Abandoned wrecks blight N.J. port town

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There were, as 2007 drew to a close, the wrecks of three recreational boats sunk in the silty mud of the Cape May, N.J., harbor.

There were, as 2007 drew to a close, the wrecks of three recreational boats sunk in the silty mud of the Cape May, N.J., harbor. The burned-out hulk of a cruising sailboat was fully exposed at low tide. Just beyond it, the ribs and planking of an old sportfishing boat rose above that vessel’s grave. And part-way between shore and the main channel, the mast of a 30-foot sailboat marked that forgotten fiberglass hull, now on the bottom more than two years.

Some of those who work or live near the harbor are outraged and are looking for someone to clean up the mess. The Coast Guard has no plans to remove these wrecks, however. And the boat owners apparently have all disappeared.

“We’ve noticed more and more boats being abandoned,” says Gretchen Ferrante, director of the New Jersey Audubon Society’s Nature Center of Cape May. “The owners just walk away, especially in this last year.”

Ferrante, whose educational facility on Delaware Avenue is across the street from the harbor and the burned-out sailboat, is one of several concerned locals who joined forces in December to press for a solution. Others include a marina executive, the owner of a commercial fishing fleet and members of the local yacht club.

“If somebody drops off a car . . . in your driveway, do you just ignore it?” asks Charles O. Pritchard, another member of the ad hoc citizens’ group. “No. Common sense would say we’ve got to do something about this.”

The group had scheduled a late December meeting with a newly elected state senator, Jeff Van Drew, to work toward adoption of legislation Van Drew had introduced earlier as a state assemblyman, according to Pritchard. That piece of “permissive legislation” would allow adjacent property owners or municipalities to remove abandoned boats, Pritchard says.

“We’ve had an increasing number of abandoned boats that have been left in the harbor,” says Pritchard, who owns a waterfront property with 15 boat slips. “Sailboats, powerboats, commercial fishing boats. When they sink, they leak fuel oil. Mercury comes out of the batteries.” The wrecks create obstacles for the local youth sailing program and are an eyesore, Pritchard says.

“I got involved when . . . there was an abandoned boat that had been periodically drifting around the harbor dragging anchor,” Pritchard recalls. He called the Coast Guard, whose Cape May base and training center are on the bank of the harbor, and was told the derelict was not their problem.

“A vessel, if it is a wreck and it’s in a navigable waterway impeding navigation, then it has to be moved right away,” explains Lt. J.G. Steve Florio of Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay in Philadelphia. “The owner of the vessel has to remove it and take care of it. If we can’t locate that person . . . then it gets federalized, we open a fund for it and remove it. If it is not in the waterway . . . and it poses a pollution risk, our pollution folks can open a fund for that.”

But if a wreck poses no threat to navigation and no threat of pollution, “we would not take immediate action. It would be more of a state issue,” says Florio.

When Pritchard reported the drifting boat to the Coast Guard, there had been seven abandoned boats in the harbor in 18 months. Phil Risko, who owns Sea Tow of Cape May, had been aware of them all.

“Unfortunately, I know too much about most of them,” says Risko. He first became involved when a sailboat sank and he was called by the woman who owned it, asking for a salvage quote. Risko, who says he was told an insurance company had ruled the boat a total wreck, sent divers out to fix lifting straps to the boat. That was two years ago. The boat’s double-spreader mast still juts above the waves. Risko says the owner later told him she had sold the boat and the new owner would salvage it himself.

“Then there was a wooden boat, about a 36-foot EggHarbor sportfishing boat,” Risko recalls. “Some guy bought it, was going to fix it up, had nowhere to dock it because nobody will take wooden boats. He anchored it out in the harbor.”

The boat began to sink but “the owner didn’t want to spend any money,” Risko says. Eventually, after the boat sank and began leaking oil, the Coast Guard paid Risko to raise the boat, haul it out of the water, clean the tanks and then put it back in the harbor on anchor.

“Which we did,” Risko says. “A few weeks later, it sank again.”

For a while, Sea Tow answered repeated calls to move the commercial fishing boat Shoreline until finally someone had the boat hauled.

Most recently, Risko was called to aid a center cockpit sailboat that had dragged its anchor after a cold front came through on Nov. 15. “He called us at about 10:30 at night,” Risko says. A Sea Tow crew was dispatched.

“Next thing you know, there were flames coming out of the cockpit,” says Risko, who speculates that a lantern on board had tipped over.

“The owner tried to put it [the fire] out with buckets,” Risko says. A crewmember climbed off the boat into a dinghy. As the skipper fought the blaze, the fabric of a down jacket he was wearing began to melt and down feathers were blowing everywhere, Risko says. Finally the Sea Tow captain convinced the skipper to abandon his boat, Risko says.

The boat owner said he had no insurance and that all his money and credit cards were on the burned boat, Risko recalls. “We took him to the Coast Guard Base and that’s the last we saw of him.”

The burned-out hulk remains tilted on its side at low tide, within an easy walk from the NatureCenter. Ferrante calls that wreck “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” She says that while some efforts have been made to address the wreckage littering Cape MayHarbor, little has been accomplished. By joining with others who are concerned, she says, New Jersey Audubon is “trying to add a voice to what is going on.”

Risko says the abandon boats may be linked to another phenomenon. “A number of marinas years ago . . . would have accepted some of those boats,” he explains. “As real estate prices have gone up and property is more and more valuable . . . marinas can be more particular with people they take.”

In years past, Risko says, “occasionally you’d see an old abandoned pier where people would just tie up. All that [waterfront] has been developed,” he observes. With no place to dock, owners of boats that are old, wooden or have no insurance may, he says, have been driven toward abandonment.