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Insurance Knot Docks Vessel, Puts Sea Explorers in Doldrums

December 11, 1986|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — It was a vision of contrasts.

Tied up at the dock of the Sea Explorer base on Appian Way, the shadowy ghost ship Volunteer bobbed idly up and down to the rhythmic lapping of the dark water surrounding it. On the parking lot nearby, a gang of teen-age boys marched back and forth to a rhythm all its own.

It was the regular Monday night meeting of Sea Explorer Ship 509. Once the youths would have spent the time sprucing up their vessel, perhaps in preparation for the weekend cruises, which averaged two a month. Now they practice tying knots and marching in cadence, rarely setting foot on their wooden passport to the sea.

The Volunteer made several voyages last year, including a 17-day trip to Mexico with 38 youngsters. Now it is idle, forbidden to leave the dock and visited by its crew only occasionally for maintenance.

The reason: insurance rates that last March jumped from $450 a year to $3,600, a sum the Explorers say they can't afford.

"If we don't have a boat, there's no program," said Harry Graves, chairman of the group's governing committee.

Added Tom Sweeting, a former Sea Explorer himself and now assistant skipper of the Volunteer: "The program is good and without the boat, it's going to fall. More than half of these kids come from broken homes and troubled families."

The ship's problem has its roots in the vagaries of the insurance industry, according to Harold Fieszel, director of insurance and risk management at the national Boy Scouts of America office in Irving, Texas.

Until March, he said, the Scouts had an umbrella policy with a California company that covered all scouting activities including those aboard Sea Explorer boats. But the company went into conservatorship, forcing the Scouts to look elsewhere for coverage. After much searching, Fieszel said, he finally found a company willing to provide an umbrella policy, but without coverage for boats longer than 50 feet. The Volunteer is 57 feet long.

"We either had to accept (the policy) or not," Fieszel said. "It was a thing of desperation. By that time we would have done anything."

Eventually, he said, a second company was found to insure the larger boats separately at the new higher rates. The Volunteer--a former minesweeper built in 1955 and used in the Vietnam War--is one of 53 larger Scout boats in the country affected by the new rate. To date, said Fieszel, only 25 posts have been able to pay the individual premiums on their vessels.

Fieszel would not name the company unwilling to insure the larger boats at the lower rates. But Jim Thompson, Los Angeles branch manager of Marine Office of America Corp., which specializes in marine insurance, said that larger boats generally cost more to insure because of their greater value, greater passenger loads and ability to travel farther out to sea. Also, he said, boats used by the Boy Scouts would logically incur even greater liability than the average pleasure craft due to the inexperience of their crews and the greater frequency of their use.

Thompson said, "$3,600 sounds cheap. I think they ought to take that premium, run with it, and keep their mouths shut."

Vocal Complaints

But in Long Beach, where about a dozen other Sea Explorer posts were not affected by the change, the crew of the Volunteer has been very vocal in its complaints. Since 1976, when the boat was donated by the Navy, according to skipper Shane Foster, 27, the group has spent about $30,000 upgrading the Volunteer by, among other things, installing new engines, building a new upper cabin and redoing the ship's interior.

Much of that money, he said, came from the Long Beach Elks Club, which sponsors the post. Also, he said, the Elks have traditionally picked up the group's insurance tab. Given the new rates, however, that has changed.

"It's gotten to the point where it's just too much for us to handle," said Richard Wiseman, chairman of the Elks' charity committee, which decides how the group spends its money. While the lodge is still willing to help out, he said, it will not increase its contributions to keep up with the escalating insurance rates.

"We have other charitable endeavors throughout the community," Wiseman said, "and we're not talking about that many young fellows. We feel we should distribute our money to more than just a handful."

Currently, Foster said, the post has 15 members between the ages of 14 and 20. It also sponsors a Sea Scout troop of seven boys from 10 to 13 and makes its ship available to a 20-member girls' auxiliary called the Aquatils, he said.

About $300 Raised So Far

Despite the post's pleas to members and friends for funds to pay the new insurance rates, Foster said, only about $300 has been raised so far.

"It makes it very difficult to do basic practical training and very difficult to maintain interest," Foster said. "There's a lot of the experience of growing together as a group that isn't taking place."

Some of the boys' parents say they plan to approach members of the maritime industry to see whether the Volunteer could somehow be added to an existing insurance policy at a lower rate.

"It would be a shame to give the boat up," said Darryl Mayberry, a former Merchant Marine captain whose a 14-year-old son, also named Darryl, is in the post. "The primary appeal is to the less affluent kids; the kids with yachts don't need this."

So the youngsters march around the parking lot, practice tying knots and hope that their situation will change.

"I miss taking the boat out," said Dana Light, 20, who has been with the ship since 1980. "You get away from school, you get away from your parents. That was a blast; this is a drag."

Added Dan Dulyea, 16: "We're forgetting what the sea looks like."

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