Article by John Kilhams
Marine surveyor report writing is the ‘key weapon’ in his/her armoury. It is what he/she lives or dies by. It is your intellectual property. It must be accurate, thorough and consistent. But do your reports actually do what they should? Time for a refresher! John Kilhams, recently retired from IIMS head office, who runs the Institute’s report writing one day courses, offers some tips and advice on good, basic report writing techniques and habits.
A good marine surveyor report should give the information to your client to enable him/her to make an informed decision on the condition of a vessel and whether to proceed with the purchase.
Even the most experienced marine surveyor can potentially get caught out in this day and age as society gets ever more litigious with clients and lawyers seeking to push the boundaries, looking for a scape goat when something goes wrong. Therefore, your report must provide you, the surveyor, with protection under the law in the event of a disagreement, or a claim made by your client for omissions, or errors possibly made by you in the execution of the survey.
This is why the Institute have a strict membership upgrade requirement for applicants to provide a survey for inspection by the membership committee. In recent years they have found that surveys are regularly falling short of the required standard. That is also why IIMS offers one day courses on marine surveyor report writing to assist upgrading members. The aim is not to set out to totally change your report writing style, but is to make you aware of how you should protect yourself against possible litigation and still provide the information required by the client.
An absolute essential requirement is that you have in place a full Terms and Conditions sheet that the client can see. This should clearly point out the scope of your services – what you will do in the course of the survey and, more to the point, what you will not do. It should also state your payment policy. You may need to have the vessel ashore so you need to explain to your client his commitment in this area. The client also needs to understand that the survey remains your property and you only release a copy to him, which should not be copied or passed to any third party without specific agreement by you in writing. Any liability relating to the survey can only be claimed by your client and not passed to future holders of the survey. Your terms and conditions are important and you should provide a copy to your Personal Indemnity Insurers for clearance. They will almost certainly ask to see a copy anyway, prior to offering cover.
The next most important item is the Contract. It has become apparent that some surveyors are operating without adequate Contracts in place, or without getting these signed by the client prior to starting the survey. The Contract should reinforce the terms and conditions and confirm the main points. So for example, if you are not an engineer you need to clearly define this in your Contract and the extent of the engine inspection you are able to provide. Anything you put in the Contract has to be reasonable as seen by the law. You can put in that you restrict your liability to one year or twelve months, but if the case is contested in court the judge will over-ride this as in law you are liable, although this reduces annually, for up to six years. If you cease trading tomorrow you have to keep your PI going against possible future claims.
The Contract is where you can give notice to the client on specific issues with the vessel, such as the craft is stored in a position which restricts access to a particular section of the hull. This needs to be written into the Contract and signed by the client before starting on the survey. It is a continual criticism that there is insufficient time to get the documents signed, but with modern technology this can all be completed by email. A good system is to have your Contract and your Terms and Conditions in one file so they are always sent at the same time so preventing the possibility of forgetting anything. Alternatively, if you are dealing in hard copy, have your Terms and Conditions printed on the back of your Contract.
It is important that the marine surveyor report report is produced in good written English. This requires careful attention to spelling and grammar. If sentences are constructed poorly they can be read as meaning something completely different from what you intended. Do not rely totally on spell check systems. Have all reports carefully proof read by a third party if you feel you are not competent in this area. This will delay delivery of the report a little but is necessary if you want to be seen as a professional surveyor. You may feel that if you read through your work a few times that you will pick up the errors. This is not the case. You need a different pair of eyes to find these.
The collection of data in this modern age is easy as we are fortunate to have all the digital tools available to assist us in this task, but do not throw away the note book and pencil. Digital technology is good and useful but should be used with care.
Some surveyors use hand held dictaphone systems to record their findings. This works for some, but has limitations as in high wind conditions the recording can become obscured by background noise. You may also find this system inconvenient if you have confidential data to record. I have seen laptop computers and tablets being used but I consider these vulnerable in their use afloat.
The area that has expanded extensively over the past ten years is photography. The new digital camera can put pictures into your report within an hour or so. This has meant that reports are now in some instances turning up as a list of pictures with captions. This is a dangerous situation and should be avoided. You should use pictures to emphasise or support the text you have written, but only if it is really necessary. Some clients will benefit from the picture if their knowledge is limited on a particular area of the craft. Great care should be used when choosing a picture for insertion to ensure that there is nothing in the picture that you have not explained in the text. You should always have an indication of scale included in the picture. I would advise you take a lot of photographs but keep them for your own reference, only using in the report those that are really of assistance in enabling your client to fully understand the point you are making.
Digital cameras can be pushed behind joinery, or into lockers, under keels and deep into the darker corners of the craft structure. This raises a further issue which needs to be covered, which is to say in your Contract that you will only report on areas of the hull which are accessible without removal of fittings and fixtures and then start showing pictures which you have taken of areas which are clearly not normally accessible. You need to make sure that you cover yourself should you be asked to justify how you are able to cover some areas and not others, such as by putting a caption to the photograph saying something like – “This picture was obtained by insertion of a digital camera and the image it has produced indicates the need for removal of joinery, or other items for further inspection. A full analysis cannot be made from this image”.
This is a brief introduction to the type of issues that are discussed in the report writing course. We all think that our reports are excellent and a common statement that is made is that – “My clients are happy with what I produce”. Your client may well be happy with a report that offers you no protection, so maybe it’s time to meet up and discuss the way reports can be improved.
The Institute runs report writing courses at Portchester several times during the year. Just call the office for more details of the next report writing course, or to register your name for the next one on +44 (0) 23 9238 5223.