WITH THREE VIDEOS: Experts fear the problem will worsen as people abandon their vessels in this economy
Bill Sprague pointed his 20-foot Sea Fox center console south for home after a night of fishing with his wife, Jane, on Florida’s Indian River. As they cruised at around 20 mph, the couple talked about the coolness of the night.
A loud crash interrupted their conversation. Sprague had hit something — and hard. The 2,100-pound boat was launched into the air and fell on its port side, taking water over the bow. “I thought I hit a boat without lights because it was such a loud crash,” says Sprague, describing the Oct. 27, 2008, accident. “I figured it wasn’t a tree or piece of wood; I’ve hit those things before.”
Sprague contemplated the worst: People were in the water, injured and drowning. He regained control of his boat and eased up to a large structure floating just above the surface. “When I didn’t see anybody, I actually got sick to my stomach because I thought I’d run them over,” says Sprague, 59, an experienced boater and fisherman.
His queasiness turned to anger. “I saw the red and white colors.”
|With some video shot by the team at Poseidon Salvage & Towing/TowBoatU.S. in Islamorada, Fla., we offer a few, tongue-in-cheek suggestions for clearing the waterways of abandoned boats. (video 1 of 3)|
They were the colors of a 55-foot abandoned boat that sat on a sandbar about 1-1/4 miles to the northwest. Sprague and his wife had smashed into a 40-foot-long section of the vessel — virtually the entire starboard side, with a metal side railing still attached. It had broken loose from the wooden carcass. Sprague regrouped and realized he needed to check his own boat. He threw open the hatches, expecting to find water rushing in. The boat was bone dry. He and his wife were OK, too.
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But Sprague’s anger was refueled in the next few months as he tried to find out why this boat had not been pulled from the water, and why it still sits there, breaking up and posing a threat to other mariners. “There are laws in place, but no agency is taking responsibility to enforce the law,” says Sprague, a retired Martin County sheriff’s deputy with 31 years on the job. “I guess it’s not a problem until somebody gets killed.”
A decades-old problem
Abandoned or derelict boats have plagued U.S. coastal waters for decades. And the problem is likely to get worse because of the economy, with more boat owners walking away from used vessels and cash-strapped government agencies left powerless to do anything about it.
“It is unusual for a federal agency to fund or initiate removal of an abandoned vessel under most circumstances, unless it is a navigational hazard or poses a significant pollution risk,” according to a 2006 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report that reviewed state abandoned-vessel programs. “Smaller recreational or fishing vessels that likely compose the majority of reported incidents are seldom removed under federal authorities and funding. Therefore, it is up to state and local authorities to address the issue.” (Federal money may be allotted for boat salvage after natural disasters, such as hurricanes.)
|This boat was shredded as part of SSI Shredding Systems' Shred of the Month feature. (video 3 of 3)|
Salvagers and marina operators have yet to see a rise in the number of abandoned boats, but it’s only a matter of time, they say. “You could blame [the problem of abandoned boats] on the economy,” says Rob Butler, the owner of Vessel Assist San Diego, which salvages about 70 vessels annually. Half of them are in a state of disrepair. “It certainly will become a factor, but I haven’t seen any real increase, at least not yet. But it is a problem and has been for a long time. Boats are scattered all over the place.”
Sgt. Rick Strobel of San Diego’s Boating Safety Unit agrees. The number of derelict boats on Mission Bay has remained consistent during the last few years, but the groundwork may be in place for a spike. “It looks like there are more people living on boats, thinking it’s a cheap way to live,” Strobel says.
"They walk away"
Abandoned boats not only pose a hazard to navigation, they can damage the marine environment by dumping fuel, oil and waste into the water, says Lt. David Dipre, derelict vessel coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Plus, they quickly become eyesores.
Boats destined for abandonment are often owned by — or lived in by — people with little income who have no intention of keeping them seaworthy, says Dipre. “It’s a matter of economics,” he says. “The people who live on these boats that get abandoned have very little money, and they buy them for very little money. It’s expensive to have a boat salvaged. They don’t have the money to get rid of the boat, so they walk away.”
