two.

Yet despite the risks, demand for yacht transportation continues to grow every year. This has been particularly noticeable over the last 12 months as Australians increasingly look abroad to take advantage of the strong dollar. However by the time you include insurance, taxes, agency fees and the actual cost of delivery, it becomes questionable as to whether there are any savings. But for those still willing to take the risk and bear the cost, there are essentially three options available to transport your vessel.

Hiring a Delivery Skipper

Traditionally, if you needed to transport your vessel across the high seas you either donned a captain’s hat or otherwise hired a local captain and crew to make the long and potentially dangerous journey for you. However, despite the emergence of modern-day alternatives, the delivery skipper still remains a viable and attractive option for its flexibility. You choose the skipper, the schedule, and the drop-off location and your vessel arrives shortly thereafter, without ever having left the water. However this kind of arrangement is also the riskiest option from a legal standpoint, particularly if privately arranged and executed.

First, you should consider your vessel as it goes without saying that a voyage of this kind should only be undertaken by a seaworthy vessel, which isn’t just a practical consideration, but a legal concern. As before your insurer will agree to cover any damages, your vessel must been deemed reasonably fit to handle the ordinary perils of the voyage. This emphasis on the actual crossing means that in addition to considerations of age, size and the condition of the vessel, factors including the weather, adequacy of provisions, length of trip and the expertise and competency of the captain and crew will also be taken into account. Your international marine insurance policy may be refused if crucial information was not provided or unnecessary risks were taken.

Finding the right skipper and crew is also essential. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with an individual or a company, the experience and reputation of the captain is everything. Anyone looking to go down this path should seek references and do some basic background checking. A boat has to work much harder in an ocean-crossing and you need to be 100% confident in your skipper’s skills, expertise and commitment to look after your property. Part of this certainty will come from having a signed and written contract between the parties outlining all aspects of the arrangement. This will clearly be standard practice when going through an agency or dealing with a company, however if you’re hiring an individual privately, you’ve got to make it official as a “gentlemen’s agreements” does not provide legal certainty. Finally, the cost may be a determining factor as generally yacht delivery skippers charge per nautical mile, however these fees usually account for only 25-50% of the total delivery costs. In addition you’ll be required to pay for all fuel, provisions, marina fees, customs duties, maintenance, and transportation costs incurred during the voyage. Skippers may also charge extra for higher risk voyages. The resurgence of pirate attacks on yachts may, for example, be factored into account if traveling within certain regions. This has led many to seek alternative options in the form of shipping arrangements.


While it may seem counter-intuitive to put a water-going vessel in the cargo hold of a ship, it is undoubtedly a safer (and often cheaper) option than getting someone to sail the route. You can ship a yacht to virtually any port in the world, and it will usually arrive in exactly the same condition it left in. However, boats are fragile goods and shipping requires significant preparation. Parts may need to be removed, others braced, and if your boat doesn’t have a roadworthy registered trailer, a custom-built cradle will need to be constructed for the boat to be secured. There may also be some significant limitations depending on the location where you intend to ship from and the types of break-bulk services that operate from these ports.

The main consideration is size, like any other cargo vessels are charged on a per cubic metre basis, so space is at a premium. Smaller vessels with a beam of 7.5 feet or less may be able to be transported in a standard forty foot shipping container. This is by far the cheapest option and if the yacht is expertly packed it carries the least amount of risk. Larger vessels may be stored underdeck if available, providing the cargo ship boasts roll-on roll-off (ro/ro) facilities. However if a yacht is higher than 4.2 metres it will usually have to be craned and transported as deck cargo, bringing with it added costs and security concerns. It would not be the first time that the pitch and roll from rough seas have loosened lashings.

There are also significantly fewer ports able to load and unload these larger yachts, and voyages are much less frequent. On that note, shipping can be a slow process at the best of times, with owners typically waiting upwards of three months for delivery. And delays aren’t uncommon, indeed at the time of writing, an industrial dispute at some Australian docks is causing several ships to either slow down or divert to New Zealand to discharge their cargo.

Customs will also want to inspect the vessel upon entry or re-entry. If your yacht is second-hand, or has not been cleaned thoroughly before shipping, customs can quarantine the boat for washing and fumigation, at a cost. If you have an air-conditioning or refrigeration unit on-board, this should be degassed and decommissioned or you may be slammed with an additional tariff when entering Australia. You may also have to pay import duties tax and GST, unless the yacht is able to be classed as a personal effect that you have owned and used for 12 months or more.

Due to the many different shipping options, and the number of parties handling the goods, questions of liability and insurance often come down to precise contractual terms, which will usually depend on which who is arranging the shipping. Because of the inherent difficulties in navigating the complex and technical world of commercial shipping, it is virtually impossible to arrange a once-off delivery on your own. Many logistics companies and shipping agents offer quotes for complete shipping services which cover all the costs and legal issues involved in the process.

Semi-Submersible Ships

The third and final option is to secure a place on a semi-submersible sail-in sail-off vessel. This is by far the simplest and most secure method of transportation, but is costly and lacks the flexibility of the other two options. Currently a company called Dockwise has four specialised semi-submersible yacht-carriers that continuously circumnavigate the globe. Similar to a dry-dock, yachts are able to sail directly into a flooded cargo hold within the ship, hull supports are welded into place, and the ship refloats to lift the boats out of the water.

The biggest downside to the Dockwise option is the issue of scheduling. The ships only travel to a set number of destinations, and trips are usually booked well in advance. Currently, Dockwise only makes three trips to Australia annually, singling Brisbane out as its home port.

Which is Better?

Whether you have been tempted by the strong Aussie dollar and discovered a bargain in the States, repairing or refitting your vessel at an international shipyard or simply looking to embark on an overseas yachting holiday, the question as to ship or sail your vessel between ports must not be taken lightly. Your final decision may consider; the best delivery options in respect to time and ports available, your budget and level of risk associated with the delivery type that you feel comfortable with. In the case of the doomed Sunseeker, although covered by insurance, it took the owners two years to get a replacement vessel, stealing them of valuable boating time.