Abandoned boats littering the Keys

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Among some 300 storm-damaged vessels to be removed is a 156-foot sailboat in the marine sanctuary

Among some 300 storm-damaged vessels to be removed is a 156-foot sailboat in the marine sanctuary

Five months after 2005’s record hurricane season, the Florida Keys still faced a cleanup of some 300 sunken, grounded or broken-up boats, including a 156-foot Perini Navi sailboat blown onto flats near Key West and an 80-foot casino boat high and dry on a Keys beach.

“We still have over 300 vessels to remove,” says George Garrett, Monroe County’s director of marine resources. Many of these are derelict vessels that had served as homes for indigent liveaboards. Others are pleasure boats abandoned after hurricanes Dennis, Katrina, Rita or Wilma, the four hurricanes that hit or brushed the Keys last season. Garrett says Wilma — an October storm — wreaked the most havoc. Its 4- to 8-foot surge picked up boats and deposited them on mangrove islands and grass flats, sometimes a mile or more away.

Garrett identified most of the boats in aerial surveys. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation officers visited the boats, tagged them, recorded their locations, and tried to find registration numbers so the owners — if known — could be contacted by mail and advised to remove them. This process identified 100 to 125 owners, but the majority didn’t respond to letters, so the boats have been condemned as abandoned, Garrett says. Most will be cut up and dumped in a landfill. The cost: close to $1 million, he estimates. The county hopes the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse 75 percent of that.

“The cost of salvage in shallow water isn’t cheap,” Garrett says.

Removal of the 156-foot Perini Navi named Legacy — likely the most difficult of the Keys salvage jobs — is being undertaken by its owner, says Cheva Heck, spokeswoman for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Aground four miles north of Key West, Legacy has a 7-1/2-foot keel, draws 13 feet, and lies in 3 feet of water in sanctuary sea grass flats.

Garrett says it appears the boat was dismasted and pushed broadside at least a quarter-mile, gouging out a trail through the flats.

“If the salvage is not done properly, it can cause even more damage than the grounding,” says Heck.

American Oceanicsof Sausalito, Calif., plans to build a cofferdam around the yacht, composed of sacks 35 to 50 feet long, 3 feet in diameter and filled with material dug out from around Legacy. The plan calls for flooding the area inside the cofferdam, wrapping a foam flotation collar low around the hull, and floating the boat, gently turning it so the bow is pointed back toward the trail it dug. Salvors then would winch the yacht back out along the trail with lines attached to a water-ballasted barge 200 feet away. They expected to drag the boat out at a rate as slow as an inch per minute and take 30 to 90 days to complete the operation.

“It will be an interesting salvage,” Garrett says.

Another tough one will be Lady Luck, an 80-foot casino boat based out of Key West. She’s beached at Mile Marker 14, about a mile from the main Keys highway. Luckless Lady Luck remained beached in early April, and a salvage plan still was being developed.

Heck says in almost all cases the sanctuary is treating hurricane-related groundings as acts of God and doesn’t plan to pursue owners or captains for the damage incurred. “[But] the owner and salvor can be liable for the additional damage they cause,” she says.

While counseling caution, she says there also is a sense of urgency about getting the salvage work done. “Hurricane season is right around the corner,” she says. “Our main concern is getting as many of the boats as we can off the flats and out of sanctuary waters.”