Salvagers charge from $100 to $200 a foot to dispose of a boat. They must haul, remove the fuel and oil, and transport the fiberglass and wood to a dump and the engine to a metal recycling shop, says Lee McCune of the family-owned Poseidon Salvage and Towing in Islamorada, Fla.
McCune knows of at least a dozen abandoned boats in the Islamorada area, including a houseboat that recently sank inside Tavernier Inlet. “The owner left the Keys and left his boat,” says McCune, a full-time salvage operator since 1995. Fortunately, this boat and the others are not in navigation channels. “If they were, the state would find the money to get them out of there.”
Removing boats that pose no threat to navigation is generally a job left to local governments. In Florida, counties seeking to remove abandoned boats seek money through the Derelict Vessel Removal Grant Program, but it has remained unfunded for the last several years. However, there’s hope in Florida: The state set aside $1.5 million last July for removal of derelict boats, says Dipre. “Essentially, we’re using taxpayer money to clean up other people’s garbage,” he says. “Our goal is to make [the owners] responsible.” That can be tough, though. Liveaboards sometimes don’t even own the boat they have left, he says.
In addition, some owners grind down the fiberglass to remove hull identification numbers. McCune once hauled a boat with gaping holes in the port and starboard bow. The owner wanted to erase the adhesive outline of the registration numbers. “So he just cut chunks out of the boat to make sure,” says McCune.
Finding owners continues to challenge authorities in San Diego’s Mission Bay, says Strobel. The city rents 200 moorings to the public, and there are consistently five to 10 boats that are abandoned. Another five to 10 become abandoned after they crash into the jetty as they try to enter or exit the bay.
“Last year, we crushed 30 tons of boat debris,” says Strobel. “It cost about $25,000 [a year] to dispose of the boats.”
Many of the sailboats come from the Santa Barbara area. “They sail downwind,” he says. “But then they find out that they’re not capable of sailing upwind. Most of these people don’t have well-thought-out plans.”
Strobel’s unit tries to help nab fleeing boat owners by passing on “fresh leads” to the district attorney, he says. “If we’re able to get in touch with the former owner, we can then potentially get information about the current owner,” says Strobel.
Also guilty of ditching boats are owners who buy an old vessel and plan to fix it up, but their dreams are never realized, according to salvagers and marina operators. The cost of repairing and maintaining the boat — especially a wooden one — eventually shatters their dream, says Butler. “The uneducated boater takes this thing over not realizing the money they have to pour into it,” says Butler.
Marina Cortez in San Diego is hesitant to rent slips to owners of wooden boats or vessels built before 1970, according to marina manager Carol Pagliuso. It cost the marina $6,000 to get rid of a 50-foot wooden powerboat. “The last owner moved to Virginia and stopped paying after a year went by,” says Pagliuso, who says she currently has five slip renters who have stopped paying.
Marina Cortez, which has 524 slips for boats from 25 to 103 feet, is one of the oldest marinas in San Diego. Some of the yachts that were berthed here when the marina opened in 1971 are still around, says Pagliuso. “Because we’re so old, some of the owners have simply died, and their children don’t want the boats,” she says. When that happens, the marina places a lien on the boat and sells it at auction.
The city of Berkeley, Calif., relies on liens and auctions to relieve its derelict boat population at the city-owned Berkeley Marina, according to city waterfront manager John Mann. “Some of these boats haven’t been touched in several years,” says Mann. “They’re mostly small sailboats, 25 feet and under. They’re worth less than the berth fees owed.”
The marina recently sold seven of 22 boats at its latest auction. It’ll cost about $100 a foot to salvage and dispose of the remaining vessels, says Mann.
Some boats, like the one Bill Sprague and his wife struck, are never salvaged. Sprague sent about 40 e-mails to local, state and federal authorities to prompt the removal of the red-and-blue eyesore. The county did act, by setting aside money to have the boat salvaged, and the state finally acknowledged the problem. But it was too late. The river has broken up the vessel, which sat on the sandbar for eight months.
“It’s all pretty much destroyed,” Sprague told Soundings in late January. “All that’s left is the motor, drive train and some pieces of steel pipe.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.